19. Bilbo Observes
1400, July 25 ~ The Dinner Party.
After Bonfire Night, invitations for the dinner party were quickly sent round. Bilbo managed to arrange for it only two days after the haying; he would have waited longer, but Rollo Boffin had sent an apologetic note. His stay in Hobbiton must be cut short. Alas, he and his must leave, he wrote; the North Farthing was ready to cut, typically the last part of the Shire to be ready.
The clan of Long Cleeve Tooks into which Rollo had married looked to their son-in-law for leadership. Tina was the only one of their children who had stayed put, her brothers and sisters marrying into the far corners of the Shire. One of the sons-in-law had planned to be on hand, visiting from the South, which had already finished haying, but he did not feel competent to direct so many hobbits he did not know. Rollo was needed, therefore, the very next day. Bilbo must celebrate without them. But, in a separate letter, Marco and Folco urged Bilbo to speed his plans, lest Rollo and Tina miss out.
As soon as Rosamunda had received her invitation, she sent word she would make cherry tarts, if cherries still could be found. Perhaps she could ask Folco if there were more, she wrote. Surely the Boffins had kept some in reserve.
Frodo, reading her note over Bilbo’s shoulder, had nearly snatched the letter out of Bilbo’s hand, and intervened at once. No, he wrote in an addendum to Bilbo’s reply, he would ask for the cherries. He would fetch them himself, if they were to be had. Cherries were still available, the Boffins wrote, begging them not to divulge their secret to any other.
Thus, on the morning of the dinner, Frodo tramped to Overhill to fetch a portion from the Boffins’ private store, and carried them to Rosamunda.
Recovered from the melancholy he felt at the hay-cut, Bilbo’s mood was merry when Frodo and Rosamunda arrived for dinner – well before the other guests, since they were bearing treats. Frodo swung a basket of the newly-made tarts from each hand, and Rosamunda carried an additional tray covered with a cloth. She tossed a laughing remark to Frodo over her shoulder as he shut the gate with his foot (his arms laden with tarts).
As she mounted the path, she seemed unaccountably breathless for such a good walker, as lightly burdened as she was. Ah, Bilbo observed, she was wearing stays: an article of clothing she wore only seldom, so uncomfortable were they, and impossible to lace by one’s self.
How fortunate, Bilbo thought, that Frodo had been there to pull them snug for her.
Bilbo was about to chastise himself for smirking, but the thought of lacing stays cast him back in time. Not to lovers, but to his mother, Belladonna Took Baggins. One of the great beauties of her day, she never went into society except wearing a corset, the laces pulled tight.
When Bilbo had been little, his father had been the one to pull the laces of his mother’s stays. Bilbo would perch on a stool, or watch from the floor as they got ready to go out. “Too many cream cakes!” she would laugh between groans, clinging to a bedpost as her husband pulled and yanked. Bilbo would laugh and groan, too, hugging his knees in sympathy as he watched the beautiful hobbit woman who was his mother being squeezed like a sausage. But every now and then his father would be unavailable when it came time for Belladonna to dress (there had been more fancy dress parties in the Shire then, especially in winter). Bilbo would leap up and offer, “I will do it, Mother!” She would smile and laugh and kiss his cheek, saying, “You are still too little, my sweeting! When you are bigger.” The kitchen maid or the gardener’s lass would be called in to perform the task. By the time Bilbo was big enough to pull the laces of her corset, he was too big to see her in it.
Bilbo grew up to unlace his share of stays, but seldom did he lace them. He rarely was with a lover long enough to do so.
Rosamunda’s laces had been pulled good and tight, Frodo had seen to that. How well she looked! Her skin was more golden-brown from the sun than ever, and her soft, light hair was coming down as usual, renegade tendrils springing from her temples and trailing down her neck (which only added to her charm, in his opinion). How splendid she looked in fancy dress!
Although Rosamunda’s day-to-day clothes were not positively unattractive, they were quite unremarkable for a hobbit woman of her means, even plain. But, this dress.... It was elegant yet simply cut, with a small floral design sprinkled widely over a summery cloth the colour of butter, its surface polished and soft. The bodice was properly high, befitting her widowed estate, revealing only the uppermost rise of her breasts. Her fine expanse of shoulder was modestly veiled by the requisite matron’s kerchief of lace, fastened in front with a brooch. Nevertheless, the respectability of her attire could not disguise her attractions. Perhaps because she rarely wore them, the sight of Rosamunda in stays was most inspiring, the way they lifted her full breasts into high mounds. They gleamed golden like summer melons, ripe and luscious. They rose and fell with every breath, like crescent moons rising and sinking behind a sprigged cotton horizon. Bilbo was reminded of a dessert: twin meringues, honey-glazed and shimmering on a high-stemmed plate.
Really! Bilbo chastised himself, but wanted to giggle. Three similes in a row! Next he would be composing an ode. Still – ogling his guest – how indiscreet. Then he chuckled. Could it be helped when lasses wore such things? Surely a hobbit was intended to gape.
Fortunately for Bilbo, Rosamunda had turned away to address a remark to Sam, who was gathering salad things down in the garden. Then she stepped up on the porch and Bilbo held the door. Frodo offered a greeting, but squeezed past them to take the baskets of tarts to the kitchen.
Rosamunda paused to greet Bilbo as she entered Bag End. He offered his cheek, which she brushed with her customary warm kiss. Bilbo suppressed a start. The hair beside her ear smelled faintly of Frodo. Bilbo knew the scent well enough, having woken Frodo so many mornings when he was a ‘tween. She could not know. He determined to think no more about it.
“You are looking very elegant this evening, Rosamunda,” he said, and meant it.
“Why, thank you, Bilbo,” she smiled, allowing him to take the tarts which he placed on the narrow table in the hall. “You are kind – and gallant. You make it almost worth the bother. Of dressing up, I mean. For you are far fonder of that sort of thing than I, I am afraid,” she confided.
Bilbo was a little disconcerted. Did she think him foppish? He had thought he looked very well in his summer-weight wools. The breeches were especially well-cut and the figured waistcoat one of his most handsome.
But she had meant no ill by it; next she said, eyeing his attire appreciatively, “You do justice to fine clothes, Bilbo. Everything looks well on you.”
He was very much mollified when she paused to offer him her own cheek. Thankfully, this side smelled only of Rosamunda and Shire soap. But when he leaned closer to bestow his kiss, his eye was caught by blue and gold winking in her hair. Nestled between the gold-brown waves were small, beautifully wrought combs: gold set with opal and lapis, obviously of Dwarf-make.
“Those are very beautiful,” he remarked evenly, unable to take his eyes from them.
Rosamunda reached for them reflexively as if she might pluck them out of her hair. She blanched faintly.
“You know them, I see....”
“Yes, I know them. They were Primula’s.” Rosamunda blanched further.
“She wore them often?”
“Almost never, I believe, if you are worried they will be recognized.” Rosamunda blushed hotly at that.
There. He’d put his foot in it again. Best to tell her all. “But I know them well. I gave them to her.”
Rosamunda looked at him stunned, rather horrified. “You? You gave them to her?” With a quick glance towards the kitchen she spoke low, but her voice was urgent.
“Frodo gave them to me, just this afternoon, to wear tonight. He meant it very sweetly,” she said, as if in appeal. “He has never given me a gift gift. I think he wanted me to think it special. Oh, but such a gift!” She pressed her palms to her cheeks then drew them down again and clasped them together over her skirt. “I had guessed they must have been Primula’s – whose else? I assumed Drogo must have found them … through the trader at Bree, or at the Overlithe fair at Michel Delving, perhaps. So cunningly made! Not like anything I have ever seen. I asked Frodo, of course. He said, yes, they were from his mother’s things; he did not know where they came from. But they were his, now. And it would give him pleasure, he said, to see them worn.” She stammered and her hands began to twist. “He … he entreated so warmly, with such feeling. His face was so….”
Poor Rosa. Bilbo knew that face, too.
“I should not have done, but I acquiesced,” she said firmly. “Frodo should not have given them to me.” Her eyes began to glisten as she murmured miserably, “He should have kept them for when he marries. I know that.”
“Yes,” Bilbo quietly agreed, “he should have kept them, but he has not. But he is right, you know: the combs are his to do with as he wills.”
Bilbo summoned her eyes with the gentleness of his voice. “It would be wrong, Rosa, to refuse a gift so graciously given, even this gift.”
Rosamunda looked as though she might have burst into tears but she produced a smile, relaxing as he continued to speak.
"Yes, they were Primula's. A gift from me upon the occasion of her conceiving, the second year after Frodo was born. I had had them made for Frodo's birth, but they hadn't been ready in time. Yes, she and Drogo did manage to conceive again, but the baby miscarried. You were barely a 'tween, living in your parents' hole near Whitwell. I am sure you would not have heard, even from the Tooks. Primula and Drogo told no one but me. I had meant the combs to bring her luck, for the gold and gems had been hard won, taken from the dragon's hoard under the Mountain. I had them made for her specially, for a hobbit woman's head is smaller than a Dwarf's. How she had wanted that second child, a companion for the first."
Now it was Bilbo's turn to falter and sigh. "It was a pity, but I never saw her wear them again, after she first tried them on. Primula never said so, but I think she thought them bad luck."
Rosamunda’s fingers flew to the combs, but let them hover there; tentative. Bilbo took her hands in his and drew them to the breast of his waistcoat.
“There is no bad luck in the combs, Rosa, no evil. The evil was in the dragon that seized them. The gems belonged to the Dwarves, who were good and brave. The combs were well-given to Primula and they are well-given to you. Wear them – if not for the beauty of the jewels, for the beauty of their giver.”
Rosamunda pressed the back of Bilbo’s fingers to her lips, picked up the tray of tarts, and disappeared inside.
Bilbo felt suddenly sad, sorry he had spoken. She would not wear the combs in company again. Perhaps she would wear them at home, for Frodo.
The dinner party went smoothly after all, even though Tina and Rollo’s children had come. At the last minute, Nana Boffin had not been feeling well. ‘Tainted mutton’, she said. Grandad Boffin would sit with her at home.
But the children had not been so terribly noisy. The eldest three had been very rowdy, but in an amiable way, demanding to be tossed in the air by their uncles and Frodo, engaging in shouting matches over the use of playthings, and being dragged bodily from the study, which then was shut and locked. At dinner, in spite of frequent parental admonitions, they entertained each other making amusing digestive sounds and eating their food in unusual ways. But they did not throw things, scream, or climb upon the table. The baby mostly slept. Bilbo thought them charming and far more engaging than their uncles-to-be, Marcho and Blancho Brockhouse (the brothers of Delphinium, Folco’s secret fiancée).
Once again, Bilbo had hired the youngest Gamgees for the festive occasion. He would have hired all four of the Gaffer’s children, but Daisy and May had been snapped up for a competing party at the Sackville-Bagginses. Lobelia did not trust Marigold and Sam with her good dishes. Thus it was Marigold and Sam – when they weren’t in the kitchen or waiting at table – who took turns distracting the children when they grew restive. Sam took them to visit the beasts in the sheds, down on the Row. Marigold led them in games of chase between the marrow mounds and bean rows. When dusk was deepening and the Boffin children finally came inside, they lolled about in laps or on the floor, and grew heavy-eyed while the grown-ups talked. Only one of them resisted drowsiness.
Little Halla was Rollo and Tina’s second youngest. Nearly weaned (still requiring the breast at bed-time), he was a forward lad with bright black eyes, and the sun-browned good looks, apple cheeks, and umber curls of all the Boffin brothers. He looked nothing like his Took mother, except for his stature (he was already notably tall for his age), but he shared her lively disposition. If his father Rollo was mostly close-mouthed and reserved in company, Tina was everything vivacious and open, more like her brothers-in-law, Marco and Folco. Rollo's brothers often teased their elder that he was a changeling from the Dwarves.
It had been clear to Bilbo all evening that little Halla, his eyes as bright with mischief as his uncle Folco’s, was the favourite with both parents. His good-natured naughtiness was greatly indulged. Now, as Tina nursed the baby in the middle of the sofa, seated between Rosamunda and Delphinium, Halla leaned against her knees, more and more put out. He pulled at his mother’s skirts to signal his impatience, a low whine rising until he dropped his head back to moan theatrically. When Tina continued to nurse the baby, he scrambled up between her and Delphinium, making petulant sounds of protestation as he sought to push the baby aside, trying to seize the breast that lately had been his and his alone.
Tina tried to muster a stern face but could not keep from laughing. “You are a greedy great boy!” Bending over the baby, she gave his nose a kiss. “Do get down, Halla, love. Your turn shall come.”
Delphinium gave Halla a kiss, tickled his ear and otherwise attempted to woo him from Tina’s lap. “Come and sit with me, Halla,” she said, pulling gently under his arms. “Such a pretty fellow! Almost as pretty as your uncle,” she said, with a side-long smile to Folco, who grinned. But Halla was having none of it, and resisted her. The baby, pushed against Tina’s breast, began to fret.
Rosamunda intervened, seizing the lad under the arms and simply lifting him onto her lap. She held him there facing her while he squirmed against her strong hands and began to protest. She hoisted him up to look him in the eye. “If you do not behave,” she said gravely, “I shall have to kiss you.”
The odd twist to the familiar threat intrigued the child. He forgot the nursing baby and matched her, gaze for gaze. Who would be the first to smile? He knew this game. Halla finally exploded into a cascade of giggles, dropping back onto her lap, his head dangling over her knees while he crowed his pleasure. Rosamunda clasped his hands and planted a series of noisy kisses on his belly, pulling him up and letting him drop between each one. When his giggles threatened to become shrieks, Rosamunda pulled him up to a sit and held him in a loose embrace, stroking his back.
“There. All finished. That is all the kisses for tonight,” she smiled. But Halla was not finished. He clambered up and stood in her lap, flung his arms about her neck, and gave her a noisy buss. She dropped back her head and laughed, then held him close, whispering something into his ear. Suddenly enervated, Halla collapsed against her, dropping his cheek upon her shoulder. As he quieted, he sucked his thumb while he watched the baby nurse beside him. Rosamunda nuzzled the dark mop of curls beneath her nose, threading them with the fingers of one hand, while she moved her other hand in circles over his back and neck. The child settled until he slid down into her lap, turning his head away from the baby. Still sucking his thumb, his cheek against her breast, he watched as the fingers of his other hand idly traced the floral patterns of her bodice. Finally the chubby hand settled over her other breast.
It was very quiet. Soft snoring was rising from the eldest lads who drowsed on a fat pillow thrown down near the hearth. Bilbo glanced around the room. In the low light the faces of his fellow hobbits were strangely beautiful, rapt as they beheld the picture of hobbit women and children before them. Indeed, how lovely they looked, how worthy to be cherished.
Delphinium, the youngest, not yet come of age, dark and diminutive, her head prettily inclined as she watched the infant Boffin nurse. Tina, the young mother, willowy and pale with the delicate loveliness of a Took, murmured endearments to the pink-cheeked infant suckling her breast: a rose feeding a rose. Rosamunda, the eldest, tall and statuesque, the ruddy-cheeked little lad splayed upon her lap, one dimpled hand in his mouth, the other softly curling and uncurling over her breast....
It was then that little Halla reached up lazily and wriggled his hand down the bosom of Rosamunda’s dress, apparently impatient with barring cloth.
The spell was broken. Marco Boffin chuckled, “Well, Tina, I see Halla is a real Boffin! But more like his uncle than his father. Already, he has Folco’s way with lasses.”
The Boffins and Brockhouses exploded with whoops and snorts. Frodo only smiled, not taking his eyes off the hobbit women on the sofa. The Gamgee children came in at the sound of the commotion, but, seeing no occasion for mirth, shrugged their shoulders and exchanged looks that said, “Grown-ups". The boys, who had been sleeping by the hearth, rubbed their eyes and looked about. Rosamunda looked unperturbed. She only smiled over Halla’s curls, as if unwilling to disturb the lad. He lifted his head at the noise, but drowsed again upon her breast.
Delphinium threw an embroidered cushion at Marco. “You are a naughty, libellous fellow!” she scolded.
“How, libellous?” Marco asked, ducking and feigning affront. “Is it not true? Hasn’t Folco got a way with the lasses? Surely you would not slight him in that area, Delphie!”
More snorts and snickers followed. The Brockhouse brothers hooted noisily. Everyone knew of the engagement, although it could not be mentioned. Another pillow came sailing, which glanced off Folco’s waistcoat and skidded across the floor. Surreptitiously, Samwise retrieved the tossed pillows, brushed them off, and tucked them into the corners of a chair.
Such a fine lad, Bilbo noted.
“Libellous, impertinent and incorrigible!” Delphinium cried. But she was laughing now, unable to hide her pleasure, since she was in complete agreement with Marco’s assessment of Folco’s powers. The two older children were up and tugging at Marco’s trouser legs, demanding to know what was so funny.
Tina, meanwhile, tried to shush them all, on account of the baby. Bilbo saw her flash Marco a very dark look, which the middle Boffin brother did not see. Then she appealed silently to Folco, discreetly signalling him with her eyes. Folco followed her gaze to where his older brother stood, silent, off to the side. Rollo looked abashed, even though a bland smile masked his discomfort.
Folco took the floor at once.
“Ah, you flatter me, little brother!” he proclaimed with a flourish. “If young Halla is a prodigy in matters of love, I may take only partial credit. Our elder brother,” he began, looking at Rollo with a wink and a saucy grin, “our brother may be reticent before the ladies in company, but, behind closed doors, he is bold enough!” Wheeling upon his sister-in-law and looking pointedly at the children in the room he asked, “Is that not so, Tina?”
Bilbo thought Tina might leap up to cover Folco with kisses, but she merely coloured and smiled, saying very archly, “That is no affair of yours, rascal brother-in-law.” But her smile warmed and her eyes grew soft as she turned to her husband to add, “I have had nothing to complain of.”
Rollo blushed, but his chest expanded and his shoulders relaxed. Shyly he returned his wife’s smile then looked at Folco with fierce affection.
As if declaring the affair closed, Tina rose and settled the now fast-asleep baby in its basket, took her husband by the hand and drew him outside. The rest followed, the older Boffin children streaming out ahead of them, ecstatic to be allowed outside again so late. From where he still stood in the parlour, Bilbo could hear the drone of their talk as it drifted in through the open windows, punctuated by the Brockhouse brothers’ honking shouts of, “Haw! Haw! Haw!” They might not understand repartee, generally, but they liked to enter into the spirit of things.
He should light more lamps, he thought, but, standing in the shadows, Bilbo felt suddenly tired. Perhaps they would all be leaving soon. He hoped so. As he leaned back against the mantelpiece of the cold hearth, fingering his cup of wine, he gazed through the open windows, deep blue rounds pricked with stars made faint by the risen moon. Rosamunda still sat on the sofa in the quiet dimness, holding the sleeping boy on her lap, her expression dreamy and distant with her cheek nestled in his mat of curls.
Frodo came back inside and leaned through the entryway. “Aren’t you coming?” he asked. He had not seen Bilbo.
At the sound of Frodo’s voice, Halla raised his head and looked about, befuddled with sleep, but the warm darkness was too much. He closed his eyes and dropped his head back down. As Rosamunda stroked his hair, she lifted her eyes, huge and dark, to Frodo’s. Bilbo could not decipher the glance they exchanged. Affection was there, but something else; something wistful, even sad. Rosamunda’s eyes glistened as Frodo stepped forward and stood waiting as she shifted the lad away from her bosom. His hair spilled like a dark cloud over the crook of her arm as his head lolled back. Frodo stooped and gently lifted the lad from her lap, supporting the drooping head against his shoulder. Before he straightened up, he paused to kiss her.
“Don’t,” he murmured, brushing his cheek against hers. More firmly, but almost too low to hear, he said, “I meant what I said: it doesn’t matter.”
Rosamunda stood and smoothed her skirts. “I’m going to freshen up,” she said, giving him a peck and a smile. But when she turned away, she blinked back tears. “You go,” she said, “I’ll come out in a moment.” As she moved towards the doorway, she saw Bilbo. She started a little, murmured a courtesy, and hurried past. Frodo stood looking after, the child in his arms, when he saw Bilbo.
Bilbo flashed Frodo a little smile before he turned to a stack of blankets kept on a bench beside the hearth. “We’ll make a pallet for him, shall we?” Bilbo said, gathering up a few. “Here on the floor will be best, I think. He might roll off a couch or bed, he’s still such a little lad.”
Bilbo bustled about, keen to be doing something. The sight of Frodo holding the sleeping lad; their dark heads close together, one large, one small, had moved him profoundly. What was wrong with him these days? He scolded himself for his new propensity for tears.
Outside, he found that the mood of his guests had begun to mellow. The stars were bright along the dark edges of the night sky, but faint where the moon had risen. The two older Boffin children had struggled to stay awake, but they were wilting against the chests of their uncles, who held them on their laps while they conversed. Rollo and Tina, who had taken the opportunity for a stroll around the gardens, returned to say that they should go. They must make an early start in the morning. Hands were pressed, embraces exchanged, gratitude expressed, and a general exodus followed.
“Just cover any left-over food,” Bilbo called over his shoulder to Marigold and Sam, after he had paid them. “You may finish up in the morning.”
Folco suggested he accompany the Brockhouses home. He would catch up with Marco and Rollo later. Bilbo saw Delphinium seize Folco’s hand behind the backs of her brothers, and give it a grateful squeeze. As for the rest, Bilbo suggested that all of them walk to Overhill. Rollo, Marco, and Frodo could carry the now sleeping boys, and Rosamunda could carry the baby in its basket between them. Tina could carry Rosamunda’s empty tart baskets, if she must carry something. A nursing mother, she should save her strength. After that, Frodo and he could accompany Rosamunda to the cottage. The moon was on its way to full, and a good walk would do them all, well – good.
At Overhill, as they bade each other farewell, Folco appeared at the last moment, panting from his sprint from the Brockhouse’s, just in time to moderate the greetings barked by Tip and his canine friends. Bilbo, Frodo, and Rosamunda strode away and into the fields. As if agreed upon in advance, as soon as they were over the first hill, Bilbo left the lovers and cut back to the lane.
He was glad to be alone at last. The gibbous moon rode higher now, spreading its milky light over the dark sky, as if it were a wedding veil sprigged with dots of white. He breathed deeply. The smell of new-mown grass wafted into his nostrils while the insects churred and a night bird sang from a copse. He could not be sad. He was not sad.
He sang under his breath as he went, first softly then more loudly – who would hear? – and the singing called to mind other walks, under other moons, in other lands: lands beautiful and far away, lands he wished to see again. He would see them again, one day.
He had just reached the last verse of his song when he rounded the curve and saw the great oak on top of the Hill looming black against the moon-washed sky, the oak under which the rooms of Bag End spread like tubers through good, Shire earth. Bilbo looked upon his home and loved it. What a lovely hole it was, he sighed, as he unlatched the gate and climbed the path.
But when he pushed open the door, the silence of his house oppressed him, the silence that at any other time he would find peaceful and welcome.
Bilbo poured himself a cup of wine, rummaged for his pipe, and carried them outside into the garden. He sat on the garden bench under the moon and smoked and thought until he could think no more. He did not remember falling asleep.
“Are you all right, sir?”
Mercifully, a voice came through Bilbo’s dream. A dream of fires and dragons and glooms; of deep, dark places under the roots of mountains, cold and dank; of pillared halls pierced with light but with no sound anywhere – no living thing, only silence.
“I say, are you all right, Mr. Bilbo?”
Bilbo tried to sit, but was terribly stiff and gratefully accepted Sam’s help. What was he doing out here? The garden seat had made a cold bed, indeed, and he was wet with dew. His pipe lay where he had propped it against a stone, but his cup had rolled away somewhere under a bush. It had left a dark red trail across the flags, as if a predator had dragged it off.
Embarrassed, Bilbo tittered self-deprecatingly, “Too many nightcaps, I fear!” He continued to chortle as he winced to the porch on Sam’s arm, feeling every bit of one hundred and ten. So full of aches did he feel, he allowed Sam to pour him a steaming bath. He was just sinking into it when he heard Marigold arriving, ready to get to work with her brother on the clean-up. The sound of their cheerful back-and-forth cheered him ridiculously.
After his soak, Bilbo felt immensely better and thought to take a proper nap. But he could not rest. He gave it up, threw back his counterpane, and padded down the hall to take a peep Frodo’s room.
Frodo was there, fast asleep, breathing evenly, just as he was every morning. Bilbo tut-tutted at himself, but was so pleased when he crept back to his room and into bed, he slept straight through until luncheon.
1400, July 27 ~ The Arrival of the Letters.
The following day, Frodo and Bilbo were sitting down to a late elevenses (which they might have called luncheon had it not meant scanting themselves of an extra meal), when Burrin Thornberry arrived with the post. “I’ll get it,” Frodo said, leaping up and heading to the door. Bilbo followed, always interested in the post, and watched from the parlour as the two talked in the hall. Frodo quickly shuffled through the small stack the young carrier handed him until he saw the letter he sought. Through the archway Bilbo could see the creaminess of the large envelope and the Hall’s mark.
“Oh – you may leave that with us,” Frodo said, pointing to an envelope of matching stock protruding from the carrier’s sack. Tipping an extra coin, Frodo enlarged, “I shall be walking to the Bolger cottage later today. I can take it along then.”
The postman handed it over without comment. Frodo had several times relieved him of letters addressed to Rosamunda, for the sake of a midday visit.
When Burrin had gone, Frodo came back to the parlour and handed the letters to Bilbo and hovered, waiting for him to examine the ones from Buckland.
The letter directed to Bilbo was hastily penned in large letters which said, “BILBO BAGGINS. Bag End. Hobbiton. URGENT.” The other, written in Freddy’s smaller, more careful strokes said, “Mistress Rosamunda Took Bolger. Grassy Cottage. Hobbiton. West Farthing. The Shire.” No doubt Freddy’s letter would bear the same news as Merry’s, but that would not be the purpose of conveying it to Rosamunda.
Inside, Merry’s letter was written more untidily still, mostly unpunctuated, scrawled in the haste of great excitement:
THE HAY IS ALMOST STACKED THE ROADS ARE DRY. WE WILL BE SETTING OUT AS SOON AS FATHER CAN SPARE SOMEONE. OH GLORY THE SMIALS AT LAST! WHAT FUN WE SHALL HAVE! WE MIGHT COME AS SOON AS THE DAY AFTER TOMORROW OR THE DAY AFTER THAT AT THE LATEST.
P.S. Estella says to say that she is looking forward to coming too.
Poor Estella, Bilbo smiled, always so keen to be included in the lad’s fun, but always an addendum, left to serve mud cakes to dolls with her lass-friends.
Frodo smiled at the writing, but could not hide his unhappiness at the content, after Bilbo had read it through. But, within moments his expression went from listless dismay to burning purpose. Bilbo knew what that purpose would be.
“Will you be off to the Cottage directly?” he asked. Bilbo had not finished speaking before Frodo pulled a pack off a hallway hook and trundled off with it towards the kitchen. “Yes!” he called out over his shoulder. Bilbo caught up and watched as Frodo stowed a thick slab of bacon into the rucksack, along with a few pots of jam, some bottles of sweet cider, a wheel of new cheese and a clutch of the first plums from the tree in Bag End’s lower garden. Gingerly he laid half the morning’s eggs in a shallow basket. He swathed the rest of their rolls from luncheon in a tea towel and put those to the side. As he rummaged for sweets at the back of the pantry shelves, Bilbo quipped, “Perhaps you’d like to take along a side of ham or a joint of mutton, in case you decide to stay for afternoon tea?”
Frodo had not heard the brittleness in Bilbo’s joke, for he grinned as he poked twists of Bilbo’s best toffee from Bywater between the eggs, tucking Freddy’s letter in amongst them like a greeting card. Bilbo was glad that Frodo had not noticed, for he regretted his sarcasm as soon as he had spoken.
“I’ll be back, though I don’t know when, precisely,” Frodo said as he slid his arms through the straps. “I thought Rosa might be able to use a few extra things, in case Freddy and Estella should arrive tomorrow early. And we have so much.”
Did they? Then why did Bilbo feel so bereft?
“I am sure they will be here for every meal until we leave for Tookland, anyway!” Bilbo remarked broadly as he straightened Frodo’s pack, slipping a half-loaf of spice cake inside. “How will they be able to stay away? We shall be holding Merry hostage. Now, be off,” he said, waving Frodo out the front door, “or I shall take back those toffees!”
Frodo laughed, kissed Bilbo’s cheek, and was gone.
A few hours later a second post arrived. Bilbo had been trying to get back to work on Dwarvish Customs, idly twirling his pen in the inkpot with one hand, while he smoothed the back of the shell that Elrond had sent him years ago with the other. Through his study window he watched the carrier puffing up the path, with the interest only someone wishing to avoid his work can muster. To prolong the suspense, he made himself sit and wait until Burrin was actually on the step. He plopped the pen in its stand, gave the shell a pat, and went to open the door.
The young hobbit touched his cap and handed Bilbo another envelope from the Hall, along with a couple of tradesmen’s bills. Bilbo pressed a coin into his hand. But Burrin lingered, fingering the corner of another letter peeping out of his bag, as if undecided what to do. More Hall stationery. “Sir, I don’t suppose you’d….?”
“Yes, yes, yes,” Bilbo replied, holding out his hand for the envelope. “You may as well give it to me.” Burrin looked very grateful. It was a long tramp to the cottage.
Back inside his study, where the light was better, Bilbo read the Buckland letter.
More scrawl from Merry, but the writing was even bigger. It was not bad news, anyway. Well, not precisely. “What luck!” the lad began. “Dobbs says he is free to take us tomorrow!”
“Tomorrow” was underscored several times.
And so on and so forth…. Ah, Merry came at last to the point: “Look for us by dinner time – we hope!!!”
“We hope” was underscored many more times. Bilbo looked again at the date. It had been sent the day before, like the previous letter. Oh, dear. That would mean the children would arrive that evening – perhaps in a few hours.
The lovers at the cottage must be warned.
Bilbo slipped Rosamunda’s letter into the pocket of his waistcoat, where it jogged the golden band that was his most treasured memento. “My lucky charm,” he had told Frodo when asked why he always kept it about him. And so it was. Wearing it had saved his life and the lives of his friends.
He took a last gulp from the mug of tea standing on his desk and strode out of Bag End, swinging the door shut behind him with a click.
Sam was on his knees nearby, weeding the beds below the arbour, now that the sun was on the other side of the Hill. He looked up at the sound.
“Ah! Sam!” Bilbo said. “I am just off to the Bolger cottage, but I shall return directly.”
“Aye, sir,” Sam said, before he returned to his task, his look unreadable.
Bilbo marched purposefully off, but stopped and turned.
“Ah! I should mention that the Bolger children will be coming back from Buckland, along with Master Merry. I’ve just had a letter. I’m off to the cottage to let Mistress Rosamunda know of it.”
“I thought Master Frodo already went to tell her. Leastways, that’s what he said.”
Really, Sam’s expression was far too knowing.
“Yes, yes, quite so, Sam! Frodo told you aright. But the bother of it is, now another letter has come. The children are arriving tonight – not tomorrow.”
Sam still looked at him.
“And, so, I thought I would just trot along and see about asking Mrs. Bolger to dinner – we could make a party of it!”
“Well, why don’t I go and tell her, sir? You needn’t walk all that way in the heat.”
“No, No!” Bilbo blurted.
Did Sam’s eyes narrow, or was it the bright light? Lightly, Bilbo told himself. Lightly. Smile.
“Thank you, Sam, you are kind to offer, but, really, I am in need of exercise. You saw how stiff I was the other morning! Ha, ha! And it is not that hot, after all, not like it was before the hay-cut.”
“Very well, sir….” The young gardener still did not look quite convinced, but his concern seemed only solicitude.
“Anyway, we should all be back in time. But, if the children do arrive before us, just … just have them stay put. We’ll be along directly. Give them something to eat, let them play outside, they’ll be right as rain. But keep them here.”
“I understand, sir. They’re not to go to the cottage. They’re to stay here.”
There it was again, that knowing tone. Well, Bilbo could drive himself to distraction plumbing Sam’s remarks for hidden meanings. And Sam wasn’t the sort for hidden meanings. The shadows were slanting; the afternoon was getting on. He should be on his way.
Bilbo bid Sam farewell and strode off.
It really was quite hot out on the hills, just as Sam had warned. It was the time of the afternoon when the wind routinely ceased. Everything was still except for the whirr and snick of insects. No birds chirped and the sheep dotting the distant knolls were silent. Why hadn’t he thought to bring a hat? He squinted up at the sky. White, puffy clouds drifted high above him but he could not feel the breeze that moved them. And where was his pocket handkerchief? He was forced to mop his brow with his sleeve.
He soon left the track to cut more directly across the hills. The stubble from the new-mown grass pricked the bottoms of his feet uncomfortably, tough as they were. The walking was better as he neared Rosamunda’s. There the grass was uncut and parted before him, treading down flat and soft under his feet. He stopped at the low well in the dip before the cottage and luxuriated in the cool air that hit his face when he lifted its wooden cover. He dropped the cover in the grass, knelt beside the well, dropped the cup on its chain, and drank thirstily, tossing more on his face and neck.
Refreshed, he stood up, but when he bent to replace the cover, Freddy’s letter fell from his waistcoat pocket. It sliced into the grass at a graceful angle, like a large cream-coloured wing. As he picked it up and tucked it into his waistcoat pocket, he noticed a glint of gold amid the green.
Hot and cold rushed over him. His keepsake. He snatched it up and clutched it tightly in his hand. To leave such a treasure lying in the grass! He thrust it into his trousers and held it there, as if doubly guarding it, his fingers curled around it within the pocket’s dark depths.
When Bilbo had recovered himself, he looked up at the cottage. A thread of smoke rose from the chimney, which promised habitation. A few flowers, daisies, yarrow and dying pinks, the descendants from some garden long past, struggled amid the weeds, along with a smattering of kitchen herbs and salad greens. Rosamunda obviously had not quite reclaimed the beds. He really should send Sam to see to them during the slack before harvest, as a little present.
The sun was behind the hillock into which Rosamunda’s cottage had been dug; its windows were cast in shade. The round door was flung wide. Odd, Bilbo thought. He rapped lightly then stepped through the entryway into cool darkness, blinking to accustom his eyes to the gloom. Frodo’s knapsack and basket stood on the kitchen table, still unpacked, but otherwise there was no sign of either Frodo or Rosamunda. Perhaps they had gone out walking?
Bilbo went outside and climbed the grassy roof. In every direction there was nothing but sheep like dots, puffs of clouds, hills of grass that rolled for miles, little copses, and the beginnings of woods to the north like a blue blur. Overhead a bird wheeled. Somewhere far off a Boffin dog barked.
No wonder Frodo liked to come here.
As Bilbo scrambled down the turves on the other side, the envelope again fell out. He checked his trouser pocket. Ah – it was still there. He held it in his hand, moving it about his fingers, reassured by its smooth warmth.
Bilbo was coming back around the hillock towards the front path, when he heard a sound. A snuff or huff of breath – then a stifled cry. Before he could think he turned and looked. He stopped and stared. The golden ring slipped onto his finger.
Through the open casement he saw them, making love on Rosamunda’s bed: Frodo’s body, pale as bone, stretched long and straight over her darker one. A round of breast, paler than the rest of her, spilled out from under his ribs. Frodo had drawn her hands high over her head, their fingers interlaced. Rosamunda’s knees were flexed and drawn up at angles, the soles of her feet pressed together somewhere beneath him. Frodo shuddered and strained, suspended in what must be his final ecstasy. He looked like a white arrow stretched across a dark bow, pulled taut, about to be loosed. Bilbo could not see their faces, but he heard their sounds. Rosamunda made soft noises like moans, breathy, rising in pitch. Frodo’s sounds were strangled, his neck arched, his damp hair quivering where it tumbled between his shoulder blades.
The arrow was loosed and Frodo’s body relaxed. Spent and trembling, he dropped his face into the side of Rosamunda’s neck. She twined her arms and legs around him, threading her fingers in his hair, crooning soft words while he panted, words which Bilbo could not hear but could imagine.
Bilbo tried to move, but his legs would not budge. He tried to shut his eyes, but could not. He looked, and as he looked images from a dozen trysts crowded his mind, and he could not shut them out. He saw other beds and other lovers, their arms and legs wrapped about each other. He heard other words softly spoken. Had such things ever happened to him? They had, and they had not.
From the bed in Rosamunda’s room, endearments were being murmured. “How I love you!” she was saying. “I cannot bear to live without you!” Frodo was saying in return. Had Bilbo heard such things? Said such things? He had, and he had not.
“I love you, Bilbo,” they had said. Had they meant it? “I love you, too,” he had said, but he had not. “Come back to me,” they had said. “I shall,” he said, but he had not. Perhaps they had loved him; probably they had not. He had not loved them, he was certain.
Suddenly Rosamunda’s face began to turn towards the window where Bilbo stood. Forgetting he could not be seen, he was seized by alarm and wheeled away. He caught himself before he fell, pressing himself against the wall beside the casement. He squeezed his eyes shut, but the images of their bodies together would not go away.
From inside, Frodo’s voice rose. Bilbo heard him plainly. “But how shall I bear it?” he was demanding. “If I cannot come here, you must come to me at Bag End!” Rosamunda’s answer was too low to hear, but Frodo’s answer made it plain. “Bilbo would not be hurt. He understands, Rosa, you will see. He wants us to be happy.”
Bilbo could bear to listen no more. His face burned and his eyes stung. Pulling the band from his finger, he stumbled down the hill, but stopped when he reached the well. He must go back. They still needed to be warned; the children would be coming.
He drew up water to wash his face, drank most of a cupful, and tipped the rest in the grass. He straightened his clothes – checking his pockets – and walked back down the path away from the cottage. When he had reached the top of the second hill he turned around and began slowly to walk back.
As he approached, he sang. Loudly.
After cheerily enduring a quickly-improvised afternoon tea at Rosamunda’s cottage, Bilbo arrived at home by himself. Frodo had stayed behind to help Rosamunda put fresh linens on the children’s beds, to draw water and bring in extra wood. “It might get too chilly for the children in the night, used now to Buckland’s heat,” Rosamunda had fretted. She would stay and await their coming at the cottage, she said, making new loaves and perhaps a cake. Surely they would not wish to stay up late – being tired from the journey.
Bilbo did not press them, or offer to wait. He was glad to walk back alone. He wanted no company.
As he rounded the Hill, he saw that Sam was standing in the lane, as if he had been looking out for him, expressly.
“The children haven’t arrived yet?” Bilbo asked.
Sam hurried to meet him as Bilbo reached the gate.
“No, sir. But Burrin come by once again. Another letter from Buckland! He gave you this one, too, for Mistress Rosamunda, thinking as how you’d asked for the other.”
Bilbo thanked Sam distractedly as he turned the letter over. The Hall’s mark, but a different hand. Saradoc’s. What now? Bilbo tore open the letter and turned aside. “My dearest Bilbo…” Saradoc began. Bilbo quickly scanned the rest.
When he looked up, he saw that Sam hadn’t moved, still awaiting further instructions.
“They aren’t coming tonight after all, Sam,” Bilbo said. Apparently, Merry had secured a promise from Dobbs without first checking with the Master of the Hall. “Dobbs cannot be spared, not until tomorrow or the next day,” Saradoc had written emphatically. For the sake of not having to write any more letters, Saradoc declared the children would arrive the day after tomorrow and no earlier.
“Well, that’s just as well, given the late notice and all,” Sam said, but added quickly, “not that I shouldn’t like to see them!”
“I suppose I shall have to go again and tell Rosamunda….” Bilbo hadn’t realised he had been speaking out loud until Sam piped up that he could run a message over to the cottage.
“No, no. Thank you, Sam, but Frodo will be along shortly. He can go back and tell her.”
Bilbo began to open the gate, but turned back. “What about the tip? The tip for Burrin?” Bilbo knew that Saradoc would have paid for the express rider to bring the third letter, but their local man would need to be compensated.
“Oh, don’t worry, sir. Burrin said tomorrow would be soon enough. You can pay him when he stops by, usual, like.”
Bilbo smiled, trying not to look as tired as he felt. He did not want Sam to take his ill-humour personally. Bilbo climbed toward the front door, only wishing to sit down with a pipe and a foaming mug.
“Oh, and, sir – ”
Bilbo dropped his shoulders and counted to three. When he turned he was surprised to see Sam’s face glowing with excitement.
“I almost forgot, sir! – what with the mix-up with Mr. Merry and the letters – but Burrin said the carrier from Buckland heard talk in Frogmorton that Gandalf was abroad – and heading this way! Folk said they’d seen him making camp near Stock, only last night. I thought you’d want to know, sir.”
“Gandalf! Then he might be here tomorrow – even tonight. Thank you, Sam,” Bilbo said with real enthusiasm. “That is good news!”
Sam lingered, his face full of hopefulness.
“Oh, don’t worry, Sam,” Bilbo laughed, suddenly filled with love for the young hobbit who stood before him, shifting his weight from foot to foot. “If there are any tales to be told, you shall hear them. I’ll want your help, of course, and Marigold’s. But whenever he starts, you drop everything and come and have a seat with the rest of us.”
“Oh, thank you, Mr. Bilbo, sir!” Sam cried, and sprang off down the Row.
Bilbo’s heart surged. How he had longed to see his old friend, although he hadn’t realised how much until now. Just the sound of the wizard’s name was a tonic.
And, if Gandalf should ask after his plans, as he did at every visit, Bilbo knew what he would say.
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.