Angelica Baggins Proudfoot opened the door and stood openmouthed with pleased surprise. “Delphie? You’ve come?”
“If you don’t mind,” her older sister said, smiling. “It’s just that it’s been a time since I saw you last, is all.”
“Then Bartolo is off on business?” suggested Geli shrewdly as she ushered Delphinium Bracegirdle into the smial.
“Yes--he’s out in Bree, seeing some papers signed,” Delphie answered.
“And the children?”
“Persi’s busy with his apprenticeship at the Great Smial, and the rest were invited to spend a few days with Barti’s sister Lavinia and her brood--don’t ask me why, but she does seem to like to have them come stay with her, even if we do just live across the village; and having some time to myself I thought I’d come see my sister and her family.”
A small lass sat in the center of the parlor, cradling an obviously well-loved doll to herself, murmuring to it in low tones. “An’ the King married the bootiful Elf-princess,” she was saying as Delphie came close enough to hear, “an’ they lived in the Cit’del at the top a’ the city, and the Hobbit thought as she was the most bootiful lady as he’d ever seed. An’ he was glad as his friend the King was happy and had found his own hope. An’ the Hobbit went home, and hoped when he got there he’d find his, too.”
There was something in the way this was said that touched Delphinium Bracegirdle. “Hello, Cyclamen,” she said softly. “That’s a lovely story you’re telling your dolly.”
The lass looked up, examining her carefully. “Hello,” she said. “You look like Mummy, almost.”
“She’s your Auntie Delphie, sweetling,” Geli said, smiling. “She was able to come visit from Hardbottle. She looks like me ’cause we’re sisters. She’s not been able to visit since you were a tiny bairn.”
“Hello, Auntie Delphie,” Cyclamen said. She stood up and came to stand at her aunt’s feet looking up.
Delphie knelt down to examine her small niece eye-to-eye. “And where did you hear that story?” she asked.
“Cousin Frodo--he told it in the village. He knows the King.”
“So I understand. Do you like his stories?”
“Oh, yes, I do. Do you like them?”
“I doubt I’ve heard as many as you have, for I’m older than he is, and I’d left Overhill to marry your Uncle Bartolo not that long after Uncle Bilbo adopted him, after all. But the few I’ve heard I’ve liked.”
The child smiled. “I’m glad you like them. I wanna go there, maybe, where the King lives.”
“So, the King found his hope, did he?”
Cyclamen nodded. “His hope was the Lady Arwen.”
“And did the Hobbit find his hope, too?”
The child’s face grew troubled. “Maybe some. But I dunno if it’s ’nuff. His hand’s hurt--did you know?”
“Whose? Frodo’s?” At the lass’s solemn nod, Delphie smiled sadly. “Yes, I heard that he lost his finger.”
“How do you lose a finger?”
“I think it was when he was trying to get rid--get rid of the bad thing he took away from the Shire. He was hurt at the end, and it hurt his hand so his finger was cut away.”
“Oh.” Cyclamen appeared to be thinking on that. At last she said, “I wouldn’t wanna lose my finger.”
“No, I wouldn’t want to do so, either....”
Much later in the afternoon Delphinium went up the lane to Bag End carrying a bag of sweet buns she’d purchased when she, Geli, and Cyclamen walked into the village. Just inside the picket gate she found Sam Gamgee carefully shaping the inside of the hedge. He heard the gate open and turned to face her, straightening in a way she’d not seen him stand before. Oh, always he’d been a remarkably responsible soul; but what she saw now showed one on guard. His face started to relax as he said, “Oh, Missus Angelica--no.” His expression now watchful, he said, “May I help you?”
“I’m Geli’s sister, Delphinium Bracegirdle. It’s been quite some time since I called on my cousin Frodo. I hope I’m not intruding.”
He examined her, and she rather thought that he was tempted to say that the Master wasn’t in. Instead, after a slightly longer moment of pondering, his innate honesty won out. “Mr. Frodo’s up, atop the Hill. I doubt as he’d mind if you was to go up to him. Shall I show you the way, Missus Bracegirdle?”
“No--if you’d but tell me the best way up, that would be all, thank you--sir,” she added, feeling that he deserved the recognition of that sir.
He flushed slightly, but where in earlier years he would have ducked his head in embarrassment, he now stood his ground, giving but the slightest of inclinations to his head as he accepted the courtesy shown. His tone, however, was less formal as he explained, “You need but follow the walk here to the back of the Hill, and you’ll see as there’s blue steppin’ stones goin’ up to the right. I’ll be bringin’ up some tea shortly for him, if’n you’d like some. And my Rosie’s baked some ginger biscuits with raisins--they’re quite good.”
She smiled. “Thank you indeed, Mr. Gamgee--I’d be honored. I brought these--perhaps you’d like to add a few to the tray for Frodo, and share the remainder with your wife? Cyclamen sampled one while we were in the bakeshop and has assured me they are very tasty.”
His face now softened. “She’s a dear little lass, and my Master’s comin’ to dote on her, I must say. Always has had a soft place in his heart for bairns, he has.”
“I never understood why he never married. Oh, I know all about Pearl Took and all, but certainly she’s not the only one who would have had him in a heartbeat. My sister-in-love would have had been thrilled to have claimed him, had he but smiled at her. But I’d always hoped that perhaps Narcissa----”
But he was shaking his head. “No, Missus Delphinium, he couldn’t. We didn’t understand afore, but we know why now.” She saw the sad acceptance in his eyes, and realized that somehow he believed the Ring had been to blame for Frodo not looking at the lasses any more.
“I understand,” she said softly, and suddenly he was again searching her eyes.
“They told you, there in Bree?” he asked.
“No--they didn’t tell me, but--well, one does pick up on things.”
Sam sighed and nodded. “Just try not to let on to him as you know much--he doesn’t want folks to know as what happened out there. Doesn’t want the Shire to have to understand the worst of it. He’d rather be the one as knows the pain and grief, not our folk. Bad enough what that Sharkey and his Big Men and Gatherers and Sharers did here--understandin’ just how horrible the Enemy was and made his folks act is far, far worse. You can’t understand how bad it could be unless you saw it, and we saw it--and him worse even than the rest of us.”
“I promise,” she said. “They are all so concerned about him, you know, and they all honor all four of you.”
Again he nodded as he tucked his clippers under his arm and accepted the bag of sweet buns. “I’ll see you in a bit, then.” So saying, he gave a courteous inclination of his head and turned to go into the smial. She watched after him, noting how his steps were deliberate, even authoritative, before she turned to follow his directions down through the gardens toward the back of the smial.
The last time she’d been here in the gardens themselves had been many years ago, for Frodo’s second birthday at Bag End. The first birthday had been small and rather private, attended by Saradoc and Esmeralda Brandybuck and their son, the Whitwell Tooks, Odovacar Bolger and his family, and the Gamgees. The second joint birthday party between Bilbo and Frodo had included all of the Bagginses with whom she was familiar save for Frodo’s Uncle Dudo, although his daughter Daisy had come to Hobbiton accompanying Gander Proudfoot and his wife, who’d also been invited. Her father Fando had not truly approved of his Cousin Bilbo since he’d had the poor taste to entertain an adventure; however, as Bilbo was the family head for the Bagginses he felt there was no reason to insult him by refusing to come.
The garden then had been beautiful, as it was now; but she could see as she looked around that there were distinct differences. Many of the trees that had been well-established when she’d visited then had obviously been replaced with young trees probably no more than a few years old. The lilacs were not as full as they had been, and most of the rose bushes had been replaced. She saw places where gouges in the Hill had obviously been filled in, and stacks of wood from the sheds lay near where some of the vegetable plots has always been. Apparently Sam hadn’t had as much time to work on the kitchen gardens to the extent he’d labored to reestablish the flower beds.
She rounded the north end of the Hill and saw the steps as described by Sam. She looked up but could see nothing beyond the berry hedge that ringed the summit of the Hill; giving a sigh she turned that way and began the climb. The way wasn’t particularly steep or difficult, and in minutes she’d passed the bushes that offered a semblance of privacy to those who went atop the Hill, and saw what appeared to be the back of a great chair where the rooftree to Bag End had stood, a smaller sapling rising nearby it. As she rounded the chair she realized that the great stump of the old oak that had once crowned the Hill had been carved into the semblance of a high seat, and that Frodo sat there on it, a tray with stacks of papers and bottles of ink, quills, steel pens, and drawing sticks lying on the ground at his feet. His elbows rested on the arms of the great seat and his hands were clasped in his lap as he looked out over the Shire from his high place.
“Well, Cousin Frodo--how regal you look!”
He turned in surprise, having apparently not heard her approach. “Delphinium?” he asked as he rose to his feet. A surprised smile broke across his face. “Oh, come and be seated!”
He rose and leaned down to move the tray when she saw his balance waver. She stepped forward to help him right himself, and gave him a press back onto the seat. “No, let you sit there again. I wouldn’t have you leave your place, Frodo.”
He sat down rather heavily. “But it’s not right....”
“It’s all right for you to grow dizzy from leaning over too rapidly? Nay, Frodo--sit and be comfortable.”
His face had gone very pale, save for the tips of his cheeks. “I’m sorry, Delphie,” he murmured.
“And for what are you apologizing, Frodo Baggins? For not being as well as you were before you left the Shire?”
The pink in the center of his cheeks grew more distinct. “And what makes you think I’m not well?” he demanded.
“You think I wouldn’t recognize the signs of great headaches, Frodo? I saw you the day of the Free Fair as you opened the festivities and as you saw to the signing of Persivo’s indentures. I’ve heard the rumors that you’ve not danced since you returned to the Shire, and saw you when the Elves sang for us--sang of what you and Sam did.” She sank down to sit to one side of his stump-chair.
His cheeks now grew pale with alarm. “I would not have anyone know I’m not well,” he said. “And what do you know of what Sam and I did?”
“No one told us what you did, Cousin--you may be assured of that. What we might have figured out--that is another matter, of course. We know that you and Sam were separated from the others, that all of you were endangered, and that all of you nearly died. We know that the Rangers honor all of you most deeply, and that all are concerned for your health and well-being in particular, as appears to be true of the Elves as well. And we know what we can see when we see you--that you are more quiet and withdrawn; and I’m certain that you wouldn’t have refused to stand for election as Mayor unless you had good reason, the most likely being that you are concerned for your ability to continue to serve as Mayor. You were sick in the spring, after all.”
He sighed and looked away from her. “Oh, Delphie--I don’t wish to be seen as an invalid or sickly.”
“And we’re not going to discuss it with anyone, although you can be certain that we aren’t the only ones able to do sums of one and one.”
He turned back to look at her, examining her face minutely. “I see,” he sighed.
“Most appear to think it’s just the private Baggins in you coming out,” she added. “That’s what old Odo believes, at least, according to Geli.”
“Thank the Powers for small mercies,” he said softly. After several minutes of quiet consideration he asked, “And why did you come today, Delphie?”
“Barti’s out of the Shire having the documents signed that I must assume are for your benefit, the younger children are all with Lavinia, Persi’s now resident in the Great Smial about his apprenticeship, and I thought to come here to Hobbiton to see my sister--a blessing I get to enjoy so rarely, what with Barti’s prejudices against what he sees as unseemly behavior.”
He nodded thoughtfully.
“And, since I was in the neighborhood I found I wished to visit you myself. It’s been too long, Frodo, since you and I had the chance to talk. Do you have the least idea as to why Barti resents you so?”
“No,” he said, shaking his head. “He’s not been anything other than coldly polite to me when we must meet since I was a teen and you two were tweens. I never really understood--you’re enough older than me that there was no way in which he could ever see me as a rival, or so I’d think. I used to think it was because he was Lobelia’s own nephew, although then I realized that couldn’t be it--he and his mother and sister have always detested her, after all. Then I thought perhaps it was for Lavinia’s sake--I was so innocent when I was a lad--I didn’t even realize that there was a time she was drawn to me until after I thought I was in love with Pearl. Only then did I realize--when she pointed it out to me, rather smugly I’ll admit, that so many lasses were watching after me. I thought for a time that perhaps he thought that I was in league with Timono, there when he was stealing from all of us; but I’m certain he has to realize that wasn’t true, particularly after I went for the second time into the fishing lake to retrieve more things Timono had thrown in there.”
Again he gave a shake of his head. “I remember that one of the things I found there was the pair of shirt studs Bartolo’s grandda gave him. When we saw them again in that box of things the Rangers found, the things Lobelia and Lotho had gathered--I was so angry for him. It’s hard to say which was worse, Lotho or Timono.”
“Yes, I know.” After a moment she added, “I’m sorry if Barti upset you that morning.”
He shrugged and looked away again. “It was nothing.”
“Nothing? Oh, my dear cousin--I love my husband dearly, but I’m not blind to his faults. He’s impatient and, all too often, thick as a plank when it comes to understanding others. And he hasn’t the slightest idea how to understand you, Frodo. I suspect that you said something self-deprecating and he took it literally, didn’t he? Yes, I thought so. And don’t try to convince me it was all your fault, him misunderstanding you. He simply can’t understand subtlety at all, or that most folks criticize themselves for things that aren’t really their fault as you’ve been known to do. You take your responsibilities far too seriously, you know. No one is responsible for everything, and I’ve heard Isumbard Took discussing with Barti and Rico how you seem to believe that somehow you might have done something to stop Lotho from allowing all those Big Men and bully boys into the Shire to do what they did. And what could you have done, without you not doing what you did do, which I’m given to understand helped save us all, Men and Elves and Dwarves as well as Hobbits, from far worse than Sharkey’s plans?”
Again his cheeks grew bright pink, although he kept his silence. She examined his face once more until he looked away. She then turned to look out at the view from the top of the Hill. “It’s beautiful from up here,” she said.
“I know.” After a time of mutual silence he said, “I remember wondering if I’d ever see this view again, there when I left Bag End to go to Buckland. Once I’d made up my mind I had to protect the Shire by leaving it, I found I didn’t really want to go after all. This was my home--has been my home since I wasn’t quite twenty-two yet. The Shire is the home of my heart, and this has ever been one of my favorite places to look out at it from. Yet there’s so much world out there, and so many people I’d never thought to meet whom I’ve come to love--Aragorn, Faramir, the Lady Arwen, Elves and Men and Dwarves and Ents--even Eagles. And so many I’ll not see again--not in this life, at least--Boromir and that one of Faramir’s Men who brought the basin so Sam and I could wash when we joined them--I understand he died in the assault on Osgiliath. Gloin is still alive, but not two of the Dwarves that accompanied him and Gimli to Rivendell, for they died with Dain Ironfoot in the assault on Erebor and Dale. At least three of the Elves I met in Lothlorien are gone now, and the Man I sat by for so many hours in the Houses of Healing--the one who was so badly burned in the assaults on the city when the Enemy flung balls of stuff that exploded into flames and set whole streets aflame in the first and second levels.”
Delphie sat quietly, just listening as Frodo described some of the people he’d met on his journey, shopkeepers and artisans, soldiers and children who’d crept up the levels of the city to spy on the Hobbits in their guest house, healers and guards, lords and tradesmen. He spoke of the frustration of not being allowed to pay for his meals at inns, and how they’d all become fascinated by the woman assigned to keep their house, and watching a ball of glowing stuff being blown into bowls and jars and vases in the glassblower’s shop. He described his visits with the artist he’d met who kept a shop in the Fifth Circle and the minstrel who’d befriended him while he was recovering in Ithilien. “He wrote the song the Elves sang at Midsummer,” he explained. He described the majesty of the King’s city, the spare beauty of the dead White Tree and the joy when Aragorn found the new tree on the mountainside to replace it.
“And then there was the night when neither Aragorn nor I could sleep, and we met there beneath the young White Tree, and he described how it was he’d found the Tree, with Gandalf leading him out of the city by night to the King’s Hallow. He offered to take me there--said that he felt as if I, too, had a special right to enter that place, but I wouldn’t go. So we sat under the Tree and he quietly sang songs he’d learned in the House of Elrond as a boy, and I was transported and rested, eased as I’d not been in days.”
“You truly love this new King of ours, then?”
“How did you meet him?”
He was answering her when Sam arrived with the tray for tea, and he sat on the other side of Frodo and joined in the descriptions of how they’d come to know Strider the Ranger and eventually came to realize that he would one day be crowned King of Gondor and Arnor.
“And who’d of thought as there’d be the day as the King’d come back, and we’d not only see it but be a part of it, don’t you know?” Sam asked. “Our Lord Strider--he’s a special one, he is.”
And they ate boiled eggs and ginger biscuits and the sweet buns she’d brought, and drank fragrant tea, and spoke of high doings in the White City and teas consisting of sips of water and trail foods taken in hidden hollows within Eriador.
When at last Delphinium reluctantly rose to take her leave she saw that Frodo appeared comfortable and even happy. “Thank you, Frodo--you’ve made it real for me. Lord Berevrion has told us some, as did Master Alvric--what the King’s city is like, that is. But now I feel as if I’d recognize it if I were to visit it one day.”
“I hope that you might do that, although I’m not certain how you’d pry Bartolo out of the Shire to go that far.”
She laughed, then bent to kiss Frodo’s cheek. Once again his cheeks flushed, and with pleasure this time. “I’ve so enjoyed this afternoon, Frodo Baggins,” she told him. “And thank you for whatever it was you did--thank both of you, for I’m certain that both of you were needed to see it done. And I, at least, am so very glad you did survive to come home once more--the Shire would have never have recovered as well as it did, Frodo, without what you’ve done as Deputy Mayor to see things set right again.”
She took his hand and pressed it warmly. He searched her eyes, then smiled that so-sweet smile of his. “Thank you, Delphie. And your children, the ones I’ve met, at least, are such special ones.”
“Not blockheaded Bracegirdles, I understand,” she smiled, amused to see his cheeks flush again. Laughing, she took her leave, glad she’d taken the chance to spend an afternoon with him. She spent the night with Geli and Sancho, and next day headed back to Hardbottle, noting Frodo sitting in the common, surrounded by children, as she passed through the village of Hobbiton.