5. Chapter Four
Frodo sipped more of Pearl’s hazelnut liqueur, savoring the taste as the amber syrup slid down his throat, and let his eyes roam round to look at the faces of the relatives and friends he loved the most. All my nearest and dearest, he thought, except for Bilbo and Sam. Neither felt able to leave Bag End this year, with all the preparations for Bilbo’s massive party still to be completed. Of course, Frodo reflected, it was always a struggle to get Sam to attend. He insisted that it was wrong for Frodo’s gardener to be sitting at a birthday dinner with all his Took and Brandybuck kin. Last year it had taken the combined efforts of Bilbo, Frodo, and Esmeralda to make him say “yes” to her annual invitation, and he only agreed because the dinner was being atypically held at Bag End. Frodo suspected with some amusement that Sam had been secretly grateful to have the perfect excuse this year to stay home.
At his left, Paladin Took was engaged in an animated argument with his brother-in-law Saradoc Brandybuck over which type of South Farthing pipeweed was truly the finest, Old Toby or Longbottom Leaf? Eglantine leaned forward, her hand on Paladin’s arm as she laughingly egged him on as he grew increasingly vocal, frustrated at Sarry’s calm replies. Esmeralda watched both husband and brother with amused tolerance as she drank her wine; her heavy lashes drooped, giving her the look of a sleepy-lidded child who had missed her nap. Next to her, Merry was engaged in his usual battles of wits with Pimmie, the two of them mocking and belittling one another with vigor, accompanied by Pippin’s excited interjections and Pervinca’s acid comments. Frodo raised an eyebrow at this; Pervinca seemed rather young to already be suffering a bad case of jealousy where her two older sisters were concerned.
To his right, Lilac was deep in quiet conversation with Ferumbras, who had been invited more as a matter of courtesy to the current Thain than because of any closeness to Frodo. Frodo liked him a great deal, however, for Ferumbras was intelligent and thoughtful, with many good ideas to improve the harvest yield of the Took farms around Whitwell. It was a pity that Lalia’s stubbornness prevented him from managing the farms with a free hand, though Ferumbras now had Paladin’s help in pushing his mother, since Lalia had decided Paladin would keep the family accounts. Suddenly aware of Frodo’s scrutiny, Ferumbras glanced up and smiled at his young cousin. Frodo returned it, thinking, He’s probably as happy as I am that his harridan of a mother isn’t here to ruin the party. I can just imagine what’d she say if she saw whom it was Cousin Tina made sure was sitting beside me tonight . . .
As Frodo’s gaze settled on his dinner partner, Pearl deftly poured more liqueur into his glass with an inquiring look. “Have you enjoyed the food?” she asked in a low voice. “Mother and I badgered our cook to produce all your favorite dishes. She didn’t have any trouble with the grape-stuffed roast quails or the creamed beets, but the mushroom walnut soup rather flummoxed her.”
“I couldn’t tell—all the food was absolutely delicious, but it always is at the Great Smials. Your liqueurs and candies are splendid as ever too—and I think your dress is lovely, by the by,” Frodo said. Pearl smiled, and Frodo fell to studying her in detail again, still startled by how beautiful she was this evening.
Her dress was a pale mint shade, which accentuated her eyes and shifted their color to something like her brother’s clear green orbs. The style was simple but elegant, with a noticeably low cut neckline trimmed with a long strand of teardrop pearls. A strand of her name jewels adorned her throat, and matching bracelets dangled at her wrists. Her glossy brown curls were pulled back to tumble on her shoulders, except for a few wisps artfully arranged around her face. Frodo was tempted to ask Pearl how many hours she had spent in preparing herself, but decided not to. After all, it was more than a little flattering to have such a lovely girl make an effort to impress him—even if it was quite unnecessary.
Before Frodo could complement Pearl further, however, Paladin—who had finally conceded defeat to Sarry—fixed his would-be son-in-law with an intense stare. “So, Frodo,” he said, “what’s this I hear? The story’s going round that Gandalf is going to be putting in an appearance at Bilbo’s party. Any truth to it, or is it another piece of hair-brained gossip that fool Sandyman started after one too many at the Green Dragon?”
“Yes, Frodo, do tell us,” chimed in Eglantine. “Why, Rosamunda Bolger told me the other day that we’d be seeing a fireworks display far better than any since the Old Took’s death! She’d be here herself to ask if it wasn’t for those stupid colds that kept all the Bolgers home!”
Pippin’s face lit up and he began bouncing up and down eagerly. “Fireworks? Will they be like the ones Bilbo talks about, all shiny and bright and shaped like flowers and trees? Maybe there’ll be a dragon!”
“Come on, Frodo, you might as well spill,” Merry said with a grin at his disconcerted cousin as he put a restraining hand on Pippin. “I’ll have you know that Sam’s not exactly been a model of discretion most nights when he lifts a pint. The rumors are flying thick and fast.”
Frodo drew a deep breath and looked round again at all their expectant faces, taken aback at how quickly the whole table had fallen silent. “Well,” he said cautiously, “from what I can gather from Bilbo, yes, Gandalf is coming, and yes, he is bringing fireworks—but I can’t vouch for the size of the display, so you needn’t jump off your seat, Pippin.”
An excited Pippin subsided under his mother’s warning glare while Sarry cocked his head quizzically. “What you can gather? You make it sound as though Bilbo’s being as tight-lipped with you as he is with everybody else. Any particular reason why?”
“Why, to preserve the surprise for everybody—including Frodo. Isn’t that right, dear?” Esmeralda asked coolly, determined to end this line of questioning since Frodo’s discomfort was becoming more and more obvious.
Frodo’s mouth opened to confirm her statement, but he was spared any further discussion as the parlour doors swung open to reveal the maids, all carrying the heavily laden dessert trays. Everyone exclaimed happily over the piles of sweets; there was a profusion of pies, cakes, tarts, puddings, and cobblers, even a sweet blackberry wine soup that Eglantine was quick to point out as Pearl’s handiwork. Frodo smiled and took some, along with the raspberry buttermilk tarts and the glazed pear cake Esmeralda baked for him each year.
After the better part of a hour, all the dinner guests finally pushed themselves away from the table, crammed to bursting and feeling very satisfied. Esmeralda glanced over at Frodo. “Frodo dear, don’t you think it’s time you passed out the presents?” she asked.
Frodo nodded and walked over to the large basket he had earlier placed in an out-of-the-way corner. He began handing out the carefully wrapped boxes, beginning with Paladin and Eglantine as his host and hostess and proceeding round. He felt very pleased at the enthusiasm with which everyone greeted his gifts, because he had devoted a great deal of thought this year to what would suit.
Pearl’s gift he saved for the very last; he was all too aware of the substantial risk he was taking with it, since it could be construed as a betrothal pledge by the gossipy or the unfriendly. But he could think of nothing better, and had chosen to brazen matters out. He sat down as he proffered the small box to a blushing Pearl. “These were the only things I wanted to give you this year—I do hope you like them,” he said simply.
Pearl ripped the paper off and pulled up the lid. She gasped as she saw what lay within. “Look, Mama, look! Oh, Frodo, they’re exquisite—I can’t believe you’re giving me these!” She lifted out a pair of pearl earrings, teardrop shaped like the ones trimming her dress but considerably larger. They shone with a lustrous clarity in the candlelight as Pearl held them up, her expression utterly bedazzled. Amid the general exclamations, the three older women at the table exchanged sharp looks, and Eglantine asked eagerly, “Where did you find pearls like these, Frodo? Surely not here in the Shire!”
“I have my sources, Cousin Tina,” Frodo said modestly, too wise to disclose openly the existence of the small chest of jewels Bilbo kept in his study. It was hardly the hoard that Shire rumor claimed was buried at Bag End, but all the pieces were exceptionally fine. Bilbo had given it to him several months ago, telling him he was free to do with them what he wished—“particularly giving nice presents to that pretty cousin of ours,” added Bilbo with a wink. Seeing the joy on Pearl’s face as she put the earrings on, Frodo made a mental note to thank Bilbo profusely when he went home.
Pearl glanced over at his mother, who gave her a barely perceptible nod. Pearl immediately walked over to the end table against the west wall and picked up the flat bundle of cloth lying on it. She held it out to Frodo, her voice trembling a little. “It’s not the usual custom to give the birthday guest a present—but Aunt Esmie, Mother and I wanted to make sure you were well-dressed at your big party. All three of us worked on it. I hope now you like it as much as I loved your gift.” She bit her lip as Frodo started untying the ribbons and folding back the covering cloth.
He made a pleased sound as he lifted out the waistcoat. “This is beautiful—thank you so much!” He held it up, admiring the deep blue color of the silk and the intricate gold embroidery swirled on the pockets and around the edges. “This was quite a lot of work, even with three of you sewing it. You shouldn’t have, but it is marvelous—I’ll be the best-dressed hobbit in two weeks, no question.” Frodo kissed Pearl on the cheek, and then offered the same salute to Esmeralda and Eglantine.
“Put it on, Frodo, I want to see how it fits,” said Esmeralda, beaming with pride over the success of their little plan.
Frodo took off his old waistcoat and slipped the new one on to applause from the adults and girls, and a series of good-natured taunts from Merry and Pippin. Merry’s cry of “Hey, pretty boy” earned him a sharp clout on his ear from an annoyed Pearl and a chuckle from both his father and uncle.
“The women in my family are skilled with the needle, hey, Frodo?” Paladin said genially. “But now I think we menfolk should step outside to enjoy the balmy air, and to try these nice new pipes our young cousin has given us.”
“A good idea, Paladin,” agreed Sarry, his eyes glinting.
“And we womenfolk, in our turn, shall go into the Green Parlour for another cordial before retiring, while the children go to bed,” Eglantine said briskly. “This means you, Peregrin, and you too, Pervinca—no ifs, ands, or buts, miss!” Pervinca gave her mother a mutinous look but said nothing.
Lilac said gently, “Come along, dears, I’ll tell you some stories while I tuck you in—maybe one about Gandalf and the Old Took. Would you like that?”
“Oh yes, Cousin Lilac, please do,” Pippin demanded. He and Pervinca let themselves be steered out the doors, while Pimmie shot Pearl a quick speculative look.
“Wait a moment, Cousin Lilac, I’ll help you—I’m tired and want to go to sleep—” Pimmie hurried after her siblings as Paladin and Eglantine began leading the others to their various destinations. Frodo thought for a second, decided his new waistcoat was too fine to be made smoky already, and began to take it back off. As his hand brushed one of the pockets, he heard a crackle. Glancing around surreptitiously, he reached in and pulled out a small piece of paper. Unfolding it, he discovered a message in Pearl’s delicate handwriting:
Meet me in the library at half past eleven.
Frodo’s head whipped up, and he saw, in the corner of his eye, that Pearl was lingering near the parlour doors. He quickly shoved the note into his breeches pocket, grabbed his old waistcoat, and headed towards the door. As he put on his vest, he bent over and hissed in Pearl’s ear, “Yes!”
Pearl said nothing, but rushed down the hallway to catch up with her mother and aunt, a creamy smile of satisfaction playing about her lips. Perfect! I finally get time alone with Frodo—and best of all, no one will know, especially old Aunt Lalia! Hurray!
Both Frodo and Pearl were quite confident that they had gone unobserved; but neither of them noticed an avid Merry twisting round as he walked down the hall, anxious to see their little exchange and letting his curiosity get the better of his judgment.
This is a work of fan fiction, written because the author has an abiding love for the works of J R R Tolkien. The characters, settings, places, and languages used in this work are the property of the Tolkien Estate, Tolkien Enterprises, and possibly New Line Cinema, except for certain original characters who belong to the author of the said work. The author will not receive any money or other remuneration for presenting the work on this archive site. The work is the intellectual property of the author, is available solely for the enjoyment of Henneth Annûn Story Archive readers, and may not be copied or redistributed by any means without the explicit written consent of the author.