“Oh, Primmie--you’re all right, and the bairn is all right as well!”
“Yes--he’s made it this far, and it appears--it appears as if this time he’ll make it further, Esme. Come, look!” Primula Brandybuck Baggins carefully relaxed her arms, gently detaching the small being she held from her breast, automatically pulling the loose shoulder of her nightdress up as she revealed the face of her small son to her younger Took cousin.
The infant appeared puzzled, pursing his lips and turning his face in search of the milk he’d been enjoying but seconds before. “Nonsense,” his mother murmured, brushing one hand over the soft, dark down atop his head, “you can’t be that hungry, little one, for you’ve been nursing most of the morning.” She looked up into her friend’s eyes. “Bilbo said he’d notify your father and you and Paladin and Lanti, and he’d think about letting Ferumbras and Lalia know as well.”
“When Olo Proudfoot rode up to the farm this morning just after dawn, I was so worried----” Esmeralda found she couldn’t finish the thought.
“This time it was worth the worry, for all he came so early,” Primula murmured, looking down on her son. “Yes, we lost the first two--but we do have one son who’s survived, and who looks to thrive, as much as he eats.” She looked back to Esme’s face. “Diamente? Primrose?”
“They’re planning to be here later in the day,” Esme smiled. “And we’ve sent word to Long Cleeve to advise Jade and Morigrin. How about your family?”
“Drogo sent a message by Quick Post yesterday morning, shortly after my water broke. I suspect they’ll be here early tomorrow. Oh, Menegilda will never forgive me. She had intended to supervise my labor from before it began--was going to see to it everything was done correctly, she was.”
A soft noise caught their attention; the bairn Cousin Primula held had screwed up his face, having decided not having his mother’s breast was a mortal insult, and was working himself into a cry. When it came, however, it wasn’t the loud, shrill, insistent shriek common to most newborns, but more of a soft, almost musical note that nevertheless communicated frustration.
“My stars--that’s how he cries?”
The proud mother nodded. “He’s a most unusual one, and such a wise child. We’re going to name him Frodo, you see.”
“Drogo has agreed?”
“Agreed? He’s the one who suggested it. Our wise child--our little star-kissed one.” She again pulled down the shoulder of her gown, and a drop of milk could be seen at the tip of her breast as she pressed the infant to it. “And think, Esme, my milk is already in, even if he is so early.”
“Where’s his father?”
“Master Gamgee and Daddy Twofoot have dragged him and Bilbo away to the Green Dragon. They’ve been almost unwilling to let me nurse him at all, the times they’ve counted his fingers and toes and cooed over the perfect shape of his ears!” Again she looked up to catch the younger Hobbitess’s eyes. “Drogo was holding my hands as he was finally born, Esme. At first they couldn’t get him to breathe; when he finally did it was such a relief. And I was so very weak, but that first little cough he made, that first little noise--almost like a cat, you see--it was all it took to bring me back!”
They could hear Eglantine questioning Mistress Sandybanks, and Drogo’s older sister Dora answering for the midwife, and Primula giggled. “Dear Dora has moved in and taken over, she has. She’s such a one to see things set straight, you know--has horrified Drogo by already sorting out his most worn undervests and nightshirts and consigning them to the rag bin, and last I heard she was complaining about the state of the flatirons. I suspect that by the time Auntie Laurel and Doncella let me out of bed every curtain in the hole will be laundered, starched, and pressed within an inch of its life, and Drogo will have several new sets of small clothes--not to mention there won’t be a loose button in the wardrobes!” Together she and Esme did their best to smother their laughter.
By the time Eglantine had managed to get free of Dora and joined them in the bedroom, little Frodo appeared to have finally sated himself and was pulling away at last from his mother. Pal and Lanti were themselves newlyweds, working the farm at Whitwell alongside Adalgrim. “Oh, Primula,” Eglantine murmured, accepting the tiny infant from the older Hobbitess, “he’s so precious! Paladin and Da Adalgrim have gone off to the Dragon to see to Bilbo and Drogo, and will undoubtedly have a half or two before they drag them back.”
At that moment the bairn opened his eyes to their fullest and was examining the one who held him, his eyes almost crossed as he did his best to focus them on Lanti’s face. “Oh!” she said, “I know the eyes of newborns are usually blue--but this one’s are so very blue indeed! Oh, Primula--he’s such a beautiful bairn.”
Esme could bear no more. “No, Lanti--I claim him now. Let me hold him for a moment.” And before her brother’s wife quite knew what had happened Esme had taken the bairn into her own arms. “Oh, little Frodo-lad,” she crooned. “How very, very beautiful you are.” When at last Primula insisted her son be returned to her Esme let go of him reluctantly, watching the older Hobbitess lean back with the tiny lad lying between her breasts with marked envy. If only she, too, could know such joy as she saw in the eyes of her cousin.
The farm wagon was turning up the lane toward Bag End when the singing of its occupants was interrupted by a great shriek ahead of them. It was as they turned fully into the lane they could see the source of the cry, as a substantial figure in fawn skirts and a yellow bodice came storming down the steps from the smial to the lane, then paused at the picket gate to turn back toward the green door, where Bilbo stood with a very small Hobbit child in his arms.
“And if you can’t control that horrid little faunt,” Lobelia Sackville-Baggins cried at the Master of Bag End, “I’ll give his mother an earful she’ll not forget soon!”
Bilbo’s face went from apologetic to dark with fury. “You’d dare, Lobelia, after what Lotho did to Drogo the other day in the market?”
Paladin had pulled the wagon up just short of where the Sackville-Baggins’s trap stood, alarmed that his wife and sisters might find themselves right in the midst of another battle between the S-Bs and Bilbo enacted right in the public lane. Esmeralda, however, found herself examining Lobelia closely, and noted red smudges on the neat skirts, and what was plainly a small red handprint on Lobelia’s bodice there on the outside of her left breast. A quick look upwards at the hands of the tiny lad Bilbo cradled close to his chest confirmed that Frodo had been paddling in Bilbo’s ink again, with predictable results.
“I won’t hear a word against my son!” Lobelia shrilled, shaking her umbrella at him.
“Not that he’s a spoiled brat who thinks nothing of hurling pony droppings at innocent passersby, or demanding sweets from all and sundry and spattering them with mud when they tell him they have none?” Bilbo said in a dangerous voice, his face fixed in the Look. “Frodo’s primary offense was against me, pouring out my red ink and leaving handprints all over the hole. You have no right whatsoever to try to correct my young cousin and guest within my home as you did, and deserve what you got. And if you think to bother Primula about it when the ink wouldn’t have been where Frodo could get at it if you hadn’t been in my study without my permission examining my silver inkstand for its maker’s marks, you’ll find out just what getting an earful entails. Good day to you, Lobelia!”
With one last wordless imprecation, Lobelia slammed the gate so hard it bounced open again and stalked away to the waiting trap, starting to slap the reins at her pony before she’d remembered to release the brake. So it was with a jerk Lobelia pulled away from the steps and disappeared down the further lane to the turning back toward the larger way into Hobbiton.
Esme followed Eglantine and Primrose up the steps, their arms laden with luggage, noting with satisfaction that Frodo’s face, upset a moment before as he’d watched a very loud Lobelia Sackville-Baggins storm out of the smial, now lit up to see her. “Smee!” he called out. “Smee!”
“No,” warned Bilbo, “you’d best not let him touch you before I get him cleaned up. You saw what he did to Lobelia’s new dress? Come in and be welcome with you all--the female cousins I rejoice to have visit in the hole! Come in! Come in! Oh, and mind the pool of red ink there outside the study door--I’m not certain how I’ll get the stains of it out of the edge of the carpet there. The acquisitive busy-body! Now, if you’ll pardon me, I’ll need to get this one to the bathing room. Esme, my love, would you mind seeing to the pool while I get this one cleaned and changed before his mother comes back to claim him? There are rags in the bin behind the kitchen door. There’s the lass, then.”
Esmeralda Took was laughing as she went to fetch the rags, watching a protective Bilbo hurrying off to get Frodo bathed, noting there was a neat red handprint on the shoulder of Bilbo’s golden waistcoat as Frodo strained to smile at her as he was carried away down the passage.
Primula opened the door to Number Five part way, peering out to ascertain who was knocking at it before opening it fully. “Oh, Esme, dear lass--it’s so good to see you. Come in, sweetling!”
As she passed her older cousin to enter the smial, Esmeralda asked, “Is Lobelia bothering you again?”
Closing the door behind them, Primula nodded, her expression looking tired for the moment as she reached to take Esmeralda’s wraps and hang them on the hooks by the door. “Oh, don’t you know it. She went up the Hill to Bag End the other day and was trying to sweet-talk poor Bilbo; but when he explained that Aramos Millpond and his wife Bachelorbutton were due any second along with the Mayor and Will Whitfoot and cousin Mina from Michel Delving, I thought she would burst all the braces on her girdle at being thrown out before she could have the chance to see the gift the Dwarves left him when they visited him last week. It’s very beautiful, the silver fountain is, and made to sit right on a hall table.
“So she came down here, and when I had to excuse myself to go out and finish hanging out the laundry on the hedge she amused herself by going through my silver spoons. One was missing, and so I made a point of knocking over her umbrella where it leaned against her chair and, of course, the missing spoon fell right out of it. Then there was that miserable child of hers, demanding to play with Frodo’s farm animals, and I’ll swear he got away with two sheep and Frodo’s favorite dog figure that his father carved for him. Of course Drogo can carve another, but that’s neither here nor there. Like mother, like son, apparently.”
There were sheets of paper pinned up on the walls all down the passageway to the guest rooms, each with a picture on it. Esme looked down at one of them, then up at the other Hobbitess. “Did Frodo do all these?” she asked.
“Yes. We had to do something--he’d been digging through the fireplaces for chunks of charred wood sufficient to draw with, and had been scrawling all over the walls, both here and in Bag End. Dear Bilbo finally went to the marketplace and came home with an absolutely enormous stack of paper for him to draw upon and proper drawing sticks, both charcoal and graphite. And he’s using them! At his age, he’s using them, now he knows it’s all right to draw upon paper rather than walls. And I’m amazed at how good he is for a faunt of just three years. Look!”
There were pictures of figures, mostly, and one of what was obviously the green door of Bag End, surrounded by flowers, and the small window above and behind the bench where Bilbo liked to sit after meals and smoke and look out on the Shire. Esme was heartily impressed.
She heard soft singing, and peered into Frodo’s room as they passed it. Drogo was sitting in the rocking chair, Frodo held gently in his lap with the stuffed pony Primula had made for him for her birthday under one arm, one of the wool-work shawls Primmie had made and embroidered with a great dragonfly over him. The faunt’s eyes were half-closed, but opened fully to acknowledge her as she went by before he snuggled more deeply into his father’s lap, listening intently as Drogo continued singing, “Around the corner there may wait a standing stone or secret gate....”
Esme found herself aching for such love shown her as she saw in those striking blue eyes looking up into those of Drogo Baggins as the Hobbit sang his little lad into his nap.
It was Saradoc who met them in the entranceway to the Hall. “It’s true then?” Esmeralda demanded. “That Primmie and Drogo have moved back here?”
“Yes, apparently. Drogo’s purchased River Place--did you know? Had intended it as a second home to stay in when they visited Buckland during the summers, but apparently they’re going to live in it permanently, as soon as Bilbo arranges for their things to be removed to it. Dad’s fit to be tied, of course--he insists that where the smial is it will fill every time the Brandywine floods. However, Primula’s gone Took-stubborn on us all, insists that they don’t want to live here in the Hall, no matter how much they love us. Says Drogo needs his privacy, being a Baggins as he is. And I must say that Drogo does tend to look uncomfortable when one of us decides to look in on them of an evening when he’s interrupted sitting and writing with Frodo or reading him a story. I suppose she’s right.”
She could see the concern and the humor in his eyes. “Took-stubborn, is she, Brandybuck as she was born?”
“Well, she’s the Old Took’s own granddaughter, after all. Has more Took in her than I do, for which I’m grateful.”
Esme found herself smiling back into his eyes, noting how fine they were.
Then there was a tug at her skirt, and she realized with a shock of startlement that a tiny child stood by her. “What? Stars and river water, Frodo dear--where did you come from?”
“’Lo, Smee,” he said, grinning up at her. She reached down and scooped him up with her free arm, then turned her attention back to Sara as she and Primrose accompanied him to the parlor set aside for the Tooks when they visited Brandy Hall.
“But what made them decide to move to Buckland now? Primula swore to me she’d never seek to make Drogo leave Hobbiton or the West Farthing, after all.”
“It was his decision, apparently. When he got home from a trip to Michel Delving with Bilbo and Ponto to see their new wills filed it was to find that one there--” indicating the faunt she carried, “perched on a chair peering out the window by the door, watching for him, and Primmie slouched, white-faced, in the rocking chair in the kitchen.”
“Was she ill?”
“Sick with shame, apparently.”
Esme felt her face grow flushed with fury, and saw the same anger growing in Primrose’s eyes as her next older sister stopped and laid her hand on Sara’s shoulder, turning him to look at her. “It was that awful Lobelia, wasn’t it?” Primrose demanded.
With a slow, calculated nod Sara answered, “You have it in one guess, Cousin Primrose.”
“But what was she saying?”
“She was saying that Primmie’d insisted on moving into Drogo’s hole with him instead of buying or excavating one elsewhere only to disrupt the succession of the family headship for the Bagginses.”
Esme was certain her own eyes were as wide as her sister’s. “And how did she explain that bit of logic?” she asked.
“Oh,” Saradoc sighed, indicating they should go on as they spoke, “supposedly Primmie was seeking to seduce Bilbo into naming Drogo his heir instead of allowing Otho to inherit as is right and proper as Bilbo’s closest male relative.”
“Oh,” Primrose fumed, her grip tightening painfully on the cloth bag she carried with the clothing she’d brought with her, “as if Otho and she weren’t enough to make both the Bagginses and the Sackvilles want to write the two of them out of the family books--or the Sackvilles probably would if Otho hadn’t been named their family head by his grandfather once his father was gone. Poor Longo--somehow managing to produce Otho, of all things. At least he was spared the shame of seeing how much worse he’s become since he married Lobelia, not to mention what a selfish little brat Lotho is.”
“While Camellia would never have seen what the fuss was about,” Esme commented as they paused before the parlor door while Sara opened it. “Camellia Sackville-Baggins had not a brain in her remarkably silly head, I swear.”
Sara was nodding as they went in and laid their bags on the low table by the door. “Oh, I agree.”
Primrose asked, “But who’d repeat Lobelia’s nonsense?”
“Primmie overheard Peony telling it to one of the Boffins and a Chubb at the tea room in Hobbiton, and heard it told again as she was coming past the apothecary’s stall in the Mersday market. That Arnica Brownlock is as much a gossip as is Lobelia, as you well know.”
“Where’s Primmie now?” inquired Esme.
“In the apartment given to the use of her and Drogo when they’re here. Which,” he added with a look at the child she still held, “is where I think he’s supposed to be right now.”
Primrose asked as she took up a sugar cake from the tray sitting on another table and sat on one of the sofas present in the room, “What’s this about Drogo writing with this one?”
“Well, Frodo’s been drawing obsessively for several months now, and between them Drogo, Primula, and Bilbo have him drawing on paper now instead of walls--remarkably good drawings for a child his age, for you can tell the subject of most of them. Apparently a few weeks before Drogo felt his wife had been the subject of enough gossip in Hobbiton Frodo there had begun pulling over stools and chairs to climb upon to watch his parents writing, so one evening Drogo pulled him onto his lap and let him try his own hand at writing with the quill he’d been using. Mostly he does squiggles, but he’s got the idea already one writes left to right, and last night he was copying a couple of letters remarkably well. And Bilbo swears he’s beginning to recognize letters and certain combinations as he sits on Bilbo’s lap as he reads to him.”
Esme looked down into the blue eyes of the child she held. “Are you really writing now, Frodo Baggins?”
“Yes,” he said, lifting his chin. “Like to write.”
“You do?” Esme asked, raising her eyebrows. She looked to Sara and noted he looked as proud as she felt. “That definitely sounds like the stories told of Bilbo all over again. Does he get it from the Baggins or the Took side, do you think?”
“Oh, that’s definitely the Brandybuck coming out in him,” the Master’s Heir said decisively. “Well, I’ll take your bags to your room for you if you’d like to go off and commiserate with my beloved aunt.”
Esme snagged a second sugar cake off the tray, and broke off a piece for the child before taking a bite herself. “Tell you what, Primrose, you go on and tell Primula I have her son and intend to spoil him terribly, but will be there within the hour. I’ll help Sara take our bags to our room and put everything away.”
“All right,” Primrose said, having finished her cake and pouring herself a mug of soft cider to take with her. “I’ll do that, then.” Taking her mug in one hand and another cake in the other, she went through the open door, headed back to the Baggins apartments at the back of the smial while Esme and Frodo finished their shared cake.
“Hello, Esme,” Primula said as she approached the weeping willow under which Esme was sitting, reading with Frodo. “So, here he is. I swear, from the moment you arrive at Brandy Hall if I don’t find my son I can count on him being with you.” She looked down at the lad. “I’m going to swim in the river, Frodo. Want to come with me?”
Frodo was up in an instant, the book forgotten, his eyes alight with pleasure. “Yes, Mummy. It’s hot! I want to swim with you!”
Frodo was five and a half now, almost six; and tall for his age, a somewhat slender yet sturdy child with dark curls, a fine, light complexion, and eyes that were always wide with interest. As Primmie reached out her hand he reached up and took it gladly, and Esme found herself wishing it were her child taking her hand. But just then Cousin Rory was approaching with Sara and Paladin and Bilbo.
“I thought we might find you here,” Rory said. “Almost the first time I’ve been able to see you, Esme lass, since you arrived. And little Frodo was with you this time, was he? Usually I find just him and he tells me you just went off to the privy or to visit the Bunces or Carnation or something. Although I’ve noted that when I can’t find you I can’t seem to find Sara, either.”
Esme realized that Saradoc was flushing as much as she was. He might be four, almost five years younger than she was, but he was a fine figure of a Hobbit, and most responsible, after all. And the two of them had realized in the last two years or so that they had a good deal in common.
But she’d not truly been aware that Frodo was sending folks off in wrong directions during the times she and Sara were talking, holding hands, or quietly kissing. She cast a quick glance at the child, and he secretly gave her an impudent wink before reverting to a perfectly innocent expression when his mother looked down inquiringly into his eyes.
Oh, Frodo Baggins, she thought as she considered the lad. Now everyone would think she and Sara were putting him up to covering for them!
Two days after the meeting under the willow tree Esme was roused from bed shortly after midnight by Cousin Asphodel. “Esme--could Sara bring Frodo up here? It appears that Primmie’s losing another bairn.”
“No!” she said, sitting up in bed. “I didn’t even know she was expecting again!”
“She’d not told anyone as yet save Drogo. He came hurrying up here a few minutes ago calling for Menegilda and Poppea, although we’ll be taking Beldir down with us as well. Sara’s going down with us, and will bring Frodo back to the Hall. But it appears we might need someone to care for him for a couple days while Primula deals with this loss.
It was slightly over a half hour before Saradoc arrived carrying Frodo. The child didn’t appear unduly upset, although he was apparently furious that his Brandybuck cousin wasn’t answering questions. “Auntie Esme,” he said as he was carried into the Took parlor, “Uncle Sara won’t tell me why I have to come up here to the Hall!”
She reached out to take him into her lap. “It’s your mummy, dearling,” she said as she sought to settle him against her. “She--she became ill tonight, and your daddy’s worried and wants to be certain nobody forgets about you as they try to help your mummy get well again.”
“But she needs me to be there. She says I always make her feel better!”
“And you do, sweetling--no question about that. You’ll most likely go back again tomorrow; but right now they’re doing too much to try to help your mummy, and until it’s past the crisis there will be folk all over the place boiling water and fixing draughts for her and changing bedding for her. You remember how it was last spring when you ate those eels that hadn’t been cooked properly and you kept throwing up and had all those sweats and all, how many times they had to bring you the chamberpot to be sick in and to change your sheets and blankets and pillowslips, or give you baths?” At his reluctant nod she said, “It will be like that for your mother tonight, and maybe part of tomorrow--perhaps longer.”
Frodo was plainly thinking this through. At last he raised his chin, saying, “I could clean the chamberpot for her.”
Sara gave a tired laugh. “I’m certain you could--but your Uncle Dinodas will see to that--he’s had lots of practice at it, after all. No, you’ll stay here and we’ll see about having Cousin Carnation bring Brendi for you to play with. I think I heard she wanted to go to the Bridge Market to get some fabric, and that will be boring for Brendi, for you know how long it takes her to decide on fabric.”
“We won’t have to play with Gomez, will we?” Frodo asked.
Sara and Esme exchanged glances. “Not if you don’t want to,” Esme assured him. “Why don’t you want to play with Gomez?”
“He doesn’t like to play what we like to play--he likes to boss folks, and so he likes to play with Freddy Oldbuck instead, for Freddy doesn’t mind being bossed.”
“I see,” Sara said wryly. “No, I don’t suppose Freddy Oldbuck minds being bossed at all.
“But for now,” Esme said, “we’d best go back to bed so you won’t be tired when Brendi joins us in the morning.” She yawned widely, and was amused to see how quickly Frodo did the same.
When Frodo went back to his parents’ smial the following evening, it was after the word had gone through Brandy Hall that indeed Primula had managed to lose a third child, another son. Esme, watching from the door where she stood with Sara beside her, his arm around her shoulder, saw how Frodo walked beside his father as the two of them went back down toward River Place together, how they were obviously talking, until Drogo reached down and lifted the child onto his shoulders.
No one was surprised when, a month after Saradoc Brandybuck came of age, he and Esmeralda Took were married, or that Frodo Baggins carried the flowers before the bride at their wedding. That Primula Baggins and Eglantine Took both attended the bride while Drogo and Paladin attended the groom was a bit more of a surprise; but all knew how close the Whitwell Tooks and the Master’s family were to the Bagginses. Menegilda shone with satisfaction, and as old Rory saw the laying together of their hands he was plainly proud. But meanwhile Thain Ferumbras watched between Adalgrim and old Bilbo, apparently not certain whether he ought to be relieved not to have to perform the wedding or insulted not to have been asked.
“I tell you, Esme--I won’t go back there again or allow Frodo anywhere near Lobelia Sackville-Baggins, the old cow! That she could say such a thing!”
“I should hope not, Primmie. To noise it about that Frodo is really Bilbo’s son----I ask you!”
Frodo burst into the parlor of the apartment where his family stayed when they visited Brandy Hall, Brendilac behind him. “Mummy, Uncle Bilbo’s arrived and says he’s got her back and she won’t say such a thing again. But we’re not going back now, are we?”
“Certainly not, Frodo.”
“Good. I don’t want you to cry like that again, and every time we see her she does her best to make you cry.”
Esme was impressed by the lad’s caring for his mother’s feelings.
The flood when Frodo was eight years of age was particularly troubling, especially as it was this time generally known that once again Primula and Drogo Baggins were trying for a successful pregnancy. All were relieved when the spotting the night the flood drove the Bagginses out of River Place led to nothing; it was more of a shock when a few days later once again Primula miscarried, just when all looked as if this time Frodo would gain a brother or sister at last.
Esme came to the smial that night to assist Drogo, Bilbo, and her young cousin Isumbard who’d come with Bilbo to care for Primula, who was heartbroken to have lost still another child--a daughter this time, and Frodo, who’d fainted away on seeing how white and still his mother was and how she was doing nothing but shedding silent tears and holding her husband’s hands as she lay in their bed.
Esme sat by Frodo’s bed that night, stroking the child’s dark hair when he grew restless in his sleep, with Primula’s soft words echoing in her heart, “But we only wanted another. As delightful as it has been raising Frodo, it would have been so wonderful to have a second.”
A year later it was Primula who sat by her bed, come from the new Baggins hole in Whitfurrow, stroking Esme’s hair as she wept, having lost the first child she’d conceived. Primula’s face was pale but compassionate, and there was no question in Esme’s heart or mind that the older Hobbitess knew exactly the grief and disappointment Esme herself felt. And two years later, when Esme lost her second child, it was again to Primula Brandybuck Baggins she turned for comfort as Frodo brought her flowers he’d gathered and drawings he’d done.
But Esmeralda was going Took-stubborn herself--she’d try once more at least, until she had a living child to hold in her arms--that she was determined on.
Esmeralda looked back toward Frodo’s room. “You’re certain you don’t want me to stay with him this evening?”
Primula sighed. “Whatever for, Esme? We’ve done this dozens of times, and will be back in three hours at the most. We’re only going to drift down the Brandywine from north of the Hall to the bay where we all go to swim just south of it, after all. And it’s not as if he were a faunt needing watching all the time--Frodo’s a most responsible lad, you know.”
“I know. But it’s worrisome to think of you out there right now, what with the reports of some odd creature having been seen along the river bank.”
“But look who reported it--Deloc Oldbuck, who hasn’t taken a sober breath in years. You don’t really think he saw a strange Hobbit-like creature in the water last week under a quarter moon, do you?”
Esme shook her head. “He certainly didn’t act drunk this time, Primmie.”
“We’ll be fine, Esme. And you know Frodo will be fine as well.”
“All right, if you’re certain. You’re going out to the dock to meet Drogo then?”
“Yes--he went ahead to take the pillow and rug and blanket, and make certain the rowboat is dry. I almost have him convinced to try one last time for a little sister or brother for Frodo.”
But the older Hobbitess only laughed as she drew her younger cousin out of the Baggins apartments and closed the door behind her.
The next morning Frodo came to first breakfast alone, a distracted air to him. Esme smiled at him as he took his place at the children’s table next to Brendilac, who was also old enough now to sit apart from his parents when they ate in the communal dining room rather than in their own apartments. Apparently his parents were having a lie-in, she thought indulgently. Maybe they were actively working once more on producing that new little brother or sister for the lad.
But instead of reaching for the bowl of porridge, Frodo was talking intently to Brendi, who looked startled and appeared to be advising him on some subject. Then the two of them were standing up and heading for Marmadas. Marmadas shrugged and appeared to be placating the lad, and at last reluctantly accompanied Frodo and Brendi toward where Merimac was entering the dining hall. Mac, however, looked anything but placating once he’d listened to Frodo, and he turned the lad toward the table where Esme and her husband sat side by side, shepherding Frodo with an expression of concern on his face.
“What is it, Mac?” Esme asked.
It was Frodo who answered, “It’s my mum and dad--do you know where they are? Did they get up early and go out to the ponies? Dad was speaking of getting me a pony from the stable here so I can learn to ride.”
Esmeralda could feel the tension fill her husband even as she fought not to sound too alarmed and frighten her young cousin. “I’m not certain, dearling. I think we’d best speak to the Master and Mistress and see if they know.
Rory’s face went white, and Menegilda looked stricken. Rory looked at his younger son and his cousin. “Did they speak to you about looking over the ponies this morning, son?” the Master asked Mac.
“No--Drogo asked if he might speak with me this afternoon. And Primula was hinting when we visited them in Whitfurrow last month that I ought to perhaps be looking for a pony for Frodo.”
All the adults looked at one another as Rory rose, setting aside his napkin. “Ask Dodinas and Dinodas to assemble the river wardens,” he directed. “Who was on door ward duty last night, Marmadas?”
“Brendi’s father here; but they would have come in the south door last night as they usually do after one of their floats under the stars.”
Rory was exchanging looks with Mac and Sara, and Esme felt her heart grow cold. She rose and came to Frodo’s side, laying her arm about his shoulders. “They’ll send folks to look for them. We’ll go into the Master’s parlor and have your meal sent there.”
“But I’m not hungry, Aunt Esme--I want my parents! Do you think anything is wrong?”
She wanted to say No, but knew from long experience that she must not lie to Frodo, that he’d see through a lie right away. “I don’t know,” she finally answered. “It’s not like them not to be there for you in the morning. But we’ll find out--I swear we’ll find out. Now--to the Master’s parlor.”
Reluctantly he allowed himself to be led that way.
It was somewhat after an hour that Marmadas came in, his face white and strained and leaned down to whisper in Gilda’s ear. Frodo, who’d been sitting on the hearthstone staring into the empty grate of the fireplace, turned and looked at him, and was noting as well as Esme did how pale his aunt had gone. “I’ll come--there may be something we can do,” the Mistress was saying. But he was shaking his head.
With no word to anyone else in the room they swept out together, and after a moment Mistress Poppea the midwife hurried in. “Frodo, you are to remain here, do you hear? It’s the Master’s and Mistress’s orders.”
Frodo had already risen and had his hands clenched at his sides. “What is it? Did you find them? Are they all right?”
Poppea looked uncertainly at Esme, who approached her young cousin and knelt before him, taking his wrists in her hands. “Frodo--I don’t know for certain, and I doubt Mistress Poppea does either; but it appears there may have been an accident of some kind. They’re going to be very busy, you realize--very busy indeed. They can’t worry about you and do what needs doing.”
“What kind of accident? They might have fallen in the river? But my mother can swim like an otter--everyone knows that!”
“But your dad can’t, and everyone knows that, too. If they’re stranded on the little island south of the Hall....”
“But I can handle a rowboat--I could row out and get them!”
“No, you couldn’t,” Poppea argued. “Not if they’re that far south, lad. The current by the island is very quick and strong, and it takes a grown Hobbit with some experience to row out to it, this time of year. Now, you stay here where you’re out of the way and we know where to come with word--once we’re certain what’s happened.”
It was a time longer before Saradoc came in with his mother, both of them obviously filled with grief. They gestured Poppea to them, and Esme and Frodo could both hear occasional words--boat, empty, petticoats. They heard Poppea’s cry of grief, and at last the two of them came to where Esme stood with her arm protectively around Frodo’s shoulders. Saradoc sank onto the arm of the chair nearest them, his shoulders slumped, but he looked the lad in the eyes. “I’m sorry, Frodo. We don’t know how, but somehow----” He stopped and swallowed, then tried again. “Somehow the boat turned over. We found your mother, down in the bay where the boat always fetched up, near the boat itself. The boat was upside down, and your mother--she was washed up on the little beach there. She--she drowned, Frodo.”
“She can’t have!” the lad said, disbelieving. “She can’t have--she knew how to swim!”
“It appears she came up under the boat and struck her head, Frodo. She was stunned, and there’s no question she drowned.”
Frodo looked to be a statue made of white chalk, his face with no color at all. At last Esme asked, “And Drogo?”
Sara was shaking his head. “We haven’t found him yet. We have no idea where he is--not yet.”
“The island....” Frodo whispered.
“Dodinas is heading there now, lad. We’re looking for him.”
But it was late the following day, an uncommonly hot day the end of April, before Mac came running up to the main door to the Hall from the south with word for Rory, and an hour later before the party could be seen far to the south carrying a litter amongst them.
Menegilda went out, turning to Mac and some of the older lads. “Make certain Frodo doesn’t go outside. This isn’t something a lad this young should see.”
Frodo was furious when they wouldn’t let him go meet those who were coming, but after Mac ordered him to go back to the Master’s parlor he went pale and quiet. He turned obediently, but as he left the room he grabbed Brendilac’s shoulder. Esme watched after. “Good, then Brendi will help keep him calmed down.
Mac looked at several of the older Hobbits present. “Make certain he doesn’t go out. If Drogo was in the water all night, he won’t likely look at all like himself. We don’t want Frodo horrified.”
Those standing about nodded. “We won’t let any of the children go out if we can help it,” agreed one of the fathers who’d joined the group.
Esme herself went out with Mac as the small procession came up toward the lawn before the Hall, arriving at her husband’s mother’s side just as the litter bearers came within hailing distance. She looked at the litter and felt sick, for Mac had been all too right about what would be seen. The body was badly bloated, and nothing could be seen of just how handsome Drogo Baggins had been in life. Clutching her fist to her mouth to keep from retching, Esme turned away--to see Frodo coming from the north end of the smial, followed closely by Brendi. “Did they find my----” he began, then stopped by her side, looking with shock at the contents of the litter.
His face went beyond chalk--was grey, his mouth open with the last unsaid word, his eyes wide and staring. He appeared to be having trouble breathing; his lips went blue; and as his eyes rolled up Frodo Baggins collapsed in a heap at her feet as Menegilda shrilled, “Who let the child through the doors?”
Esme sat by the pallet fixed for Frodo in the Master’s office, near the open door to the Master’s parlor, listening to the argument raging between Menegilda and Bilbo. Frodo, who’d been given a sleeping draught by Master Beldir, was deeply asleep, hopefully unaware of the heated words passing between the Mistress of Brandy Hall and the Master of Bag End.
“You had no business taking the lad to the burial grounds, Bilbo Baggins. Who knows how far you might have set him back. He has a whispering in his heart--Beldir’s told you and I’ve told you. The shock of seeing his father’s body that way was more than he could bear--it almost killed him!”
“I’ve been speaking with Laurel Chubbs in Hobbiton about hearts--she’s worked with the Boffins for years, you know, and is quite aware of how the heart can fail. She says that it’s likely not that bad, and shouldn’t be permanent. She says it’s not uncommon in children early born, but that they usually outgrow it by the time they’re eighteen or so. But I’ll wager that you and Esme and probably some of the others present were also on the verge of fainting or retching--or both, until the shock of seeing Frodo do so first snapped you out of it!”
Esme found herself almost smiling, for she knew that Bilbo’s last supposition was all too right. Certainly the first thing Frodo had done on regaining consciousness had been to lose the entire contents of his stomach, not that he’d eaten all that much to begin with; but no one else had followed through on their own impulses to do likewise.
He’d been quiet over the last few days, but had appeared at the door when the family gathered to go to the burial grounds neatly dressed, ready to accompany them. Menegilda had explained he would be staying in the Hall with Mistress Poppea and Willow and his Uncle Dodinas, and wouldn’t be attending his parents’ funeral.
“But they’re my parents!” he’d begun, but his aunt shook her head.
“They’re your parents, but right now you are our responsibility, and you’ve already suffered one major shock--we won’t see you suffer another.”
Bilbo was apparently delayed at the Bucklebury Ferry, and Esme hoped that once he arrived he’d agree to stay in the Hall with the lad and distract his attention from what was happening in the burial grounds. However, not long after the last of the family arrived from the Brandywine Bridge and all was ready to begin, there was a stir from the area closest to the Hall as Bilbo made his way through the crowd with his arm about Frodo’s shoulders.
Frodo had remained quiet and filled with dignity as he saw the wide coffin that had been made to hold both of the married couple carefully lowered into the grave, and as their closest family he went forth first with his handful of earth and a wreath of flowers he’d been weaving that morning. Bilbo followed after, ignoring the glare Gilda gave him as she and Rory stepped forward to honor Primula as he was honoring Drogo. Then it was Dora who came forward with Dudo’s arm about her while Amaranth and Dinodas also made their tributes followed by Asphodel and her family.
Frodo had remained quiet throughout the meal that followed the funeral, and agreed both to retire early and to accept Beldir’s draught; and now the long-delayed storm had broken.
“But it’s my right and duty as his family head of name....”
“Face it, Bilbo--you’re not a young Hobbit any more for all you still don’t look a day over sixty. You can’t be expected to keep up....”
“Nonsense--I cared for him as an infant and changed his nappies....”
“...needs a mother’s hand....”
“What do you mean a mother’s hand? You don’t think you can keep up with him any better than I could?”
“...And there’s the matter of reputation to consider....”
“No one of any sense listens to Lobelia’s twaddle!”
“No? Then why did Drogo bring Primula here from Hobbiton?”
“They’d have done better to have remained and brazened it through, you realize.”
“Well, it’s not twaddle that you left the Shire without a word and were gone for a year and a day, Bilbo Baggins!”
“We can give him so many advantages....”
“And you think I couldn’t provide for him properly? Really, Menegilda Goold!”
In the end Gilda won out, but only under condition that Bilbo be allowed to visit frequently and take Frodo along on his rambles throughout Buckland and the Marish, and that he be allowed to send what he wished to Frodo and the lad be allowed to receive it. And the ones chosen to serve as Frodo’s foster parents would be Saradoc and Esmeralda. “At least I know they’ll be more concerned with his happiness than with trying to wrap him up in wool batting--try that and you’ll most likely kill the boy.”
Esmeralda looked back at the child lying on the pallet and brushed an errant curl from his forehead. He was hers now, for the next few years, at least. Her first child now. And one day there’d be another, one of her own, to be as little brother to him.
But what a way to find herself a mother, at the loss of one of her favorite cousins, the cousin all had loved so dearly.
“Oh, Frodo-mine,” she whispered, “I’ll do my best to see to it that nothing ever hurts you like that again, I promise dearling, upon all that’s good and right in this world. Never again should you suffer.”
And as he lay there, he seemed to shine somewhat in the growing dark in the room. A special one to whom she’d be a second mother. Again she stroked his brow, smiling at him.