5. The Party Unleashed
A cloud of cigar smoke choked the room. Somewhere in the haze was a table where cards were being drawn, studied, and licked for luck. The players, oblivious to the fact that they had no air, sweat in tense concentration. One player, so much taller than the others he stuck out like a mountain in the mist, laid his hand down, face up. "Sorry fellas, looks like I win."
There were groans and sighs as the other players threw down their cards and pushed over to the tall man his winnings. The man greedily gathered the monies into his arms. In a brief break of the cigar smoke, one could see his long, dirty, tobacco-stained beard; his patched-up robes, grey from great age; and a crooked, pointy hat wherein some sort of creature tussled about. He also had an unnatural long nose that was said to twitch at the smell of profit.
He stood, stooping under the ceiling. "Well, so long. Better luck next time…" Suddenly something flittered down from his baggy sleeves. Then another something and another – cards. Cards trickled out steadily at first, then in an avalanche, pouring, pouring to no end into a pile. The Green Dragon denizens speechlessly looked on for long minutes until finally the last ace fluttered down and hit the top of the heap with an almost audible ding. A minute more of silence.
"Well," the old man cleared his throat. "I guess I'd better… go!" He dropped his monies to snatch his boat paddle, which he used at a walking stick, and fled to the door. The other gamblers had closed their jaws and gained their feet to charge after, brandishing chairs and spoons.
Outside the tavern, the old man had a cart waiting. He leaped on, and flat upon his stomach, one leg still dangling out, he hastily paddled his two mules. "Hiyah! Fly!" The speed of their takeoff knocked him backwards. The cart rattled along the road, scattering clucking chickens, tilting and shaking, scarcely stayed upright, even after the mob had been outrun. Cards fluttered in the dusty turbulence behind.
Several hobbit children on a hill had stopped their play to stare down at an approaching dust cloud and soon saw a cart blanketed inside. In the cart jolted tied-down barrels, some bearing a large red G. "G for Grand!" squealed an obese lass. Actually it was for Gasoline, but that does not matter. They ran down the hill, cheering: "It's Gandalf! Gandalf! Fireworks, Gandalf!"
The old man did not slow. "Outa my way!" The children shrieked and fled as the mule cart flew over them.
Up and up the hill he went at a maniac's speed, just hugging the curves with the wheels' edges. People peered out their windows and hastily shut their blinds at this passing. He cut a particularly nasty 90° turn; then with a terrific suddenness, Gandalf pulled the mules to a screeching, head-over-heals halt – before the spiked gate of Bad End.
^ - ^ - ^ - ^ - ^
Since April, Bad End, usually replete with unwanted visitors, was now infested by them… like roaches. Sam Gamgee was at his short wit's end to keep them out. No matter the vigilance and precautions he took, scores slipped into the lawn; he could not be awake and everywhere at once! And with so many hairy feet trampling the landscaping, he had to constantly fix the damage and guard the premises on top of doing his usual gardening. Worse, the Gaffer now hobbled over each day in hopes of being told something Party-ish and never failed to impart unto Sam his advice as he did so.
So it was all that summer: throngs of gogglers hung around outside the fence day and night. The rabble cheered and screamed for news of the Party, just the smallest piece of news, if one of the Bagginses showed so much as a hair. (Bilbo had begun to lift his hand in and out of windows just to hear the rising and falling hoopla). They slipped through the window cracks, under doors, down the chimney; one came in through the mail and another by borrowing under the lawn and into the parlor. The madness steadily progressed. F. and B. Baggins were regularly dropkicking "curious" relations and well-wishers out the door. If Bilbo grumbled over the interruptions, he was enjoying the stir – lunacy – he had caused.
By the end of June, mad rumors had ravaged the whole Shire over what Bilbo's Special Magnificence Party would contain – because knowing Bilbo it would be specially magnificent. Pure gold napkins! Troll belly dancers! An Olympic-sized pool of gravy and roast beef! Yet none were verifiable because Bilbo had said diddily, and even Sam had heard nothing certain since April. (It could be thought, though, that Bilbo had started the rumors; in fact, it was very likely).
Fervor and suspense had risen to a shatter-point; one young Grubb had even run off a cliff crying, "I can't take it anymore!" (He was OK). And that was only one of similar incidents.
It seemed the madness could go no further, but by the dwindling days of summer, it did, thanks to an added anxiety. Though the Party was only a few weeks away, did not appear to be in preparation. No food had been ordered. Not a single invitation had been seen. Hobbits began to bite nails, pull hair, and have cardiac arrests. Each had a single dread thought: "What if it is only I who has no invitation, and everyone else does?" More terrible still, and this was not even dared to be whispered out loud, what if Bilbo was not… really… actually… having… a Party?!
The crowds that held daily vigils outside Bad End grew larger and larger, and 'twas said later that as many were gathered there when September opened as lived in a single Farthing. They waited to learn something… anything… to put an end to this anticipation agony.
Frodo Baggins in these days too felt antsy. It was nerve wrecking to have strangers popping out from behind draperies and under furniture; once while brushing his teeth, he happened to look into the mirror and saw hands groping from the secret door behind the toilet. Even he wondered whether Bilbo was going too far in procrastinating the invitations and food-orders. "All in good time," his uncle had wheezed to his queries.
Perhaps all this would not have bothered Frodo so if Bilbo had not been acting so much more strange and mysterious than, well, usual. Often his uncle would sit on the bamboo chair in his study, hours on end, stroking Precious and whispering the trinket's name over and over. Whenever Flópi was around they shut themselves away; even Frodo dared not listen at the door if that Dwarf was inside, and so he could only guess what horrible plots they were hatching. And when Frodo could be with Bilbo, Bilbo always would point to something and say: "Frodo, you'll have to not forget to dust the candelabra." He would reply: "You mean you'll dust the candelabra." Bilbo would look at him strangely and say "No". Or, "Frodo, remember to wax the doorknobs." "You mean you'll remember to wax the doorknobs." Bilbo would again look at him strangely. "No."
Frodo began to Suspect Something.
Flópi actually returned several times after his visit in the previous autumn, carrying sacks on his back. He always grumbled, when he put them down and counted them, that he must have dropped one somewhere in Wilderland; thus he always left again quickly to retrieve his missing baggage. And Kei Kuhn's visits were scarce and short; each time the expert treasure hunter entered Bad End he wore garlic from his ears instead of gold and anti-hexes around his neck. On every instance when he saw Bilbo, he crossed himself. "Kuhn's a nice guy," Bilbo whispered to Frodo once. "But he's so superstitious."
In the final week before the Party, Flópi and Kei Kuhn were at last both there with all of their cargo stowed away safely in the floor under Bilbo's antique broom collection. Only Gandalf and his goods had not arrived – and a month overdue at that. "Drat that codger," Bilbo said in growing angst. "Reliable as a roasted chicken for eggs."
Bilbo had had little time for himself lately, as the Party had so many details to be worked out and visitors constantly needed bashing. But finally, at three days before the Party, he found a moment of quiet. (Relatively speaking; it was a hurricane of groans and weeping outside). He lifted his golden pen and sighed happily. "Now… I can get started on my book."
He had not so much as lifted his hand when he heard a pounding like thunder, tires screech, a crash, and an "ouch." Bilbo ignored it and started humming "That's What Bilbo Baggins Likes" -- he then heard a scraping at the door. Loading his pistol, Bilbo walked leisurely to the front entrance. On opening, he saw a hovering cloud of dust, absolutely no mob of deranged Hobbits (his thoughts lingered on his handiwork proudly), and… he looked at his open door. "!!!" There were giant scratches in it; the electric-green paint was peeling away in long tendrils, as if a Dragonet had used it as a scratching post.
The ex-expert treasure hunter at last noticed the old man filling his sleeves with the moneys he kept under the doormat. Only one man scratched people's front doors. "Gandalf! Late again, as usual."
"Indeed," Gandalf ignored the last part. "I am Gandalf and Gandalf means me!" He waved his arms around, sending the moneys flying like missiles.
"Yes, yes, yes, of course."
Gandalf bent over on his paddle to have a good look at the Hobbit. "Why, Bilbo, you've changed!" The conjurer took in the monocle, the powdered wig, the jeweled buttons, the many awards on his jacket for goodness-knows-why; and lastly he eyed wearingly the pistol in Bilbo's one hand and the evil blue-jeweled staff in the other. Gandalf thought with some wistful remorse about the innocent fellow who had stood at this door sixty years before: gullible, quiet, boring, always eager to be kind… Gandalf did not like to deal cards with someone of equal deviousness, after all. He had hoped he might regain some of the winnings he had lost in his flight. Tough luck.
Bilbo toed loose moneys back under the mat. "By the by, where's the cash you owe?"
"Eh? Oh – oh!" Gandalf pretended to make a search of his pockets. "Know what, I left my wallet in my other robes…" He stepped into the hole and cracked his head against a ceiling beam.
"Well, pull the cart around back before it's sabotaged," Bilbo said as he walked down the hall. "Flópi knows what to do with it."
Afterwards, Bilbo invited the con-artist into the kitchen and set out the five-day-old donuts. "I was thinking," said Bilbo, discreetly munching on an Ulmo Bar©. "Let's call it even; that is to say, I'll take your delivery and forget about your debt."
Gandalf brushed rainbow sprinkles from his beard. "Now then, there were some additional expenses…"
Suddenly several Hobbits lads led by Pippin dropped from a trap door in the ceiling and ran into the hall. They must have run into Flópi, for the Dwarf roared and the Hobbits ran back the other way to the exit, screaming and sobbing. Flópi laughed meanly.
Then Frodo popped out from the pantry. "Uncle Bilbo, I found a dead rat in that rock candy for the Party."
"Eh? A rat? Save it for the S-Bs."
Frodo shrugged and threw the decaying rodent back into the crate. "And Bilbo? Won't you be sending out the invitations soon?" All his thoughts were bent on those accursed invitations.
"Oh, there's no point. I'll wait for the day before. Give 'em some constipation." Bilbo cackled through his expensive chocolate.
Frodo noticed the old man for the first time. "Gandalf." He nodded coldly.
Gandalf, caught dropping spoons into his sleeve, fumbled with a fork so to appear to be polishing it with his robes. "Uh, yes, hello Franz."
^ - ^ - ^ - ^ - ^
True to his word, Bilbo waited till the last 24 hours to send the invitations off. The postmen were seized with terror at the sight of a wild black-bearded Dwarf hauling a caravan of wagons to them at the break of dawn and dumping a mountain of golden-addressed envelopes. Some of the postal workers ran away and hid themselves; they were never seen again. So in diminished numbers, the postmen trekked through every corner of the Shire. Perilous it was, for swarms of Hobbits, wild for an invite, ambushed them and did them violence. Many invitations were lost or eaten, and many a Hobbit's heart was broken at an empty mailbox (though they came to the Party anyway). And thousands of thank-you and yes we'll come's were sent out that same day to the poor, heroic postmen's horror. In Bad End, Bilbo shoveled all those thank-you notes into the stove, cackling, cackling.
Outside the garish hobbit hole, the mob had grown more intense – it was the dread Eve of the Party. Young Pippin had climbed onto the mailbox and in his high-pitched voice led an endless chorus of "Part-y! Part-y! Part-y!"
Sam was unable to keep them back any longer, and now had strength only to lean against the beaten down rosebushes and pant, waiting for the end. It surely would have been the end if Flópi had not materialized beside him, wielding a rusty, iron chain.
"Back! Back!" The Dwarf whipped into the ever-pressing multitude. Sam nodded, trying to look helpful. They kept it up, pretty successfully, the rest of the day. On towards night the pressure loosened. Now the Shirefolk could only wait.
Around midnight, a black messenger – Bilbo, that is, he could not hide that wig even under a hood – stole away to the Green Dragon and roused the cook. "I need fifty tons of goods cooked for It tomorrow." He had just been to the grocer, who had torn out his foot hair in madness at the sudden enormous order. As for the cook, his eyes filled with tears. He could not refuse, though.
^ - ^ - ^ - ^ - ^
It was the Dawn of the Party Day. The black clouds that usually hovered over Bad End parted in a single gap directly over the hill, emitting crimson beams of sunlight. The forms of those who were once Hobbits had not slept that night. They craned their creaking necks to the dawn with burning eyes; it had come. The day had come. Now over the thousands was SILENCE. What could be said after all those slow weeks of torment? Their minds were empty things, blank and ruined.
Suddenly all eyes turned to the door… It was opening slowly, slowly, ever so slowly. A figure emerged. Breaths were caught, hearts were stilled, food was dropped… but it became apparent in the blood-red light that it was not Bilbo; it was his outlandish hireling, Flópi. He held a parchment, which he unfurled to a length of nine feet.
"Hear ye, hear ye," said the Dwarf's booming voice. "B. Baggins' Birthday Party of Special Magnificence – also commemorating the coming-o-age Birthday of the esteemed F. Baggins – will commence at 11:13 ante meridiem precisely, at which time the gate shall open. Till then, well-wishers will be shot." And Flópi rolled up the parchment and slammed the door.