Dodi peeked into the room where Esme was sitting with Liliana going over the numbers of new shirts needed and whether or not they should look to purchasing a new stock of buttons. “Well, lass, Sara asked if you’d join him in his office,” he said, smiling at her.
She and Liliana exchanged glances. “Give me a moment to finish here and I’ll come,” she suggested, to which he nodded.
“Will do, my dear,” he answered. “I’ll wait out here, then.”
A few moments later she emerged to find him half settled against the back of a sofa, the book he’d been reading lately open in his hands. He looked up, rose to stow the small volume in the rear pocket of his trousers, and turned to walk alongside of her.
“Do you know what it’s all about?” she asked.
He shrugged. “I think you’d best see for yourself, Esme,” he said with a smile on his face.
When they got to Sara’s office she saw the door was already opened, and as they entered she saw that a couple sat in the guest chairs across the desk from Sara, lying beside the wife a medium-sized dog of a rich, creamy orange color, its brown eyes alert and pleasantly interested as it turned to look at those who’d just come into the room. Other than the size of the dog it could have been a day almost five years previous when that couple had been here before, only then it had been after Midsummer and now it was early spring. “Missus Esme,” she was greeted by the smallholder. “My, but it’s ever a pleasure to see you, don’t you know.”
“And you,” she said.
“We was tellin’ your husband here, we’ve been havin’ still more visitations over the years, we have. The first three years it was simple scrumpin’, but as we told you afore, it was scrumpin’ with a flair. Never again was all that was ripe taken as happened the first time, but we could still tell as it’d happened, and that it was a fine, devious mind as had directed it. But then the scrumpin’ stopped. Instead, now it wasn’t scrumpin’ as we’d find, but sometimes I’d set out to go weed the flower bed and would find as it’d already been done. For several weeks in a row I’d find the gatherin’ basket’d been taken from the shed, and the ripest tomatoes was already harvested and sittin’ in it on the table on the pavement afore the door. Then the pumpkin patch would always be hoed. One week all the thistles had been grubbed up. Near Yule we’d find a great pile of greens to use in decoratin’ the hole waitin’ for us, all wrapped neat as neat in an old tarp.
“Then last Sterday I found this....” He lifted from his lap a folded sheet of paper and handed it to her.
She accepted it, exchanged a look with Sara, unfolded it, smoothing it automatically, then read it aloud. “I thank you for your patience and forbearance.” That was all it said, but she felt a knot of some kind loosen behind her breastbone. She certainly recognized the writing.
“And you say this usually happened on a Sterday or Sunday?” Sara asked
“Yes--not every week, but often enough. Almost always a Sterday or a Sunday.”
His wife added, “I was a’teasin’ him as we had our own kobold, a seein’ to our comfort. But with this--am I right in thinkin’ as this means as we’ll be havin’ to harvest our own tomatoes now?”
Suddenly the five of them were laughing together. As the couple rose Saradoc took out his handkerchief to blow his nose. “I fear you’ll be losing your kobold indeed, from the looks of this,” he said, refolding the cloth and nodding at the note as Esme returned it. “But I thank you for letting us know.”
Esme asked, “And you never saw him?”
They paused and looked at one another before turning back to her. “Well,” he said with an apologetic smile, “if we did see him, we was too well mannered to let on, don’t you know. And we got to where we’d leave a plate of biscuits or a slice of pie in the gatherin’ basket in the shed for him, and after a time he appears to’ve realized as ’twas freely given and he’d accept it.”
The dog rose, stretching and yawning, and moved to her mistress’s side. Esme smiled at her. “She’s grown to be a lovely thing,” she commented.
“That she is. We named her Blueberry, and if the neighbors don’t find that a puzzle! But if that was all the price as we paid for her--well, we’ve been repaid many times over, atween her and our kobold.” The farmer’s wife smiled, and Esme realized she was pregnant. Seeing the focus of her hostess’s attention, the goodwife smiled more fully. “And we’ve decided as this one is, in its way, a gift of our kobold as well--with him a’weedin’ our vegetable patch, we found ourselves with a bit of time to be happy together, enjoyin’ a lie-in together, don’t you know?” And with a knowing grin, the two left, accompanied by Dodi, whose face was alive with amusement. Sara looked after them, wiping his nose again and then suddenly sneezing. But he was smiling also as he finally stowed his handkerchief back in his pocket.
While going through the stalls in the Bucklebury market Esme found herself face to face with Missus Brownloam. “Mistress Esme?” she asked, a delighted smile on her face. “How good to see you! May I have a brief word with you?”
Esme nodded uncertainly and allowed herself to be led to a quiet corner where the fellow who usually sold hooked rugs had failed to set up his own tables this time. Missus Brownloam was rooting through the basket she carried. “I was rather hoping as I might run into you here,” she said. “Ah, here it is.” She pulled out a bag loosely woven of rough fibers, filled lumpily and sewn across the top. “Would you mind carrying this to the Hall and giving it on to young Master Frodo? And thank him for the many times he cleaned the panes of our glass house or weeded the pea patch. And thank you so very much.”
“Wait!” Esme said as the Hobbitess made to walk away. “What was he doing weeding the pea patch or cleaning your glass house?”
“I think he felt as he was paying his debt,” Missus Brownloam said, smiling. “Let’s leave it at that, please. I don’t think he would wish it spoken of.” And with that she hurried away.
From what she could tell, the bag was filled with hazelnuts, undoubtedly from the last harvest. Frodo, she knew, loved hazelnuts.
As April reached its middle Esmeralda Took Brandybuck found the impending separation looming over her, and the pain that would come of it seemed almost more than she could bear. On the fifteenth she announced at first breakfast, “I will be going to Crickhollow for the day, and I hope you will all forgive me if I don’t want company.”
Crickhollow House had been a retreat for the folk of the Hall and had served as a guest house for those family members who’d moved out of it and preferred to remain apart from it during visits back to Buckland for well over a hundred years. The high hedges that surrounded the house and its acreage, the creek-fed pond, small barn that served on occasion as byre and stable both, the paddock, the gardens--all served together to grant peace to those who felt the need to be apart. There was an agelessness to the place that seemed to hearten those who stayed there, and a different form of permanence than one found in the Hall. For all it was a house and no smial it yet seemed closer to nature and more open to the comfort of tilled earth and fruiting trees.
After having been entrusted with the key by Sara and given him a parting kiss, Esme went to the stables with Mac and helped saddle Moll, who’d been her own mount for years. Moll had been foaled on the farm at Whitwell two years before she married Sara, and now in her teens was getting on in years; but Esme couldn’t imagine riding one of the Buckland ponies instead of her beloved friend. “Let’s see, lass, if you remember your manners,” Esme said as she mounted from the block. Accepting the bag holding provender for the day, Esme allowed Mac to lead the way to the paddock gate, and rode out of it to turn toward Crickhollow, some three miles away. They arrived within an hour, and she found the gate waiting open for her, an indication that word had been given to the folk at Orchard Place that Crickhollow would be in use for the day; and inside she found wood had been laid for fires in the kitchen cooking hearth, the parlor, and the main bedroom. However, she realized, once she’d seen Moll turned out into the paddock and the blanket and saddle set over the tree in the small barn and the house opened and the supplies sent explored, that she didn’t wish to remain indoors, but wanted most a solitary ramble, a luxury the Mistress-in-training got to enjoy very rarely any more.
The day was just warm enough to be comfortable, and there were daffodils, narcissi, bluebells, and other early flowers blooming along the wagon track and bridle trails. Esme walked back out the gate and pushed it closed behind her (“Remember, lass, it can take but a moment’s lapse for a pony to get loose; and they can wander farther than you’d think in but a minute’s time,” her father used to say), and set off to see where her feet would lead her. She found herself drifting eastward, drawn by the mass of the High Hay, many of the shrubs that made up its bulk budding and a few actually blooming now--mostly small pink or parchment-colored flowers that gave cheer to the great, intertwined hedge.
She’d been walking for about twenty minutes, following a barely discernible track that had angled off in a southeasterly direction from the main route to the Hay Gate when she topped a ridge and looked down into a small dingle surrounded by a circle of birches and poplars, the entire bowl of which appeared to be filled with woods violets.
“Oh!” she said, her heart lifting at the beauty of it. Slowly and carefully she made her way into the dingle, finding a place where she could sit upon the grass and not crush any of the blossoms that surrounded her, delighting in the vivid color and the delicate odor, and watching with quiet joy as some of the earliest butterflies--simple white creatures, smaller than those that would be more prevalent later in the spring and throughout the summer--wandered from bloom to bloom, the purity of their white wings a striking contrast to the deep purple of the violets and the green herbage that surrounded her.
Frodo would love it here, she thought, just before she noted the stick of graphite lying on the ground near where she sat. She leaned over to pick it up, and smiled as she held it. It appeared that Frodo did love it here, and had been here recently, probably the day before yesterday when he’d disappeared from the Hall after completing his morning tasks and hadn’t reappeared until shortly before tea, bringing her a bouquet of--of violets. Holding the graphite stick to her, she closed her eyes and concentrated on filling herself with the scent, listening to the song of chaffinch and blackbird, and in the distance the raucous calls of starlings and crows. Then she heard voices, voices approaching the dingle.
“He sounds a clever one indeed,” commented one voice--not the voice of a Hobbit at all--apparently a Big Folk, a voice that held a deep, warmly dark timbre to it, a voice that brought to mind ancient woods and singing birds.
“Ah, but there’s no question as to that,” came the reply. This voice was familiar, both because it came from a Hobbit and because she was certain she’d heard it before. “A fine, intelligent lad he is, and apparently one with a mind to set right what he’s marred. First time I heard from my neighbors as one had come onto their places not to scrump but to mend and weed, I suspected as it was that Baggins lad, seekin’ to ease his heart of what ill as he might have caused. And it took time and patience to assure myself as I was right. I’ve watched him sweep steps and paths, reset stones to mark the edges of walks, hoe fields, repair gaps in fences and hedges, set the cattle to wanderin’ toward their byres toward sunset. My youngest brother and my oldest lad have both glimpsed him in our farthest fields, cultivatin’ with that hoe of his as he carries with him. I’m only sorry that I appear to have frightened him so, me and the dogs.”
Maggot? she thought. Apparently. But what’s he doing with Big Folk?
“I’ve heard the trees speaking of him,” another voice said, one that was lighter than the first, the words uttered almost sung rather than spoken. “A dreamer and one with the heart to find beauty. Oh, he’s ventured through the Hay a time or two, but never far enough for the trees to catch him unawares. Once in spring he came, and a rowan all but slew him with its beauty.”
“He’s a right wary one. Never fully trained to know the ways of the sowing and harvest, but still one in rhythm with the land and its folks. I can see him, crowned with violets as he was the other day. He’d been in the dingle there, speaking with the young daughter of Haygate Farm, and she wove that crown for him. He’s one to give heart, I’m thinkin’; one to see folk come to their best.”
Maggot broke off, then after a time continued, “I hear as he’ll be leavin’ Buckland, going with old Bilbo Baggins to the heart of the Shire, there Hobbiton-way. They say as old Bilbo’s cracked--quite mad, according to Otho Sackville-Baggins who’s his cousin. But Otho himself doesn’t listen to the Shire speakin’--not its folk, not its earth. Bilbo does--has eyes to see and the heart to understand. If anyone can help that lad come to his own fullness, it’s Baggins. But I find I’ll be missin’ the lad.”
After another pause the singing voice said, “The Sun moves on its journey, and I must return to my lady, bring to her the earliest lily bulbs and blooms for her pleasure. I don’t know if I’ll come this way again soon, friends, but rejoice to see the two of you together. Brother Radagast--too long have you dwelt beyond the mountains--these lands also need your services, and those who guard the settled places deserve your heartening. Do not seek to leave all the needs of Eriador to your fellow, for I know he is as often in the valley of the Anduin as he is in Imladris.”
“I thought you gave no care to the doings outside your own borders!” laughed the deeper voice.
The singing voice was more solemn when it spoke again. “I have accepted the bounds set to my own lands, but the Shadow seeks to rise once more, and if it does, it will not honor them as I do.” Then the tone grew light again. “A merry afternoon to the two of you, for my beloved Goldberry awaits my return, with fresh bread and sweet honey and rich butter upon the table.” And the voice broke out into song that was filled with delight and nonsense, and she could tell the singer was drawing away.
“Home through the Hay Gate, Tom must be going.
The Withywindle leads him home, once bright moon is showing.
Now a-hey down, a-hoy down, down, down a-dillo,
Past hedge and tree, root and bole, poplar and willow.”
As the singing grew fainter, she heard the deeper voice laugh. “Ever Iarwain has sung and danced upon the hilltops of the land that has accepted him. An easing it is to see him again--it is long since I knew his company last. In one thing alone is he wrong--three years have I lingered this side of the Mountains of Mist, seeing to the damage caused here by the Enemy’s creatures. The time comes for me to return to my own chosen place--perhaps the last time before the great storm falls.”
“And you were the one to send my dog back to me?”
“Yes--the child did not understand it wished only to play and sought to finish the chase as it was accustomed to know, with praise and a merry petting. It could feel the child’s terror and sought to come to him, to soothe him; but the child hid behind a slatted gate and would not let it come nearer. A good beast, your dog--one to see the heart of truth better than the child at that time.”
“It’s good he goes back to the Westfarthing, I’m thinking,” Maggot said. “If any can bring the brightness back to him, I wager as it’ll be old Mad Baggins. At least the hope could be seen in him again when I glimpsed him here, two days back.
“Now I, too, must be off if I’m to have Obi ferry me across the Brandywine before midafternoon and allow me to be on Bamfurlong soil before sunset. My missus is awaitin’ me and my news on the sale to the Master. Good day to you, sir.”
“It is ever good to meet those in tune with the land as you are, friend Maggot,” the deep voice said.
A time longer Esme stayed in the dingle to give the three odd companions time each to go his own way. She slipped the graphite drawing stick into her pocket, and at last rose and climbed with regret out of the dingle, looking down one last time once she was at the top, smiling to know she’d managed to follow her odd lad’s tracks at least once and had managed to piece together a bit more of how he’d spent those lost hours between his confrontation with Maggot and his final return to the Hall.
But why hadn’t he spoken of the encounter with an odd Big Folk who’d apparently sent the dog home?
“Where have you been all these hours?”
“A byre somewhere. The dogs chased me, and I fled.” The memory of Rory’s question and Frodo’s answer came back to her. Poor lad, huddled there, apparently in a stall, the gate of it closed against a young dog that only wished assurance this was a game such as it played every day. She wondered if she should suggest to Bilbo he obtain a dog so that Frodo might get beyond his fear of the animals.
Sunset was near as she approached Hall land again, and as she started to pass the boundary stone she saw something odd that had been draped over it. She halted Moll and slipped from the saddle, reaching out to take it in her hands--a dried wreath woven from violets.
She found she was shivering as the surrey turned up the lane toward that still-familiar green door she’d not seen for so many years. True, they’d seen the lad at Midsummers at the Free Fair, but this was the first true time to see him in his new setting, no longer a son of the Hall but instead the young Master of Bag End.
A trap was paused just short of the lane, its occupants glaring at those in the surrey. Esme felt a stab of satisfaction at the expressions to be seen on the faces of Otho, Lobelia, and Lotho Sackville-Baggins. No, the S-Bs were not happy, from what she could tell.
The door was being drawn open as Sara pulled the surrey to a halt, and Bilbo was on the step, his face alight. “Well, here you are, then. Come in! Come in! Oh, Merry, my lad--how wonderful to see you. Frodo will be so glad to know you’re here at last. No, he’s in the kitchen, you see--left him pulling a cake out of the oven. Wanted to greet you first.”
Daddy Twofoot was coming up the lane after them. “Well, if the lad ain’t been alive to see all of you,” he greeted them. “Shall I take your rig into Bywater to the Dragon? It would be my honor, it would.”
“Let us get the bags,” Sara was saying as he reached in to pull out the bags and hampers. Bilbo was already down the steps from the door, hugging each of them and then reaching down to take part of the luggage. Then they were going up the steps, Merry looking about with curiosity, Esme with a growing weight of anticipation as Daddy Twofoot released the brake for the surrey and headed down toward the far turn in the lane.
Bilbo had set his burdens down on the bench inside the door and was encouraging them to do the same when there was a cry from down the passageway to the kitchen. “Aunt Esme! Uncle Sara! Oh, Merry mine! You’re here at last!” And there ran toward them, his fine fawn trousers dusted with flour and a streak of it next to his nose, their lad, his face shining with sheer joy.
“He’s out walking every day, and has been swimming in the water most days during the summer. Finally gave in and went with him, I did, and if that didn’t give the gossips something to talk about! Dora’s flat given up on me, I think, shaking her head about how Some People simply Don’t Appreciate how Important it is to Preserve Decorum in their day to day lives.” It was such a perfect imitation of Frodo’s aunt’s way of speaking that they were all laughing.
“And did you see him win the first place for running in the races at the Free Fair?” Bilbo continued. “Although the nut cake he tried failed to win him anything but jokes at his expense.”
“And when he danced with the others in the Husbandman’s Dance,” Sara commented, “I thought Menegilda would expire from sheer pride. She was so very thrilled, and feels terribly bad about how she’s treated him all this time.”
“I didn’t see a bit of puffiness to his ankles,” Esme said,
“No--although I’ll admit it was gone before I got back to the Hall to fetch him back here.”
“And did I hear young Samwise explaining how he’s been teaching Frodo how to garden?” Sara asked.
“Oh, yes, our lad has him and the Gaffer both convinced he’s never touched a trowel or a pruning knife in his life--well, perhaps more the Gaffer than Sam himself. The child dotes on Frodo, he does. And Frodo’s helping teach him how to read and write--realized early on that the lad is keen to learn. I have a suspicion that our Sam will be quite a surprise to the Shire one day, when all of a sudden all realize that this is nowhere as simple a soul as they think. I’d been reading him Elvish history for some time already, and he wants so much to meet an Elf himself one day, and he’s extraordinarily perceptive and shrewd in spite of being so young a child. He and Frodo have been exploring together. I’m able to use Frodo’s need to exercise as an excuse to pry the child away from the gardens for a time each day, for otherwise I fear he’d become as blind to anything that doesn’t have roots and stems as the Gaffer himself. Between the two of them, Frodo and Sam are becoming quite the experts on the life of other creatures throughout the area. Oh, don’t be shocked, Esme, if you find caterpillars or cocoons in any odd box you might come upon in the dining room--that’s where they’re keeping them to watch them prepare to break out as moths and butterflies.”
As Sara came back to their guest room in Bag End from a rather prolonged trip to the privy he was chuckling.
“Is Merry awake yet?” Esme asked as he slipped back into bed with her and took her in his arms.
“Yes, of course.”
“Did he seem to do all right in the bed in the nursery?”
“Oh, he wasn’t in the nursery.”
“Already down the hall in Frodo’s room, then?” she asked.
“Oh, yes, and did you know that Lanti is getting fatter?”
Esme felt the grin spread across her face. “He said so?”
Sara nodded, then kissed the hollow where her neck met her shoulder. “Oh, yes, he did,” he murmured, looking up at her. “And he seemed most unwilling to accept she’s merely expecting another child.”
She laughed. “Ah--the innocence of bairns!” she murmured, kissing the top of his head and then running the tip of her finger about the tip of his ear. She paused as a particularly tantalizing odor wafted through the room. She turned her head toward the door. “I’d forgotten how one can smell such wonderful cooking in a private home,” she commented.
“Do you want to get up for first breakfast?” he asked her, and she could detect just the hint of disappointment in his eyes.
She didn’t have to think to make up her mind. “No,” she said quietly, “This morning I think I’d just like to enjoy a bit of a lie-in with you. Frodo and Bilbo can keep Merry entertained.”
His smile promised a good deal of pleasure, and together they snuggled deeper into the bed.
“I’d think that you and Sara and Rory and dear Menegilda would be most concerned for the lad’s reputation, Esmeralda,” Lobelia said as she reached out to accept the cup of tea Esme had just poured out for her.
“Well, of course we are,” Esme assured her, her tone carefully schooled. “And we’ve been delighted at how all within both Hobbiton and Bywater speak so highly of him. He enjoyed nowhere as shining an amount of praise in Buckland or the Marish, you know.”
Esme was pleased to see that Lobelia couldn’t think of a proper reply to that. Just then she heard the back door to the smial close in the distance. Good--the menfolk were coming back in and Bilbo could see to entertaining his objectionable guest himself.
Adamanta opened the door to the Master and Mistress’s bedroom at Esme’s knock. Her face was pale and exhausted, but her eyes lit at the sight of the packet Esme carried. “From Bag End?” she asked quietly. At Esme’s nod she smiled and continued, “Mother Gilda will be so very pleased, you realize. She’s only just now beginning to feel better, and she’s been so worried that Frodo might have been ill, also.”
The room was redolent with steam and mint, kettles filled with water and the pungent leaves having been kept boiling for days over the room’s fire to help the elderly Mistress breathe more easily as she fought the lung sickness. Now at last it appeared she was recovering, and she was growing fractious over the slowness of her return to her usual robust health and the boredom of being kept in bed when she’d like to be up and about the Hall.
Seeing the packet in Esme’s hand, she was demanding, “Is it from Hobbiton? From our lad? How is he?”
“I haven’t opened it yet, Mother Gilda--I knew you’d want to be the first to hear. Evidently they saved several letters and sent them all at once.” Coming in and setting a chair where light from the bedside lamp fell properly, Esme sat and slipped her finger under the seal. She quickly spotted an envelope such as Frodo had been using to send his weekly letters to the Hall and withdrew it. It was indeed addressed in Frodo’s distinctive script.
Dear all, I’m sorry I didn’t write last week, but we have just said goodbye to Gandalf. I’m so sorry we didn’t come as we’d planned to visit the Hall, but I’m not sorry to have met Gandalf the Wizard. He is a most interesting person. I found I liked him tremendously. Bilbo was speaking of us coming anyway, but now he’s caught a nasty cold, so I’m very busy seeing to it he has plenty of rosehip tea (Missus Bell, the Gaffer’s wife, swears it helps people get over a cold better) and chicken broth and all. Lots of folks have been ill, including Missus Bell and Sam’s sisters. Now even Sam has it, although Bilbo at last is beginning to get better.
I’m sorry I can’t write more, but Bilbo’s calling for a pot of tea and some rolls. At least he’s interested in food again--a sure sign he’s getting better.
I love and miss you, and look forward to seeing you all when we go to the Great Smials (or the farm at Whitwell) for Yule and to see Uncle Pal and Aunt Lanti’s new bairn born.
“I wonder why that didn’t get sent before?” Gilda sniffed as she wiped her nose once more with a great kerchief belonging to Rory, having agreed her ladylike ones were insubstantial to dealing with what she’d been through with her lung sickness.
“Probably too busy if he found himself helping both at Bag End and with the Gamgee family at Number Three,” Adamanta suggested.
As she set aside the letter from Frodo and pulled out another sheet Esme noted her own agreement that was likely, then she began scanning the sheet she held, and she felt dismay fill her. Gilda was immediately watching her closely.
“What is it?” the Mistress asked.
“Frodo caught it, too--just as Bilbo was well enough to get up, and it went into the lung sickness for him.”
“No!” insisted Mantha. Gilda’s face went paler as Esme read the note from Bilbo.
My beloved cousins,
I know the lad just wrote to say that I’m recovering well and fairly rapidly from a most miserable cold, and that at the time he wrote that letter he was very cheerful and far too proud of the fact he’d managed to avoid catching it, too, as he reminded me several times during the days it kept me in my room and my bed.
Unfortunately, it appears that he’s not so much managed to catch it at last, as it’s managed to catch him. The morning just after Auntie Laurel allowed me to rise from my sickbed Frodo himself failed to get up for second breakfast; by evening it was plain this was more than a cold, and by the next morning it was obvious he had the lung sickness and was very ill indeed.
Worry over his Aunt Gilda’s condition in light of the missive advising she, too, has the lung sickness did not help the matter. For the last day he’s suffered from a high fever and hasn’t been very coherent. His dreams are apparently frightening, and he speaks of hearing hoofbeats pursuing him and Merry. He told me this morning we must keep torches by us. I fear the adventure story he was reading last must be still inflaming his imagination.
I am told that this cold and fever is widespread through out all four Farthings as well as within Buckland. Mayor Whitfoot and your cousin Philomena suffer from it also, as does their son, Fenton; and it is so widespread within the Great Smial that Ferumbras has forbade any going there or traveling from it until it is well over. There have been three deaths in Hobbiton and Bywater, including Gammer Strawflower Boffin. Auntie Laurel is most distressed.
As soon as there is a change in our lad’s condition I will let you know.
Yours in distress,
The third letter was from Frodo’s Aunt Dora, older sister to his father.
Dearest Master Rorimac and Mistress Menegilda,
I regret to inform you that your Nephew Frodo has been Most Grievously Ill, although it appears that he is Beginning to Recover at Last. Mistress Laurel Chubbs, who is a Most Capable Healer, was Forced to use a Remedy she says she has used Most Rarely, and has steeped Kingsfoil in Boiling Water for its Vapours; and it appears the Dear Lad has Responded to its Most Wonderful Benefits. Today he has been able to sit up at Last and sip at a clear Broth, and it is Hoped that he will be allowed to Eat a Roll and perhaps some Tender Fowl this Evening.
He is Most Distressed at the News that his Beloved Aunt Gilda has been Similarly Ill, and he Prays Most Tenderly that the Next News we Hear from Brandy Hall will Tell of her Greatly Desired Recovery.
There have been Many Ill of this Dread Epidemic here in the Region of the Hill, including Several Members of the Family Gamgee. Young Samwise was ill for Some Days, but is now Fully Recovered and has Attended upon Young Frodo Most Tenderly during his Illness and Bilbo’s Recovery. However it Appears that Mistress Bell Gamgee also Suffers from the Same Condition as does Young Frodo, and does not recover so Swiftly nor Well. And word from Michel Delving is that Young Fenton Whitfoot, who at Last Report was Recovering Rapidly, Died in his Sleep a Day Since. Our Mayor and his Wife are Most Distressed--Most Distressed Indeed.
All took deep breaths, and Mistress Gilda murmured, “The Powers be praised!” Esme, shocked at the use of the sentiment, turned to appraise her mother-in-love with a new appreciation.
Saradas and Dirna had come from Bucklebury for the day, and although it was wonderful to see how much Dino and Dodi were enjoying their brother, it had fallen to Esme to entertain her husband’s aunt. “And how are your rhododendrons doing?” she asked, knowing how proud the Hobbitess was of her shrubs.
Dirna, however, wasn’t smiling that superior smile this time. “I suppose they are doing well enough,” she said. “However, the prize I’d expected to receive at the Budgeford Flower Show went to someone else instead.”
“Oh? To whom? Crocus Grubb of Waymeet?” Dirna had seen Crocus Grubb as her biggest rival for years.
Was that fury in Dirna’s eyes? “If it were Crocus that would be one thing,” Dirna said stiffly. “No--the flowers were entered by a mere lad, one from the Westfarthing. And what’s worse--they’ve apparently only had the plants established for two years, from what I was told.”
Esme was surprised, for Dirna had always managed to make it sound as if garden-quality rhododendrons were most difficult to care for--perhaps to discourage others from seeking to grow them themselves? she wondered. “A mere lad? Who?”
Dirna sniffed. “Apparently a mere nobody--some child by the name of Samwise Gamgee. I ask you--with a name like that, he must be a fool indeed, am I not right? Why, Esme, what’s wrong? Did you manage to swallow your tea improperly or something?”
It took all she could do to hide the fact she was trying desperately not to laugh out loud.
But then Horto came in, his eyes alight with excitement. “Missus Esme,” he said, smiling broadly, “we have unexpected visitors.”
“We do?” she asked, but was spared from having to ask who when a tall, slender figure burst through the door. She was on her feet instantly, the precariously balanced teapot giving up the struggle to remain on the table and smashing to the floor as she and Frodo were busy wrapping their arms about one another.
“Oh, Aunt Esme, how good to see you! Where’s Uncle Sara? And Merry--where’s my Merry-lad?” He pulled back, and she could see his color was excellent, his face full and clear, his eyes a most brilliant blue, not a speck of distress to be seen. “We just came from Budgeford, where we’d been visiting Budge Hall and Cousins Odovacar and Rosamunda and all. Oh, I find I like my cousin Freddy very much!”
“So, you’ve been visiting with the Bolgers? How wonderful!”
“Yes, and as we were going we took some flowers the Gaffer and Sam wished to exhibit at the flower show. And guess what! Sam’s rhododendrons won one of the prizes. He’ll be so thrilled when he learns it!”
Esme didn’t have to look at Dirna to know she was fuming.
The proposed meeting took place on the day the Free Fair opened, in the banquet hall for the Council Hole in Michel Delving. Present were a large contingent of Brandybucks, Paladin, Eglantine, and Ferumbras Took, Beslo Grubb (who, living in the Hall with his mother’s people, had come with the Brandybucks) as Bilbo’s personal lawyer, Bernigard Took as the representative of the Shire’s Guild of Lawyers, Odovacar Bolger, Griffo Boffin, Dora, Ponto, Iris, and Porto Baggins, and Odo Proudfoot as well as Will Whitfoot and one of his aides.
Will looked about quizzically, then turned toward Bilbo. “Dudo chose not to come?” he asked, curiously.
“No--although I actually had a letter from him. He says that as I know Frodo far better than he does, as do Rory, Menegilda, Sara, Esme, and even Paladin and Eglantine, he leaves the disposition of the situation to us. He felt the lad ought to have gone to Dora or Ponto back when his brother and Primula first died, an opinion he made plain then and that he felt didn’t need reiterating now. He can appreciate that he chose not to exercise his right to claim Frodo at that time and thus has no claim now, and that the situation is similar with Dora.”
Ferumbras noted, “I see you haven’t included your cousin Otho in the number.”
Bilbo’s face was as somber as the Thain’s as he answered, “Well, as one cannot appear to include Otho in such a gathering without getting Lobelia in the mix as well, do you blame me for not advising them? And do you truly believe anything they might say would be in the lad’s best interest?”
Ferumbras’s lip curled in distaste at mention of Missus Sackville-Baggins, and he gave a very visible shudder. “I certainly can’t fault you for excluding her,” he admitted. Dealing with his mother, all knew, was hard enough on anyone; if there was one person who had good reason to wish not to deal with another difficult Hobbitess, it was Ferumbras Took. Then he gave a sardonic smile. “No, certainly neither of them would wish the lad any better fortune than they would wish for any other individual save themselves and their odious son. And as Otho and Lobelia between them already own a far more substantial amount of land than many of the great families control, nothing dealt with here will work significantly to their financial detriment. The only prizes they might truly rue not receiving would be to be recognized as family head for the Bagginses--but, then, how many families ought any one individual--or couple--be allowed to head?--and Bag End. And I will admit that the idea of keeping Bag End out of Sackville-Baggins hands is a satisfying one.”
Bilbo interrupted, “However, here we are perhaps getting ahead of ourselves. We’ve not yet established whether or not Frodo wishes to continue matters as they are. It is his life and happiness that comes first in my personal priorities, you must understand, and he may not wish to take on the burden of family head or Master of Bag End and the Hill.” He turned to the lad, where he sat with Esme and Saradoc flanking him. “Well, my boy, what do you say? At this point it is purely your decision.”
“You can’t let a lad so young make such a choice and accept such responsibility!” objected Odo.
“And why not? When did you leave your father’s hole?”
“When I was----” Odo stopped and flushed. Odo’s father had been a difficult old soul for anyone to deal with, and Odo had moved out into his sister’s place to live with her and her husband until he came of age the day he turned twenty. “That’s different!” he spluttered.
Will Whitfoot shook his head. “I fail to see how, Odo Proudfoot,” he said. “Young Frodo’s a very mature tween from what I can see, and by far one of the most intelligent souls I’ve ever heard tell of, and in every sense of the term. His sense of responsibility is among the highest----”
“Save when he’s raiding the farms and holdings of the Marish!” muttered Odo. Then at Will’s glare he added, “Yes, I’ve heard of his adventures in scrumping, and from more than just that Lobelia. Of course, most seem to think what he done was but a lark----”
Rory gave a big snort. “Let me remember, Odo--some sixty years back it appears to me that, during a visit to the Hall alongside your Bolger cousins, you ended up being brought before the Master for having been caught scrumping three hams from a smokehouse in the Marish as well as a barrel of beer from the Bridge Inn and a half acre of potatoes from the Hall potato fields.”
Odo grew even more flushed. “We were planning a party! And what for are you bringing up my past as a lad to throw in my face now?” he demanded.
“Isn’t that what you’re doing? I’ve not heard a single complaint about this one scrumping for well over three years. Quite the opposite. And save for the disappearance of a goodly portion of a carrot crop once, I’ve never heard tell of Frodo and his friends taking more than any other group of lads in the history of the Hall. Plus he’s made recompense for what he did.” He pointed to a worn hoe that stood, incongruously leaning against a nearby table. “I can bring many witnesses who will tell you that Frodo did his best to set things right, once he realized what he was doing was taking food out of the mouths of others.” He suddenly straightened, looking about at those who sat around the room. “And I make pains to insist that not a soul of you is to speak of that fact outside this room without Frodo’s express permission. Is this understood?”
Frodo’s face was very pale, although his cheeks were flaming. His expression fixed, he looked down at the floor. The rest looked at one another, and at last, as Rory looked at each in turn, they agreed. Once Odo, as the last present, uttered his word, Frodo let loose a long-held breath, and he gave a weak smile of thanks to his uncle.
Will looked around the assembly, then turned back to Frodo. “All right, Frodo lad, tell us if you wish to continue living with your cousin Bilbo.”
Frodo glanced briefly left and right at Sara and Esme, then turned his eyes back to Will. Lifting his chin, he said with decision, “Yes.”
“Would you accept being adopted as his heir?”
“Would you accept being named family head after him?”
Will looked at Dora, Ponto, and Iris. “Is this acceptable to the Bagginses, do you think.”
“My stars, but yes,” Dora said. “Can you imagine what Otho and Lobelia would do? Probably seek to make us all wear the same color clothing, plant the same flowers in our gardens and window boxes, and take tea with them, paying them court, regularly at four on Mersdays, whatever our own wishes or needs might be.”
Ponto gave a rather sour grin at the thought. “No question that would be what we’re in for,” he agreed, “if we were to allow Otho to follow Bilbo. He and Lobelia are already making the few Sackvilles that are left miserable on a regular basis, you know.”
It was Will’s turn to shudder. “And I’m here to tell you that a group of Sackvilles only this morning approached me as to how they could legally remove him and Lobelia as family heads. And they all hate being forced to take tea with her on Trewsdays.”
Ponto nodded. “Besides,” he added, “If it weren’t the S-Bs, it would be me, and I’ll tell you here and now I don’t want the job.”
Porto gave a snort. “Nor do I.”
After looking about at all those Bagginses present, Will exchanged an inquiring glance with the Thain, then said, “Well, there we have it.” He looked at the Brandybucks. “You lot in agreement with this?” he asked.
Rory looked at Menegilda, obviously ceding the floor to her. She sighed and straightened, then looked at Frodo. “We had our chance with you, dearling,” she said quietly, “and we--I----” She paused, then continued. “We had our chance, and I nearly killed you with kindness. And I apologize. I won’t tell you now what motivated me, but I agree that this is best for you, and for your family of name.” She gave Bilbo a sideways look and added, a rather superior expression on her face, “And it’s about time the family Baggins got some responsible leadership!”
Bilbo straightened and started to splutter, but Bernigard Took cuffed him on the side of the head, laughing. “That’s enough from you, whose claim to fame, according to your own tales, is that you served as a burglar for a horde of Dwarves!” All were laughing now, and even Bilbo was reluctantly beginning to grin.
Frodo’s eyes were now bright with carefully withheld tears. “Thank you, Aunt Menegilda. You know how very much I love you. But I can’t go back--not now.”
“I understand. And I want you to know how very much I love you and how I respect your decision.”
Rory cleared his throat. “One condition we lay on you, Bilbo--well, actually three. The lad may visit us whenever he pleases, and we may visit him whenever we please, and particularly Merry.”
“Agreed.” There was a world of dignity in Bilbo’s voice, and Esme was glad he didn’t try to point out he’d not withheld Frodo’s presence from them yet and wouldn’t think to try. When he let it show through, Bilbo had a marked level of nobility, she realized.
“Second, you won’t take Frodo outside the boundaries of the Shire and Buckland combined before he comes of age.”
“Agreed.” Esme saw a hint of disappointment on Frodo’s face, one quickly schooled away.
“Third, you won’t leave the Shire and him until he’s of age, no matter how strong the urge to start wandering gets--and don’t think we don’t see it on you at times.”
“I’ll certainly not think of leaving him to Lobelia and Otho’s untender mercies while he’s not yet reached his majority,” Bilbo answered him. “Agreed.”
“Do you agree, Frodo?”
Frodo gave a contained nod, finally saying, “Yes.”
Beslo and Berni gave an inquiring look at Will, who nodded. At that they came forward with the papers Beslo had already prepared and that Berni had reviewed.
Ferumbras said, “No, wait.” He looked at the others present. “Are all of you in agreement regarding this adoption?” he asked.
“We don’t have to be in agreement,” Griffo pointed out. “Bilbo is family head for the Bagginses, as I’ll be for the Boffins of the Hill region when my father dies. He’s well within his rights as family head of name for Frodo to make any arrangements he pleases for the lad, and with more right to do so than I’d have, were he a Boffin born under my authority.”
“But do you agree anyway?” the Thain persisted.
Griffo answered simply, “Yes.”
Ferumbras looked at each of the others present, and only when each and every one agreed did he finally nod. “All right, then I must agree, also, as all these representatives of Frodo’s family ties are in agreement.” He signed to the two lawyers to go forward, and soon their documents were laid out for all to examine and, at long last, sign. Will had brought the proper ledger to register this guardianship and adoption agreement within, and he made a great show of writing in the details. At long last Bilbo went to a low chest that stood on the table behind the Thain and unlocked it, bringing out the blue-bound Book of Baggins, and noted the particulars in it, having Frodo stand by him to observe how it was to be done.
At last, when the last signature in red ink was affixed and the last volume left open for all to examine at their leisure to ascertain all had been done properly, Bilbo turned to Frodo and held out his arms. Frodo came forward slowly, examining his older cousin’s face carefully as he did. “For the sake of your parents, whom I loved so deeply, I accept you as if you were indeed my son, and I hope I will do them proudly, sweetling,” Bilbo said, his hands resting on Frodo’s shoulders, before with a wordless shout Frodo pulled free, then threw himself into Bilbo’s arms.
“My boy, my dear, precious, star-kissed boy,” Bilbo was saying softly, then murmured something in Elvish in Frodo’s ear. Frodo laughed and answered him, also in Elvish; answered him easily, Esme noted.
No, there was no question that this was right and proper--right and proper for her Frodo.
No, not my Frodo--for Frodo’s Frodo. She found herself smiling through her own tears.
And when Frodo Baggins stood up alongside Bilbo and Isumbard Took and his cousin Merimac to dance the Husbandman’s Dance, all could say that on that day there was no one who shone in the whole of the company like Frodo Baggins.