“...And then Beri looked under the bed to find Evro hiding under there with six berry tarts.”
As Brendilac Brandybuck and Frodo Baggins came into the Whitfoot kitchen Frodo was laughing. Mina smiled with pleasure to hear that laugh, for Frodo didn’t appear to smile nearly enough as far as she was concerned--much less laugh.
“Would you like to eat supper before you go back to Bywater, Frodo, Mr. Brendi?”
“Certainly, Mina. Thank you for all you’ve done for me this week.”
“It’s a pleasure, Frodo. Sit you down and I’ll have supper on the table in a moment.”
Will came hobbling into the room on his crutches and eased himself into his chair. “It’s becoming much easier, Mina, to get around any more. The knee doesn’t appear to be hurting anywhere near as much as it did. Well, and how are you tonight, Brendilac?”
“Looks as if I’ll be busier in the next few weeks checking out the veracity of some of the wilder complaints registered about what happened during the Time of Troubles and looking through more of the places the Big Men stayed in the Southfarthing.”
“Good use of your talents, I suspect,” Will commented. “Has that Smallburrow chap stopped complaining as yet?” he asked Frodo.
“Yes--Pinto took him to see the hole in which Lobelia was found and told him he had my permission to lock him up in that if he wouldn’t quit with all the complaints, and he finally quieted.”
“I might for the space of a few hours, Will.”
“Well, I suppose a few hours would have done him little enough harm,” Will said thoughtfully.
Mina set dishes and utensils on the table, and Frodo and Brendi automatically began setting each where it belonged. Will also saw the good humor in Frodo and was glad. “You still going back to Bywater tonight, Frodo?”
As he put mugs by each place setting Frodo gave a small nod. “I did promise Sam, after all. He’s known me long enough to know I must physically get away from the work or I’ll just keep at it until I grow totally exhausted.”
Brendi asked, “Will you be coming to the Hall for Yule?”
“No,” Frodo said, shaking his head. “It’s too far to go in the weather coming, and too close to the edge of the Shire. Aragorn wanted me in the center of the Shire for a time.”
Both Will and Brendi looked at him with surprise. “Whyever for, Frodo?” asked Will.
Frodo gave a small shrug, avoiding the eyes of both. “He felt I would find more comfort in the midst of our folk, although I doubt he’d foreseen the condition in which we found the Shire once we got here.”
“What about the Crickhollow house?” asked Brendi.
Frodo visibly shuddered. “They broke into the place, Brendi. To stay in a place where the--Black Riders had been would not be good for me.”
“They didn’t stay there,” Brendi objected.
Frodo met his eyes. “I became so sensitized to them, and particularly their leader, if any came anywhere near us once we left Rivendell it would almost incapacitate me. Just knowing they’d been in the Crickhollow house would be more than I could bear--it wouldn’t allow me to stay there indefinitely. They blasted the door open.”
“Then what will you do with it--rent it out?”
“I don’t know yet.”
Mina was bringing the food to the table. Frodo rose and turned West briefly, then sat down and thanked Mina, and they all began eating.
After the meal Brendi helped clear the table and dry the plates while Frodo fetched his saddlebags. He gave Mina a quick hug and took leave of Will, and with a nod to his cousin to follow, Frodo left the house for the village stable.
The overcast of the earlier day had cleared, and now all was going still and frosty. Their breath could be seen steaming as they walked through the cold night. Frodo paused to look up at the stars, smiling. “How glorious they are,” he said.
“Beautiful,” Brendi agreed.
Pease looked up at the two of them as they entered. “Well, it’s about time. Your Strider is most anxious to have a good walk, Mr. Frodo. And I must say as your Thrush is lookin’ much better’n the last time as I saw the dear girl, Mr. Brandybuck. Doesn’t appear to of took permanent harm, she doesn’t. And she appears to of forgive you.”
“She does insist on a good apple or carrot now, though, before she’ll consent to go anywhere,” Brendi said, smiling, producing an apple from his pocket.
Both ponies were quickly readied, and they mounted and began the ride to Bywater. “Are we going by way of Hobbiton?” asked Brendi.
Frodo shook his head. “No--too painful to see its current condition. Although Nibs tells me the sheds the Big Men had raised are all pulled down now, and they’ll soon begin digging the smials back into the lower Hill for those thrown out of Bagshot Row. They found a lot of the windows and doors and furniture in those sheds Lobelia had complained of, apparently. They even found much of the paneling.”
After a time of riding without talk, Frodo began to sing a hymn to Elbereth. Brendi didn’t understand the Elvish words, but sensed this was a song about stars. It was good to hear Frodo’s clear voice raised in song again.
“Where did you learn that?” Brendi asked after the song was finished.
“Rivendell,” Frodo answered.
“It’s deeply moving, and sounds perfect with you singing it.” They continued in quiet. Finally Brendi commented, “You had your hair cut.”
“Yes, while I was at the farm last.”
“I’m sorry--longer curls look particularly good on you.”
Frodo gave a small laugh. “Not you, too, Brendi. Sam looks grieved as he must cut it short, and when it had to be cut in Minas Tirith Aragorn was almost in mourning.”
“Then why cut it at all?”
Frodo shrugged. “I have a recurring sore that comes up on my neck, and Aragorn and his brothers all commented I need to keep it free of irritation from my hair,” he admitted.
“A sore? From what?”
Frodo shook his head. “You wouldn’t believe it,” he said.
“Meaning you don’t want to discuss it?” Brendi asked.
Solemnly Frodo nodded.
After a further time Frodo asked, “Will you stay the night?”
“No. I’m expected in Overhill by my clients there, and after all the Cottons don’t know me, while Sam has always thought of me simply as ‘that Brandybuck lawyer.’ Does he realize we are cousins, do you think?”
“He knows we are, Brendi; but the ones he knows best are those who always visited when we were younger--Merry, Pippin, Folco, Freddy, Beri, Ferdi. You hadn’t been at Bag End since the Party when I changed to you as my personal lawyer, you know.”
“Yes, I know. Guess it’s mostly my own fault he doesn’t realize how close we are. I know so much about him from what you and the others have always told me, after all.” He gave his cousin an evaluative look. “You apparently don’t speak a good deal about me to him.”
Frodo again shrugged. “I suppose I never thought to do so, Brendi. But then I don’t talk about a good number of my relatives to others, all will find.”
Brendi peered more closely at Frodo in the light of the heavens overhead. “You mean you keep secrets from Samwise Gamgee? From what Merry boasts of Sam, that sounds near impossible.”
He could see Frodo shrug one shoulder. “Even Sam has no idea of a far greater amount of my personal business than he realizes.”
Brendi looked back to the road. Finally he asked, “What will you do now? You can’t stay at the Cotton’s place indefinitely.”
“I’m not certain. I’d thought to move in with Folco and Wisteria, but they’re having to live currently in one of the cottages intended for hands on their family farm, for their smial was dug out by Lotho’s folks. My Uncle Dudo’s daughter Daisy would like me to stay with her, but--but it’s too painful at the moment being in Hobbiton itself, as I told you.” He sighed. “We found a good deal of the furniture taken from Ponto and Iris’s smial--the Cotton lads found it as they were going through more of the sheds at Bag End. They had so little left, them and Milo. It’s so sad to think of Peony having died that way. Once she realized it was her telling Lobelia I was thinking of selling Bag End that led to Lotho getting control of Ponto’s deed she appears to have just faded.”
“Whose children are these two cousins of yours you made your heirs? I thought they were Dudo’s children.”
“They are, by his second marriage.”
Brendi was surprised. “Second marriage?”
“Yes, some years after Camellia’s death.”
“Why haven’t any of us known about them?”
Frodo looked over at him as they rode. “Do you think I wanted them subjected to Lobelia’s tongue, Brendi? Look at what she’s said about my mother and me. For years I was supposed to be Bilbo’s child rather than my dad’s, and then I was weak and sickly and dying; I was a thief and couldn’t be trusted, and was lazy and madder even than Bilbo was supposed to be. Better they live quietly in obscurity than go through that.”
“Does Sam know about them?”
“No. You, Oridon, and Ordo need to know, so you do.”
“Do you know them?”
“Have you been to see them since you returned?”
“When, Brendi? When have I had the chance?”
“I don’t know, Frodo.”
Again they rode in silence. Finally Brendi said quietly, “I’m just grateful you came back to us, Frodo.”
“Thanks.” But it seemed to Brendi that his cousin’s voice wasn’t as certain as it ought to have been.
“Are you well, Aunt?” Hyacinth Bracegirdle asked as she peeked into the parlor lit by the thin winter sunlight where the older Hobbitess sat, wrapped as she always was in her striped shawl with the long silver tassels and with a rug over her knees.
Lobelia looked up at her cousin with interest. Hyacinth was, she realized, one of the nicest of her relatives of the Bracegirdle name--but then she was half Boffin and even had some Baggins blood in her. Funny how here was one Bracegirdle both the Boffins and the Bagginses were eager to claim for themselves while Lotho, born a Sackville-Baggins, had automatically been included in the Bracegirdle book and no one had ever questioned that this was the one book that was his by nature as well as by right through his mother. “No,” she answered Hyacinth, “I’m not all right. I had a miserable night and have felt cold and achy all day--not that anyone can do anything about it.”
Lobelia was old, and her health had been broken by her ordeal. Never had she questioned that all others were inferior to herself and her son; never had she questioned that first Otho and then Lotho deserved to be Master of Bag End and the Baggins as well as the Sackville; never had she questioned that those who couldn’t hold onto what they had deserved to lose it--until now, that is. When Lotho had first indicated he was going to make himself Chief Shiriff she’d been pleased. Lotho had wanted to join the Shiriffs since he was a small lad; but when he’d applied at age twenty-seven he’d been turned down for his age; and twenty-nine again for his age; and at thirty-three honestly because, “The other lads, Mr. Lotho, sir, don’t wish to work alongside you, beggin’ your pardon, sir. You’re a bit too quick off the mark to tell folks as to what you think as they ought to of done, you understand, and folks don’t take well to that, particular when it’s what they’ve always done anyways. And you don’t mix well with others, or laugh proper at the jokes told, you see. And what jokes as you prefer to tell--it’s hard to say, sir, but they tends to be more cruel than funny, if you take my meaning. You’d do best, I think, to study the law or somethin’ like.” Minto Tunnely, who’d taken his third application was quite polite at the same time he was brutally honest.
Lotho had come home humiliated, and had repeated the statement again and again and again. After two weeks he went to Michel Delving to register a complaint with the Mayor, and Will had just shaken his head. “And what am I to do about it, Lotho? Do you like the idea of tramping through the Shire for days on end?”
“I wouldn’t walk--I have ponies and a decent trap.”
“Save in emergency, Shiriff’s don’t go by pony, Lotho. If any ruffians try to come across our borders, it’s harder to see the signs if you’re on pony back, and far harder to hide the pony than just yourself if you have to watch them. Nor will the locals approach you if you’re on a pony of the quality you own to let you know if they’ve sensed a problem building.”
“No one would try anything in my area.”
“You think not, Lotho Sackville-Baggins? I can’t think of a corner of the Shire where there isn’t someone who’ll try to move boundary markers from time to time. Again, you can’t see the signs of that on pony back, and couldn’t begin to see it from a trap. Tracking straying cattle or sheep is another problem that’s best done on foot usually--can’t get a pony up into the sheep ranges easily. And how do you think as you’d get a drunk lad or gaffer home from the inn if you’re on a pony and he’s on foot?”
“There is no way I’d touch a drunk Hobbit any age.”
“No way you will be a Shiriff then, Lotho. Shiriffs work with Hobbits, drunk, sober, or however.”
“I’ll just tell them not to drink.”
Will looked at Lotho with his eyebrows raised almost to his scalp line. “You think as Hobbits won’t do something simply because you tell them not to, Lotho? You’d best think again! Hobbits do what they please, or what they realize needs doing, and no amount of telling them to do otherwise tends to get through. You can’t even reason with most Hobbits, save for the occasional Boffin, Took, Baggins, or Brandybuck; and even then you need to be careful lest you start something else you never intended. Reason too long and a Took’ll go haring off after any stray argument as you might have touched on, a Brandybuck’ll do the opposite of what you want him to do, and the Baggins’ll just go stubborn on you. There’s no one any more stubborn than a Baggins as has been argued with, you’ll find.
“No, you want to get a Hobbit to do something or to stop doing something, you need to get him to think as it’s what he wanted to do to begin with, or you help him figure out as how it’s needed. Otherwise you won’t get nowhere. Let him see how what you want him to do needs doing, and you’ll find he’s your Hobbit, and then nothing will stop him, and especially if he’s a Baggins.”
“So, you won’t make the Shiriffs accept me?”
“No, Lotho--first of all I can’t for I haven’t the authority, and second I won’t for Minto’s right--you don’t work well with others. Like I just said--Hobbits’ll do what they want or what they realize needs doing, and that’s just the way as it is. Folks just don’t like you, and that’s not putting you down, see, but telling it as it is. You’re just not a Hobbit’s Hobbit. It’s nothing you can do much about, for that’s just how it is with Bracegirdles, you know. You’d do better to go in for the law or something like.”
The fury Lotho had felt had almost taken the roof off the Sackville-Baggins house when he’d returned home. “How dare he, that miserable Whitfoot?” Lotho had demanded. “Telling me I’m not a Hobbit’s Hobbit, as if that’s to be expected of a Bracegirdle!”
He had ended up starting to study the law indeed, but found it boring and confusing. He decided to leave that to his cousins Lothario, Bartolo, and Timono. No, he wasn’t that interested in studying law--what he wanted to do was to make law. He was a reasonably intelligent Hobbit, and far more so than most inhabitants of the Shire. He certainly had ideas on how things could be better, more efficient, more orderly. He’d show folks how the Shire had ought to be run--just give him half a chance....
Lobelia wasn’t certain exactly how Lotho had become aware of the Big Men from down South a ways. Perhaps on that trip out to Bree five years past....
Timono had gone one year with some of their Hornblower relatives to Bree to discuss sales of apples, pears, and pear wine from the orchards of the Southfarthing, and while there had been exceedingly flattered to find himself attracting the attention of traders from further South. They’d told him they’d heard of the Shire and how excellent its produce was supposed to be, and asked if he could arrange introductions to some of the larger purveyors of foodstuffs and other crops in the Shire who might be willing to sell a goodly amount of their goods outside the Shire.
The next time Timono went, he took Lotho with him, and the traders from further South had words of advice for him on how to increase the yield of his crops and thus his profits as well.
Otho might have been a lout in many ways, but he’d had an excellent eye for land, and had managed to turn some of his farmshares into a goodly number of farms and leaf plantations which he owned outright and leased wisely to skilled farmers for shares of the crops. Lotho had thus inherited a good fortune in terms of land. For the first years after his father’s death while the leases Otho had negotiated still held all had continued well on those farms; once the leases terminated and needed to be renewed, however, things became more problematic, for Lotho had the new leases written giving himself more say in what the farmers who worked the land planted, how they planted it, how crops were to be marketed and to whom, and so on. Some of those who’d been able to function fairly autonomously under Otho’s leases found the new regime restrictive; others found it ominous.
Langham Longbottom, considering the detailed directions sent him by Lotho, came to Hobbiton to try to reason with him, only to find that Lotho had gone to Hardbottle to spend a few days with some of his Bracegirdle relatives. However, as Lobelia was home, Langham had sought to plead his case with her.
“He must realize, Mistress Lobelia,” he explained, “that what he wants me to do won’t work for very long.”
“He says,” Lobelia sniffed as she herself perused the letter, “this is intended to increase yields. Won’t it do so?”
“Yes, it will, but----”
“Then there is no problem, is there, Langham Longbottom?”
“Perhaps not for this year or next year, but what about two years from now?”
“What about two years from now?”
“He says I’m not to do what I do now, and I’m not to allow any of the land to lie fallow, either. What he proposes will eat at the health of the soil, Mistress, and eventually will destroy its ability to bear. What’s the point in increasing the yield if it’s at the cost of the future of the land itself? Yield will be higher this year and next, and if he’s very fortunate perhaps a third year; but by at the latest the fourth year it won’t be as much as this year; by the fifth year it will be much depleted; and by the tenth year at the latest we’ll do well to grow hay on it.”
Lobelia had straightened and given the farmer her fiercest Bracegirdle glare. “Do you think to know better than does my son?” she demanded.
Concern for his land had given him courage to stand up to her. “Do I think to know better than Lotho? Of course I do! I’ve been actively farming land for over twenty years on my own, and alongside my da for all my life before that. I’ve worked this farm so long, Lobelia Sackville-Baggins, that I don’t want to destroy it with crack-brained schemes such as this.” Then with a considerable amount of dignity he rose and left.
What he said, however, remained with her. Finally she left the house and headed for the market where she met Tom Cotton the elder. She approached him with sudden decision. “Ah, Mr. Cotton, I was wishing to ask you something about increasing yields.” She described the procedures Lotho had indicated.
Farmer Cotton rubbed at his forehead. He was surprised Lobelia would approach him to begin with. “Well, Missus Lobelia,” he said, slowly, “it would work; and if we was having droughts, say, in the Southfarthing and extra yield was needed one year, I’d consider doing exactly that. But only for a single year. Past two years the yield would begin to fall off, for it would be too hard a draw on the soil itself. Within seven to ten year it would kill the land itself. It’s not what a wise farmer tries for more than a season.”
She was surprised, but thanked the farmer as courteously as she could and returned home, forgetting the purchases she’d intended to make. The love of Hobbit for the land that sustains him (or her) came to the fore, and when Lotho returned home she’d looked at him, having figured out how she would present the problem to her son. When they sat down to supper she commented, “Seems Old Tom Cotton is having some problems with Young Tom this year. The lad has taken it into his head to....”
As she described precisely what Lotho had instructed Longbottom to do on his farm and how both Langham Longbottom and Tom Cotton had indicated it would eventually kill the fertility of the soil, Lotho went quiet and quit eating, looking at his mother suspiciously from under his brows. Three days later, after quietly consulting with Folco Boffin, who had the same evaluation of the situation as Old Tom Cotton, Lotho sent another letter to Langham Longbottom indicating he wanted the revised procedure used only for one year, and that he’d not truly desired it followed every year as apparently his former letter had seemed to indicate. But he’d quietly seethed at once again having his superior wisdom questioned.
The word that Frodo had managed at last to squander all of Bilbo’s treasure had thrilled Lobelia, and she’d quickly passed the word to her son that Frodo had offered Bag End to Ponto and Iris Baggins; he’d gone immediately to Frodo with his own offer, knowing it would take some days for Ponto and Iris to come up with the funds desired. When after Lotho had made his own offer Ponto had come to him offering his own smial of Baggins Place as collateral on a loan for the amount Frodo had asked of him, Lotho had been secretly pleased to have the means to demean and impoverish still another Baggins and perhaps gain control of his smial, and he’d had his cousin Timono think up a particular scheme by which the “loan” became almost an outright purchase. Dear, trusting Ponto and Iris--how easy it had been; they got the money they’d desired, but couldn’t pay it back for a year and a day; instead they must pay him rent on their own place starting the day after the odious Frodo Baggins’s birthday, on which day he took possession of Bag End.
Lotho had again been furious when he realized that Frodo wouldn’t sign any contract he’d had prepared, but insisted on having his own personal lawyer write up the bill of sale and conveyance of the deed. This cheated him of the chance to cheat Frodo, but in the end perhaps that was as well. Frodo was, after all, a good deal less trusting of bargains struck with the Sackville-Bagginses than was Ponto--he was more likely to have picked up on the unusual clauses and to have called in that Brandybuck lawyer of his come and check it out before he signed; and Lotho was already sensing he had difficulties possibly building with one of his previous Brandybuck clients; another problem so quickly with Brandybucks could bring both Master and Thain upon him before his plans were ripe.
The day they’d entered Bag End had been one of the proudest that Lobelia had ever known--at last she was mistress of the one smial she’d coveted more than any other all during her life, and dowager mother of the Baggins--or so she thought. Lotho had not had the courage to tell her that Frodo had failed to give over that title along with the deed to the smial; nor that the services of Sam Gamgee as gardener had not come with it, either. It was an unpleasant surprise to learn this last a week and a half before the birthday, but by then it was too late to rectify the situation. Nor had Lotho told her that the purchase hadn’t included the smials in Bagshot Row--he’d decided that once his small army of Big Men was made evident, he was going to forget the niceties of property ownership. He already had control of so much of the Shire, after all; once he had recognition as Master of Bag End a number of his questionable clauses would come to fruition, and the number of folks who could question his authority would be so small as to be negligible.
It was only after they’d been in Bag End for a week that Lobelia began to realize that things were nowhere as wonderful as she’d always envisioned. No one would agree to come to her first tea party; and when asked why Iris Baggins had glared at her. “After Timono Bracegirdle came yesterday to inform us that we have to pay a totally ridiculous rent on our own property and can’t repay the amount we borrowed from Lotho for another seven months, you think we truly wish to attend a party with you? You’d best think again, Lobelia Sackville-Baggins!”
Peony Burrows, Ponto Baggins’s sister and Lobelia’s one confidant in Hobbiton, wouldn’t even come to the door, and Milo threatened to set the dog on her.
Wisteria Boffin just laughed at her when they met at the tea shop; Ivy Boffin stared at her suspiciously, as did too many of those she met in Hobbiton and Bywater. Never had Lobelia ever been popular in the area since her marriage to Otho--to be outright shunned, however, infuriated and humiliated her. Moro Burrows and his wife Daisy gave her the bolt of cloth she’d indicated she wished her new gown to be cut from and informed her that they realized they were not up to her standards, and that she needed to take her custom elsewhere; Marigold Gamgee explained she had too many clients already for cleaning and extra work, much less to do laundry; Widow Rumble simply was always looking elsewhere whenever Lobelia passed her on the lane; and the Chubbs, Twofoots, and Proudfoots would withdraw into their smials and close the door the moment she or Lotho came out the green door to Bag End.
It was two weeks after they came to Bag End that Lobelia first overheard the rumor that Frodo Baggins had disappeared from the Shire with Samwise Gamgee and the heirs to Thain and Master, and that mysterious Big Men in Black who left in their path memories of terror had been seeking after him. A week later the first of Lotho’s own Big Men came to Bag End, and the looks Lobelia saw were now of suspicion and fear mixed with resentment.
At first the Big Men frightened Lobelia, but eventually Lotho convinced her they deferred to him. However, as time passed she realized that the Big Men only gave lip service to obeying her son, and her fear grew again.
A good part of why she’d wanted Bag End was to bask in the reflected glory of its gardens, and to enjoy its beauty as her own domain; the Big Men began trampling that glory down from the moment they came up the Hill, and Lotho had no control over them at all. She’d begun remaining in her room when the Big Men were in the smial, which seemed to be more and more of the time as the months passed.
Lotho had ordered the building of brick houses in what had been an area of kitchen gardens, and then forcibly moved the inhabitants of Bagshot Row out of their homes into the new houses, which he’d assured his mother were far more comfortable than the smials dug out along the Row. She was herself shocked at the appearance of these houses, which were totally against Hobbit custom and aesthetics, being square, squat, and bare where Hobbits preferred long, low buildings with curved lines which looked as if they might have just grown out of the hills and valleys of the land. But, if Lotho said they were more comfortable than what had been there before, he must be telling the truth--or so she convinced herself before Sharkey came.
Sharkey was the most terrifying individual she had ever met, and she was totally at a loss trying to understand just why this was. It was obvious to Lobelia that once he arrived the Big Men were now obeying him with little pretense of bowing to Lotho any more. On his second day at Bag End, along with that Worm person who groveled along behind him, Lobelia found she couldn’t bear it, and slipped out the back door and down to the lane, umbrella in hand against the threat of rain in the sky.
It has been a time since she’d been outside the smial, and she was stunned at what she saw. The beautiful gardens were covered now with a plethora of sheds, most of them built off true, and fabricated of such a variety of materials as to offend the least discerning of tramps. The hedges planted by old Holman and so long cared for by Hamfast Gamgee and later by Sam were broken down in so many places it was hard to imagine how thick and lush they’d been just a year ago. The oak tree atop the Hill had just been felled; and the tops of the fruit trees of the orchard on the far side of the Hill were wavering as if the trees were being shaken by a mighty storm--just before two of them fell in opposite directions.
Shaken, Lobelia fled down the lane to where she could look down on what had been Bagshot Row, realizing it was now an open gravel pit. The Water spreading out from what had been the Mill Run was now brown and ugly instead of clean and clear as it had always been; and the new Mill had to be the most grotesque and intimidating place she’d ever seen, particularly with the smokes, steams, and awful smells and grinding thumps emanating from the building.
She’d found her way to the row of houses where Gaffer Gamgee and his former neighbors lived, and was shocked anew. Marigold Gamgee was hanging her laundry from a limp line running from a corner of the ugly house to a bare pole, and she was now dressed not in her customary cheerful clothes but in a ragged dress which looked as if it had been given her by a not-so-charitable neighbor. The lass’s hair was lank and greasy, her face thin and lined by care.
“Marigold, is that you?” Lobelia demanded.
The lass turned suddenly, as if fearing a threat. “Missus Lobelia?” Her face had gone pale.
“Of course it’s Mistress Lobelia,” she’d answered. “Why are you dressed like that?”
Marigold looked about carefully as if making certain no one was listening, then said cautiously, “It’s all as I have left.”
“What do you mean, all you have left? Your father never deprived you of clothes, after all.”
“It’s the gatherers and sharers--they’ve taken all else I had, and everything as was the least bit pretty.”
“Can’t you make more?”
“And with what, Missus Lobelia? The weavers, soon as they weave decent cloth, have it taken by the gatherers and sharers. Daisy and Moro’s tailorin’ shop--they have next to nothin’ left. Don’t know as where it’s all goin’, but there doesn’t seem to be any more cloth left in the Shire than there is malt or meat.”
The Gaffer himself peeked out the door and hissed a warning at his daughter, and Marigold gathered up her basket to enter in. From what Lobelia could see the opposite wall was unfinished brick rather than plaster or paneling.
Lobelia Sackville-Baggins sat heavily on the ugly brick wall built to separate the gardens for the places, not so certain of things as she’d been. How her son could have ordered the building of such monstrosities as these houses she couldn’t imagine, for now she was up close to them it was obvious they were ugly and totally unsuitable for Hobbits. She sat, looking at them with a horrified fascination. Then she heard a voice from behind her, and turned hurriedly to find herself facing Begonia Rumble.
“Missus Lobelia? Is that you, Mistress? Are you well?”
On the face of the Widow Rumble Lobelia saw an expression she had seen focused on herself only once before since she was an adult Hobbitess--compassion. The last time she saw that was at Otho’s funeral, and it had been directed at her by Frodo Baggins.
Begonia was continuing on. “Some of us have been so worried about you, you know. We’ve hardly even seen you, haven’t known if those Big Men had left you alive, even. What a life, kept virtually a prisoner up there by them. Does Lotho still think as he’s the one in charge, do you think; or has he realized yet that they’re calling the tunes now? Every time as we see him, they have him all circled about, and there’s so much they won’t let him even near to see what it’s really like, you know. I’m surprised they’d even let you out alone.
“You poor dear, you’re so pale. You come along inside and I’ll at least get you a cup of water.”
Then Lobelia found herself being bundled inside the house and settled in a rocking chair, and she had the chance to look at the place. She could see that there were indeed no inner walls, and that whoever had applied the mortar was no mason, as it was missing in several places, and more often than not the bricks were set in at slight angles. A crack was forming on the East wall, and at one corner another could be seen. The window in the far wall hung open in spite of the fact it was a dreary September day outside with a cool wind blowing.
“The draft....” Lobelia began.
“The window, you mean?” her hostess asked. “I can’t get the window to stay shut no matter what I do. I suspect in the end I’ll have to nail it shut for the winter, which will make it most uncomfortable, for the chimneys hardly draw at all, and it gets awful close in here when I must have the fire going.” She was pouring a cup of water from one of the large stone water jars used by those who have no running water.
“You don’t have a pump?” Lobelia demanded. “Lotho told me as how he was having pumps put into all these houses.
“Oh, yes, there’s a pump, but it’s not connected to anything--certainly not to the nearest well. The Proudfoots found as their pump does bring water into their place, but it’s not from either the well or even the running stream nearby--it brings water in from the marshland nearest to us along the Water. I think that’s the only one of these five houses as has a pump that pumps water, really.” She pressed the mug into Lobelia’s hand. “We all have to bring water in from the well in the next lane--at least the water there is good and sweet. Much of the water in the Water itself is so dirty now, and much fouled.”
Lobelia examined Begonia Rumble. “At least you appear to be dressed suitably,” she commented.
“You mean you’ve seen Marigold Gamgee?” Missus Rumble replied. “It’s these gatherers and sharers, you know. It’s like they were ordered to take everything of any value at all from those known to have been close to Frodo and Bilbo. Poor Hamfast and Marigold have had their place gone through so many times it’s a wonder they have anything left at all. Same for Ponto and Iris Baggins. Folco Boffin and his mother Wisteria had their hole dug out completely; and as many times as Ivy Boffin and her daughter Narcissa have had their hole gone through it’s a wonder either has a thing to wear or a pot to cook in.”
“But they haven’t done the same to you?”
“They’ve gone through my place only twice, and didn’t take that much--but then most of the good things we had were in our furniture. Most of the furniture we all had we were forced to leave when we were made to move, Missus Lobelia. Have no idea what became of it--you certainly couldn’t fit most of it into Bag End, after all. I managed to slip back into my own hole twice before they dug it out and got some more things, but the Gamgee hole actually had a guard on it. Your Lotho must have a terrible grudge built against Frodo to try to punish him through his friends and kin.”
Cupboards were wooden crates stacked along the leaning walls; the table was solid but ugly; the chairs mismatched and obviously in need of having the glue renewed. Yet there sat Begonia Rumble’s cheerful dishes on them, looking totally out of place in the squalid setting.
At last Lobelia rose to leave, deciding it was time to confront her son. As she started climbing the lane on the side of the Hill toward the door to Bag End, however, she’d found herself being surrounded by some of the Big Men who paused in passing her. “And where are you going, old hagling?” demanded the leader of the group, as ugly a being as she’d ever seen. Who he was she had no idea, for she’d not seen him before.
“Back up to Bag End. And where do you think you’re off to?”
“Up to put up some more sheds at Bag End for Sharkey.”
“And who gave this Sharkey authority to order more sheds built there?” she demanded.
The Men had laughed, and their laughter was ugly. “You think as you have any say in the matter?” demanded the leader. “Think again, ratling. No, hagling, if Sharkey says as he wants sheds put up, sheds’ll be put up.”
“You truly think as Lotho’ll allow this if I tell him no?”
The leader turned to the rest of his fellows. “You hear that? The hagling thinks as that fool Lotho has any say whatsoever!” All laughed freely--uglier laughter. He turned back on her. “No, hagling, anyone as thinks that Lotho can give orders is much mistaken. Does what Sharkey tells him, he does. You see, hagling, if we doesn’t like a Chief no more, we can change him. And now as Sharkey’s come, he’ll do as Sharkey says or--or we’ll change him!” His expression was ugly with threat.
The courage all Hobbits hold inside came to the fore with her, although it wasn’t accompanied by much in the way of discretion. “I’ll give you Sharkey,” she said with fury, going at the leader with her umbrella and actually catching him unaware with the shaft of it.
The next she’d known, she was in the Lockholes in Michel Delving with only the barest idea of where she was and how she’d gotten there. They were using great spikes to nail beams and boards over the opening in the storage hole she’d been assigned as a cell. She got water daily and some food, so she wasn’t as badly off as some; but when she’d seen the cruel face of Sharkey leering in at her through gaps in the boarding that held her prisoner she’d been terrified.
She’d begun to develop a fever after uncounted days in the cell, which was lit only by the greasy torches those Men who kept the prison mounted along the passages. She’d watched them as suspiciously as did all the rest; but other than the visits from Sharkey to gloat over her she was pretty much ignored, for which she was grateful. Then she had a dream of Frodo Baggins, his face stern, his eyes indicating he was thinking rapidly, and when she woke her fever had begun to abate. The following day those who kept the prison left the hole, having given most of the prisoners no food or water that day; and in the distance they could hear the big doors the Men had set into the mouth of the old storage holes being slammed shut and bars shoved into place. All night they’d sat in their cells, watching the torches and lamps burn down until one after another they’d guttered and gone out, leaving all plunged into darkness.
They’d awakened at the noise of hammers and cutters being used somewhere up the tunnel, and those who were housed nearest the doors had been nearly blinded by the dim light which finally entered when at last the doors were thrown open.
Then a cool, clear light that soothed had come down the passages as Frodo Baggins led searchers down to free those who’d been imprisoned here; and for the third time in her adult life, once Frodo reached her cell, Lobelia Sackville-Baggins saw compassion directed at her in the eyes of those who found her and freed her from her prison.
As she sat quietly in Hyacinth’s cheerful sitting room, Lobelia remembered all this, and wept, wept for her Lotho and his foolish dreams of showing others, of his mistaken conviction that he’d made himself Chief of the Shire indeed, before that Sharkey had come and ordered him murdered.
So far they’d not found his body; what that Worm person could have done with it no one knew. The thought of returning to Bag End repulsed her, and she’d simply asked to be sent back to Hardbottle where hopefully one or two of her more decent Bracegirdle relatives might take pity on her and accept her into their homes. Hyacinth had offered, and Benlo, who was now Bracegirdle family head, had agreed; and so Lobelia now had a home with her younger cousin who’d always called her Aunt much as Frodo had done the same for Bilbo and his older Took and Brandybuck cousins.
There was a ring at the bell--so reminiscent of how cheerful the bell at Bag End had once sounded--before the Big Men had dragged the pull chain loose. A few minutes later Benlo was following Hyacinth into the sitting room, and was bringing a chair to sit in front of her. “Hullo, Cousin Lobelia,” he said. “You are looking well enough.”
His gruffness belied the social nicety, and she snorted. “Come to it, Benlo,” she ordered.
He wasn’t offended, for bluntness was as much a part of his nature as it was hers. “It’s these deeds of Lotho’s, Lobelia. Many of them are heavily entailed, you see; and many of the contracts he negotiated with folks all through the Four Farthings and Buckland verge on being flat illegal, if they aren’t illegal indeed. I’m having to take a number of them to Michel Delving to be sorted out and ruled on.”
“Will is going to go through them, is he?” Lobelia demanded.
Benlo had shaken his head. “No, Will’s going to be recovering from his time in the Lockholes for months, he is. It’ll be the deputy Mayor what examines these, along with all the Took lawyers what’s helping him make sense of the mess Lotho left the Shire in.”
“Who’s this deputy Mayor, then?”
“He living in the Whitfoot place, then? Where are they staying?”
Benlo had shrugged. “Whitfoots are still in their own place, and they’ve found a good deal of the goods as had been stolen from them by the Big Men, so the house is pretty much now as it was. Frodo boards with them the three or four days a week as he’s in Michel Delving actually working as deputy Mayor. Elsewise they say as he stays with the Cottons on their farm in Bywater.”
Why this surprised her Lobelia couldn’t say. “Why doesn’t he stay with Ponto and Iris, or Folco and Wisteria?”
“Ponto’s not in a good way, Lobelia. Had a seizure of his heart and is now bedridden. Much of their things have been found now and returned to them, at last, so at least they no longer have to sit on rickety old chairs in bare rooms. Frodo’d never think to impose on them. As for Folco and Wisteria--their hole was dug out early on by the Big Men.”
Oh, yes, Lobelia remembered being told that by Begonia Rumble. She turned her head away, the distress she felt overwhelming her. Benlo continued, “At least as that’s one deed as Lotho held as is clear and legal--that for Bag End. That Brandybuck lawyer of Frodo’s made certain as it was properly writ. You could move back there, I suppose.”
She turned on him, her distress heightened. “You think I’d want to return to Bag End after all that’s gone on there, Benlo? The gardens are all dead; there’s sheds everywhere; the paneling was being hacked to pieces by those Big Men of Lotho’s; and he apparently died there, there where he ought to have been safe. No, I have no intention of returning there.”
“Then do you want to sell it or something? At least it would give you some money of your own that can’t be confiscated for having been illegally gotten.”
Lobelia shook her head. “I don’t know what to do, really,” she admitted. “There are a couple of properties that were mine outright, so I have an income from the rents. I’d pay for board from Hyacinth--but she keeps refusing.” She sighed. “I suppose Frodo will soon go back to Crickhollow in Buckland.”
“No, he says he won’t go there at all. Says the ones what was chasing him out of the Shire were there, and won’t step foot in it.”
Lobelia was surprised and intrigued. “Frodo won’t go where the strange Big Men had been? That’s odd, him having the same feelings as me.”
Benlo nodded. “Don’t know as what he’ll do with the place, either. Made some comment to young Merry as he might deed it back to the Master.”
Lobelia straightened in surprise. “Just give it back?”
“Apparently. Anyway, Lobelia, we need a list of the properties you and Otho owned when he died so we can begin figuring out which were entailed and which properties Lotho added later, and which of those legally and which illegally.”
Lobelia sighed. “I’ll have to discuss it all with Bartolo, you know. He’s been my personal lawyer since his dad died a couple years after Otho did. We’ll get your list and I’ll give it to you next week.”
Benlo looked her over, then gave a single nod. “Sounds fair, Cousin Lobelia. So far we’ve not found signs Bartolo was involved with Timono in the writing of crooked contracts. Sure hope as neither he nor Lothario was involved. Marco Smallburrow was, though, and a few others, two of them down among the leaf plantations in the Southfarthing. You want me to arrange for Bartolo to come over here in the next two days?”
“That would be appreciated, Benlo,” she answered.
“Will do,” he said. “By the way--Frodo sent this--asked me to give it to you.” Benlo placed in her lap a letter sealed with wax into which a star shape had been pressed, and with a pull at his forelock he took his leave and left her still sitting in the Westering sunlight. As she looked after the way he’d gone, Lobelia Sackville-Baggins was thinking hard on what she’d do. Finally she took up the letter and broke the seal.
Dearest Cousin Lobelia,
It is with greatest sorrow I offer you my sympathy at the loss of Lotho. I know how much he wanted to make you proud of his achievements. That in trying to do this he would find himself involved with the likes of the one you know as Sharkey was certainly nothing he could have counted upon.
Sharkey was well known in the lands through which we traveled, and we learned he had routinely been betraying his friends and allies throughout the free lands of the West for some time, at first secretly, but in the past year openly. We have seen the effects of his betrayals everywhere we went. Among those who had been taken in by Sharkey were some of the greatest and wisest of folk in all of Middle Earth--believe me, Lotho was not alone in having been cozened by him.
To learn that those he thought of as serving him were instead using him to gain a foothold in the Shire for the purposes of Sharkey must have initially infuriated him, and then left him terrified as he realized just how helpless he now was. And after they imprisoned you he must have been worried sick for your health and safety.
Please, if I can do anything for you please let me know. It grieves me that we were too late in returning to perhaps have saved his life. At least we were able to free you and see you safe to your own folk, and know you are now comfortable and cared for. I’m certain he would have been relieved by such knowledge.
Know I think frequently of you, and hope you are finding peace of mind in the comfort of your kindred.
By the time Bartolo arrived the next day she’d made up her mind regarding Bag End. If Frodo was willing just to deed the Crickhollow house back to the Master, she’d do the same with Bag End--deed it back to Frodo. She would certainly have no joy from it now, and it would be indeed quite some time before it would be inhabitable according to all who’d seen it. No, the place was a Baggins place, and only the presence of a Baggins and a Gamgee as gardener was likely to make it all come alive again.
Bartolo was shocked when she instructed him she wished the deed conveyed back to Frodo. “Whatever for, Cousin Lobelia?”
“Of the whole Shire, he’s the only one who cares that Lotho died needlessly, Bartolo.”
Bartolo glared. He was now Lobelia’s closest living kin, closer even than Hyacinth. He would have inherited Lobelia’s possessions, and she, Otho, and Lotho were not the only Hobbits in the Shire to have desired Bag End, its gardens, and its situation. She gave him an appraising look. “And if you were thinking you’d like it next, you’d best think again--it will take a very long time, I’m told, to bring it up to snuff. And once you’re done with the reconveyance, we’re going to work on my will. Whatever Lotho intended, I’m certain as it was never intended to be as bad as happened. Too many folk were hurt by Lotho’s choices--including him and me.”
When Brendi came back again to Michel Delving it was to find that Frodo had already left for Bywater. “I sent for Samwise to come get him--he was pretty overwhelmed,” Isumbard said.
“By what?” Brendi demanded.
Bard pointed to Frodo’s desk. Sitting on the Mayor’s desk was a stack of bound documents, one of which he certainly recognized as he’d been the last to annotate it. Brendi looked up at Isumbard with interest. “What’s the deed to Bag End doing here?”
Bard gave a twisted smile. “Lobelia signed it back to Frodo.”
“She did?” Brendi felt a wave of unreality hit him. “Lobelia gave Bag End back to Frodo? Whatever possessed her?”
Bard looked at the deed with a thoughtful stare. “Whoever would have thought Lobelia Sackville-Baggins would have been capable of such a feeling as remorse?”
Bartolo Bracegirdle came into the parlor where Lobelia sat before the fire, glaring at her as he set a small envelope down by her. “Here,” he said bitterly. “Here’s the coin I took off of him. Bag End is Frodo’s again.”
She took the envelope and looked into it curiously. Inside lay a large gold coin with a bit of black sealing wax affixed to it. “What’s this from?” she asked.
He shrugged. “What do I know? It’s the coin he had in his hand when I handed him the deed, so I took it. Looks as if you made out pretty well--it’s gold--pure gold, from what I can tell.”
There was enough Bracegirdle in her to find satisfaction in the thought that Frodo just might be unhappy to have lost this coin.