"He fancies yer," Jem said as they walked arm in arm down the road past lilac trees in bloom, and rose bushes, and low fences twined with honeysuckle and ivy, sending out their scents in the deepening twilight as fireflies rose and fell among the blooms and in the thick clover. "Yer know that?"
"Hark at yer," Nell said, feeling glad he could not see how warm her face was growing in the dusk. "He only just met me, what? Two days gone? Three?"
"Long enough. Yer fancies 'im back?" Before she could answer, he said, "It's all right if yer do, yer know. Yer know what I told yer, long time back. That if yer met anyone yer could fancy, and 'e fancied yer back...that I wouldn't hold yer to what yer said. I don't want fer no one to wed me out of pity, nohow. Yer free to go."
Nell stole a look at his face, which he was trying to hold away from her view, and right away she could see what it cost him to say that.
"I don't wed yer out of pity, Jemmy," she said softly. "I'm fond of yer, yer know that. Al'ays 'ave been. I like bein' with yer, talkin' with yer, or just walkin' along with yer, like I do now. Yer me best friend. I'm comfortable with yer, that's what. Like I can be meself and don't 'ave to worry what nobody thinks. I don't feel like that with nobody else, not even me brothers. It's...well, almost like we're a old couple already."
"Aye," he said, still averting his face from her, "I knows that. But...I ain't no good fer yer. Can't give yer a little un, and I know that's what yer want. Ain't it now? I seen yer with yer brother's young uns. I see the longin' in yer eyes when yer hold 'em on yer knee. And that's as it should be. Yer a strong and handsome lass with a good mind, yer ought to pass it on. And likely I won't live to get old. Yer ought to be with a man like yerself, that's got stuff in 'im. Like 'Arry was. But..."
"Even if I did fancy 'im," Nell said softly, "an' I don't say as I do, he's goin' away to Mordor, an' can yer see me goin' out there? Away from me family, an' you, an' all me other friends? An' 'e's that determined, an' that noble, 'e wouldn't stay 'ere with me, 'e's that set on goin' there and makin' a good an' beautiful place of it, and drivin' out all the evil an' filth that's there."
"I been wonderin' 'bout that," Jem said. "Why is it 'e's goin'? 'E ain't never been there, 'as he? Why would 'e care so much about cleanin' up a place 'e's never been? Did you ever 'ave a good look at 'im? Did you see how white an' smooth 'is 'ands is? Looks like 'e never done a stroke of work in 'is 'ole life, afore comin' 'ere. An' that other chap, the small un. 'E's queer, is what 'e is. Makes a goose walk over me grave to look on 'im sometimes. Don't yer never wonder 'bout what's goin' on with 'em?"
"What's to wonder?" Nell said. "They want to clean it up and make it beautiful, like it 'asn't been for a thousand years. What's queer with that?"
"That Greenjade feller," Jem said lowering his voice as if there might be someone in the brush listening. "Ben told me today 'e's seen 'im before, some years back. Said he disremembers where exactly, somewhere nigh the coast, but yer know Ben's about ten year older'n us, an' 'e's been around, even before the War."
"That's unlikely," Nell said. "Prob'ly just someone as looks like 'im."
"That's what I said, but Ben said no, he never forgets a face, it was 'im, all right. Only, 'e didn't 'ave no beard, an' there was somethin' mighty queer about 'im. Thought maybe 'e was an elf, but yer Greenjade ain't no elf, is 'e?"
"Course 'e ain't," Nell said. "Not that I ever seen an elf. But if'n he was one, 'e'd of said so. How long ago was this?"
"'E didn't say. Was before 'e lost 'is eye though, an' that was about six year ago. Said the feller was uncommon strong, that 'e got in a fight with someone in a tavern, an' the proprietor tried to toss 'im out, an' this chap just picked up 'im like 'e's a little wee pup an' pitched 'im right out the door on his bum. An' that proprietor was a big feller, twice again as big as yer Greenjade. An' 'e said ever'body else just kinder backed off after that, and this chap laughed an' asked if anybody else cared to trifle with 'im. An' then before ever'one's eyes, 'e turns into a bat and flies all over the room, an' then turns back inter a man, an' laughs some more, then starts in ter flirtin' with one of the maids, who backs off cryin' a bit, an' then he starts singin' to her, real soft-like at first, an' then a little louder, an' she just stands there fixed, like a bird with a snake, an' 'e starts movin' in slow an' easy, and by an' by he takes 'er chin an kisses 'er on the lips, real soft an' gentle like, an' she don't move, just stands there lettin' 'im 'ave 'is way with 'er. An' then 'e kisses 'er 'arder, and she lets 'im, an then 'e starts dancin' slow an' easy with 'er, and then they dance out the door an' that's the last Ben seen of 'em."
Nell stopped in her tracks for a moment.
"That couldn't of been 'im," she said. "In a tavern, was it? Yer know Ben likes 'is liquor."
"That's what I told meself, at the first," Jem said. "But after seein' the effect 'e was 'avin on yer tonight, and the lasses....Well now, if it were Ben or one o' the other soldiers that had yer fancy, maybe I wouldn't say naught. But that 'un...Just what do yer know of 'im? Where's 'e from? What's 'e goin' to Mordor fer anyways?"
"Hark at yer, Jemmy," Nell laughed uneasily. "Yer'd think yer was me dad, talkin' like this! I've knowed 'im fer what, three days? An' even if 'e was ter fall on 'is knees an' beg me to go to Mordor with 'im, it's like I said--I'd be a pretty sight, follerin' 'im out there like a little lost lamb, now wouldn't I? I belong 'ere...with me folks. This is me 'ome, an' I couldn't leave 'ere. Not with 'im, not with no one. An' that's all about it."
"Well, I can just see 'im charmin' yer like that chap with that maid," Jem said. "I seen 'is kind before. 'E's a tomcat kind of feller. Don't let 'im get to yer. 'E'd leave yer with a broken 'eart and more than that, an' I'd 'ave to track 'im down and kill 'im, now wouldn't I? An' what would 'appen then? I could let yer go, if yer was to meet a feller worthy of yer, fer yer own sake, though it would likely kill me ter do it. But 'im? I think not."
"Yer've naught to worry 'bout, Jemmy," she said firmly. "An' yer got yer mum to see to, and I've me dad, and so it's no use to be botherin' 'bout things as can't be 'elped. Reckon we better turn back now. It's gettin' mighty dark, and I can just see nosy ole Mistress Sykes peekin' out her shutters at us in the dusk an' carryin' tales 'bout how that red-headed Partridge huzzy is a leadin' poor innercent soldiers down the garden path."
In the morning Radagast said they would go out and collect firewood. Nell would go along, for she knew her way around, and after luncheon, she, Radagast, and Greenjade set out in the wagon, with the Wizard in the middle of the seat, driving. The day was shaping up beautifully indeed.
Earlier, Sméagol had asked to speak to "Brown Master" alone, so Greenjade excused himself and went out back to wash up for breakfast, and as he was passing Nell's bedroom, through the partly opened door he saw her getting ready also. She was in her underclothes, brushing her hair, and although he knew he was not supposed to watch, he stood transfixed, hoping against hope that she would not turn and see him looking at her. The morning sun streaming into her window touched her rippling locks with coppery fire, and the line of her back and arms was so lovely, it fairly made his eyes grow wet and his chest rise and fall, his heart fluttering within like a captured bird. And he could just see her face reflected in the small round mirror hanging above the chest of drawers, and the expression on it both held and shamed him. Only then did it occur to him that he was not supposed to be watching...but how did one tear one's eyes away from a sight so lovely it defied all description?
Damn, this business of being good was not going to be easy, by any means....
It was her face that decided him. It was one thing to secretly watch someone in a state of undress. But it was another to be watching her soul...which was what hovered about her face, the sadness of the eyes, the faint roseate glow of the cheeks, the set of the lips, one set so close to the other as if to comfort each other and prevent their tremor. What was making her sad? That was not a face made for sorrow...or was it?
If only he could be alone with her, just to talk to her...if but for half an hour. The memory of it would sustain him for the rest of his life, he was certain. But how likely was that to happen, around here?
Finally he took himself out back, drew a bucket of water from the well, and hauled it out back of the stable, where he stripped himself down to the raw and scrubbed himself all over with a rough rag, then took the water and poured it all over himself. He could scarcely help but notice how fresh and soft the early morning air was, with the fragrances of wild flowers, grass, hay and trees ever so gently and shyly presenting themselves to him, as maidens approaching their master's chambers. Birds twittered from afar off, and he heard the stamping and whickering of horses in the stable, and squirrels scrambing up tree trunks...and as he stood naked, looking and listening and breathing it all in, he felt a sudden strange urge to walk about out back, into the woods, just as he was. He picked up his towel, just in case he did meet with anyone, laid it over one shoulder with a careless gesture...then tossed it aside, since having it spoiled the feeling of doing this thing.
And he walked out into the woods, behind the backhouse, wandering down a path that did not appear to be traversed in a long time. He heard a familiar twitter, and looking up, he saw Rusco the finch, looking at him with a knowing expression, or so it seemed. Grinning to himself, Greenjade ambled along further, and saw a ladder going up into a tree. Looking upward, he saw what appeared to be a wooden box in the branches, with a square like a window cut into one side. He was tempted to climb and peek in, but the ladder did not look very substantial, and he doubted it would hold him. But he stood trying to peer in, wondering who could be living up there, and if the Partridges were aware of their tree-dwelling neighbors....
Then he started at a noise off to his left, turned around abruptly, only to see a beast of some sort--two of them, in fact, light brown in color with ears that were rounded at the sides and pointed at the tips, rather like a horse's but larger, long thin legs, and a small tail white on the underside. It paused to look behind and he saw a pair of lovely soft dark eyes looking back at him, then the smaller one--its young, obviously--came following after, with white spots on its back, and mother and child both went bounding off with high graceful leaps through the brush. Greenjade was tempted for a moment to run after them, but considering some of the brambly bushes he would have to clear, it did not seem such a good idea, after all.
And looking down he saw ferns sparkling with dewdrops where the sun peeped down through the leaves, and flowers that looked like clusters of tiny red birds, also wet with dew, and vines twining around slender white trees, bearing little white flowers, and what appeared to be a larger flower in motion fluttering around them, and as he reached for it, it eluded him and circled upwards, disappearing into the leaves.
He soon found himself singing once more.
Captive of the air, wandering long
naked between the stars and the darkness
caught in the cold fire
'neath the deep tower
voices of morning
of innocence and longing.
Maiden of the morning, dwelling aloft
clothed in beauty in the eyes of the day
dancing in the blue fire
above the warm terrace
the distance between us
is as boundless
as the sky......
"I am going to teach Greenjade and Sméagol to read and write," Radagast said as they rode out into the woods. They had left Sméagol behind with Mr. Partridge, making more wooden pegs. "But I'll need some materials--parchments and writing tools. I don't suppose you have aught at your house, Nell?"
"Oh, would yer teach me also?" cried Nell, clasping her hands tightly. "I al'ays wanted to learn. But there was so little time and no one about willin' to teach. I've a notion Jemmy and his friends 'ud like to learn also. Perhaps yer could get up a little school like I've heared tell of, in other places?"
"Well, I would love to teach you," the Wizard said, as Greenjade felt his heart pound inside him one moment, then shrink in dismay the next. "But we would need a place with no distractions, large enough to contain us all, and a good many materials, and some books. Do you know of such a place?"
Nell thought for a moment, then snapped her fingers.
"The Quail and Pheasant!" she exclaimed. "Scarcely anyone comes in in the daytime, and there's a room apart from the common room that would do just fine, I'd think. I'm sure I could get Tam Goodfellow to let us use it of mornin's. I'm the one that 'elped bring 'is son into the world, after all. Maybe even 'e'd like to learn. I think he can read a little already."
"That would be wonderful, if he is willing," Radagast said. "I don't know how much of a schoolmaster I'd make. But I suppose Mr. Goodfellow could deal with any unruly pupils we might have."
By the time the sun was straight up in the sky, indicating noontime, they had collected nearly an entire wagonload of stovewood. Greenjade thought, to his chagrin, that Nell had picked up twice as much wood as he had, without once stopping to rest. He hoped she wouldn't notice. She was wearing a plain skirt of some sturdy-looking material, dark green in color, a linen blouse and a bodice of a lighter green, and her hair hung in one long braid, and she did not seem her usual chipper self. He found himself wondering if she ever stopped to look back at him as he stopped from time to time to look at her. And what she would have thought if she had seen him that morning, wandering naked down the forest path and singing softly. How would he ever leave this village behind?
As they were heading for home, an elderly woman with a wheelbarrow approached their wagon asking if she might buy some kindling wood from them. Nell told her to take whatever she needed, there was no charge. The woman filled her barrow quite full. On the way home four more people asked to buy wood, and this time Nell allowed them to pay, and she divided up the money evenly amongst them.
When they reached the cottage, Mr. Partridge said that Ralf and his two eldest lads had caught some nice trout and brought some of it over, and that Sméagol had cleaned it for them pretty as yer please, then boned it and cut it up for Aunt Carrie. She had rolled it in flour and bread crumbs and fried it in butter, and it tasted most delicious. Even Sméagol thought so. Also, Ralf had brought a pair of crutches that one of his sons, Chip as he was called, had used when he broke his leg the previous year. They were a bit too long, so Mr. Partridge cut them down to fit. Chip was cheerfully showing Sméagol how to use them, telling in a great deal of detail of the accident that had caused him to break his leg. He seemed to greatly enjoy himself. His brother Ned looked a bit miffed that he had no past fractures to tell of, but the twins happened in just then, and started eagerly talking of injuries that had befallen them--Gilda had cut her hand with a paring knife so deeply it had required stitches, and Gwynlen had scalded her elbow quite badly when she was small, and still had the scar to show. And then Ned remembered he had gotten bit by a dog when he was little, and his mum had burnt the place, and he yanked up his britches leg to show the scar on his ankle. Nell told of breaking a toe when she was about ten, and of getting thrown by a wild pony when she was thirteen and getting her skull cracked. Greenjade shuddered to hear it, but Sméagol looked proud and happy to be among their company, and of having mastered the trick of hobbling about on crutches so quickly.
During luncheon, Nell told everyone about the plans for the schooling, and Miss Carrie said she wished to learn also. Mr. Partridge declined, saying he had gotten this far without being able to read and write more than his name, and he had too much to do as it was. A young couple was getting married and he was making a table and a set of chairs for them. A bench wasn't good enough for 'em, he said; they would have chairs. What WAS the world coming to? He was impressed, however, when Nell told of selling the firewood.
"Do you know of anyone who might have writing materials?" Radagast asked.
"Naught but the mayor, 'at I kin think of," Mr. Partridge said. Greenjade stole a peek at Sméagol...who had confessed all to the Wizard this morning, Radagast had informed him while they were collecting the wood. Sméagol did not meet Greenjade's eyes.
"Leave all to me," Nell said.
It seemed she had been avoiding looking Greenjade in the eye today also.
But the very next morning, all had their first lesson at The Quail and Pheasant. Nell's brothers all showed up, along with their wives, whose mothers had offered to keep the children. Six of the soldiers showed up, Ben, the one-eyed soldier, having declined. He already knew how to read and write, as it turned out. Jem said he would like to if there were someone to stay with his mum while he was out, someone other than his Aunt Bertie, and Mrs. Goodfellow offered her services, to everyone's surprise.
And that night, they celebrated at the Quail and Pheasant. Nell seemed more her usual self, and she wore her embroidered blouse, and sang several songs, lustier ones than she had sung at the Springfest, and the soldiers came to life once more, watching and listening, and some of them sang with her.
The lass that I love is a fine pirate wench
She's strong as a ox when yer 'ead she will clench
She drinks like a plowboy in rum she's awash
She'll show ye 'er buckle if ye show 'er yer swash
She sails where she likes and puts in where she please
And brings all the landlubbers down on their knees....
Within a week, all had the alphabet memorized. Radagast said perhaps they could use the money they made from the stovewood to buy some books, and asked Nell to introduce him to the mayor.
And in the meantime, he taught much of the ways of woodland creatures and birds, and plant lore, along with the history of Middle-earth, and Greenjade found himself being asked of the Sea.
And then there was the tale of the Ring.
As it turned out, there were virtually none who knew the whole story. Greenjade did not even notice how fidgety Sméagol grew in the telling, for watching the crowd's reaction, and thinking of his stepfather. Soon the room was no longer large enough, and Radagast arranged to have the stage brought back from the Springfest, so that he might stand there and tell the tale.
"The village has awakened," he said one evening, as they sat on the porch watching the setting sun. "It's like the Springfest all over again, yet different."
Mr. Partridge looked troubled, even as he held his youngest grandchild, Clark's little two-year-old Linnet. It seemed he preferred to let sleeping dogs lie. Greenjade watched him from the corner of his eye. Yes, the man was happy as he was, sitting on the porch among family members, watching the sun go down and holding the babe on his lap and feeling her fall asleep on his breast with his finger clutched in her soft little hand, his breath ruffling her silky curls. What did he need with book learning, with knowledge of the outside world? This was the sort of man Greenjade had once held in the utmost scorn: the man who was content. Now he scarcely knew what to think. On the one hand, he had gained a certain respect, and even wished he could be that sort of man. On the other, he knew he never could be. Even with Nell by his side. He was wishing to move on now, to see what else lay beyond the horizon. Perhaps the learning would help to take him there....