Esme was leaving her consultation with Willow and the rest who worked in the kitchens regarding the meal planned for Master Rory’s birthday when pangs hit her and she found herself rushing to the nearest privy, the one most commonly used by those who worked in the sculleries and kitchens. There were partitions between the three stools that served those who used the room, with partial doors to offer a modicum of privacy; Esme, as was her usual habit, sought out the furthest stall as that was least likely to be pushed upon by those coming into the room, latching the door with relief. Ever since little Merry’s birth she’d been experiencing such difficulties whenever she’d eaten tomatoes, and she realized she might need to remain in here for some time yet.
She felt she was nearly able to leave again when she heard the outer door open and the voices of at least two Hobbitesses entering the room.
“...And it’s too bad for the wee lambkin, if’n you ask me,” one was saying as the speaker entered the middle stall and pulled the door closed after her.
“And who are you calling ‘wee,’ Marigold? He’s the tallest lad of his age in the Hall, you know. Taller’n some of those a year or two older’n himself, he is, too.”
“But he’s so thin, he is. It’s not natural for a lad of his years to be so thin. He come in and asked if’n there was aught as he could do, and I had him helpin’ to pare the taters until the Mistress comes in, and then if Willow didn’t tell’im to get along with’im, makin’ him leave the tater as he was peelin’ behind along with the knife for me to finish up. Now, if’n it had been that Gomez, he’d of done a bad job of it from the start so’s to get Willow angry at’im and mayhaps send him on his way; but not young Master Frodo--doesn’t waste the tater itself, he doesn’t, but if he don’t do a right job of gettin’ off all the peel! And as sweet a child as one could hope for, he is. But the other lads, they treat’im somethin’ awful when none of the grownups is lookin’ their way.”
“Maybe if he wasn’t such a mam’s lad----” began the second voice, but Marigold cut her off.
“If’n that Frodo Baggins is a mam’s lad, it’s certainly not his choice,” Marigold’s voice said stiffly. “Give’im his head and he’d be all lad, you just watch’n’ see if’n I’m not right. Oh, I’m not sayin’ as he wouldn’t still be a’readin’ all them books and a’tellin’ of his tales to the little’uns--that’s but his nature after all--loves faunts, he does--always has. But he was always the best one for a’runnin’ in the races back in Whitfurrow afore his parents died, he was. And a worker? Was always a’helpin’ his folks about the hole. He’d help his dad carry in lumber for his chests and wardrobes, would polish the windows and the doorknob, would trundle the barrow through the garden for his mum and carry water for her flowers and vegetables, would fetch things from the market.
“And he was always doin’ nice things for us as lived thereabouts, he was--helpin’ the farmlads stone the birds away from the fields, helpin’ the older lasses fetch the clothes back if’n the wind come up and blew’em off the hedges or lines, carryin’ gifts of food for them as was ailin’. He taught my little brother how to blow a tune through grass stems, and used to help me fetch in the three milk cows as we had and get the first in the stanchion. Used to help the Goold lass sweep their dooryard and fetch in the wood for the fire, and old Widow Sweetwater--he come twice a day to fetch in her water, he did, for she was too bent over with achin’ joints to do it for herself no more. My brother Nick does it now, he does--my dad sees to it. Says as if’n young Master Frodo felt as it wasn’t beneath him, least as we could do would be to help other folks as need a helpin’ hand.
“But here?” Her voice was becoming scathing. “I hate to speak ill of the Mistress, for she’s among the finest as is in most ways; but this insistence on not allowin’ Master Frodo to do aught as might be hard is just too bad. I’m tellin’ you as it goes completely against his nature.”
Esmeralda heard the water bucket left by the stool in the next stall being hefted and poured in to rinse things away, then the latch being released as Marigold went out to refill the bucket at the privy pump and replace it again by the stool. Then she heard water being poured into the basin on the marble-topped dresser. As Marigold scrubbed her hands and arms she resumed, “He loves his aunts ’n’ uncles and all, but if’n they don’t stop tryin’ to protect him from life itself he’ll waste away. That’un was born to help folks, not to be served as if he was a prince in a storybook.”
With that she finished her scrubbing, and a minute later she could be heard pouring the contents of the basin into the waste bucket, which later in the day would be carried out to pour over the closest flower bed. Then the door opened and closed once more as the other two went out. To make sure they didn’t realize she’d overheard them, Esmeralda remained in her stall for at least five more minutes, thinking deeply.
“Ooh--look!” Esme and Dodiroc stopped their trimming back of the rose bushes to listen to what Gomez was saying. “If it isn’t the mam’s lad actually doing some work for a change.”
Boridoc, eager to follow Gomez’s lead, leapt in. “What happened, Frodo? The Mistress let you off her lap today? And what are you doing there to that flower bed? You think as you know the difference between pill bugs and ladybirds?” Several lads laughed at that sally.
“What’s wrong, orphan?” taunted Gomez. “Or has your loving auntie forbade you speaking any more?”
Esme wasn’t certain what Frodo said in response, but it sounded as if Bilbo had taught the lad some particularly rude words in Dwarvish. She found herself smiling slightly.
“What was it as you said, Baggins? Or are you afraid to say it in plain words as we can all understand?” Gomez’s tone was threatening.
“I said that you have the manners of a troll, Gomez Brandybuck.” From the tone of voice, Esme judged that Frodo must have stood up to face the other lads. His tone was wary, but not fearful.
“You want as I should remind you what happens to mam’s lads here about the Hall, orphan? Seems as if having your head stuck down the privy last week ought to have taught you a lesson on how not to speak to your betters.”
Esme straightened in fury and started to turn, only to have her shoulder grabbed by Dodiroc, who served as the main gardener for Brandy Hall. “No, Mistress Esmeralda,” he said in a soft voice. “Young Frodo won’t thank you for interfering--it will make it appear he can’t handle things himself.”
“But I can’t let them stuff his head down the privy!” she hissed back.
“Do you want him to lose all pride in himself, Mistress? It’s bad enough he’s not allowed to help do much of anything most days. Better fifty times with his head in the privy than to look as if he needs to have a lass fight his battles for him!”
“You think I don’t know how he feels, Missus Esme?” he whispered between stiffened lips. “Fifteen years ago, that was me.” He let go of her shoulder and turned back to his own pruning, giving her a last warning look.
Dodiroc was anything but a handsome Hobbit, being among the plainest of all the Brandybucks. For the first time Esme, who’d spent most of her own childhood on the farm in Whitwell, began to appreciate what it was like for those dwelling in the great smials who lived on the fringes of society, and found herself feeling ashamed. Still she strained her ears to hear what was happening the other side of the hedge, but it appeared the lads had all gone off and forced Frodo to go with them.
She was sitting in his room when Frodo finally came in, his hair wet as if he’d held it under of the pump in the stable yard, his shirt badly stained, with at least one button missing and the collar torn, a smear of filth still clinging to his left temple. He stopped at the sight of her sitting in his cushioned chair, his expression wary. She examined the state of his shirt, then asked, “Is that what happened to your brown shirt that’s missing from your wardrobe, Frodo? You threw it away after they tried to put you down a privy?”
He gave her a sidelong look and then turned away. “It’s my affair,” he said as he pulled his braces from his shoulders and began stripping off his filthy shirt.
“How many times have they done this, Frodo?” she asked.
He turned to look at her, and she could see a bruise on his shoulder and another, older one on his upper right arm. “I won’t have you telling on them, Aunt Esme,” he said quietly and with a surprising amount of authority for a lad of fifteen. “If you do, it will only make things worse--much worse. It will look as if I’ve tattled on them and begged to be rescued. I have to settle it myself.”
“But when there are so many against just the one of you....”
He suddenly gave a partial smile. “Not just me, this time. Freddy Oldbuck came along from Kingsbridge and Brendi with him, and they made them stop.”
The Oldbucks had purchased a dry goods shop on the square near the Brandywine Bridge with quarters behind it for their family to live in, and Fred spent three days a week there helping in the shop, and the rest of the week at the Hall where he continued in his studies under Master Tumnus, learning how to keep a ledger and write out bills and receipts and a proper letter. After all, one day that shop would be his.
Esme considered. There had been a time when Freddy Oldbuck would have done anything suggested by Gomez Brandybuck, but apparently that had changed, at least in part, since Frodo had saved him from drowning a few years ago. That Freddy would stick up for the lad who’d braved the current and kept him from being swept away by the Brandywine was heartening; and there was no way that Brendi would side with anyone against Frodo, who remained his best friend. “So, being helped by other lads is acceptable, where it’s not if it’s by the grown Hobbits, eh?”
He gave a slow nod. “That’s right,” he said quietly. “When it’s other lads we’re all equal. If I had you or Uncle Sara or the Master and Mistress settle it, it wouldn’t really be settled, you see.”
“All right--I won’t interfere, not this time, Frodo. However, I need to know if it happens again. Allowing folks who tend to bully to continue to do so only makes it worse in the long run, dearling. I’ll promise not to take it any further as long as it appears that with Brendi and Freddy’s support things are indeed getting better. But I won’t allow them to hurt you--or anyone else. Do you understand, Frodo Baggins?” At his reluctant nod she added, “And I do need you to agree to tell me if they do it again, I need that promise, Frodo, for if they’ll do it to you, they’ll do it to others as well.”
He went rather pale, and stiffened somewhat. “You think so, Aunt?”
She gave a slow nod of her own. “Don’t think, dearling, that I haven’t had my own run-ins with bullies. There are always bullies, you’ll find. They have to know someone, somewhere, will stop them, at least once in a while, before they’ll realize they can’t do it to everyone.” She rose and crossed to him, setting her hand on his uninjured shoulder, and examined the other. “I’ll go fetch some arnica and see if we can’t have this new bruise heal a bit quicker than that one,” and she indicated that on his arm. She leaned down to kiss the top of his head, and suddenly he put his arm about her, something he’d not done for several months.
“Thank you, Aunt,” he murmured softly, pressing his head against her shoulder. “Thank you for understanding.”
And feeling warmer than she had for a time concerning his welfare, Esmeralda smiled down as she said softly but decisively, “I love you, Frodo Baggins.”
At the summons from young Horto, who often served as the door warden any more, Esme hurried to the entrance hall to greet Bilbo. The Baggins was just surrendering his walking stick and pack to a smiling Dinodas, and turned to greet her as she approached. “Esmeralda, my dear lass--how fine you look! And where are the lads?”
“Frodo’s down at the bay on the river in charge of the swimmers, and Dahlia has taken Merry to where he can watch the older children swimming, although if I know my son he’ll manage to slip away from her and strip himself and throw himself into the midst of everything. The bairn is fascinated by it all and totally fearless in the water. But didn’t you pass them as you came from the Ferry?”
Bilbo shook his head. “No--I came by way of the Bridge this time.”
“Well, come with me to the Master’s parlor and I’ll send off for some cold meats and cheese and rolls----” She began to lead him away from those who’d crowded the entrance to greet the old Hobbit.
“Actually,” he said in a soft voice pitched for her alone, “I’d wanted to speak with you alone first.
She examined his face, then gave a nod. Turning toward Dinodas she asked, “Would you mind, Dino, taking Bilbo’s things to his room for him before you join us?” She turned back toward Bilbo. “Sara and Mac are meeting with the stable staff about which ponies will race at the Free Fair this year, while Mother Gilda and Da Rory have gone to Crickhollow to spend some time with Snapdragon and Ambergris. Did you get the letter I sent you about what happened to their son?”
“Yes. Is he recovering?”
“Yes, but his right leg where the tree lay on him so long isn’t likely to ever fully heal.” They continued speaking on the subject until they reached the parlor, went in, and closed the door behind them.
Now that they were, for the moment at least, alone, Bilbo turned toward her. “What I saw of him when we were all at the Great Smial for Lalia’s birthday two months ago indicated that the boy is probably being bullied. There was a--defensiveness--in the way he was standing as some of the lads at the Great Smial approached him. Am I right, Esmeralda?”
She searched his eyes for a moment before giving a slight nod. “Yes, although he’s handling it. You see, he insists on handling it himself--he swears that if he lets us interfere it will only make things worse for him.”
“Is it bad?”
She gave a deep, shuddering sigh before answering, “Apparently they’ve put his head down the privy a time or two, or at least that was what he’d admit to.” She saw the anger and pain growing in his eyes and hastened to add, “Although both he and Dodiroc insist that it’s far better he go through that fifty times than to let--to let a lass or a grownup fight his battles for him.”
Bilbo looked down thoughtfully, his face stiff. Finally he asked, “Is it that Gomez leading the pack? And with Freddy following right behind him?”
“Actually, it’s not Freddy following behind--it’s Boridoc instead. You see, the Oldbucks have moved out of the Hall to a place of their own in Kingsbridge.”
“I know that!” he snapped. “None better, as it’s my money that financed the purchase of the shop for his folks. Although you’re not to tell them or anyone else, mind. But the lad was to continue taking lessons here--that was part of the bargain, for he’s actually quite bright from what Frodo has always told me and will do best if he’s given a chance to expand his mind a bit more before he follows his parents into business.”
She found herself smiling with satisfaction. “So, you’re the mysterious silent partner, are you? And giving the lad a chance to be separated from his dad part of the week? Brilliant! Heaven knows his dad is thick as a plank--it will be Cousin Ariel who will really run the shop, you know. But anyway, in this case Freddy’s not following Gomez at all, not at all, at all. In fact, he and Brendi are siding with Frodo, and when Gomez thought to try something a week ago Horto, who’s admittedly a bit older than the others being a tween and all, caught them at it and came and stood behind Frodo as well. I was a bit surprised when Horto told me about it, but he says that considering what Frodo faces daily from Gilda he admires Frodo’s grit and determination and the way he finds of doing his part as he can and as he’s allowed. Said he didn’t say a word, just came and stood behind our lad and Brendi and Freddy, and Gomez backed right down. And when I finally was able to get Frodo alone he was almost shining. Admitted that Gomez had tried something, but that now another older lad had come in on his side and that Gomez had thought twice of it after all.”
Bilbo’s expression had been softening into an increasingly appreciative grin throughout her narrative until she was done. “Now,” he breathed, shaking his head in admiration, “if that isn’t our wise one indeed! Brilliant--he’s not fighting Gomez with the same weapons and strategy, but winning his allies away from him, one at a time, with his integrity! Valar be praised! And you say he’s keeping you apprised but not allowing you to interfere? Shows he has full appreciation of how his enemy’s mind works!”
“Bilbo--Gomez is no enemy--he’s just a lad....”
But the old Hobbit was shaking his head. “Someone who seeks to dominate another is an enemy, whether Man, goblin, or Hobbit, Esme. And is he finally allowed to do something worth doing around here?”
“Yes--Dodiroc and I have him helping some with the gardens, and I’ve given word to Willow and Hawthorn he’s to be allowed to help as he offers, and to ignore the Mistress as best as they’re able. Dino and Dodi are having him help them as well; and even Sara’s having him copy out circulars and straighten out the account books. While Mac, every chance he gets, has him helping with the beasts, although Gilda has made them all swear not to take him amongst the ponies for some reason I can’t begin to fathom.”
“And is he still taking lessons with Asphodel?”
She hesitated a bit, then finally admitted, “No, he’s not done a great deal of drawing for a time. Gomez, apparently, was teasing him pretty strongly about being a mam’s lad, and I believe he felt that it would be better to not do things that made him appear that way.”
There was a definite set to Bilbo’s jaw. Finally he said, “It appears young Gomez has some definite and rigid ideas as to what constitutes being a mam’s lad, doesn’t he? I think he could do well with a bit of a comeuppance.” His nose twitched slightly, and he reached forward to rub at it with the back of his hand. Then he smiled. “Perhaps a few stories from my dissolute youth might be in order to spark our boy’s imagination....”
Esme found herself looking at him rather askance.
Esme moved close to her older cousin and murmured, “Bilbo, what in Middle Earth has happened? Frodo is----” At that point words failed her, for she knew none to describe her foster son.
“Exalted? Transcendent?” suggested Bilbo, obviously amused, although when she looked at him she realized he, too, was somehow--well, brighter seemed the one word her own brain could grasp at. Dahlia’s face was also almost glowing with suppressed excitement and perhaps even a level of awe; and even little Merry’s eyes where shining particularly brightly, tiny faunt that he was.
Esme looked back at Frodo--whatever had happened while he and Bilbo were gone on their picnic, accompanied by Merry and his young nursemaid, it had the teen all but floating through the Great Hall, his attention apparently still fixed on the memory of some bright vision he’d known but recently.
“He finally met an Elf!” Bilbo murmured quietly in her ear. “Lindir of Imladris, from the household of Lord Elrond, found us while we were on our picnic, and came to speak to us. He had some documents and a map to give me,” he added, and she noted he did indeed have a particularly graceful bag of woven grasses slung over his shoulder that he’d surely not carried when the four of them had left. He looked after Frodo as the lad drifted blithely toward the corridor to the kitchens with the great basket in which their meal had been sent and gave a shake to his head. “Frodo saw him first, and he just went silent and began to glow as brightly as Lindir himself. Lindir was amused and even somewhat flattered, I think. So many mortals respond by growing frightened or suspicious, but not our lad. No, I fear our Frodo is meant to mix freely with Elves.”
Something in the tone in which he made that last statement caught at her attention, and she found herself turning to examine his face. Was there the slightest hint of apprehension there in his expression, behind the satisfaction?
Frodo had gone off with some of the younger children to tell stories in the children’s hall, leaving his various older cousins to accompany Uncle Rory and Aunt Gilda to the Master’s parlor after Highday luncheon. Looking over his shoulder at the group of lads and lasses surrounding the taller figure of Frodo as they disappeared down the passage, Saradoc commented, “He appears to be relatively free of trouble. He, Brendi, and Freddy at least don’t appear to have been part of the scheme by the other lads, for which I’m grateful.”
Esme, casting her own glance back at them, wasn’t so certain herself. There was just a shade of too much--grace--to Frodo’s surprise at learning that a prank planned by Gomez and Boridoc and their crowd to be played on the stablehobbits had somehow backfired, leaving the group of five lads all covered with whitewash and feathers apparently taken from the bins into which such things were stowed as poultry for the kitchens were being plucked. Esme was certain she’d seen none of the five miscreants anywhere near the storeroom where such things were kept; but she did seem to remember that Freddy and Frodo had volunteered to replace the bin there after the sewing mistress was finished with it after making her last set of pillows and featherbeds.
She glanced at Bilbo, who wasn’t trying very hard to hide the satisfaction that he was feeling.
As Esme opened the letter just delivered to her by Horto she could feel Mother Gilda’s eyes on her. She glanced across the Master’s garden toward where Frodo, Merry in his lap, leaned over one of his books in Elvish with Bilbo, quietly reading it aloud. Beside him lay a carefully tooled portfolio Dodinas had given him two days earlier after he’d begun drawing again, the corners of two of the pictures he’d recently done showing. She smiled--the visit by their older cousin had certainly coincided this time with Frodo regaining much of his natural cheer, and not only was he displaying more color but also he’d finally begun to add a more proper amount of flesh.
She returned her attention to the now opened envelope and pulled out the folded pages within, her brow rising as she read. At last she refolded the sheet and slipped it back within the envelope, returning her gaze to her young cousin and ward thoughtfully.
At last Menegilda demanded, somewhat querulously, Esme thought, “Well, what is it all about? It was from Cousin Lilac, wasn’t it?”
Esme gave a thoughtful nod, then cast a glance at her mother-in-love with an apologetic smile. “It’s an invitation to a house party to be held just after Midsummer there at the second Hornblower estate where she lives.”
“And she’s inviting you and Sara, is she?”
“Oh, we’re invited to attend, also, along with Mac; but the main invitation isn’t for us--it’s for Frodo.”
At mention of his name Frodo’s reading faltered, and she could see identical twitches to not only the lad’s near ear but to Bilbo’s as well, although she noted with amusement that her older cousin was hiding his own interest more skillfully than was the younger one. Even Bilbo, however, was having difficulty completely suppressing a twitch to his lip indicating his satisfaction at this turn of events.
“Frodo?” Menegilda’s voice was filled with surprise. “Why for Frodo?”
“It appears she has determined her granddaughter Phlox is to meet many of those of her cousins closest to her in age, so she is arranging this house party for the lass’s benefit. Also, she has become convinced that all the young folk invited will do well to come to know some of those of their kinfolk they are not likely to have met due to having grown up at a distance from one another.”
Rory smiled. “That sounds a splendid idea,” he said approvingly. “Did she give an indication as to who else is invited?”
Esme shrugged. “She gave a few names--Isumbard, Reginard, and Linden Took, Maligar Bolger, Timono, Bartolo, and Lavinia Bracegirdle, Rico Clayhanger, Ponto’s daughter Angelica and his cousin Delphinium from Overhill as two more Bagginses besides Frodo, Ned Boffin, Embilard North-Took, a Chubb or two, and three other Hornblowers and Longbottoms.”
Merimac’s lip curled into a sardonic grin. “No Sackville-Bagginses, though?”
Esme nodded. “Lobelia will be livid when she realizes her darling lad’s name is conspicuously absent. It appears his reputation is well known already--although with the landholdings his parents have there in the South Farthing and the annual visits Otho and Lobelia make to them it’s only natural even his kindred there have learned to distance themselves.”
Menegilda said, “But of course Frodo won’t be attending....”
Esme was shocked at this assumption, and cast another quick glance Frodo’s way. Neither the lad nor his older cousin had lifted their heads, both pretending to be studying the Elvish text lying between them; but she could see Frodo was peering sideways at her beneath his brows, while Bilbo’s jaw was clenched, and neither was reading aloud at the moment. She shifted her gaze to Sara’s face and saw the look of frustrated surprise he was trying his best to hide from his mother. “The invitation is for us as well as for Frodo,” she commented noncommitally. “Mac, Sara, and I will need to consider it.” She was pleased to see the abashed surprise on Gilda’s face, and the startled approval from Bilbo.
Esme was sewing near the window in one of the front parlors when she heard a young Hobbit clear his throat, and looked up to find Gil looking at her. “Cousin Esme?” he asked. “May I speak to you privately?”
“Is it serious?” she responded.
He shrugged, and sighing she tucked the shirt she was working on back into her bag and the two of them headed for a smaller music room nearby. It was empty at the moment as they went in and Esme decisively closed the door behind them. At last she turned to him. “What is it, Gil?”
He gave a bit of a sigh. “It’s Gomez, and Frodo. Gomez has been making life miserable for the lad for some time, what I can tell. Today Horto and I caught him with Boridoc and three other lads, slightly younger ones than them, surrounding Frodo in out in the orchard. They were picking up many of the hard apples that had fallen from the trees and were starting to throw them at him and were calling him a mam’s lad and--and worse; swearing he’d set them up with that whitewash and those feathers, and they were threatening him. When Horto and I got there it looked rather bad for Frodo, being caught there with no one to back him up and all; but they saw us and backed down, particularly when Horto started pelting them with green apples--he can throw much harder than they can, you know.
“I’m afraid for him, Aunt. Frodo won’t be able to properly protect himself against so many, you know, and he can’t always count on someone showing up to help the way we did today.”
Esmeralda Took Brandybuck felt the alarm that had filled her at first being replaced by resolve. “So, that’s how well Gomez learns, is it?” she said between gritted teeth. “Well, I’ll not have Frodo merely sit around idly waiting for the next blow to take him.”
That evening as the family gathered to eat for a change in the smaller dining room in the Master’s quarters Menegilda’s face was a study in amazement and dismay as Esmeralda announced without preamble that she, Saradoc, and Mac would be taking Frodo and Merry to the Hornblower house party. “It’s about time Frodo got to know many of his more distant cousins,” she said coolly.
Sara’s expression was startled and somewhat relieved and proud, Amaranth was openly approving, and Bilbo’s almost hid the triumph he was feeling. As for Frodo--his was shocked, shocked and somehow hopeful, as if some worry was being lifted.
Later as Esme went searching for Frodo and Bilbo in the gardens she heard the older Hobbit singing, then heard him stop and laugh. “No, lad, right hand to the sole of the left foot, then slap your hands to the outside of your thighs. Let’s try it again, shall we?”
Quietly she peered past the great lilac to see Bilbo give a gesture to Frodo--as Bilbo repeated a phrase of the song he’d been singing before, the two of them stepped forward side by side, together practicing the steps of the Husbandman’s dance.
As the coach pulled up before the doors to the great, rambling house that graced the second Hornblower leaf plantation Esmeralda breathed a sigh of relief. Really, the roads this far south could do with a good deal of repair, she thought. Merry had needed frequent changes in the past day’s journey due to a jounced stomach, and she herself was feeling decidedly sore and extraordinarily dusty.
“Ah--welcome!” Lilac Hornblower was saying as she hurried down from the door with her granddaughter beside her, followed by a number of other teen lads and lasses. She looked up at the box with surprise. “You drove, Merimac my dear? Leaf and pipe! You didn’t think to use a coachman? Oh, and Frodo! How much you’ve grown, sweetling! Keeping your cousin company as he drove, were you? How thoughtful! Jonkenton will take the coach for you and see to the ponies, as soon as we have your chests out, of course.”
Esmeralda felt relief to be aided out of the coach by her equally stiff husband, and even found the bustling of her hostess reassuring.
From her assigned place at the adults’ table Esmeralda peered to see how things went at the table where the younger Hobbits sat together. Frodo looked particularly fine--the suit Bilbo had given him at Midsummer fit him well and became him splendidly, in spite of the obvious discomfort Frodo appeared to feel at being forced to dress more formally than was customary at Brandy Hall. He had been seated between Isumbard Took, whom at least he knew, and a shorter, sallow-faced lad whose eyes were constantly darting around the room, and was seated opposite another older lad who was plainly a Bracegirdle. Phlox sat in the place of honor at this table, Reginard Took on one side of her and a wary-looking lass with auburn hair to her right. Esme turned to Alma Grubbs, who sat near her, and asked, “Who’s the lad sitting beside Frodo?”
“That’s Timono Bracegirdle, Tiercel’s son. I’m not certain why he was invited unless it was out of pity for the lad. His father’s quite mad, I fear, and his mum died in childbed with him. I’m afraid that Lilac feels sorry for him. And that’s Lavinia Bracegirdle there, sitting by Phlox. She’s a sweet enough child, I suppose, for a Bracegirdle. Her brother Bartolo’s here, too; where is he? Oh, there across from Frodo. Acerbic as only a Bracegirdle could be, our Bartolo. And there’s my granddaughter, Delphinium.”
Lilac leaned over from her place at the center of the adults’ table to confide, “I so hope that Frodo and Timono will become close friends. Poor lad--such an unfortunate past for him, losing his mother and having the father he has, poor Timono has always been rather isolated, I’m afraid. I thought, what with his parents dying as they did, Frodo might appreciate how Timono feels and offer him some understanding and appreciation. And, after all, both are supposed to be brilliant.”
“No, Merry, Frodo’s busy at the moment and can’t be expected to carry you about as he and the other older children play at I’ll-hide-and-you-seek-me.”
“Want Frodo,” Merry said distinctively, his expression rebellious.
At that moment Phlox’s little sister, who was six, bustled up. Small Freesia was her grandmother all over again--small, round, commiserative, and a chatterbox. “Hello, Meriadoc. Come play with me--I’m making mud pies and sand cakes with pebbles for raisins.” She firmly took the tiny lad’s hand and led him away, Merry’s steps unsteady as he fought against her grip. It was a losing battle, Esme realized as she wandered over to see the play hearth the little lass had outlined with stones.
Largo Longbottom was “it,” and had already found Frodo and Bartolo Bracegirdle as well as Linden Took. As Largo returned to the base with Dremma Grubb in tow, the lass was saying, “I know where that Timono is hiding.”
“So do I,” Largo answered her. “But I’d rather let him sit there for now.”
“Where is he?” Bartolo asked.
“In a cupboard in the first drying shed. I saw him go in there when I finished counting, and peeked into the shed to see the cupboard door closing. Let him think no one knows where he’s hiding.”
“He hid there yesterday, too,” Dremma said.
Bartolo sniffed. “He can sit there all day as far as I’m concerned. I’m certain as he took my shirt studs as my gaffer gave me for Yule.”
Dremma shook her head. “I saw him peering through my curtains this morning when I was getting ready to dress.”
“I’ll thump him on the side of the head, I catch him peeking at you or any other lass here,” Bartolo said.
“He’s a lout,” Frodo suddenly said, “but no one ought to be hitting anyone. It would do better if when we’re done finding everyone else we just leave him there, thinking the game’s still going on.”
Bartolo laughed, as did Linden Took. “Serve him right,” Linden said. “I don’t like the way he keeps ‘bumping’ into me.”
Dremma gave a delicate shudder. “He did that to you, too? He tried it on me in the parlor last evening, and that’s why I tripped him. Oh, well--I know where Lavinia is.”
Linden elbowed her in the ribs. “Oh, don’t be a tell-all, Dremma. Largo can find the rest on his own--can’t you, Largo?”
Esme watched those left standing at the base while Largo went out once more on his searching. The others were laughing at something while Frodo peered off toward the drying shed, his eyes thoughtful, until Linden said something and distracted him. He shook himself as he turned to her politely and rejoined the conversation.
Meanwhile Merry was gleefully covering himself with mud as Freesia looked on with approval.
Hearing voices in the hallway outside her door, Esmeralda paused in the act of reaching for the handle.
“But it would be easy to get,” said an oily voice.
“But it’s not mine to take, and I neither want nor need it,” said Frodo. “Why would you even suggest such a thing?”
The other voice grew cold. “You too good to raid gardens and such?”
“If it was a simple matter of sneaking away some extra mushrooms or raiding the plum trees, that would be one thing, Timono. But you’re not suggesting raiding a garden or a larder--you’re wanting me to go along as you take Isumbard’s pocketwatch, and I won’t do it. And what’s more, I won’t let you do it, either. And you might just think of returning Bartolo’s shirtstuds. He knows you took them.”
There was a moment of ominous silence before Timono spoke again. “And how does he know I took them?”
“Did you tell on me?”
“I didn’t know they were missing until he said he was certain you took them. But if you have them, I suggest you give them back. When he works himself up to searching for them, once he finds them I fear he’ll think only of giving you a good thumping.”
“You don’t know I have them.” The Bracegirdle lad’s voice was rather shrill with defiance.
“When you’ve all but admitted you do?” Frodo’s was scathing.
“I thought you liked me,” Timono said, his voice now nearly whining.
“And how is anyone to truly like you when you treat everyone else the way you do, Timono?” Frodo asked.
“You have to like me. You have to feel sorry for me--my mother’s dead.”
“So? Both my parents are dead, and I don’t demand other people feel sorry for me because of it.”
“But the rest of your family likes you----”
“They all do? Could have fooled me.” Esme could hear Frodo’s voice change as he began walking away. “And don’t think to try things on me, Timono, for if you even attempt to do so, I will get you back--and I can make it look as if you yourself did whatever it is that I’ll do. Understand?”
It was Lilac herself who caught Timono hiding in a clothes press in the lass’s bathing room, apparently intent on catching them naked, getting into their bathtubs. The tempest that raised would not soon be forgotten by anyone attending the house party. And Esme was certain she caught a look of satisfaction on Frodo’s face as Timono was confined to his room or forced remain in the company of Jonkenton for the next two days.
“You think he’d put it there?” Frodo was asking Largo as he and the other lads attending the party approached the fish pond. This was a small, Hobbit-made lake beyond the orchard where Esme and a few of the other adult guests had been indulging in assisting in the plum harvest. Esme looked at the next tree where Alma Chubbs and Sara were laughing at some joke made; she didn’t think either had heard the lads.
“I saw him throw something in there,” Largo said. “And Bard said as you can swim and could maybe fetch it out again.”
“Yes, I can swim well enough,” Frodo allowed, looking thoughtfully at the pond. “But that’s not a particularly small place, and if the bottom’s muddy whatever it is he threw in could be hidden in it.”
“You saying as you won’t try, Baggins?” demanded Bartolo.
“I didn’t say that, only that it’s not likely to be particularly easy to find it.” Frodo turned back toward Largo. “What part of the pool did he toss it to?”
After some quiet discussion, Frodo nodded, and he carefully disrobed to his small clothes. He waded out into the pond, grimacing at the mud between his toes. When he was waist deep he took a deep breath and leaned forward, then was swimming out about the distance Largo had indicated before diving under the surface. A minute or so later he came up again, brushed his hair out of his eyes and took a few deep breaths before going down again.
At last he came up with a hand raised, something held in it. “This isn’t all,” he managed after spitting out some water. Bard waded out a few feet from the shore, and Frodo tossed a packet toward him before disappearing once more.
It had to be another quarter of an hour before Frodo finally emerged from the pool. “We ought to have brought a towel,” he said as he shook himself.
“The first one was my shirt studs,” Bartolo said, his voice taut with anger. “I knew the little rat had taken them.”
“What else did you find?” asked Largo.
Frodo held out his hands; from what Esme could see he was holding a small cloth bag. Bard took it and deftly untied the string fastening it closed. “That’s not my knife,” Largo said, his voice solemn as Bard spilled the contents out into his hand.
“No,” Reginard said. “I think it belongs to Aunt Lilac.”
Frodo, who was pulling his shirt over his shoulders, paused to look at the item. At last he said quietly, “She’ll be so disheartened to know he took it from her.”
Bartolo looked at him with a disgusted expression on his face. “You think as she shouldn’t realize that poor little Timono is a thief and a sneak, so much so as he’d steal from her, too?”
Frodo looked at the older lad. “I’m not saying she shouldn’t know--I’m only saying it might well break her heart.”
“She already knows that he’ll spy on the lasses,” Reginard pointed out.
“But you saw no sign of my knife?” Largo asked.
“If he threw it in there, it’s not near the same place,” Frodo assured him. “The water’s not that deep, really, but the mud is pretty thick, and there are lots of weeds at the bottom. I did well to find the two things I did find. But I suspect that as the knife is a more common thing he’ll be more likely to want to keep it; and no one at home is likely to question that while he was gone he was gifted a knife, maybe for someone’s birthday. The shirt studs are different, for they have Bartolo’s initials on them. And he’d certainly never be able to explain that,” he added, indicating the item Bard had stowed back in the bag he held, and finished fastening his trousers.
“What are you going to do with it?” asked Reginard. “You going to tell on him?”
“I suppose I’ll just tell Aunt Lilac that Largo thought he lost his knife in the lake, and when I helped search for it I found this instead.”
“But you won’t tell her as Timono took it?” Barti persisted.
“Do we know for certain he took it?” Frodo pointed out. “I had no idea it was even missing. Did you?”
“Largo saw him toss it into the water....”
Frodo shrugged. “Largo saw him throw something into the lake, yes. But I found two packets. Which did Largo see him throw? We don’t know. Yes, he most likely threw both, especially since both things were in cloth bags. But the bags are those they use here for packing small amounts of pipeweed for sale, and any of us could have gotten one of them out of the drying sheds where they’re stored, you know. And even if I tell her, will she believe it?”
The lads exchanged looks. At last Largo said reluctantly, “You’re likely right. She already knows he’s a sneak, after all. She can put two and two together if she wants to.”
“We can’t force her to believe he took it,” Maligar Bolger commented. And with that the group of them headed back toward the house.
Alma Chubbs and Lilac Hornblower stood on either side of Esme, watching the young folk dancing, their eyes sparkling with approval. “Frodo, Isumbard, and Linden are certainly the best in the hall,” Lilac breathed. “Oh, my!” she said with admiration as Frodo did a particularly impressive spin, then passed Linden’s hand to her brother in time to turn to accept Lavinia’s from Rico Clayhanger for the next repetition of the pattern. As Frodo hooked his hands in his waistcoat pockets and bounced on the balls of his feet Lavinia circled about him, her usually reserved expression softened into abject enjoyment as she held her skirts to each side and gave a curtsey to Rico before turning to accept a bow from her current partner. She and Frodo hooked elbows for a turn before each went into a personal spin, and then Frodo was handing her off to Isumbard while reaching to accept Phlox’s hand from Rico.
“He even has managed to make Lavinia look to be a competent dancer,” Alma murmured. “Usually the lass has two left feet all made up of great toes; but there----” She shook her head with admiration as the Bracegirdle lass spun gracefully from Bard to Bartolo’s partnering for the last repetition.
All applauded as the music ended and the dancers broke apart, laughing and shining with accomplishment. Frodo didn’t even notice that Lavinia Bracegirdle had set out to intercept him, his eyes fixed on the punchbowl. Esme realized that she wasn’t the only one who’d watched Frodo passing Lavinia without a glance--Bartolo was now glaring at Frodo’s back as he stepped forward to place his hand on his sister’s shoulder and draw her toward the sideboard where refreshments lay.
But now Esme’s attention was focused on her young cousin and ward. “Are you enjoying yourself, dearling?” she asked as she managed to catch his eye.
“Oh, yes, Aunt Esme,” he said as he accepted a cup of punch from a Goold matron with a glance and nod of thanks. “Will you dance with me next?”
She laughed. “But we don’t even know what tune they’ll be playing next, Frodo. Let’s wait and make certain it’s not something too strenuous for such a one as I.”
He made a face as he gulped down the punch, then threw back his head to shake his curls out of his eyes. “Nonsense,” he said, once he’d swallowed the last of his drink and returned his cup to the table. “I saw you dancing the Springlering with Uncle Sara. You still dance like the lithesome lass you are.”
“Flatterer,” she said with a soft blow to his shoulder. “Oh, here they go--the Bounder’s Jig, is it? Get up there, lad--I know you can handle this one.”
In seconds Frodo had joined Merimac, Isumbard, and three others on the floor, and all prepared to dance. And in no time at all Frodo had set the tone for the others, and all agreed afterwards that this was the sprightliest rendition of the Bounder’s Jig they’d ever seen. Soon those watching them were gladly tossing their coppers and brasses onto the floor so that the dancers appeared surrounded by a shining rain. And the eyes of every lass or lady in the place were fixed on those dancing, particularly on the glowing form of Frodo Baggins, who danced with a grace unequaled throughout the hall.
“I swear, he’s his cousin Bilbo all over again,” Alma Chubbs breathed softly. “I fell head over heels for Bilbo the year I first danced the Springlering with him, you know.”
Esme nodded, her glance catching the worshipful gaze Lavinia Bracegirdle was bestowing on Frodo, and the resentful, protective one Bartolo was giving him.