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99
Marred Gifts

Written particularly for Golden for the LOTR Community Yule Exchange, and betaed by RiverOtter, with many thanks for the quick work! Jada, you love so to give specific challenges....


~~~

Marred Gifts


Saradoc poured tea for himself and Paladin, listening to his brother-in-love’s complaints with interest. “He’s driving us quite to distraction, Sara,” Pal was saying. “You know how difficult it can be at times to follow his thinking. It’s now to the point that his thoughts skip about so they seem to run together, making it almost impossible at times to appreciate just what point he might be trying to make. And it’s just as bad in his writing--the letter he intended to send Jade thanking her for the gift she gave him for her birthday--well, you read it!”

He produced a sheet of paper from his pocket that had been crumpled and then carefully smoothed and folded, handing it to his sister’s husband. Saradoc set the teapot on the table and accepted the sheet, unfolding it carefully. Pippin’s scrawl appeared more illegible than usual, it seemed, and his words were just as difficult to interpret.

Dear Auntie Jade,

I can’t tell you just how pleased the bow is wonderful! I love the carving on the handgrip is so well wrapped. Did you find Pervinca says it in Pincup? I love the ones Uncle Ferdinand likes the coffee the Dwarves bring Frodo.


Saradoc looked up, his right ear twitching slightly as he rubbed thoughtfully at his temple. “Did she give him a bow, then?”

“Yes--she bought it in Waymeet rather than having Ferdinand make it for him.”

“How he got from bowmaking to Pincup to coffee I can’t begin to make out, Pal.”

“Nor can we. It’s why I’m here, really. The lessons master at the Great Smial is at his wit’s end as to what to do, so I was wondering if you’d agree to allow me to send Peregrin here for the winter. It’s said that your Cousin Meriman has done wonders for discipline in the school room in the Hall since he became lessons master here. Do you think he’d take on Pippin?”

Sara smiled. “He will if I say that my nephew is to be here, Pal. Certainly you can send Pippin here for the winter. Merry and Beri will be delighted!”

*******


Berilac Brandybuck was most certainly not delighted to have his cousin Peregrin residing at Brandy Hall for the winter. For one thing, now the small Took was here it seemed that all the plans he and Merry had made to prepare Yule gifts together had gone hang; and even when he could get Merry to help him, Pippin was always there to put his own all-too-destructive hand into the mix, leaving any project he touched marred and grubby looking. The potholders they were weaving for the cooks were all filled with holes since Pippin had found them and tried to “help” finish them. The wall shelf he’d been making for his father was improperly glued and had been painted an unwholesome pink, then was dropped on the floor of the workshop while still tacky and now had wood shavings and dirt adhering to it. As for the poem he’d been copying and illuminating for his mother--Beri shuddered! Frodo had provided him with the parchment and ink, and had sketched in the illustration of the shepherd lad Beri’d wanted done for him to paint himself. Finding this with its ink drying on the windowsill in the schoolroom, Pippin had taken it on himself to fill in the colors in the shepherd lad’s costume, and there were now spots of blue and orange all over the sheet, many of them running together to make a horrible muddy brown.

“It’s not so bad,” Merry was saying as Beri held this latest disaster in his hands, shaking with anger and frustration. “He means well, you know.”

“But it’s the only sheet of parchment I had!” Beri shouted. “You know that! I don’t have enough pocket money to get any more, and who knows when Frodo will come again to do the drawing over? And Pippin never seems to understand how he’s ruining things rather than helping. He’s just a walking accident any more! I wish he’d go home to Tuckborough and let us get on with things without any more of his doubtful help. And when you ask him about why he’s done what he did, he comes out with sheer nonsense, and seems to think you just ought to understand what he means.

“I mean it, Meriadoc Brandybuck--if he touches one more thing I’m working on I’ll thump him from here to Hobbiton and back!” With that he laid the ruined poem back on the sill and stalked out of the room.

The next morning when he arrived to help Cousin Meriman with the younger children’s lessons, he found that Pippin was already there, receiving one of Manny’s most acerbic dressing downs yet, and in front of all of the other children in his class.

“You call this a description of the Great Smial?” demanded Master Meriman. “Listen to this tripe!” His voice took on a shrill falsetto as he read, “The doors are red. The shutters are made of walnut wood and there are lots of nuts to be found there.” He glared at Pippin. “The Tooks keep nuts inside their shutters, do they?”

“But we do get lots of nuts from the woods where the walnut trees grow,” Pippin explained. “Although we have to fight the squirrels for them sometimes. Did you know that squirrels run about the trunks--flick their tails and chirrup like mad at times? I like squirrels, really, but they can be that bad, you know.”

Meriman slapped the paper down on his desk. “Will you confine yourself to the topic, Peregrin Took? What do squirrels have to do with the question I asked you? I asked if the Tooks store nuts inside their shutters!”

“Well, of course not! We keep nuts in the storerooms until we bake them into cakes! The one my sister Pearl had for her last birthday was magnificent.”

The lessons master rubbed his eyes. At last he dropped his hand to his hip, glaring at the small Took before him. “I did not ask where it is you do store nuts or what kinds of desserts you make of them. All you had to answer was yes or no. You are becoming far, far too cheeky, Peregrin Took, heir to the Thain or not as you might be. You will go forward right now and write lines for me. Twenty-five times you will write: I will answer only the question asked. Do you understand? And confine yourself to a single word in answer.”

“Yes.” The word was almost tearfully spoken, and the expression on Pippin’s face was of quiet shame and misery as he turned to the slate board and took up the slate pencil. As he was so short, he soon had the lower margins of the board filled, and noting this Cousin Meriman indicated to Beri he should fetch the footstool for Pippin to stand upon to finish his punishment.

I will answer only the question asked. I will answer only the question asked. I will answer only when spoken to. I will answer only when spoken to. I will answer only when I speak up.

Berilac shook his head as he set the stool for the younger lad’s use. He’d only get into more trouble for this behavior. What cheek!

*******


Then next day word spread through the Hall rapidly--Cousin Frodo was here, six days early! Beri abandoned his work in the kitchens to race to the Master’s parlor to greet his cousin, pleased beyond telling. Perhaps something could be rescued of the poem now, before Yule arrived.

But Pippin had arrived first, and Frodo, seated on a stool with a towel about his shoulders to dry him from the rain falling upon Buckland, was talking to the young Took. “And how do you like your lessons here?” he was asking.

Pippin was standing very straight, and the pleasure he’d shown now faded rapidly. “They are well enough, I suppose,” he said rather stiffly. “Master Meriman doesn’t like me, though. He asks a question, and when I answer it he says I’m being cheeky. How does one become part of one’s face? Do you know?”

Frodo’s own cheek twitched, just a little. “What kind of questions has he asked?”

“Yesterday he asked if we Tooks kept our nuts in our shutters. How are we to keep nuts in our shutters, especially if they are open? I don’t keep nuts on the windowsills--that’s the place to set pretty stones and my best marbles so everyone can see, after all. And----”

Frodo interrupted smoothly. “Why did he ask such a thing?”

“I said in my essay that the shutters at the Great Smial are made of walnut wood.”

“And how did the matter of nuts come up when you were describing the shutters?”

“Well, I said that we get lots of nuts from the wood where the walnut trees grow----”

“Oh, I see.”

“Well, he didn’t. He made me write lines, and then when he checked them he said I was being cheeky and gave me three slaps on the hand with his ruler.”

Aunt Esme had returned with another towel for Frodo’s hair. “You ought to have carried an umbrella, you know, Frodo Baggins,” she scolded. “You know how rapidly the weather can change in Buckland and the Marish this time of year, after all. You’ll catch your death of the cold, you do this often enough.”

“Nonsense, Aunt Esme. I can’t carry everything with me, after all, and my cloak kept off the worst of it.”

“So tell me why your shirtfront is soaked, as are your shoulders? We hung your cloak from the rack in the kitchens--it will dry the quicker there, I think. Better than soaking the hearth rug here or letting it drip in the entranceway.”

“You are too kind to me,” Frodo said, smiling his thanks to Beri’s mother as she bustled in with a large mug of tea and a small plate of raisin cakes. He nodded at Berilac where he stood just inside the door. “Hullo, Beri. You’ve been quiet so far. Not a word to say?”

“Trying to get a word in edgewise with that one around is often difficult,” Beri pointed out.

“And where’s my Merry?” Frodo continued. “I’m surprised he allowed you two to get here first!”

“In the schoolroom with his father, speaking with Master Meriman,” Esme said with a sideways glance at Pippin.

“About me?” Pippin muttered.

Esmeralda sighed. “I fear that, yes, it’s about you, Peregrin Took.”

Frodo drank half the cup of tea in a gulp, and rose. “I will go to the schoolroom, then, and see if there is anything that I can do.” He shrugged away from Esmeralda’s ministrations and set the mug on the table. “I will be well enough, Aunt Esme. And, no, Pippin. It would be best that you stay here. I don’t wish to find myself in the midst of an argument in which you are trying to defend yourself.”

Swiftly draping the towels over the back of a wooden chair where they would not be in danger of leaving upholstery wet, he beckoned Berilac to follow him and headed for the portion of the Hall where most formal lessons were given.

“It’s been a time since I came this way,” he commented to Beri as they approached the open door to the schoolroom. “And to think that at one time I thought I might well one day serve here as lessons master.” He gave a smile and shrug to his Brandybuck cousin before the two of them entered the chamber. Uncle Saradoc and Cousin Manny were near the slate board, examining the lines Pippin had written the previous day. Merry stood aside from them, plainly troubled. Glancing at the board from a distance, Frodo murmured, “Oh, my. Well, that is interesting, isn’t it?”

“I tell you, he is the cheekiest of imps to come under my tutelage within living memory,” Master Meriman was saying. “I set him twenty-five lines--and this is what he gave me!”

“I don’t really believe he means any cheek by it, Cousin Manny,” Merry said. “We are speaking of Pippin, after all. And he gets distracted so easily....”

“This is not distraction, Meriadoc Brandybuck. This is sheer Took foolishness, and a waste of my time and his!”

I will answer only the question asked had become I will not question the one who has no answers by the time Pippin had finished his writing, with his letters becoming increasingly untidy and hurried as he finished the last lines. The sentences were not lined up under one another, but written one after another across the board, sometimes slanting alarmingly upwards when the last words failed to fit quite right, and in other instances a word might have been written sideways to try to force it into the space where it had originally been left out. Some of the sentences had been reduced to tiny letters so cramped together they could not be read at all. Again, Frodo’s cheek twitched as he examined the evidence of Pippin’s industry, noting the places where some words had been smudged almost away when he’d leaned on one sweaty palm while writing as rapidly as he could with the other hand.

Uncle Sara sighed, “Well, he appears to have decided that rather than trying to count the lines he should just give as many as he could fit. I count at least thirty-two, although I’m not certain whether this--” pointing to an almost indecipherable line of pinched lettering, “--is meant to be one or two separate repetitions.”

“But he didn’t even repeat them as he’d been told to write them,” the teacher pointed out.

“No,” Frodo interrupted, “he didn’t. I doubt that he can, really.”

The two older Hobbits and Merry turned to look at him questioningly. “You doubt he can? What are you about, Baggins?” Master Meriman demanded.

“Did you ask him about why the sentences kept changing?” Frodo asked.

“Ask him? I pointed out to him that he’d failed even in the process of writing the line I gave him to write!” Manny burst out. “He just looked at me as if he couldn’t begin to understand the problem!”

“As I said, I doubt that he can see the problem. It’s just not the way that Took mind of his works, Meriman. It works far too quickly, you see, causing him to say or write just what’s flitting through his thoughts at the moment. Now and then he notes he left out a word or two, so he tries to make them fit back in, but more often than not he just goes with the new thought rather than the original one.”

The idea was obviously a novel one to the lessons master, who exchanged glances with Saradoc as if not certain what to think. He then looked back to Frodo. “How do you know this?” he asked.

“Manny, I’ve known Pippin all his life. Do you think I’ve not noticed how his attention wanders from topic to topic, and how easily distracted he is? It’s not all that unusual amongst the Tooks, after all.”

Merry, somewhat excited and yet still concerned, interrupted, “Then, it’s not really Pippin’s fault that he gets distracted easily?”

Frodo smiled at his favorite cousin. “No, not truly his fault. But it will be his fault if he does nothing to try to focus better in the future. From what I can tell the situation appears to be getting worse rather than better as he grows older. Bilbo told me how his Uncle Hildigar had to help him get past many of the same problems when he was a child. He was driving Uncle Bungo quite mad as he couldn’t appear to finish anything and was careless in what he did try to do. He said Uncle Hildigar took him in hand for a month or two, always asking, ‘What were you supposed to be doing?’ until he learned the lesson thoroughly. He said he had to learn to be very methodical in what he did in order to get anything finished and done properly. But although he hated it at first he was afterwards very glad that Hildigar was willing to spend the time to see the lessons learned.” He looked at the slate board again and winced. “I do hope we are not too late.”

Berilac asked, “Is this why he won’t leave other people’s projects alone--because once he sees them and thinks he knows what to do to finish them he just goes ahead and does it? Think of it, and then do it, I mean?”

Noting the frustration in Beri’s voice, Frodo nodded, a bit of a crease to be seen between his eyebrows. “I suspect that is exactly it, Beri. What’s he done with your things?”

“Well, he’s ruining the Yule gifts I’ve been working on. And I’m glad you’re here early....”

Frodo took a look at the poem that lay still on the windowsill, and appeared relieved. “Oh, this will be quite easy to fix, actually, having been done on parchment. If it had been on paper we’d need to start right over again. We’ll use a scraper gently, and I’ll redraw the picture for you so you can paint it as you please. Your lettering is much improved, I must say.”

For the first time since Pippin’s arrival Beri felt hope his gifts would be finished on time, and as well done as he’d hoped to make them.

Meriman, having watched Frodo for some time quietly as he considered the Baggins’s evaluation of Pippin, finally spoke up. “So, you think that the scamp can be helped?”

“Oh, yes, I do believe he can. But it won’t be an easy process.”

“Well, I haven’t the energy to work on constantly reminding him what he’s supposed to be doing when I’m working with a room full of Brandybucks,” the lessons master pointed out.

Saradoc sighed. “I can see your point, Manny. However, part of the reason Pal asked me to take the lad for the winter was because you are so good at instilling discipline in your students.”

Frodo looked from his older cousin to Meriman and back. At last he gave Merry a thoughtful glance, then smiled ruefully as he returned his attention to Manny. “How about I stay a month or two past Yule, then? Would it upset you to have an assistant for a time, do you think, Manny?”

“And what about your own business in the Westfarthing, then?” the lessons master asked. “Will Bag End and the Hill suffer for you being gone that long?”

“Well, I was intending to be here and there for at least a month anyway,” Frodo pointed out. “I was to spend a couple of weeks in Budge Hall with the Bolgers next, you see. But as they are planning to be here for Yule it won’t be as if I’d be avoiding their company. I do believe that Uncle Odovacar will understand. As for Aunt Rosamunda--well, where would she be if she didn’t have something to fuss about? And the Gaffer and Samwise will see to it that Bag End does not become infested with mice and dust while I’m gone. Plus, with Brendi as my lawyer and here at hand, any business that comes up he can help me see to it.”

Sara focused his own gaze on Frodo. “I’d still like to be certain that it’s as you say, Frodo.”

“Shall we call Pippin in and try to get him to tell us what he was thinking when he wrote this?” Frodo asked.

At the Master’s nod, Beri volunteered, “I’ll go and fetch him, then, shall I? He’s with Mum and Aunt Esme.”

In minutes he returned with Pippin, accompanied by Esmeralda and Adamanta. Pippin’s expression was wary in spite of the attempts Merry was making to smile encouragingly at him, and he was doing his best to avoid meeting Meriman’s eyes. “Yes, Uncle Saradoc?” he asked, apparently hoping that he would receive a more merciful welcome from his aunt’s husband than from the lessons master. Meriman sighed, nodding to Sara to carry out the questioning.

“About the lines you wrote yesterday,” Saradoc began, at which the child winced. “Can you tell us why the wording kept changing?”

Pippin gave a swift look to the board before turning a puzzled expression up to meet his uncle’s inquiring gaze. “I wrote what he told me to,” he insisted.

Frodo looked from Sara’s face to Manny’s, and said, “If you will allow me?” At the Master’s nod and the lesson master’s shrug he crouched down somewhat so as to look directly into Pippin’s face. “Do you remember which one you wrote first?” he asked. Pippin nodded and pointed to one of the two repetitions of I will answer only the question asked. “And which was the last line you wrote?” Pippin dumbly indicated one of the highest lines on the board, which read I will not question the one who has no answers.

Frodo nodded and stood up. He pointed at the first line the lad had indicated. “All right--read this sentence to me, please.”

“I will answer only the question asked,” Pippin said dutifully.

“Very good. Now, this one?”

Pippin repeated, “I will answer only the question asked.”

Frodo again nodded, a slight smile as if this was precisely what he’d expected to be discerned on his face. “Well, dearling, I’d like you to read this again, but this time actually read precisely what you wrote.”

The lad appeared puzzled by this, but looking carefully he started to read, “I will answer----” He sputtered to a halt, his face flushing. “Oh,” he said rather miserably. “I changed it!”

“That you did, my dearest Peregrin,” Frodo noted kindly. “You do that fairly often, don’t you?”

Slowly Pippin nodded, his face crumpled slightly as he looked between the two lines, noting the differences. He then looked randomly at another of the sentences, and sighed as he realized this one said I shall answer only when addressed. “I changed this one a lot, didn’t I?”

“That you did, sweetling. We need to work on this, don’t we?”

Pippin looked up despairingly at Frodo. “But I didn’t realize I’d changed it!”

“I know. But if you’re willing to work on it, we can make things better. I’m going to stay for a time and work with you so that you can keep on the track of a single thought at a time rather than haring off after this one and that as you’ve become used to doing.”

More hopefully, the child asked, “Then you’ll be my teacher instead of Master Manny?”

Frodo shook his head. “No, I’ll not be your teacher. I’ll only be the one who pokes your memory to keep it working on the question asked and not another.”

*******


Things were improved fairly quickly. Pippin was moved in the schoolroom to a table where he sat alone, and usually Frodo would sit behind him and slightly to one side. When Pippin was answering a question put him by Meriman, Frodo would tap his shoulder once his answer started to wander. The child was to stop and ask the lessons master to repeat the question, at which Pippin would repeat it, too, and then answer it. For the first four days he’d often have to do this three or four times per question, but on the fifth he was answering the actual question asked more often than not. It was a bit harder for him when he was writing. After he’d written something Frodo would take him off to a corner where he’d ask him to read it aloud. By the seventh day Pippin himself was beginning to identify where his thoughts had begun to wander, and after two weeks he was doing much better at keeping his writing to what had been asked of him.

Berilac was much happier, too. With Frodo working with Pippin after classes had let out, he and Merry had more time to do things together, and with Frodo in tow much of the time when Pippin was with the two Brandybuck cousins the child was doing better focusing on his own gifts and leaving those they were working on alone. Frodo arranged for one of the carpenters to help Pippin cut out new boards for the wall shelf, and the child delivered them to Berilac with an apology for ruining Beri’s first attempt. Frodo had scraped the parchment for Beri in those spots where Pippin had marred it, and redrawn the illustration. He now wrote out a poem of Pippin’s choice for Pippin to present his mum, and allowed Pippin to decorate it as he pleased while Berilac worked on his own project. He had Pippin undo the weaving of the potholders and set up the warp threads, leaving the actual weaving to Merry and Beri. While they worked on their projects Frodo showed Pippin how to do fingerweaving, and he made sashes for his sisters.

By First Yule all was finished, and Frodo smiled as he presented a very neat Peregrin Took to his parents on their arrival from the Tooklands.

*******


Paladin and Saradoc sat in Sara’s office, enjoying an ale and pipe together as they looked over the work Pippin had been doing brought in by Meriman. “Much improved!” Pal said admiringly. He looked up gratefully at Manny. “I’d heard you could help instill discipline in your students, and I see your reputation wasn’t exaggerated.”

The lessons master shrugged uncomfortably. “Well, if he’s improved--and there’s no question he has--it’s more due to young Baggins than to me. He’s been right at Peregrin’s side, helping him to keep turned to the question at hand rather than going scattershot from one thought to another, and it does appear to be sinking in. I’ve been amazed to realize that your lad is actually very bright indeed--perhaps too bright, really. By that I mean nothing bad, you realize--merely that he had so gotten into the habit of following various hopping thoughts that he was making no sense at all much of the time.”

Paladin nodded his understanding. “That you agreed to keep on with him is a wonder to me,” he confided. “He’s driven our lessons master quite mad, I fear.”

“I suspect he’s about ready to return to the Great Smial if you should wish it, although now he’s actually made a start at learning I’d like to see what else he’s capable of. If you should wish to leave him here until just before first sowing, I shouldn’t mind. And several of our children have begun picking up Frodo’s cues, and could help him continue as he’s finally begun to progress.”

Looking mightily pleased, Paladin Took agreed.

*******


“Oh, Beri--this is beautiful!” Adamanta assured him once she’d opened her gift. “This shepherd lad--he’s so well done! And you did all the work yourself?”

“Oh, Frodo drew the picture for me, but I painted it myself--although I must admit that Pippin helped me--some.”

Pippin looked at him, surprised and pleased, from where his own mother had been exclaiming over her own gift of a poem and picture, framed with a hand-woven ribbon of colorful threads that Pippin had done under Frodo’s tutelage.

It had proved a good Yule after all!



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