“And how was the house party?” asked Dinodas as he helped Horto lift the clothes chests out of the coach.
“Very enjoyable,” Saradoc advised him, turning to take Meriadoc and set him on the ground. “And this one has been eager to be done with the coach from the moment we left Cousin Lilac’s.”
“I see,” his uncle commented as the faunt, raising his voice in a prolonged, wordless cry of joy, hurried into the coolness of Brandy Hall, gladly leaving behind himself the increasingly oppressive heat of the August afternoon outside.
Esme stretched the ache out of her back, and found herself examining the ridge into which Brandy Hall was dug with far more appreciation than she’d ever felt before. At first the Hornblower house had felt comfortingly familiar with windows for every room and cross-breezes throughout most of the structure; but in time she found she missed the comfortable permanence of the great, complex smial in which she’d spent her married life. She realized with an unexpected thrill that Buckland had become home to her more than either the farm at Whitwell or the Great Smial in Tookland.
She turned as Frodo finally hopped out of the coach, his eyes alight, a spring in his step as he came forward to throw his arms about his uncle.
“And who is this young giant?” Dinodas laughed. He looked down the young Hobbit’s length. “Either you’ve added another inch in the month you’ve been gone, lad, or your trouser legs and shirt sleeves have shrunk. Are you looking to pass up your cousin Isumbard Took, then?”
Frodo laughed. “I’d not done so by the time we left Aunt Lilac’s three days ago. Oh, but it’s good to be home!”
“The little ones are all eager to know you’re back, Frodo--they swear no one can teach them to swim as well as you, or spin a better tale.”
Frodo beamed as he reached down and hefted the largest of the chests onto his shoulder. “Then after I’ve had a chance to get out of these town clothes I’ll have to see to taking some of them down to the bay, won’t I, Uncle Dino?” Esme noted the surprise in Dino’s eyes as the lad turned in through the open door, heading for the Master’s Heir’s quarters, and was glad that Frodo hadn’t appeared to notice.
Dino held Esme back for a moment. “You’re not going to say anything about that?” he said quietly, nodding his head toward Frodo disappearing through the entrance hall with the chest on his shoulder, closely followed by Sara.
She glanced that way briefly, then turned back to him. “While we were in the South Farthing Sara and I agreed to say nothing to stop Frodo from trying whatever he wished unless we could see him tiring. He played at games, helped some in the fields, swam in their fishing pond, and danced--even helped carry out chests when all began preparing to leave. Perhaps Laurel Chubbs in Hobbiton is right and he’s outgrowing it. I think we need to give him the chance to see what he can do for a change.”
Dino cast a glance in the direction of the Master’s parlor. “Well, I’m all for it, lass; but you’d best be prepared for the worst from Menegilda. She’s certain no healer in the Shire knows more than she does about what’s best for a body.”
Esme breathed in between her teeth, gave a brief nod, then pulled herself up to her full height, and with Dino following at her shoulder she reentered her home.
“What do you mean by letting that little lad carry that heavy chest through the whole of the Hall?” demanded Menegilda that evening after Frodo had gone off with Merry to put him to bed, Dahlia not being scheduled to return from her family’s home where she’d been helping out after the birth of her brother’s first child for another four days.
Esme took a deep breath to steady herself. “Mother Gilda, Frodo is not a little lad, not in any manner at all. He’s almost sixteen years old and has been tall for his age since he was seven. He’s proven again and again to be a most responsible individual, and I saw him just after he brought the chest to our quarters, and I saw not a single sign that he was in the least distress. No, it was quite the contrary.”
“Esme’s right, Mum,” Sara added. “He had no difficulty at all carrying that chest, either while we were on the plantation or on our arrival this afternoon. Let’s not keep discouraging him from doing ordinary things.”
“You allowed him to carry chests while you were there?” Gilda’s voice was shocked.
“Are we to tell him no when all the other lads are doing the same for those who brought them, Mother?” Saradoc asked. “Most of the teens and tweens here call Frodo the mam’s lad, you know. Would you have these more distant cousins of ours do the same?”
“They don’t!” the Mistress denied vehemently.
“I’ve heard them call him that,” Esme said, shaking her head sadly. “And what’s more I’ve heard some of the kitchen staff do the same.”
“Who?” her husband’s mother demanded.
“I didn’t see their faces--just overheard them. And it’s definitely not all of them--just one or two who don’t understand why Master Frodo isn’t given tasks proper to his age and abilities as are all the other lads.”
Menegilda turned on Sara. “And how do you know the teens and tweens are calling him that?”
Her son gave a sigh and looked up toward the ceiling. “I’ve heard several lads and two or three of the lasses gossiping about the ‘mam’s lad,’ Mum; and not long before we left first for the Free Fair and then Threadneedle Gil came to me to express his concerns regarding how a few of the lads near Frodo’s age--spoke of him. I questioned Dodiroc and Tumnus, and both admitted they were aware of the fact this was how Frodo was being spoken of much of the time.”
Esme was surprised to learn that Sara had also become aware of how Frodo was being treated; but, then it was, she supposed, only to be expected that Gil would want both of them advised.
Mother Gilda, however, wasn’t willing to give up without significant argument, and the discussion went on for quite a good part of the evening. However, by the end of it certain concessions were wrung from her--from now on Frodo was to be allowed to assist at least with fairly normal chores within the Hall; he was to be given primary responsibility for assisting Tumnus in the schoolroom; he was to continue assisting Merimac and Saradoc in record keeping and copying circulars; he was to be allowed to accompany his cousins on the rounds of the nearer fields and storage barns, tenants, the mill, and the glass houses; he was to be allowed to assist in the gardens under the supervision of Dodiroc or Esme; he was to be allowed to go out with the lads his age and take part most of in their pursuits--as long as they weren’t deemed too rowdy; and he was to aid Merimac in seeing to the caring for many of the animals kept for the needs of the Hall, although again Gilda insisted Frodo be kept away from the ponies and their barns.
By the time they got that far Esme was far too tired to insist on more--at least it could now be shown that Frodo was taking up fairly normal tasks and activities, and hopefully the talk of “mam’s lads” would die down.
“Oh, Paladin, Eglantine, how good it is to see you! No, let me look at you--it seems forever since we were last able to just visit. And, oh, Pearl, how much you’ve grown since Midsummers. Oh, come in--come in. We have your quarters ready for you, and tea is laid in the parlor we always used to use when we were younger. Oh, my heavens, Pimpernel, if you aren’t becoming quite the pretty little lass.”
“It’s so good to see you, Esme,” Lanti sighed as they embraced. “I’m so glad Toby encouraged us to come away for a time. The lambing in the early spring was the most difficult we’ve seen, and it seems almost forever since we’ve been able to trust the birds and beasts--much less scrumpers from the Great Smial--not to strip the fields and garden. Ever since Da Adalgrim died we’ve had to work so hard--makes us appreciate how much he did.”
“No question,” Pal said as they went through the passages toward the quarters given to the use of the Tooks, “that we’ve needed desperately to get away for a time. And has all been well with you?”
“Oh, yes. Although August has proven to be miserably warm.”
“How was the house party down in the South Farthing?” asked Lanti as they entered the small parlor that had been made ready for the use of the guests.
“Very enjoyable indeed, and well worth the journey.”
“And Frodo went, too?” Pal asked as he dropped the wicker basket full of clothes on the floor in the corner to the right of the door and sank into a chair, pulling out his handkerchief and wiping his brow. “I’m shocked Menegilda would let him go so far.”
Esme gave a small shrug as she checked the temperature of the teapot and decided it was fine and began pouring out. “I’m afraid I didn’t give her much choice. If we were going with him she couldn’t well say he would be unsupervised, after all. And it was such a pleasure for Mac, with his Adamanta and Berilac gone for several weeks to be with her younger sister for the birth of her first child. He was at loose ends trying to think how he’d deal with the evenings alone in their rooms.”
“So I’d suppose.” Pal accepted the cup she offered him, then waved away the milk jug. He took an appreciative sip before continuing, “I suspect it did Frodo a world of good. By the way, where is he?”
“He took Merry for the morning and went off with a group of the lads, off toward the old mill building. Sara and Mac should be back shortly from Bree--Rory sent them to fetch back the order of cloth for the sewing rooms he made a month back--we got word three days ago it was ready, and Liliana is keen to get her hands on it as soon as possible--she says that too many of the lads are outgrowing their trousers or have had them patched so often it’s a shame on the Hall.”
“Ah, the running of one of the greater smials,” Lanti sighed. “It makes me glad I’ve no more to worry about than the house on the farm and the few hands we have.”
“I only hope,” Esme said as she handed a mug of cambric tea to Pearl, who was sitting back on one of the low sofas, “that the lads are keeping out of mischief.”
“Frodo Baggins, in mischief?” asked Paladin as he paused in the buttering of a scone. “Since when is that lad allowed to get into mischief? He hardly seems the sort, you know.”
“Well, that was before Bilbo informed me he intended to--stimulate Frodo’s imagination by telling tales of the mischief he himself used to get into when a lad. I know that Da and our grandfather had tales to tell on him from the days before he became the so-proper Master of Bag End.”
“Why would he want stimulate Frodo’s imagination about such things as this?” asked Lanti.
Esme paused briefly before saying, rather delicately, “It was in hopes Frodo might find a good means to manage a few of the other lads.”
“Were they calling him a mam’s lad or something like?” asked Paladin shrewdly.
Again she paused briefly before nodding. Pearl looked shocked at the idea. “Cousin Frodo’s no mam’s lad!” she insisted.
“I should hope not,” her mother agreed. “Why would they even think such a thing, Esme?”
“Think, Lanti,” Paladin reasoned, “with those delicate features and intelligent mind, not doing much in the way of things lads usually do--the other lads don’t know that there’s a reason why he’s not been allowed to run wild with them or been assigned the tasks they’ve always done. That they’d consider he might be a mam’s lad is, unfortunately, the most likely answer they’d come up with.”
“It’s certainly not because he hasn’t wanted to do more,” Esme said with a level of vehemence to her tone.
“Have they gotten him into any fights yet?” Pal asked.
“They’ve come close,” Esme admitted. “However, he’s insisted on handling it himself, and it appears he’s managing them well enough.”
“What did he do?”
She took a deep breath, and gave a little laugh. “Well, there was the matter of the whitewash and the chicken feathers. First you need to understand that one of the older tweens who’s just been accepted as a regular groom for the Hall and Gomez, who’s only a couple years older than Frodo, have been feuding for a long time, and Gomez and the four or five lads closest to him have been pulling pranks on him for some time. A few weeks before Midsummer the five of them were found in the main pony barn covered with whitewash and chicken feathers. It appeared that they’d been planning to get buckets of both so balanced over the door to the stable that when the older lad went in the next morning to open the stalls and see the ponies turned out into the paddock he’d get covered by both, only that they got caught in their own web.”
Paladin’s eyes were wide with surprise and growing amusement. “Only Frodo actually caught the five lads who’d been needling him?”
“Well, of course we were certain at first they were truly trying to set such a trap only it fell on them, and they wouldn’t tell us what they’d really been doing there at the pony barns, and so they were punished. Only a week later another of the older lads came to me concerned, saying Gomez had tried to corner Frodo alone and was accusing him of having engineered the whole thing. And although anyone might have taken some of the whitewash from the paint storage shed, for it had been recently mixed to repaint the inside of many of the storage rooms and sheds, the only lads who’d been near the feathers stores were Frodo and his friend Brendi.”
Pal had started to laugh, and was laughing so hard he was forced to set down his plate and cup on the table by him. “Oh, how wonderful!” he laughed. “How wonderful!” At last he pulled out his handkerchief again and wiped his eyes. “Ah, dear--made to look as if they were caught in their own mischief, were they?”
“And then last week Gomez was caught by Willow in the larder where they keep the greatest treats. It’s Menegilda’s birthday soon, and they start with many of the special sweets weeks early for it, you see. The lads had been troubling that larder so often Willow had convinced Dinodas to come up with some kind of latch that could only open from the outside to catch anyone who might get into it, and it worked--he fixed the door to swing shut after anyone went in, and this time it caught Gomez. Only when Dino was working on the hinges and latch Frodo was assisting him. I doubt he’d tell any of the other lads what Dino had done, but somehow I’m certain he saw a way of convincing Gomez there were some especially wonderful treats in there--the lad has a terrible urge for sweets, he does. There was a look of most definite satisfaction--but only for a moment, when Willow came to us at breakfast to tell us that they’d found Gomez caught in there.
“Then there was something that happened while we were at Cousin Lilac’s. By the way, did Isumbard have his pocket watch when he came back home, do you know?”
“I heard nothing of it being missing, and considering that’s an heirloom of the Smial I’m certain if it was gone all would know. You’d think Lalia herself carried them, as inordinately proud as she is of the various ones belonging to the Smial Hobbits.”
“Well, I overheard one of the Bracegirdle lads trying to wheedle Frodo into helping him steal it. This lad was already under suspicion by the rest of the younglings of having stolen a variety of objects, and when he was observed throwing something into the fish pond they convinced Frodo to search for the missing items there. He found one of the missing things, but not the rest. Anyway, when the lad tried to get Frodo to help him steal the watch Frodo refused, and warned him not to try or he’d do something to get the lad into trouble, and make it look as if the lad had thought of it himself. A few days later the lad was found in a bin in the bathing room given to the use of the lasses at the party. Now, he already was known to be a window peeper, and how Frodo might have been able to get him into that bin I have no idea. However, considering the feathers and the whitewash, I must wonder if he might have been involved.”
Paladin shook his head. “I wonder,” he said. “The whitewash and the chicken feathers sounds suspiciously like one of the pranks Bilbo and Sigismond engineered on the Old Took’s favorite hound. And then there was the time he and Uncle Sigismond convinced Flambard that a surprise party was being planned in honor of his recent victories at the pony races at his sister’s apartments, and they talked him into giving the guests a bit of a laugh. So he walks into his sister’s private parlor wearing nothing but his small clothes, only it’s not his friends but many of the snootiest ladies from the Great Smial and Tuckborough, for his sister had planned to announce officially that day that she’d just learned she was expecting their first child.”
Esme found herself engulfed in giggles, and soon was laughing so hard that young Pimpernel, sitting at her feet, was giggling too. Esme scooped the child off the floor and into her lap. “Oh,” she finally managed, “it’s going to be interesting to see what other mischief various of the lads will be caught in that they didn’t plan.”
At that moment there was a sound of approaching voices, and then the door burst open and Frodo came in with a bound with Merry in his arms and Brendilac at his heels, his face alight with pleasure as he surveyed the company. “How wonderful to see you, Uncle Pal, Aunt Lanti!”
Esme looked up from her needlework as the door opened and Mac came in, his face a marvelous study in competing emotions as he approached her. He leaned down to murmur, “Could you make your excuses to Liliana and the rest and come to Sara’s study?”
Surprised, she nodded and rose, setting down her portion of the quilt they were constructing as she explained some Hall business had come up that she needed to see to, and she followed her brother-in-love out of the main sewing room. They walked without talking, and Esme found herself wondering as she examined his face. One moment he looked amused, and then exasperated, and then confused. Now what? she wondered.
Mac opened the door to Sara’s office and allowed her to enter first, closing the door after them and taking a position to one side of it. Sara looked up and gave her a brief smile, nodding to a chair near the wall before turning his attention back to the couple sitting in the guests’ chairs before his desk. “Now, you say a lad came to your place with this puppy?” he said. “And you think he was from here at Brandy Hall?”
“Yes,” the gentlehobbit said, a farmer or smallholder, Esme judged. “Yes, definitely a Hall lad, for his trousers was of the cloth as the Master always buys from Bree for such things, they was. Anyways, as I was saying before you asked we wait for your lady to join us, he comes to the door with this puppy in his arms. Says as there’d been a large litter, and now as they was old enough to be weaned his dad was insisting they find homes for those as they couldn’t keep. Would we be interested, he asks, in having such a fine dog as this one was likely to grow to be?
“Well, my wife here has a love for such beasts, so I calls her out to ask her if she’d like to have another dog, for we lost our Bounder a year past. We discuss it for a bit, and at last my wife, she agrees, so we thank the lad and he lets us have the pup and off he goes. Now, he come just as I was getting ready to go out to the berry hedge behind the house to bring back a bucket of blueberries for the wife’s baking. Only, when I get there there’s not a ripe berry to be found--all stripped away, they was, and apparently while we was at the front door talking with this lad, for I’d just been out there not long before to see if there was enough for what she wanted.”
“So,” his wife took up the tale, “we decided to come see if anyone here might know the pup, and to let you know as there’s a lad comin’ up now as has a fair mind to think up such tricks as to keep a body from catchin’ him and his friends a’scrumpin’. Oh, we don’t wish to get the lad into trouble, mind, for what’s the problem with takin’ a few berries now and then? No, we don’t mind that so much, although I was to take a blueberry cake tomorrow when we go off to me sister’s place, don’t ye know. Can’t now, as there’s no berries left to make such a thing, of course. Anyways, we thought to let you know so’s you could keep an eye on matters--keep it from goin’ too far, you see.”
“I see,” Saradoc said, then looked at his wife. “I was wondering, Esme sweetest, if you recognized the pup.”
She rose and came near, lifting the little dog to examine it before nodding. “I’m certain this is one of the pups Dodiroc’s Belle threw a couple months back. I heard him asking some of the lads if they could help find homes for all but the pair he’d decided to keep.”
The Hobbitess looked relieved as she took the puppy back into her own arms. “Then it was true the pup was free to a willin’ home, is it? That’s good, for already I’ve become that fond of her. She’ll be a right nice bitch once she’s growed a bit, I’m thinkin’.”
“Then you’re not so upset that you don’t want her?” Sara asked.
“Not want her?” she asked as the puppy reached out to lick her face--she was having to close one eye to protect it from the little animal’s eager tongue. “How could anyone not like a pup as nice as this? No, if’n it’s all the same to you we’d love to keep her, for she’s a cunnin’ one. And we’re not askin’ for any recompense, mind you--only wanted to let ye know.”
“Well, we can certainly see to it that you have enough berries to make your cake and more besides. Mac, would you mind taking her to the larder where Willow’s been storing our own blueberry harvest? Thanks so much, brother mine.”
And with exchanges of respect and humor, the couple departed, the puppy held gently to the bosom of the goodwife.
Once the door was closed behind them and the voices faded into the distance, Sara asked, “Well?”
“He might have done,” Esme admitted. She looked off again. “But if he did, he did it right cleverly, I must say.”
Sara nodded, his eyes thoughtful.
The next couple wasn’t anywhere as understanding. “I’ll tell you,” the farmer fumed, “there wasn’t a ripe tomato left on the vines once I got out into the gardens, once the little lad and his kitten had left, fetched off by an older lad. It wasn’t until we found the vines had been stripped that the wife here noted as the lads was both a’wearin’ Hall cloth on’em. Now, what for was a faunt from the Hall a’doin’ across the river in the Marish with a kitten a’stuck up in my apple tree while my garden’s a’bein’ raided?”
When Frodo was asked about the incident he affected a most innocent air, his blue eyes opened their widest and most appealing. However, as Sara noted later, it was interesting that somehow Frodo had managed to neither directly admit nor deny his involvement.
And when Esme dropped in on Adamanta a short time afterwards to gossip for a bit, she found Mac’s wife pulling leaves out of their small cat’s long, silky fur. “I can’t think how Sprite here came to have so many apple leaves in her coat,” she commented. But when they tried to question young Berilac he only shook his head, biting on his knuckles.
“This is getting ridiculous,” Sara grumbled. “The worst diversion I ever used was to set the Maggot’s boar loose in their potato patch while I was raiding the mushrooms. But we’ve had an incident a week since mid-August, and things are getting more inventive as they go along.”
“If it’s Frodo, he’s managing to keep from being seen, at least,” Adamanta said, gladly sipping at her cider. “None of those involved in the scrumping is getting caught at it.”
“Last week it was an entire ham from the Smallfoot place,” Mac said, “and week before a good two pounds of butter from Sweetwater’s dairy.” He turned to his brother’s wife. “Do you know where Frodo and Brendi and Freddy Oldbuck were today?” he asked.
“Frodo was to have gone with Sara to Haygate Farm to see to the renewal of the lease there, but when word came their oldest was ill and the visit was off he disappeared with the other lads off to Freddy’s folks’ place at Kingsbridge almost immediately. Merry was furious when he woke from his nap and Frodo wasn’t to be found.”
“Could he and the other lads have managed to get there to Bamfurlong and back to Kingsbridge in time for me to bring them home when I came through there with the trap a couple hours after noon, do you think?” Mac asked.
“Not unless they ran like the wind,” Sara noted.
Winter didn’t bring an end to the reports on raiding. The glass house at Goodloam’s farm had not a single tomato left when the family returned from a trip to Whitfurrow; the best milker at Sweetwater’s dairy was found with her udder stripped when it was time to milk the herd. Near Yule a recently dressed duck was taken from the cool shed on one farm, and three pies were missing from a house not far from the Bucklebury Ferry. But the culprit wasn’t found, and Frodo continued not to answer questions regarding what he, Freddy, Brendi, and Gil might have been up to.
For Yule they traveled to Tookland to celebrate the holiday in the Great Smial, where Paladin’s family usually resided during the worst of the winter weather, for it was at this time of year that Ferumbras saw to the preparation of his cousin for his role as Thain should Ferumbras leave no more direct heir, that event being totally unlikely at this point. The chances Lalia would allow Ferumbras to take a wife and produce a family as long as she held onto the title of the Took lessened with the passing of each year, and it was now doubtful that even in the unlikely event Ferumbras was to take a bride in spite of his mother’s interference he’d be able to father an heir. He wasn’t exactly a young Hobbit any more.
The visitors from the Hall settled into their guest quarters in the Great Smial, and Frodo immediately went in search of Reginard and Bilbo. Bilbo wasn’t exactly a welcome guest, for Ferumbras had made it plain he tolerated his eccentric cousin from Hobbiton only for the sake of Paladin and Eglantine; but the old fellow was nevertheless as popular with the younger fry as ever.
“Well, if that isn’t something to see,” murmured Ferdinand Took about the stem of his pipe as he stood, watching the younger Hobbits dancing about the Yule bonfire. In the midst of them all was Frodo Baggins, his figure erect and totally given to the music and movement that possessed him at the moment. “That lad’s a right flame, he is!”
“No question of that,” Esme murmured, watching with delight at how all seemed to take inspiration from Frodo’s own grace.
“And you have no knowledge of what could have happened to cause the seat of my mother’s chair to become covered with glue?” demanded the Thain.
“And I ask again, Uncle Ferumbras,” Frodo said with a good deal of dignity, “how you think that I might have been involved? We are staying at the far end of the smial from the Thain’s quarters, after all, and I’ve been watching Merry and Berilac and some of the youngsters from the Smial every morning, telling them tales and keeping them entertained so their parents can enjoy a bit of a lie-in. How was I to be able to do such a thing and first not get caught, and then get back to be in my own quarters to deal with the faunts?”
Ferumbras glared at the lad. “I’m not certain, but if I find any indication you were indeed involved I’ll thrash you myself.”
Sara stood up. “I do not like it that you would think to threaten my ward in my presence. And it’s not as if there weren’t any number of individuals throughout the place who’ve known the sharp side of your mother’s tongue more than once, as you know all too well. Why you would decide it had to be Frodo....”
The Thain glared at his Brandybuck relative and stalked out of the parlor where he’d confronted the lad. Esme felt the tension begin to ease out of her as Bilbo stepped forward to put his hand on Frodo’s shoulder.
“The first complaint is in about scrumping,” Mac sighed as he sat heavily on the bench beside his brother and took out his pipe. Esme looked up from the great basin of the last of the winter’s store of apples she was going through, picking out those that had gone bad so the rest could be baked into pies. It was the first truly warm day of spring, and it was so pleasant to be out in this courtyard in the open, surrounded by blossoms from the plum tree against the sunny wall and the narcissi that shone under the windows. “Someone’s been into the berries growing in the glasshouse at Goodloams’ farm. Polo’s fit to be tied.”
“It’s Maggot, and he’s not particularly happy.” Sara’s voice sounded exhausted. “He insisted on speaking with the Master himself, and so Dad has called Frodo into the office to question him. The lad refuses to say where he’s been or what he’s been doing, just fingers that green stone he carries in his pocket and shakes his head, now that they’ve refused to be distracted by his questions as to how they think he might have been involved at all. Plus it appears that Frodo tried riding his prize bull a few days ago. This he admits to freely, by the way. Lucky the lad wasn’t killed--Maggot’s never had the beast polled, after all. When my mother learns that she’ll be furious with fear for the child.”
Another year came and went. The reports of scrumping in the Marish became more infrequent, and Esme was quick to notice that this corresponded with Frodo being given more responsibilities about the Hall. He was now teaching many of the younger lads and lasses to read and write while Tumnus and the new auxiliary lessons master worked with the older children, and he was charged with making an inventory of the storerooms and sheds about the place as well as being kept busy helping scribe correspondence for Mac, who’d suffered a broken collar bone at the end of winter, slipping on ice outside the side door to the kitchens. But when the reports came, they were filled with tales of increasingly inventive distractions and equally more daring thefts of food. Only, although on one occasion a farmer’s son was certain he saw that Frodo Baggins vaulting the hedge at the end of the far field after the other, broader lads who’d gone first, no one could truly say he was indeed involved.
Esme looked into Merry’s room and found it empty again. This was common enough any more, for Merry idolized Frodo and would slip out of his bed and into Frodo’s at night so as to spend what time he could with his cousin. As usual, Merry hadn’t latched Frodo’s door behind him, and as she put her ear to the crack she could hear the soft murmur of the two voices. “And did he get away from the bull?” Merry was asking.
“Oh, yes he did. He made it over the stone wall just in time, the clever lad did, and the farmer later never could figure out how anyone had gotten past it into the strawberry field.”
Merry laughed, and Esme found herself grinning. Was that how it happened Maggot’s strawberries had been raided a couple weeks back?
“Will you take me with you when you go about the Free Fair when we go?”
“Of course. What do you want to see while we’re there?”
“Oh, I want to see all the calves and the lambs and the ponies. Mac let me ride his pony today, all by myself--oh, he led it, but I got to ride alone.”
“Wonderful.” Esme could clearly hear the regret in Frodo’s voice--Menegilda continued to insist the lad not be allowed around the ponies. “You’re getting to be quite a big lad now.”
“Do you think you’ll get your own pony now and learn to ride, Frodo?”
Frodo’s voice when it came was distinctly neutral. “Maybe I don’t want to learn to ride. Uncle Bilbo says he sees more when he walks than when he rides, after all--that’s why he does it so often, you see.”
“Tell me again about the time we saw the Elf on the picnic, Frodo.”
Esme realized that she wasn’t the only one who realized Frodo was hurt about not being allowed to ride, and that Merry was seeking to distract his cousin, and she found herself proud of the little lad she’d given birth to.
“Why don’t you stay home from the Free Fair and keep an old Hobbitess company, Frodo my lad?” Menegilda asked.
“But I’ve already promised Merry I’ll take him around with me. Why won’t you come?”
“Face it, child--I’m not as young as I used to be.”
“Nonsense, Aunt Gilda, for you’re still the one to turn all the gentlehobbits’ heads.”
“You dear, dear lad.” The Mistress smiled at him fondly.
There was a moment of silence that Frodo finally broke. “Aunt, why don’t you let me learn to ride?”
Her answer was guarded. “What makes you certain it’s me that does that, Frodo Baggins?”
He looked at her sideways. “None of the other lads is kept from riding, and Mac’s even begun getting Merry used to being on a pony’s back by himself. Obviously Aunt Esme and Uncle Sara don’t mind, and all have told me how Uncle Rory taught both Sara and Mac and their cousins to ride when they were young. You’re the only one about the whole Hall who doesn’t particularly care for ponies, Aunt. So, why can’t I learn to ride, too?”
“You’re still but a young Hobbit, Frodo. There’s time....”
“Merry’s still a faunt, Aunt. I’ll be eighteen next fall.” His voice was carefully controlled.
At last she answered slowly, “My gaffer died amongst the ponies in the paddock, Frodo, and I was the one who found his body. I have nightmares about it to this day, only now instead of my grandfather it’s you I see lying there.”
He examined her face, obviously disturbed. Finally he said, “But he was older, and I’m but a lad.”
“He was only in his early sixties, for he married before he was quite of age, as did my mother. I wasn’t much more than a faunt myself, you see. You remind me of him so much, Frodo.”
“But I’m not him,” he continued, although Esme could tell a lot of the heart had gone out of his arguments.
She shrugged. “It’s just that I love you so very much, dearling, that I can’t bear the thought of you ever being seriously hurt.”
Esme could see the unspoken frustration in his eyes. Can’t you see, Mother Gilda, she thought, how much it hurts him not to be allowed?
It was in May of the spring after his nineteenth birthday that Frodo was actually caught. All knew by this time that Maggot and his brothers had recognized Frodo at least twice in the mushroom patch that was the pride of the farmer and Bamfurlong’s primary claim to fame. Maggot could forgive a great deal of scrumping, but to have his mushroom patch repeatedly denuded drove him mad with frustration and a growing determination to catch the Young Scoundrel, as he openly referred to Frodo, in the act. Truth be told, the farmer and his family had come to admire Frodo’s wit and audacity; and on at least two occasions when Frodo and the lads with him were escaping from other farmers across Bamfurlong’s fields he’d held his dogs in to allow them to win free. But he was intent on catching Frodo himself and giving him a lesson in not trespassing too much or taking more than enough for the moment’s hunger.
So it was that when a trap broke down at the head of the lane to his farm on one of the days Maggot figured he was likely to be raided again it was one of his brothers who went to deal with it while the farmer himself remained hidden in the hedge surrounding the mushroom patch, waiting patiently.
“And so it was,” he explained, “that I caught him at the last. He had two bags, mind you, to put the mushrooms in. To make certain he couldn’t question as he’d been caught fair and square I let him get the first one partly filled before I finally showed myself. Took him right by surprise, I did--went all white with shock at the sight of me, and for once he couldn’t run away before one could get a good look at him, not this time.”
He sighed. “I had Brute by me, and I knew as Gobbler was with my brother and would come when I whistled. I stepped forward and made myself look as large as I could. “So,” I says to him, “you’ve come again, have you, Baggins, a-thievin’ other folks’ crops. Sure and I could survive if you was to take every mushroom on the place, but then what’s left for others? With all the scrumpin’ as you and your fellows have planned, I could perhaps feed my family through the winter; but then what about money for cloth for clothes, for lamp oil, for what foods as we can’t grow for ourselves? How do I pay my hands?’
“Then I give him my fiercest look of all. ‘What do you think as you deserve for all the thievin’ as you’ve done the past few years, young Hobbit?’ I asks him. And he answers, his voice tight in his throat as if he’s bound to tell the truth and all, ‘Banishment, maybe?’ Now, if that didn’t take me aback! And what’s worse is that he meant it--he truly meant it! He truly felt as he perhaps deserved banishment! It took all as I could do to keep up the mean appearance.
“‘No,’ I answers when I could keep my voice steady. I don’t think as he realized as he’d shook me to the core--I suspect as he felt as I was just all the more angry, and that I’d took what he said as cheek. But I know as it wasn’t meant for cheek, not with that look on his face. Anyway, I said, ‘No, not banishment, not for a mere lad. But you need a lesson learned, and I’m the one to teach it to you. Now, I am goin’ to cane you, you understand?’ He just nods and says, ‘Yessir.’ So I raise my cane and I gives him three stripes on the sit-down and I whistles for Gobbler. Gobbler comes a’runnin, but so does Stripe. Now, Stripe is a young hound, he is, and perhaps a bit too literal-minded for a dog of mine as yet. Wouldn’t really hurt no one, but he’ll go past my fences where the other dogs know as to where the bounds of Bamfurlong are and won’t leave them.
“There was no way to hold Stripe back and not have the Young Scoundrel realize as I’d not really hurt him and all, so I says to them, real loud and gruff, ‘Now, you see this scalawag? He comes here again, you’ve my leave to eat him and gnaw his bones for afters. Now, see to it as he leaves the farm as quickly as possible.’ And I give the signal, for that’s what they was a’waitin’ for, and off they go, with him streakin’ off faster’n the wind. I’ve run my share of lads off the farm over the years, but none ever went as fast as him.
“It wasn’t too terrible long before Brute and Gobbler come back, but Stripe wasn’t with them. I suspect as long as the lad kept a’runnin’ that Stripe would keep on runnin’ after, for that’s his nature so far. Loves to chase, he does. He’ll run after my youngster all about the place until the lad falls down a’pantin’, and then he’ll move in to have his ears scratched and to have a tug and a good pet. But your young Baggins, I got the feelin’ as he don’t trust dogs too awful much.”
Sara nodded, his own face rather pale. “No, he’s not too much on dogs. I tend to sneeze when I’m around them, so I usually give them a wide birth, and we’ve never had any in the Master’s quarters while he was staying here because of it. Mac has two, but they stay in the stables at nights, and as Frodo doesn’t help with the ponies he rarely sees them save from a distance.”
The farmer scratched his nose. “So, he’d not be likely to understand that all Stripe wants to do is to play, really?”
“No, not likely.”
“I see.” Maggot was plainly thinking. At last he said, “All I really want is to have the scrumpin’ kept down to a reasonable amount, and for your lads to leave my mushrooms alone. Somehow they have to learn as our crops is our livelihood, you see, and not somethin’ we do so’s they can come in and take all as they’d like of what we grow.”
“I can certainly appreciate that.”
“I know as you can, for you run the farm here, and the Hall wouldn’t run at all if it and the holdings you lease out didn’t bring in enough to feed all as live in it. Now, I never meant to seriously harm the lad, but I’ll tell you as he needs stoppin’ now. He looks to be a fine lad indeed, and such a one as he’s meant to be shouldn’t think as it’s all right to take as much as he can by setting up such tricks to draw folks off and then clean out what can be harvested while they’re attention’s elsewhere.”
Sadly, Sara indicated his full agreement. “There’s no question you’re right about this, Maggot. And I’ll see to it that he stops now and never does it again. He’s run as wild as he could for the last three years, and it’s time to put a stop to it.”
“You won’t beat the lad?”
“Beat Frodo? Stars, no! Certainly not! But we won’t allow him to continue on with his wild ways. Apparently it’s time to put the leash back on him.”
Farmer Maggot gave a final nod. “All right. And when you’re certain as he’ll understand, you can tell him I really admire him. He’s right smart, he is.”
“Too smart for his own good,” old Rory commented from his seat behind his son where he’d been observing the proceedings. Rory rose and walked with the farmer out to the main door to the Hall, then came back to Sara’s office where his son still sat, Esme standing behind him, rubbing his shoulders.
“I sent Mac and Dodi to look for Frodo, but I doubt he’s back yet,” Sara said quietly.
“I asked Horto if Frodo had been seen, and he’s sending Gil to check out the mill. I suppose we should have Dodiroc check out the hiding places he’s aware of that Frodo favors in the gardens, and we should set Willow and Hawthorn to search the upper storerooms, larders, pantries, and so on. And I’ll set Dinodas to checking out the older storerooms and mathom chambers and the wine cellars. Esme, will you ask Adamanta and Liliana to help check elsewhere? And send Brendilac to my office.”
Within an hour the logical places where Frodo might hide (and a few others Dinodas alone seemed to know about) had all been searched. Marmadas had scoured the storage barns, holes, and sheds; Mac had been through the byres, the stables, and the poultry houses; Dodi had made certain neither the unfinished smial Frodo’s parents had begun excavating on a ridge somewhat closer to the Withywindle nor the abandoned hole of River Place hid the lad; Esme had gone through empty apartments, dressing rooms, the clothing stores, and guest quarters, even unlocking the apartment once given to the family of Primula Brandybuck Baggins when they came to stay in the Hall to search through it thoroughly; Brendi visited the quarters of the rest of those who generally took part with Frodo in the raiding of the Marish and ascertained that he wasn’t in any of those while his father drove to Kingsbridge to learn if Frodo had taken refuge with the Oldbucks. When he came back just short of sunset Frodo still hadn’t been seen anywhere this side of the river. All they could do was wait.
“I’ve found him, Missus Esme,” Marigold Brownlock said. “I found him in the kitchens, like, there by Willow’s larder. Now, as it’s Mr. Marmadas’s birthday tomorrow it’s bein’ filled with food for the party, and at first I thought as he was goin’ to try for the cakes as was put in there today, but after I accused him of it I thought better. No, mum, I don’t think as he was truly after treats. He’s right pale, he is--right pale. A bit green about the edges, in fact. I’d say as he’d been scared right out of a year’s growth by the looks of him. But who’d frighten him, sweet lad as he is, and why? You don’t think as that Gomez has been botherin’ him again, do you?”
“No, for Gomez has been working in the piggeries for the past week for the whitewashing he did of his brother’s windows. He’s been under the eye of Bodridoc all day long until he came in about an hour ago and was escorted by his father to the bathing room and then sent to bed. We have an idea as to what may have frightened Frodo much earlier today, but none as to where he’s been since. Where is he now?”
“Orders was to take him on to the Master’s office, and that’s where I took him. Master Rory’s dealin’ with him, but I’d say as the lad needs to be put to bed hisself, same as Gomez, and probably with better reason.”
Esme thanked Marigold and set off for Rory’s office herself. Once she reached the door she stopped, brushed at her hair with her hand, took a deep breath, and knocked at the door. Sara opened it and nodded her in, and together they sat on the narrow sofa just inside the room.
Frodo was sitting in a wooden chair, while Rory had pulled the chair from behind the desk to face him, and Menegilda stood behind him, her hand resting against the side of his neck, trying to gauge the beating of his heart from the echo there, Esme judged. “But Maggot said that he caught you in his mushroom patch shortly after noon, and it’s now after sunset. Where have you been all these hours?”
Frodo shook his head. “A byre somewhere,” he mumbled. “The dogs chased me, and I fled.”
It was typical of Frodo, Esme thought, that he’d say I fled instead of I ran away.
Menegilda straightened and made a sign to her husband. Rory and she exchanged that silent communication that seemed to pass so easily between them, then turned back to Frodo. “Farmer Maggot has told us what passed between the two of you today, lad, and how much the thefts you’ve been practicing have cut into the resources for his family. Not only that, you also admitted to riding his bull twice, which not only was a dangerous and foolish thing to do--” Esme saw her mother-in-love go white, for no one had told her previously that Frodo had done any such thing. “--but it also risked the health of the animal. Farm animals are not great playthings, Frodo, but beasts that offer us dear service. Had the animal become so confused or enraged at your behavior he ran his head into the stone byre or wall, it could have injured him. And I will tell you truly that had I been required to pay to replace that bull it would have cost the entire Hall dearly.
“I am very disappointed in you, and feel that it would be best for all if you go directly to your room and go to bed and think about what you’ve done and how it has harmed those you’ve been stealing from.”
“I never thought of it as stealing,” the lad whispered through pale lips.
“Few of us like to admit that scrumping is stealing, Frodo Baggins, but that’s what it is, put plainly. You knew it was wrong.”
At the pause after this Frodo finally gave a nod.
“You’ve been hiding what you were doing all this time.”
Again the pause and the delayed nod.
“When we are all calm again we will meet to discuss what punishment will be yours. Do you understand?”
Frodo rather desperately searched his uncle’s face. Finally he answered, “Yes, Uncle Rory, I understand. And...and I’m sorry, truly sorry.”
Rory looked up at Esme. “My dear, will you please see this one to his bed. I will have Willow or Marigold bring him some bread and milk and a glass of apple juice, and perhaps if his aunt agrees we will allow him some tea. But I don’t believe it would be good to allow him more at this time.”
He rose from his chair, at which Frodo also rose. Esme realized that the two of them were almost on a level with one another, with Rory remaining only a small fraction of an inch taller than Frodo. Rory searched the lad’s face, noted the misery reflected there, and once more he spoke with grave gentleness. “Go with your cousin now, Frodo, and may you rest well. We will speak more in the morning when all are calmer.” For a moment he laid his hand on the lad’s shoulder, then withdrew it and indicated the door.
Frodo gave the slightest of nods of understanding, turned, started toward the door, almost stumbled but caught himself, and proceeded to his own room. As he passed the small parlor that served the family of the Master’s Heir, Merry stopped in his play with the set of farm animals Drogo Baggins had once carved for his son and which Frodo in turn had handed on to his small cousin, and looked up, relief obvious in his eyes. “My Frodo!” he called out as he started to get up.
“No, sweet lad,” Esme said, “Frodo can’t stop with you right now. Gaffer Rory and Gammer Gilda have ordered he’s to do a quick bath and go right to bed. I’m afraid Frodo’s in disgrace, you see.”
Merry, however, was searching his cousin’s face, then running forward to hug his knees. “Were you scared, Frodo?” he asked, peering upwards.
“It’s all right, Merry--truly it is. You don’t need to worry for me. I’ll be all right. And your mum’s correct--I am in disgrace.”
“Don’t be sad, Frodo.”
Frodo gave a small smile. “I’ll try, Merry. You continue on playing, understand?” He reached down to undo the child’s hold on him and gave a truer smile. “I’ll be all right.” Then he pulled free and turned to go on to his room to fetch his nightshirt and dressing gown, and followed Esme on to the bathing room.