17. The Hay-cut, Pt. I
1400, July 20 ~ Hobbiton.
It was not quite sunrise as Bilbo waded up the hill through the grass, heavy and lush from rain following the weeks of heat. At the top of Overhill’s meadow he stopped and caught his breath where a low wall of stones marked the beginning of the Boffin orchards. He turned and looked about him, wriggling his toes in the cool wet beneath his feet. The small ceremonial haying knife brushed his trouser leg where it hung from his hand, his fingers idly tracing the handle carved like bundled sheaves. A gust lifted his hair. Overhead, a few faint stars twinkled but Eärendil burned in the pale azure of the eastern sky. Shreds of low-lying mist were stained with pink and gold where the sun was rising behind the Bywater hills. Bilbo filled his lungs with morning air and exhaled. The dew was heavy; the air fresh; the breeze light. It was a perfect day for the cut.
In front of the Boffin barns labourers still were milling about, but most had assembled on the edges of the field, waiting for the Master of Bag End’s signal. Last mouthfuls of tea were swigged and pasties munched, mouths wiped with backs of hands, and Boffin dogs snuffed as they nosed about for fallen crumbs. Some workers murmured low, but most were silent, content to give their blades a few last swipes before stowing their whetstones in their pockets. Down below out of sight beyond the hedgerows, wheels creaked, ponies nickered, and oxen lowed as they pulled wagons to their places, loaded with rails and poles for making stacks.
A short burst of hilarity disturbed the quiet as a mock fight broke out amongst the ‘tweens. Arms and legs flashed as they rolled about in the tall grass.
“Watch them blades,” snapped an older hobbit leaning on a rake.
Dropped sickles were retrieved and the young people composed themselves obediently. Finally only a few small children were in motion, zig-zagging quietly like mayflies between sets of parental legs.
Bilbo scanned the assembly for familiar faces. Boffins, Brockhouses, Chubbs, Gamgees, Cottons, Proudfoots, Goodbodies, Bagginses, and Grubbs were only the half of them. Rosamunda (who could represent the Bolgers, Goolds or Tooks) bore a last tray from the Boffin kitchens. Bilbo noticed with amusement her hair was already coming down. High over her head she hoisted the heavy tray, weaving through the press of migrant workers just come in from Buckland and the South. With her arms lifted, her bodice was pulled tight under her breasts and the faded fabric cupped their undersides like worker’s hands. Discreetly, hobbits eyed her as she passed. But they were a well-behaved lot, considering, and kept their remarks (and their hands) to themselves. They knew not to offend the families who employed them and paid them well.
Frodo was on the other side of the field. He had not seen Rosamunda, Bilbo noted. Good. Hopefully, the lad would see nothing of her the rest of the day. Inattention when swinging a blade could be disaster. Showing off for one’s lady love would be just as dangerous. At least Frodo had had a proper rest.
To Bilbo’s surprise, Rosamunda had seen to that.
Bilbo stood at the sideboard drying bowls but cocked an ear and let his eye flicker to the lovers seated at the kitchen table nearby.
“You see? That is precisely what I mean!”
Although she had spoken under her breath, Bilbo had heard Rosamunda’s scold clearly. Frodo had reddened, but looked defiant.
The two of them had been pitting cherries with sharp, short-bladed knives. All afternoon they had been dropping the pink-red fruit into a series of bowls set between them, the pips littering the table. As soon as a bowl was filled, Marigold or Sam would whisk it away and dump the contents into crocks to crush with long-handled mallets.
The two youngest Gamgees had been noisily washing and drying a batch of crocks. They did not hear Frodo’s suppressed, “Ow,” nor the clatter of his knife hitting the table top. They did not see Frodo holding his finger aloft, regarding it coolly while blood bloomed from its tip and fell in red drops on the much-scored oak.
Bilbo reached for a cloth but Rosamunda had anticipated him, already poised with a wad of linen to staunch the wound. But, with an amused smile that became a smirk, Frodo leaned closer to her. Murmuring something that Bilbo could not hear, he popped his finger in his mouth and sucked it suggestively.
Rosamunda coloured and scowled. “Stop it,” she hissed under her breath, tearing a strip of clean towelling with unnecessary vigour. Marigold and Sam stopped their work, then, and turned to watch as she pulled Frodo’s finger roughly from his mouth and wrapped the strip around it. When they saw that Frodo was not seriously hurt, they turned their attention back to their task.
“Take care,” Rosamunda said, giving the knot she’d made a sharp, admonitory tug. Frodo winced, Bilbo saw, but more from her look and tone than from her rough usage. Frodo reddened again, but looked abashed. Rosamunda glanced quickly towards the children, who were paying no attention. “I mean it,” she whispered, pressing her fingers to Frodo’s cheek. “You fill me with worry.”
Rosamunda returned her eyes to her work, but Frodo kept stealing glances at her as he sliced. The pile of fruit on the table dwindled and they began to speak again, too low for Bilbo to catch, but Rosamunda’s tone was insistent, as if she were encountering opposition. Frodo muttered darkly, his look petulant, even angry, “Very well, if you insist.” A qualifying remark followed, which Bilbo could not catch, ending with an emphatic, “… not necessary.”
They worked at the table again in brooding silence, their eyes fixed on their piles of fruit, as if stoning cherries were utterly absorbing. But, after a time, tentative glances were exchanged. Rosamunda’s face softened, and, at the sight, Frodo’s sulk dissipated. She put down her knife and reached towards Frodo’s hand, but a sudden crow of laughter from the Gamgees stilled the gesture.
Sam had been over-zealous. A large dollop of crushed fruit was splashed across his nose and cheeks. Juice ran down his face onto his shirt and apron front.
“I’m sorry, Sam,” his little sister squealed, trying in vain not to laugh, “but you look so funny!” Sam grinned and laughed, too, dabbing his face with his apron hem.
Glancing back at the kitchen table, Bilbo saw that Rosamunda’s hand still hovered, not quite touching Frodo’s, which rested on its side, his knife loosely balanced against his palm.
“I think we’re going to want more brandy, Mr. Bilbo,” Sam called, pulling Bilbo’s attention away again. Marigold swiped a soapy cloth across Sam’s face so his words were muffled as he added, “More than what you’ve got here, anyway. And more honey, too, sir.”
Bilbo looked back to the scene at the kitchen table. With the ends of his third and fourth fingers, Frodo gave Rosamunda’s hand a tap. His lowered lashes and tumbled curls veiled his eyes, but, when he lifted them again, his look of apology was so sincere Bilbo knew that Rosamunda would be no match for it. He had succumbed to its power many times himself. Thus he was not at all surprised to see her bosom begin to rise and fall, and colour slowly stain her cheeks and neck. But when her eyes grew dark and melting, Bilbo looked away. He watched their hands, instead. Frodo had not withdrawn his hand, but lightly pressed the side of hers with his little finger. With a soft, entreating brush, Frodo worked their reconciliation.
Bilbo did not hear but could sense their mutual sighs.
“Yes, Samwise!” Bilbo answered at last, remembering himself. “We shall definitely need more brandy and honey. Sam, would you –”
Bilbo stopped himself mid-sentence and wheeled around to the lovers at the kitchen table, instead.
“Forgive me, Rosamunda. You have been tied to that chair the whole of the afternoon. Would you like to go? Stretch your legs for a bit?”
“Oh,” she sighed, “That would be lovely, Bilbo!” She scraped back her chair and stood, pressing her knuckles into the small of her back. Then she frowned. “But I don’t know…. Where do you–?”
“Of course, you don’t know where everything is! What a dunce am I! Frodo, show Rosamunda where things are kept down in the pantries, won’t you? You could help her bring it up. And you could probably use a stretch yourself.”
Bilbo chuckled to himself, watching them struggle not to exchange glances, their distrust mingled with gratitude. He wanted to laugh. But, really, he meant no trick. They deserved a respite! And they had been very well-behaved (especially Frodo, considering his behaviour the last time Rosamunda had been their guest). All day long, Frodo had been cheerful and sociable, and attentive to Marigold and Sam when he might have ignored them.
“Bring up several pots of honey, will you? And when you get the brandy – not the best, Frodo. The ordinary stuff will do for macerating cherries.”
They lingered another moment, then relaxed and turned to go.
“No – wait.”
“Bring two brandies.”
“Oh – and Frodo…”
They stopped again.
Such a look, nearly testy. Bilbo really must stop teasing.
“Choose a wine for tonight. Something refreshing. You’ll stay for dinner, won’t you, Rosa?”
Rosamunda's mouth crimped and puckered with indecision, but an encouraging lift of his eyebrows won her over. Her wariness receded and she smiled.
“Thank you, Bilbo! That would be lovely.”
Then they disappeared through the doorway. Just before they were out of sight, Bilbo saw Frodo’s arm slide around Rosamunda’s waist, giving her a squeeze. He hoped they would not be gone an age.
To distract the young Gamgees, Bilbo kept them busy with tasks – cleaning surfaces, measuring the honey and brandy already on hand, and stirring it into crocks. Hopefully, they would not notice the time it would take two grown hobbits to complete a simple mission.
But the lovers returned quite soon. True, they glowed, and, for a trip to retrieve a few pots and bottles they were breathless and notably rosy-cheeked. Still, they did not appear to have been making use of the flour sacks as a bed. Their clothes were not rumpled, nor was their hair askew. Bilbo was impressed.
When all the crocks of cherries had been sealed and everything put away, Bilbo insisted that Marigold and Sam stay to supper. The evening meal at the Gamgee’s would long since have been over.
“You’ve done enough, you wonder-workers!” Bilbo told them when they tried to help clear up, and shooed them away. “You shall want to get plenty of rest for the haying. Don’t worry. We’ll see to these.”
Sam and Marigold stood patiently while Bilbo paid them, pressing a handsome coin into the palm of each. But he tested them further, making them wait until he had fetched a bottle of last year’s cherry wine for the Gaffer (who loved sweet things).
“‘For lending you to me so graciously’, tell him,” Bilbo instructed. Marigold wrapped the bottle in her apron. When the children were sure he was finished, they catapulted down the hill like stones shot from a sling.
The three adults washed up, then all walked out together. Bilbo went empty-handed. Rosamunda, who typically carried no bag or purse, carried a leather reticule.
Frodo swung a heavy basket. “I’ve been eating her out of house and home,” he had explained earlier, when Bilbo had seen him stuffing it full of stock from the pantry. Now, over his shoulders, he also wore a pack.
“Camping?” Bilbo inquired, eyeing the pack as they walked along in the dusky light.
“No,” Frodo said, not rising to the bait, “clean towels.” Rosamunda coughed.
None of them spoke as they entered the cart track to the cottage. The evening light was soft and limpid, the air very fine. Every sound was distinct yet far away.
When they were out of view of prying eyes, Bilbo stopped.
“Good night, then, you two,” he said. “I shall see you in the morning.”
“Oh, but Frodo will be coming back,” Rosamunda said.
Frodo cut Rosamunda a look that made Bilbo wonder if things had gone amiss. She ignored Frodo and extended her hand. Bilbo took it and pressed it as they bade each other good night. Frodo, recalled to courtesy, also took Bilbo’s hand, but in a manner less forthcoming.
Had Rosamunda banished Frodo after all? It did not appear so, supplied for a fortnight as he was.
Before Bilbo started down the homeward side of the hill, he glanced behind him. They were just cresting the next hill. Their unencumbered hands swung between them, loosely clasped. No, Frodo had not been banished.
Bilbo pulled in a breath of air, redolent of flowers and grass, fragrant still from the accumulated warmth of the day. Overhead the sky was deepening to indigo and violet. The moon was a fat white shilling against the paler blue. It was far too nice to go inside just yet.
He would walk down to the Ivy Bush.
“Where’s Master Frodo?” Odo Proudfoot asked in his too-loud voice as Bilbo settled onto the bench opposite him. “Keeping himself fit for haymaking?”
“Erm, yes. I am sure you have the right of it!” Bilbo shouted back, unwilling to perjure himself further than that.
Frodo probably was “keeping himself fit.” A little more preparatory exercise could not hurt, Bilbo supposed.
“Will he be swinging a scythe again this year?” Proudfoot’s middle-aged son, Olo, asked courteously. A nice fellow, Olo, but one who had not yet come out from behind his flamboyant parent. One season Odo would be gone, and the Shire would learn more of the gentler-spoken son.
Bilbo, mid-swallow, merely bobbed his head affirmatively. As if Frodo would not.
Bilbo knew very well how Frodo loathed cutting hay, but also that he would rather sink into the earth than not be seen standing in the scythe-men’s midst. Frodo had been wielding the long blade for several years, since shortly after he had arrived in Hobbiton. No lad called himself a hobbit-grown until he could handle one, for the scythe-men were the heroes of any haying. Step and swing, step and swing, they advanced, keeping a steady rhythm, muscle sliding under summer shirting. They moved across a field like a line of country dancers, but their partner was the grass. It bent before their blades and fell with a sigh like lasses. And lasses watched. And sighed, too. A hobbit good with a scythe, it was said, was good in other ways.
“I used to be handy with the long blade, once, too, you know,” the elder Proudfoot boomed.
Bilbo raised his mug in salute to the deaf hobbit’s former prowess, shouting out appropriate remarks.
As Bilbo lipped froth from the rim of his mug, he thought of his own scythe-wielding days. He had not really been big enough to handle one well. Their long snathes were better suited to taller lads. But, as if to give the lie to this thought, the image of Folco Boffin came to mind: jaunty, bold: straw hat pushed back, scythe handle balanced against forearm, hand on hip, ready for the signal to start. Folco was no taller than Bilbo had been, yet Folco was very, very good.
No, Bilbo simply had not been strong enough when he was young. His strength had come later, he mused, patting the golden memento in his waistcoat pocket – strength to swing a sword – not a scythe.
An hour or so later, Bilbo was sitting at the table in the parlour. A sheaf of maps was spread out before him, maps of Bree and the road to Rivendell; to Mirkwood, Dale, and the Lonely Mountain; all illuminated by a lamp. But he had, in fact, been gazing through the open casement, staring into the circle of star-studded sky – yet not seeing it – or the land below it, lit by the waxing moon. He was still gazing, engrossed in recollection, when he heard the front door swing open. He turned and peered into the darkened entryway.
“What? Who? Is that you, Frodo?” he stammered incredulously.
It was. The light wavered in the draft. Frodo came and lounged in the parlour doorway.
“I thought I’d have an early night,” Frodo said matter-of-factly, biting on the end of a cerise-stained finger. One would think Frodo had slept at Bag End every night for the preceding month.
“An early night….” Bilbo repeated.
“Because of the hay-cut,” Frodo clarified. “I shall need the rest.”
Saucy remarks quivered at the tip of Bilbo’s tongue but he bit them back, saying only, “Ah. A prudent choice.”
Frodo sauntered off through the parlour for a last foray in the kitchen. Bilbo extinguished the lamp and went to bed.
Bilbo still had not believed Frodo really meant to sleep in his own bed, but, that morning, when the haying-horns roused Bilbo from a comfortable sleep, the smell of grilling bacon tickled his nostrils. Metal clicked and clanked on metal. Bilbo stumbled down the hallway to the kitchen to see Frodo, already washed and dressed, humming and shifting eggs around in sizzling fat. The table had been laid for two.
“Ah, you’re up, Uncle!” Frodo remarked, flashing a smile and a glance. “Splendid. Do bring the tea. Everything’s nearly ready.”
Bilbo blinked. Really, he must remember to send Rosamunda a gift.
Now the scythe-men stood arrayed along the border of the field, their backs to the not-yet-risen sun. Frodo was among them, looking resigned to his fate. Situated between the Brockhouse brothers and the Boffins, he even managed to look good-humoured. A hush had fallen. Bilbo did not wait. He lifted the blade, the ancient horn sounded, he sheered off a handful of grass, and held it over his head. The haying had begun.
At the mid-morning meal break, before elevenses, Bilbo saw Rosamunda under an oak, part of a work force made up of hobbit matrons, men too old to hay, and little children, supervised by Mrs. Boffin and Tina, Rollo’s North-Took wife. Tina sat in the shade on a milking stool nursing her youngest, but the children who could walk darted about everywhere while the grown-ups handed out food and drink.
“Thank you, Rosa,” Bilbo said, as he accepted a frothy mug of cider and a thick sandwich. He drank thirstily. After the glare of the sun, the green-grey shadows beneath the spreading limbs of the oak were especially welcome. In the verdant light Rosamunda’s face was velvety and dark. Her familiar smile seemed enigmatic, almost alluring.
“I had wondered where they had put you,” Bilbo said, blotting his mouth with his pocket handkerchief. “I confess, I had hoped you would be assigned to me again this year.” The previous summers since Rosamunda had come to live in the cottage she had worked his station, on the Party Field.
“Oh, I shall be there eventually,” she said as she refilled his mug and watched him drink. “The way workers keep pouring in, we’ll all be down there soon. Perhaps by tomorrow evening – the morning after at the latest. Which will be a very good thing, don’t you think?”
The broadest, richest swath of meadow grass lay along the gentler, northern banks of the Water, running from before the Mill all the way past Bywater.
Bilbo pocketed his sandwich for later, but munched a slice of damp, raisin-studded cake. When he had swallowed he answered, “Splendid! ‘Many hands make light work.’” Between discreet licks at the sticky sweetness on his fingers, he remarked, “Bonfire night will come early, then.” Rosamunda only smiled and nodded; the line of workers wanting food had grown.
Bilbo stepped away, wrapped the sandwich in a pocket handkerchief for later and slid his mug and plate into a washtub. He half-expected to see Frodo in her line, even though he knew Frodo’s team was somewhere else. Really, Bilbo was impressed.
It was not until the late afternoon, when Mrs. Boffin’s group had moved down two more stations that Frodo’s party came into view. Once more, Bilbo joined the women, who were serving beneath another pasture oak. He caught acorns tossed by Tina’s two older boys, but his eyes kept following the direction of Rosamunda’s gaze. There the scything team was taking its quarter-hourly break, to draw their whetstones over their blades. The Brockhouse brothers were clowning, throwing themselves in the grass, feigning exhaustion, and sending up comical groans. Folco’s voice rang out as he laughed, and the fabric of his white shirt billowed when the breeze lifted. He still looked quite fresh. But, even from where Bilbo stood, he could see that Frodo was flagging. Bilbo only saw his back, but Frodo’s shoulders drooped. His worn shirt clung to his shoulder blades, damp patches everywhere. Under his straw hat the back of his hair looked lank.
“Frodo is not much used to farm work, I fear,” Rosamunda murmured, lifting her hand to shade her eyes, narrowed against the field’s glare. Sun glanced off the men’s blades like white shards.
“No, he is not,” Bilbo agreed.
At that moment, lads and lasses bearing jugs of water were going into the field. The scythe-men playfully ruffled the children’s hair as a sign of gratitude, then snatched up the jugs and drank thirstily, splashing handfuls on their faces and down the backs of their necks.
Frodo’s eyes followed the children longingly as they made their way back to the shade under the tree. When he saw Bilbo there, he shrugged and gave a little wave. When he saw Rosamunda, he straightened up at once, offered a cheery smile, and touched his hat. Flipping his blade smartly over his shoulder he marched off, disappearing with the rest of his team beyond the next hedgerow. He had not looked back. Again, Bilbo was impressed.
“I wasn’t used to it, either,” Bilbo said, recalling Rosamunda’s comment. “Hard labour, that is, like haying. But neither are many here today,” he said, scanning the hobbits ranged about the meadow raking dried grass from windrows into haycocks. “Lads like that –” he said, indicating a group of Chubbs, Grubbs, and Highbanks, whose families were landowners or worked at skilled crafts; chandlers, harness-makers, weavers. “They don’t do this sort of work typically, either. But, when one is young, stamina builds up quickly. The first day is very hard. The second, nearly as bad. But, the third day – well, you will see – Frodo will be as fit and as hardy as any of them, if blistered and sore. Tonight, he’ll be all aches and pains, of course. But a good, hard rub will do wonders. Oh, he’ll complain – and loudly!” Bilbo chuckled. “But he really does benefit from a good – ”
Bilbo’s laughter trailed off. What was he saying? He would not be giving Frodo his rub at the end of the day, Rosamunda would. He glanced away, the surge of disappointment was so great; intense as it was inexplicable.
Images from past years’ hay-makings sprang to mind: Frodo lying on his stomach, freshly washed and smelling of clean hobbit-lad, sprawled upon a daybed draped in old towels, utterly exhausted and feigning a foul mood. Bilbo would begin the rub and immediately run the gauntlet of Frodo’s protests, challenging his expertise. He pressed like an Orc! He would pull his arm from the socket! But it was all in fun, really. Soon the protests would dissolve into merriment and they traded jokes and pleasantries, talking over the course of events: who had done well, who had fared badly, and who had shirked and never appeared at all.
Eventually, the lamplight – soft and warm and soothing to the eye – the fragrance of heated oil, the night sounds droning through the open window; all would work their magic. The rhythm of Bilbo’s still-strong finger-presses would soothe them both into a pleasurable sort of silence. Bilbo would work steadily, gratified by each loosening of a knot, until all the muscles of Frodo’s back and shoulders slipped freely under his hands. By the end of thirty minutes, Frodo would be drowsing and almost unable to stand. Bilbo would send him off to his room with an affectionate cuff, to fall upon his bed and sleep like only a young haymaker can.
Then Bilbo would gather up the towels, rub the oil from his hands, take some wine outside and sit and look at the stars and the dwindling campfires of the workers staying on the Party Field. When he would raise his glass or brush back a bit of unruly fringe, the fragrance of the oil would be there, a remembrance of the time they’d shared, time made rich and memorable by talk – and touch.
Bilbo barely could remember his own father’s and mother’s touch, although he knew that they had been affectionate parents. Later, when he had grown up, there had been trysts with lasses and widows, but that was a different sort of touching. Eventually, even that had become part of his distant past. Bilbo had not touched another hobbit with real affection in many years. Not until Frodo. With Frodo, little by little, Bilbo stumbled into touch again, in his developing role as foster parent.
It had been awkward at first. Bilbo had forgotten what to do and how to act with a child, and was stand-offish. But it had come back to him, what a child needed. Soon after singling the lad out in Buckland, he would guide Frodo’s small hand making Elvish letters, or learning to sketch from life. Or he clasped Frodo around the waist to heave him onto the backs of ponies, or up under the boughs of trees to reach pieces of fruit, or for an icicle hanging from the eaves of a shed. He would pat Frodo’s shoulder for a job well done, wipe jam from his cheek, or, gently, with the twisted end of a pocket handkerchief, lift debris from a smarting eye. He coaxed tangles out of Frodo’s hair, and, once or twice, pulled him bodily out of a fray. And, when the lad was broken-hearted over sorrows large or small, Bilbo pulled him close for a good cry. It was in such homely events that Bilbo began to know for himself the joy and pleasure he’d seen all his life on the faces of other hobbits simply caring for their children.
Frodo grew up, of course, and began to tend his own scrapes, and pull himself into the tallest trees without assistance. And it had been years since Frodo had wept disconsolately into Bilbo’s neck.
But, there still was the rubdown, a ritual after every haying and every harvest. All over the Shire, after the gathering of hay or wheat or apples, aching muscles of young labourers were pressed and pummelled away by someone close – usually a mother or father or elder brother. Someone with the heft and skill to do it. Bilbo’s father had done it for him, and Bilbo had done it for Frodo. Only now, at this moment of knowing he might never perform this service for Frodo again, did Bilbo realise how much it had meant to him.
Ah, well. Bilbo stifled an urge to pity himself and put it away. He turned to Rosamunda.
“Forgive me, Rosa, I had forgotten,” he said with self-deprecating cheer. “It is you, not I, who shall be saddled with that onerous task this year. But, do not despair!” he prattled brightly, “Frodo may be very uncooperative at first, but you will find he really does enjoy a rub, in spite of all the protestations. So, when you –”
Bilbo nearly laughed out loud at the unseemliness of his advice, considering to whom he was speaking. He dropped his eyes to her long-fingered hands and was pulled up short at the image of a prone Frodo groaning happily under their skilled application. He began to blush. This would not do at all. He pushed the image out of his mind.
“What a silly thing to say, especially to you, Rosamunda!” he nearly giggled. “I am sure Frodo will be most cooperative when you give him a rub!” He winked and Rosamunda blushed faintly. Bilbo could have struck himself. What a hash he was making of things! Heat pricked like little needles under his collar. Drops of perspiration beaded his lip.
“I did not mean – that is…. I should have – I ought rather to have said –”
He had become so flustered, it took the touch of Rosamunda’s hand on his arm to recall him. Her voice, low and clear, came to him through the tumult in his mind. She drew him away from the crowded tables until they were deep under the spreading boughs of the oak, in the shadow of its great bole.
“You needn’t go on, Bilbo,” she said smiling warmly. “I have grown quite used to your teasing.” She chuckled reassuringly. More seriously, she said, “but you do take me aback, sometimes, when I am unprepared. That is all. I know now you mean no real mischief.”
Her warm openness made Bilbo ashamed. Stooping, he picked up a couple of acorns and rolled them about in his palm like dice. He really must get a hold of himself, he thought. It was not as though he could keep Frodo forever….
Rosamunda had said nothing. She waited, watching with Bilbo as the brown nuts appeared and disappeared between his fingers. When he felt her observation, he stowed them in his waistcoat pocket, giving the cool gold nestled there a touch. A gust shook the upper boughs and sunlight pierced the leafy canopy. Bright shafts glanced and broke over Rosamunda’s features. In the shifting light her eyes seemed to glitter, canny and shrewd. Could she read his thoughts?
The breeze diminished and Bilbo pulled his fingers from his pocket. The leaves stilled, and they were enveloped in deep, velvety shade. Rosamunda’s voice still was low and discreet. How large and deep her eyes were in the shade. Light gleamed in them like afternoon sun in dark pools under river willows. He wanted to curl up beside them and trail his fingers in their shady depths. He wanted to lean into them, to fall, as he would into a bed of ferns in a hemlock grove, cool and lush and deep. The image refreshed and calmed him.
No wonder the lad was smitten, he thought, without any attendant anxiety.
At last she spoke. “You will need to bear your burden a little longer, I am afraid,” she said. She still smiled, but gazed at him steadily, waiting.
His burden? Bilbo raised his eyebrows. What had they been saying?
“Frodo will have to wait until some other time,” she said, as if in clarification.
“Some other time?” He still failed to see the connection.
“For a rub. A rub from me.”
Bilbo stammered, “But, I thought – do you mean – then, he won’t –?” He feared he would be babbling in a moment. Mercifully, Rosamunda intervened.
“No, he won’t,” she said, watching the progress of an ant making its way over the rough bark of the tree. “Tonight, Frodo will be staying with you, I am afraid. You must do as you have always done.”
“Won’t he – does he – have you…?”
Botheration! Could he not complete a sentence?
Rosamunda trailed her forefinger behind the wandering ant.
“No, I have not told him. But I shall, at the first opportunity.” She looked at Bilbo. “He will want to come to the cottage, as you have guessed, but it will be so late. I don’t want him trudging all the way there and back.” She gazed in the direction of the hedgerow where Frodo’s team had disappeared. “He looked so tired, when he thought we were not looking.”
When he thought you were not looking, Bilbo corrected her silently.
“Tonight, when he is utterly exhausted and sore, he will see that it is for the best. Then he will be glad to submit to your ministrations,” she chuckled. More matter-of-factly she added, “Besides, you are better at giving rubs, I have no doubt. I am out of practice. And Frodo will need the best.”
Bilbo peered at her, but she was absorbed with barring the ant’s path as it moved from spot to spot. She gave a little cry of delight when the ant climbed upon her finger. She lifted her hand for Bilbo to see as it made a circuit round her wrist. Then gently she urged it back onto the bark.
“You know best what Frodo needs,” she said, reaching up to pluck a leaf, which she slowly turned in her hand as she talked. “You have given him a rub for many seasons. Who could know his aches and pains better?”
Bilbo did not dare to look at her, so overjoyed was he at her remarks. He summoned a light tone, pulling the acorns from his pocket and shaking them in his palm.
“You do yourself a disservice, Rosamunda,” he protested airily, although his laugh sounded a little forced. “Odovacar did not complain of your rubs, surely!” he quipped, casting a sidelong smile.
“In fact, he did,” she grinned, giving the leaf a jaunty twirl.
Bilbo’s eyebrows rose beneath his fringe.
“Truly!” she said. “Oh, he loved to be petted and stroked, but when it came to working out genuine aches, he preferred his father’s hands – or his brother’s, when his father’s got too weak. My skills were found very much wanting.” She sighed mightily, but her eyes twinkled . “He was a terrible tease, you know,” she confided. “‘A woman’s hands are strong enough for pleasure,’ he’d say, ‘but not for pain!’”
Bilbo brayed a donkey’s laugh, turning heads. Either it was from release of tension, or the shock of hearing such a saucy expression on Rosamunda’s lips. Gallantly, she joined him in his noisy mirth.
After their last giggle and snort, she looked at him and said, “Anyway; that is the main reason I think Frodo should stay at home with you. The second day of haymaking is the hardest. You said so yourself. I don’t want him swinging a blade if he is not fit for it. I want him safe.”
What a shame, Bilbo thought again, that she did not suit as Frodo’s wife. Where would he find a better? He pushed the acorns about in his hand listlessly.
“You don’t mind him staying at home, do you, Bilbo?” she ventured.
“Mind! Why, no! I shall be glad of it.” He put the acorns in his trouser pocket.
Rosamunda’s look was all inquiring solicitude, but something else as well. Was it irony? A touch of pity?
He controlled a shudder. It occurred to him all at once that she might have manoeuvred the whole thing. Short of his laundress and the butcher’s sister, Rosamunda had the strongest-looking hands of any hobbit woman he knew. Her fingers were long and shapely, the nails always trimmed and carefully kept, but they were not delicate or weak. Was he supposed to believe all that balderdash about not having the strength to give a hobbit a decent rub? Why, she merely had seen his unhappiness (come, admit it), and was now indulging him. ‘Poor, lonely old Bilbo, clinging desperately to the child upon whom he long has doted….’
The thought shamed and repelled him. Well, if she imagined he would endure being made the object of pity for one moment, she had another—
An indignant glance towards Rosamunda threw his thoughts in disarray. Paying no attention to him, she leaned against the bole of the tree, and gazed across the field to the place where Frodo’s team had disappeared. She trailed the edge of the leaf across her cheek idly, but her look was one of such longing; anguished and piercing, Bilbo could not feel affronted.
If Rosamunda had given up her night with Frodo on Bilbo’s account and not for Frodo’s welfare, she had done it out of empathy for him, not pity.
Rosamunda seemed to feel Bilbo’s gaze. She straightened up, cleared her throat, and flung the leaf away. Bilbo, too, took a bracing breath.
“Well!” he said brightly. “As you wish. He shall come to Bag End. But you are very hard upon me, Rosamunda. He will be nothing but moaning and complaints the whole night.”
“Oh, I think you shall bear up,” she murmured, her smile spreading to her eyes.
Bilbo would have liked to embrace her. “Ah! But will Frodo? When the haying is over and done, he will be filling your ears with tales of how ill-used he was.”
“I shall look forward to the telling,” she smiled, but, looking out across the field, her brows knit. “I hope the haying moves forward quickly, though, or Frodo will not have the chance to fill my ears with tales of any sort.”
Bilbo quirked an eyebrow while Rosamunda plucked another leaf, but let it drop, watching it fall from her hand to angle in the grass.
“I got a letter from Freddy,” she said. “Surely you must have had one from Merry. The hay-cut is finished in Buckland. They are doing the cocking and stacking now. He and Merry will be coming any day, he says.”
“I’ve not yet read Merry’s latest letter, Rosamunda. But I’ve heard from the Master. Rory talks as though they won’t be finished for several more days. It’s true he has sent on the bulk of his migrant labour, as we can see. But there is still a lot to be done. Freddy is a lad. He’s only thinking of his part in it. The children are finished up, swimming and loafing about. But their parents are still working. Then there’s the Hall’s Bonfire Night. Merry wouldn’t miss that, nor would Freddy. He’s writing from a child’s point of view; that is all. Or else, he is just eager to see you.”
Rosamunda narrowed her eyes and glanced away. “I suppose you think it very ill of me, not to wish my children home sooner.”
Bilbo examined the leaf in the grass. He had been thinking that very thing, actually. But, in a way, he did understand. He chose his words carefully.
“I know what it is to feel time slipping away, Rosamunda,” he began. “Time – time to be with those whom we most love….”
He was chagrined to find he could not finish. Really, he had become quite womanish. How would he leave the Shire to travel again before he died, as he had planned to do for so many years, if he could not bear to think such thoughts? He would go. He must. To die in his bed in Bag End – never to see old friends or the wonders of the world again – Oh, it was an intolerable thought.
He straightened up. “Anyway, Rosamunda,” he said, pulling the acorns from his pocket. “One can’t help how one feels. One only can help what one does about what one feels.”
He flung the acorns across the field and watched as they arched high and disappeared into the uncut grass. “I know you will do what you feel you must. And so shall I.”
She peered at Bilbo. Her look felt so knowing, Bilbo felt a flicker of alarm. He had let her see too much.
Then, as if by design, an argument broke out across the field concerning the proper way to build a stack. He would intervene at once, before rakes and hay forks started flying.
Arriving at the scene, he looked back to the oak where the women and children worked. He could barely discern Rosamunda, so still was she in the tree’s deep shade. But Tina’s two eldest came and accosted her, laughing and tugging at her skirts, pulling her by the hands to drag her to the tables where their mother and grandmother were mixing punch. At the tables, Rosamunda picked up a large spoon but she paused, looking his way. Bilbo smiled and gave her a little wave. When she returned it, from the shadows he fancied he saw a twinkle in her eye, but of course he couldn’t have, at such a distance.
How well he liked her.
“Well, then, Andy!” he said, turning his attention to the argument escalating before him. “What’s all this about?” The Gaffer’s older brother Andy, down from Tighfield for the haying, stood arms akimbo and nose-to-nose with a piqued young Chubb from the other side of Bywater. The Chubb thought the hobbit from Tighfield officious, butting into local ways. Andy thought the Chubb should learn to mind his elders.
Bilbo tried to attend to their claims, but other sounds drew his ear, however distant. From under the great oak women laughed and punch trickled down the sides of earthen mugs. Down below, beyond the hedgerows, scythes were singing.
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.