The platform was built high above the crowd, fairly smothered in roses. A chair had been set up on it, and all around the bottom was hung with white sheets and colored streamers. Along with a sign that said MAID OF THE MAY painted in bright pink letters and bedizened about with gaudy flowers and curlicues and butterflies.
All about the platform were long tables loaded with food and drink. Barrels of ale and wine stood nearby, and hobbits selling candies, baked goods, fruits, flowers, and jars of jelly and jam, others roasting fowls and hunks of beef on spits. A tall pole stood behind, crowned atop with flowers and streamers blowing in the breeze, and musicians nearby playing gay tunes and many hobbits of all ages dancing. Some danced in a ring, graceful and sprightly, while others danced by themselves and still more with partners. And further off, but near the platform were risers on which some folk were already gathered, mostly children.
Gandalf stood off with Bungo and Hugo. He wore his new green robe, and he held a large bag slung over one shoulder, and he grinned to himself as he imagined what effect the contents would have on the merrymakers.
Bungo had eyes for only one young lady, and he stood smiling at something far off in the crowd.
"Hey!" a voice shouted out, and the three of them turned to see Roderic Bunce standing behind them, a mug of ale in one hand, and a stringed instrument hanging from his free arm. "Are you chaps ready to get trounced?"
"And who might you be?" he added when he saw Bungo. "You think you got a chance with Miss Belladonna too?"
"Had quite a drop in, haven't you?" Bungo said, eyeing him with distaste.
"Ah, he's always like this," Gandalf chuckled, "be he drunk or sober. Hullo, Roderic. You look in fine fettle today. This is Bungo Baggins from Hobbiton. Bungo, this is Roderick Bunce, who sells the finest pipeweed in Tookland."
"Aye, I've seen you before," Bungo said. "And heard your songs. I can only hope you came up with a better one for the contest."
Roderic laughed raucously, then hiccuped. "Well, we'll just see if I did or not," he said, then took a long swig from his mug, nearly spilling a bit down his front, then belched. "Aren't you fellows going to wet your whistles also?"
"We've done so already," Hugo said coolly. "And we don't wish to enter the contest in a state of intoxication. I somehow doubt that would go down well with Miss Belladonna's father."
Roderic caught his eye, and some of the cockiness seemed to evaporate from his manner. He looked to Gandalf with lifted eyebrows. The Wizard pretended not to see.
"Of course not," Roddy said after a moment. "That's why I'm going easy on it, meself."
"I can see that," Gandalf said dryly. Hugo chuckled, then abruptly stopped himself. A hobbit had climbed upon the platform with a large cone-shaped object, which he held to his mouth.
"Your attention, good hobbits," he called through the megaphone. "Quiet, please! The event you all have been waiting for is about to commence--the annual Song-contest of Tuckborough. And the winner will have his chance to woo and win the hand of Miss Belladonna Took, daughter of our beloved Thain himself, Gerontius Took the First! If you will all finish up what you are doing and take your seats upon the risers in an orderly fashion! Quiet, please! The Contest is about to begin!"
It was nearly a quarter of an hour before the crowd had situated itself in the risers, the vendors closing up their booths, the musicians settling down...and Thain Gerontius Took and his very plump wife established in their seats at the end of the long platform. The contestants began donning the white masks and black cloaks they would wear to perform their songs, in a tent prepared for them. Gandalf went with them to give assistance and encouragement.
"What you got in that bag, eh Wizard?" one of the masks and cloaks asked...in an all too familiar voice.
"Never you mind that, Roderic Bunce," Gandalf said. "You'll see, in good time...if you don't pass out first."
"Are you sayin' I'm drunk?" growled the voice. "Well, I think you'll find out different pretty soon...and you'll be eatin' your words, so you better keep 'em soft."
“Very well then,” Gandalf said. “You've the back of your cloak stuck in the waistband of your breeches, by the way.”
Roddy glared at him for a moment, and while he did so, Bungo reached over and pulled out the end of the cloak.
“That's better,” he said. Roddy looked disgruntled beneath the mask, and Gandalf restrained a guffaw with difficulty.
Then he stepped out to see if the maiden of honor had ascended the platform yet, and saw a female figure being escorted by two males. The sun was directly behind them so it was hard to make out exactly who the male figures were, but Gandalf quickly deduced that they were two of Belladonna's brothers. A cheer rose up from the crowd, which was now pretty much situated on the risers. Gandalf smiled and went back into the tent.
“Stop acting shy,” Hildibrand whispered to his sister as he and Isembard escorted her down the catwalk that led to the platform. “Don't droop your head like that.”
“But folks will see my face, and know I'm not Bella,” Donnamira whispered back. “And I've seen her act shy a time or two.”
“Then it was acting, to be sure,” Isembard said with a little snort. “Here, take this fan and hold it before your face. And act like her. Within reason, that is.”
The Thain and his wife looked proudly at their offspring, then Mrs. Took frowned a little.
“Why's our Belladonna wearing that lace shawl?” she queried. “The Maid of May never wore such before. It's all I can do to try and get Bella to wear her shawl when it's cold.”
“Well, you know our Bella,” Gerontius whispered back. “She's never been one to do all that the others do. Mayhap it's her way of standing out.”
“She's shivering, I declare. Yet it's not a bit cold.”
“Perhaps she's nervous. Which isn't like our Bella, either.”
“To think she's to get a suitor, at last,” Mrs. Took said with a sentimental sigh. “And only yesterday she was our wild lass, into one scrape and out of another, makin' a name for herself. Things are changing, aren't they, Geri? Who do you think will win?”
“Well Addie, how would I know?” Gerontius said. “I don't even know who all will be trying out. Nobody tells me these things. What do I matter anyway? I'm naught but her father, after all.”
The hobbit with the megaphone, which as it turned out was the eldest of the Took lads, Isengrim the Third, stepped forward as his brothers led their sister to her place of honor. One of them placed a long-stemmed red rose in her lap. She fluttered her fan and glanced coyly, yet nervously about.
Isengrim took out a piece of folded paper from his vest-pocket and unfolded it, squinting at it in the strong sunlight. Then he looked up and beamed at the audience, saying, “The first contestant will step forward and begin his song. Let the contest commence to begin!”
The line of contestants stood to one side of the platform, each wearing a placard bearing a number about his neck. Number Two pushed Number One forward, as he hesitated. Finally Number One took his place upon a very small platform placed before the large one, nodded to the little band of musicians standing just beneath it where the sheet “curtain” was parted, and they began to play, as Number One sang.
Ah, 'tis time for Maying and playing and swaying
and dancing beneath the blue sky above
'tis time for mooning and crooning and spooning
Fairest of fair ones, 'tis the season of love!
Fa la la la la! Fa la la la lira!
'Tis time for wooing and cooing and strewing
and the song of the cuckoo, the lark and the dove
'tis time for singing and ringing and springing
Fairest of fair ones, 'tis the season of love!
Fa la la la la! Fa la la la lira!
“Remus Diggle,” whispered Number Two to the other contestants. “None other sways from side to side like that when he sings.”
The song concluded and drew much applause. Gandalf glanced at Bungo as Remus took his bow and stepped down from the small platform.
“Which one is Roderic Bunce?” Hugo whispered to Gandalf as Number Two took his place on the platform. The Wizard held up seven fingers. Hugo was Number Six, while Bungo was Eleven. He kept trying to move around the large platform the better to see his lady-love, while Gandalf laid a firm hand on his shoulder to hold him back.
“I fear we'll not get away with this,” the hobbit whispered as Number Three took his place. “I'll never get to even see Miss Belladonna again, let alone woo her. This was a bad idea.”
“Relax,” Gandalf said. “Didn't I say leave all to me?”
“But the idea of Hildebrand singing for me! Won't the Thain recognize his own son's voice?”
“I think not. He doesn't pay much attention to Hildebrand's doings, at least when it comes to music. And we'll tell him all about it afterward, and explain that it was your song Hildibrand sang, and Gerontius will be greatly pleased, I'm sure.”
“And if he's not?”
“Well, then we'll just have to come up with something else, won't we? Now stop fretting, Bungo Baggins, and listen to the song. It's almost Hugo's turn.”
Number Five was up now. And as he was singing, Gandalf stole a look at the young hobbitess and gasped. Then over at Hildibrand in his cloak and mask.
He thought to speak but not one single word would come forth.
And now it was Hugo's turn. Gandalf made a move to stop him, but too late.
“Bungo,” he whispered turning to the hobbit of that name, as Hugo mounted the platform, “look at her. Don't say aught. Just look, if you please.”
“Great heavens above,” Bungo whispered despite himself.
And turned and bolted.
Through the night the stars are gleaming
like to a thousand sparkling gems
my heart doth rejoice at the thought of your voice
that fills all the night with happy dreaming...
It seems that your eyes bejewel the canopy of space
and the deep dark sheen of your hair
the moon cannot dare to begin to compare
with the brilliance of your face....
Your laughter rings like the shimmer of faery chimes
as you move as lightly as a cloud upon the day
Your eyes so far above me, how could I ever hope
to believe they would ever glance my way?
All I can bestow on thee is this, my heart, my song
and the promise to adore thee evermore
To shield and protect, to love my whole life long
Will you not bend to me as a willow by the shore
and hear my humble plea?
Donnamira sat motionless, held prisoner by the sound of the voice below. It was full of dew and honey and cream and wine and night air and fruit and rainbows and barley-sugar, and it filled her and filled her until she was overflowing, and she forgot where she was, who she was supposed to be, and she gazed until she could not sit still any more, but had to lean down closer the better to see his eyes. She could see they were brown and soulful as her own, and it scarcely mattered what the rest of him looked like, so caught up was she in those eyes and that voice and his lovely, lovely song. And even as she listened, her life slowly turned upside down. She was transforming into a whole other being, as surely as if a fairy were standing behind her pouring golden burning dust over her. All anxiety and puzzlement evaporated from her as mist in the sun, and she forgot to hold the fan before her face, and her eyes and the eyes of the singer met and held, and he looked startled and paused briefly and there was a deafening silence that lasted for a second, perhaps...and then he took up the song once more.
As it concluded, there was once more a brief silence, then thundering applause. The singer bowed deeply and kissed his hand to Donnamira, and she kissed hers to him, the being who had turned her life upside down in the space of a few minutes.
“What the...” Gerontius gasped, making a move to stand. “She wasn't supposed to....”
“I've a feeling he's the one. Sit down now, Geri, don't make a scene. You know our Belladonna. She just cannot be trusted not to do the unexpected. And what of his song? Lovely! I'm nigh smitten myself!”
“Get hold of yourself, Addie,” Gerontius looked at his wife in distinct alarm.
Isengrim stepped forward once more to announce Number Six, who gave Number Five a smirk as he passed, then made an attempt to mount the platform, only to stagger back and nearly fall on his backside. Number Five caught him by the arm and made a motion to assist him onto the platform, at which Number Six angrily jerked his arm away and made a hissing noise, then tried once more, this time successfully.
Number Five, grinning, walked back to the group of singers, with one more look up to the young maiden upon the high platform. Smiling, he took his original place.
And number Six began to sing.
Her cheeks are soft and pink
like roses she doth stink
her eyes are dipped in ink
Miss Belladonna Took!
Her lips are sweet as honey
her eyes are bright as money
she's soft as ary bunny
Miss Belladonna Took!
I'd toss 'er in the river
where she would shake and shiver
before that I would give her
To any other bloke!
I'd pound 'im into jelly
till he was foul and smelly
i'd punch 'im in the belly
and on 'im I would puke!
Quite an uproar was brewing in the crowd, as Hugo stared at him. This was the trick Gandalf was playing upon him? Certainly the fellow deserved it, but still....
Two of the Took brothers had strode up to the small platform, grabbed Roderic by the arms, and were forcibly removing him as the crowd yelled and booed and shouted him down.
“Drunken bugger! How dare you sully our sister's honor? You'll pay for this, you audacious villain! We'll toss you to the hogs!”
The other tore away his mask. “Bunce,” he spat. “I might have known. How you can even have the cheek to think she'd let you within hollering distance of her! That's an outrage even for you!”
“Have mercy, lads,” pleaded Roddy, not even trying to extricate himself. “I was tricked. That is not the song I meant to sing a-tall. There was another, far different, not that one, another one, a lovely song, much better than that other chap's, that I meant for to sing. I...”
“Why, of course,” Hildebrand scoffed. “I suppose you'd like to sing it now, wouldn't you?”
“Why yes, if I may,” whined Roddy, clasping his hands pathetically and sinking to his knees. “I was tricked, I tell you. I--”
Isembard laughed aloud. “Go on with you, you blithering swine with a frog's voice, and serenade your own kind. You--”
“Pardon me, fellows, if I may be so bold,” Hugo cut in, “but this poor wretch WAS tricked, and it was in part my fault, for I was privy to it and did naught to stop it.”
“Hugo Boffin?” Hildebrand said.
“Aye,” Hugo said removing his mask. “You see...the song he sang was mine, originally, and he had tricked me into adding some verses. Not so bad as the ones he sang, but rather poor, at that. I told Gandalf, and he said he knew of a way to get revenge. And I agreed to it. But I regret it now, for the prank went much too far. It was cruel, and I'm deeply sorry now that I agreed to it. Please do not be too hard on the fellow, good sirs.”
“Where IS Gandalf?” Isembard asked.
“Hidden somewhere, I think,” Hugo said. “But I should think he would have come out by now. And where is Miss Belladonna? For that is not she, up there. It is her sister Donnamira, is it not?”
“Aye, we knew of it,” Hildebrand said. “Bella didn't want to be paraded before one and all, and so she persuaded Donna to take her place. She's notional like that. I am sorry, Mister Boffin. But...”
“No need for apology, Master Took. For a wondrous thing has happened. I have become most taken with Miss Donnamira. It was as if a love-spell had been cast upon me. When I saw her eyes, I knew it was not Belladonna, and yet...”
He glanced up once more at Donnamira, who was leaning over the rail looking anxiously down at the scene.
And as Hugo looked up at her, she smiled, and seemed irradiated all over, every bit as lovely as her sister, and then some.
And she flung the red rose to him.
And the roaring of the crowd diminished dramatically, and after a moment, it turned to wild cheering.
“Has anyone seen Bungo?” Gandalf asked, suddenly appearing in time to see Donnamira being escorted down the platform steps by Hugo Boffin. He looked wildly all about him. All shook their heads.
And then they all started at the sound of a small voice above them. “Look behind you!”
They looked up to see little Mirabella sitting upon the rail on the high platform, pointing out in the crowd. All turned...and there was Bungo indeed....
...with Belladonna on his arm, smiling adoringly.
“Well, I'll...be...fixed!” was all Gandalf could find to say. A wave of laughter followed his words.
“I told her all,” Bungo explained a little later, as Belladonna's parents followed close upon, Hildebrand and Isembard filling them in. “And I read her my poem. It seems she has loved me for quite some time now, although she knows I am no singer. That was why she would not sit on the platform. We were thinking of running off together, but decided that would not be honorable. And now I have spoken for her, and she has accepted me, if her parents are amenable to it.”
“Do you mean to tell me you were planning this all along, Bungo Baggins?” Gandalf exclaimed.
“Oh no, sir. All I told you concerning Miss Belladonna was the truth. I'm not good enough of an actor to put one over on you, Gandalf, I fear. But I am a good vintner, and I assure one and all I am most capable of taking care of Miss Belladonna for all the days of my life.”
Bungo raised his eyebrows to Gerontius and Adamanta Took, saying, “Good Thain, will you please to forgive me for my, erm, heedless conduct, and allow me to make it up to you by proving myself worthy of your daughter?”
A collective sigh went through the onlookers at this heartfelt plea. Adamanta tried not to smile, but her mouth would quirk up until it looked very like Belladonna's which was doing the same thing. Then both mother and daughter began to giggle, until they fell into each other's arms, laughing helplessly, at what it was anybody's guess, but the sound was so contagious it spread throughout the bystanders, including Gerontius.
And after there was a lull, Hugo stepped forward, saying, “And I would like to ask permission to woo Miss Donnamira, who has taken my heart and claimed it for her own. I know she is not yet of age, but I am willing to wait for however long it takes until she is old enough to accept my offer of marriage. I have my own establishment as you know, and will work as hard as I can to make enough to show her the extent of my devotion.”
Another soft murmur went through the crowd. And many began chattering all at once, until little Isengar picked up the sack Gandalf had been carrying, lying forgotten on the ground, saying, “What's in this, Wizard?”
“I will show you, my lad,” Gandalf said smiling, wrenching his eyes with difficulty from the lovers. And before long, the night sky was full of exploding stars and colored fire-snakes and whirling flowers and dragons and whistling streamers, as Gandalf showed the Took brothers, both the small one and the big ones, what those things that made the frightful popping noises did. Music had begun playing once more, and several couples danced, including Bungo and Belladonna.
“I wonder where Roddy is now,” Hugo said. “I feel badly for him still. That trick you played upon him was really just a bit much, Gandalf, if I may be so bold.”
“Trick?” Gandalf looked at him blankly. “I did not play the trick.”
“Nay. I did not even stick around to hear him sing the entire song, for I was worried about Bungo. Wonderful song, by the way, Hugo. Beautiful job. If I were a maiden, I think I'd have fallen for you myself.”
“Thank you, sir. But if you did not trick him, then who did?”
“I dare say he tricked himself. I took pity upon him, you see, and decided not to go through with our plan. And I do not think I shall live to regret it, for the liquor and his own bloated ego were what punished him in the end. There was no need for any petty vengeance from us.”
Hugo grinned in relief. “That's good of you, sir. And I am profoundly grateful for the part you played in bringing me and my beloved together. I will forever be in your debt, my dear Wizard.”
“Look,” Donnamira said, nodding her head, “there he is, over there.”
All looked, and saw Roderic Bunce standing at an ale-keg, apparently arguing with someone behind it.
Before anyone could remark, a female voice spoke up, “Beggin' yer pardon sir, but I been watching, and was wondering what yer want for these here?”
A stout hobbitess stood next to Gandalf, holding up a string of firecrackers.
The Wizard shrugged goodnaturedly. “Take them, my dear. I'm sure your children will enjoy them greatly. Here's a lighted stick for you.”
“Thank ye, good sir,” she said, and disappeared amongst the crowd.
Moments later, a rapid series of explosions were heard, and there was Roddy, leaping in crazed arcs as the popping sounds issued right behind him, sparks flying out from beneath the cloak he still wore, yells and whoops and howls coming out of his mouth. When the sounds ceased he stopped his wild dance, clapping his hands to his backside and looking blankly all around him.
“Did anyone hear something?” he asked after a moment, then swayed, and fell flat on his face, amid much laughter.
“Well done, Miss Button,” a male voice said. “May I have the honor of this dance?”
“Well, I don't mind if I does,” said the voice of the hobbitess who had begged the firecrackers.
Gandalf made a move toward the prone figure, but two hobbits got there first.
“We'll take 'im, guv'ner,” said one of them, and they each took an arm and dragged Roderic off toward the tent, which was now being used for just such a purpose. “Come, Roddy, time for bed. Let me and Uncle Ruben tuck yer in now. That was some row, I must say. Last time such a thing happened to me was when Lily served up her famous three-bean soup, garnished with cabbage-leaves. Good thing there weren't no fire nearby.”
Mirabella stood up on the rail on the platform, unnoticed by her parents, tiptoeing back and forth, then doing a graceful little twirl and looking up in hope of more fireworks. Someone had lit a torch up on the platform, and the light brought out red-gold sparks in her hair and fairly irradiated her all over. But she was entirely unaware of it, and she continued her walk upon the rail until she caught sight of a boy looking up at her. He seemed most fascinated, as though a vision of pure loveliness had caught and pinned him where he stood. She lowered herself until she was kneeling on the rail, then sitting back with her hands upon her knees, still looking down at him. He was a little older than herself, very nice to look at, for a boy, and so she stayed where she was, just gazing, and smiling.
Until a female voice called out stridently, “Gorbadoc Brandybuck! Whatever are you doing? And what have you done with your little brothers? Come now, we must be going, if we can round up your brothers and your dad. Come along now, lad. What are you staring at?”
After Gandalf ran out of fireworks, he found he was thirsty, and went to fetch himself a glass of wine. As he did so, he noticed Porphyria Button going in the direction of the tent, and as she went inside it, he shook his head, then smiled and shrugged, glancing upward. After persuading Mirabella to come down from the rail, he took her by the hand and they went back to rejoin the rest of her family in the gently settling merriment of the spring evening.