In which the past is pondered, hospitality is served, songs are sung, and Bilbo shows that respectability can cut both ways.
Evening, Brandy Hall, 9 Halimath, 1398
It was Highday supper and Bilbo was certain he would find every bite he took at table to be bitter.
He knew he should be hungry, but he was not. After he parted from Rory, he had wandered out to the river, found a secluded rock, and sat. It had been a long afternoon. The worst part was that he had been unable to think. What is there to think about? It is my own fault for not taking some time in the last fifty years to become respectable. Bilbo knew he might not have Rum’s reputation, but there appeared to be a great deal of room in the ‘disreputable’ and the ‘unnatural’ barrels, enough to provide accommodations for them both.
He knew he should have planned better. You can’t undo the past. That was the problem. To get out of this, to get Frodo out of this, would mean he had lived a different life and was a different person. He should have done as so many counseled, found himself a pleasant woman who was a good cook, and contented himself with that. I did try, but it went wrong. That was over thirty years ago, Baggins. There was time to try again.
He knew he should talk to Gilda about all of this, but both the shame he felt over his own stupidity and the alarm he felt at seeing her so ill kept him away. He also did not want to be scolded when he already felt so wretched. Gilda told you here in Buckland, right after Sara and Esmie’s wedding, to stop following your heart and just find a goodwife. That was only sixteen years ago. Bilbo was surprised that Rory seemed to be making these decisions about Frodo with Esmie and not Gilda. That did not seem right. Then again, to send Frodo away would be a rebuke to her, a reminder that she was not up to caring for the boy in her current condition.
As he had yesterday, he sat at Gilda's right hand in the place of honor at the table in the great dining hall. He had always liked the way that the table had been built; long to reach far down the room, but also wide so that there was room for more than one at the head and the foot. The tradition, reaching all the way back to Deepdelver, was for the Master and the Mistress to sit side by side at the head of the table on Highday. A guest would sit at the Mistress' side so that she could serve him. Tradition also said that the first serving given came from her own plate.
Gilda allowed a quiet kitchen lass to prepare a plate for her, then she very deliberately picked up a broad handled spoon. Bracing her trembling right wrist with her left hand, Gilda carefully dipped into a mound of mashed root vegetables on the plate, a little butter dripping down the side from the well of it in the top. The spoon broke the rim down, and the yellow-white liquid flowed down the pale orange mash. The spoon cut into the side then jerked a little up, and a few bits of the mash flew up and then dropped on the table. Bilbo never stopped smiling at Gilda. He noted how her lips had tightened when her hand had jerked. Slowly, the spoon moved over to his plate. He knew better than to push it towards her. The vegetable mash would as like end up in his lap as on his plate were he to insult her dignity in that way. A moment later, the spoon was over his plate, and she used both hands to turn it over. The mash slipped easily from the spoon, butter making the starchy food release its grip on the silver, and fell with a soft "plop" onto his plate. Gilda turned to the kitchen girl and permitted the lass to have the spoon, and gestured for the girl to finish up filling the guest's plate.
A burst of laughter rolled up the table. At the foot, as tradition would have it, sat the Heir of the Master and either the heir's wife or else the next eldest male. Sara slapped the table and shook his head at something his brother Mac had just said, gasping for breath in between each peal of laughter. Esmie covered her mouth with one hand and giggled along. Mac sat to her right hand just as Bilbo sat to Gilda's.
The two brothers made an impressive sight. More slightly built than most of their Brandybuck kin due to their Took inheritance, they were still big men, and topped most of the relatives at table by several fingers. As with Frodo, their slender frames gave them a more graceful appearance, and farm work had put some rather impressive muscle on that frame. Their hair was a chestnut brown, and had hints of red brought out by the sun. It was in their faces that their kinship was most apparent. They were almost twins. Their faces were ruddy, though Mac's redness was from the weather, not from a tankard. But their smiles were identical, their eyes crinkled in exactly the same way, and their curly hair fell over the same eye just so.
Bilbo could just see the top of Merry's head and his huge, brown eyes as he sat between Esmie and Sara on their bench. The child watched, wide-eyed, as the platters were passed around the table and as the food piled up on his parents' plates. Without pausing in the raucous tale he was telling Mac, Sara broke some bread from a loaf, dipped the end in a bit of gravy, and handed it to his son to gnaw on while the meal was served. Though his left arm was waving wildly, threatening the safety of a kitchen boy one second or his neighbor the next, Sara's right hand rested gently on the back of Merry's head, fingers rubbing tender reassurance in the child's hair. Merry dug into the gravy-soaked chunk with gusto, and was soon wearing much of it on his face. Esmie caught the worst drips with a napkin and left the rest for the bath before bedtime.
Bilbo gave attention to his own plate. Like him or not, he dotes on his babes, and is good to them. Bilbo sampled the vegetable mash and did not find it bitter, though he had no appetite. He quickly washed the bite down with some of Rory's excellent wine. Rory was at work on his own plate, carefully cutting up the meat. When he was satisfied, he placed the bite-size morsels on Gilda's plate so she would not have to wrestle with a knife. Bilbo knew she would not have allowed anyone else to do this for her. Rory took a quick inventory of his wife's plate, saw that there was nothing left that she could not manage, or that her dignity would permit him to touch, and turned back to his own meal.
Looked at this way, respectability seemed rather nice.
‘So what were you two discussing, holed up in Rory's study all day? How to raid the kitchens tonight, no doubt.’
Bilbo summoned his most mischievous expression and winked at Gilda. 'Yes, we are, but don't tell the cook or she'll be waiting for us with a big wooden spoon. Or a cane.' He popped a bite of carrot in his mouth and let his eyes twinkle. As he had hoped, Gilda laughed and slapped at his arm. A glance at Rory showed a guarded expression.
'I swear, you're worse rascals than that grandchild of mine,' she scolded back.
'Merry or Merle?'
'Frodo! He may not be a true one, but he is one. And those other two would be just as bad if they were just as big.'
Bilbo did not want to be talking about Frodo. Not in front of Rory. ‘Gilda, my dearest, I am a bad fellow. I haven't paid you a proper visit yet.’
She chuckled and patted at his arm, ‘I’ll last a few more days, so there's time.’
'Oh, there will be much more than a few days for you. You'll have many years yet.'
Gilda fixed him with a disapproving eye. 'When did you become a healer, Baggins?' she questioned him. 'How do you know what is left to me? I'm a healer, and I know that my days are not so many. You may live as long as Gerontius, but I shall not.' Her fingers trembled on his arm, and her eyes dared him to contradict her.
‘No, Gilda, I suppose you won't, though I wish it would be so,’ he replied. They regarded each other for a moment, then Rory put a hand on her arm and squeezed it. Bilbo lifted up her hand and gave her fingers a quick kiss. ‘But, the fact remains, my lovely lass, that I have been a boor and have failed to tender my proper regards and render the service due to you, lady of the Hall and queen of this realm.’ He smiled enticingly and rested his cheek against her fingers.
‘Bilbo Baggins, you are the most incorrigible flirt the Shire has ever seen, and I am not sure how I ever resisted your spell.’
‘You became momentarily stupid and fell for this block-headed fool and married him before I could talk some sense back into you, Gilda, as you very well know, breaking my heart forever and ruining me for any other girl,’ Bilbo airily replied, digging into the roast on his plate. And what if I had fought harder? Had been able to convince you otherwise? For a brief moment, he thought back to when she had told him that she had decided to marry Rory, and had to suppress a wince at his own bad behavior. You were never her choice. You fought more than you should have, and you know it. You made them sad. Bilbo glanced at his two oldest and dearest friends, and scolded himself for such unworthy thoughts. He tipped his glass to Rory and Gilda. ‘To your health and your happiness, dear friends. May they both last long.’ He watched them smile shyly at each other, then Rory kissed her cheek.
‘Look at the newlyweds!’ came a shout from the other end of the table. Sara, an arm around Esmie (who was now holding Merry), raised his glass very high, quickly echoed by Mac. ‘A toast to the newlyweds of Brandy Hall’' he crowed. The table joined in the joyful shout, toasting the Master and Mistress. Rory bowed from his chair and bestowed another, longer kiss on his wife's cheek to the cheers, whoops and table pounding of the hall. The noise soon subsided into its usual cacophony of laughter, chattering adults, crying children, shouting tweens, platters being passed, tableware clinking and clanking, chairs and benches being shoved, even the occasional barking dog.
‘Bilbo,’ Rory said after he had stopped kissing Gilda, ‘me and the boys are going to be Riding Hedge day after tomorrow. Would like to join us? It’ll be two days; north Hay the first day, south Hay the second.’
‘You should go, Beggar,’ Gilda chimed in. ‘I have my hands full between now and next Highday getting ready for the Harvest Rites.’ She paused for a minute and her expression told Bilbo that she did not want to say her next words. ‘I’ll need to be resting in any spare moment I have between now and then, so we should have our talk after that.’ Her gaze was keen. ‘We have much to discuss. I think it time for some changes. Overdue changes.’ Bilbo could tell from the set of Rory’s head that he was listening closely to Gilda, though he did not look up from his meal. Given all that he had observed, Bilbo was certain that Frodo and what to do about him would be the topic of discussion. They have talked. His heart sank a bit. He should have known Rory would never do something so important without consulting Gilda. He wouldn’t talk to me about it if he was unsure of her opinion or approval. Gilda had not looked away.
‘As you wish, though I shall pine for you until that day,’ he answered gaily, flashing her his most charming smile, and placed a quick kiss on her cheek. She blushed and grumbled something at him, though she was smiling. Rory gave him an odd look, but said nothing.
Bilbo was sure always to have a fork or glass near his lips so he could have a full mouth and a reason not to talk. His eyes sought out Frodo at the tweens’ table. There it was, the mark of the Old Took. A set of the eye, a line of the jaw, the way a smile formed on his face, it was the same as Sara and Mac. The same as Esmie and Pal and Rum. Frodo's coloration was Baggins, but that did not seem so strong a difference. It’s as though Grandfather decided to come back, a bit at a time, and finally arrived all at once in this generation. To get the Shire ready for the Troubles. Bilbo suppressed a small shiver at that thought.
He watched Frodo gesture and speak to one of the tweens further down the table from him. The lad commanded their full attention, though he easily was the youngest at the table. Bilbo smiled a bit, then grimaced and looked down at his own plate. Why do they even let me near the lad if they worry so over his reputation? As delicate as a girl’s virtue, though perhaps reparable. Mine’s beyond repair. He sneaked another glance at his boy, feeling slightly soiled himself, not wanting to look openly for fear of dirtying the lad with even the touch of eyes…
This would not do. His talk with Rory had put him all out of sorts. I’m being melancholy for no good reason. I’ve made of my life what it is, and there’s no turning back on it now. If you’d wanted a wife and children, you could’ve had them, Baggins. Don’t go off mooning after what you didn’t really want. This thinking isn’t going to get anyone ready for the times we’ll see. Stop with the pity, and face up to what’s falling on you. The Shire needs leaders, and Frodo needs to be respectable.
That was what mattered. Rory had been right. It was not his own respectability, what people thought of Bilbo Baggins, that he should worry over. He had not done so before, so why start now? It was only the lad’s that mattered, and if that meant he had to deny himself, so be it. Not that he would neglect his boy, oh no.
Bilbo made a mental note to ask to see Frodo’s room before long. He wanted to take an inventory of what the boy had. If Sara was depriving the child, well, there were ways to gives gifts so that they could not be taken away. He would need to check on the condition and amount of his clothes, if he had books and plenty of paper and quills and ink, if he had toys and other things that boys like having around them. Perhaps it was too dangerous to keep Frodo with him, or to pay him too much open attention, but the boy would want for nothing. Bilbo nodded to himself and thanked the kitchen-lass for another helping of the roast. His appetite was coming back a bit.
Another gust of laughter wafted up to his end of the table, and he looked down at Sara. The fellow was clearly in his cups by now, not that he probably had far to go, and he had Esmie pulled up against his side. Merry was nowhere to be seen. Sara’s arm was cast around her neck, and the tips of his fingers brushed and kneaded the top of her bosom. Esmie did not appear to even notice his casual fondling as she chatted with Mac’s wife, Dilly Burrows. Their boy, Berry, was between Merle and Merry in age. He was sitting in his mother’s lap, ignoring all the conversation around him and eating with great determination. Dilly was a short, plain, unassuming woman, terrified of Gilda and in awe of Esmie.
Bilbo wrinkled his brow. Burrows? Wasn’t it some Burrows boy who had stolen Sara’s pipe from Frodo? Bilbo looked over to the tweens’ table again. Now, the tweens sitting there did not look so honest or wholesome. Their sturdiness became coarseness, and their ruddy faces seemed flushed, mean. Some of you have treated my lad badly. Bilbo wished he knew who they were better, so he could pick out the guilty ones. Then he noticed Frodo was not sitting with them anymore.
He searched the room once, twice. No Frodo. Bilbo was almost going to excuse himself to see where the lad had gotten to when he saw a spot of yellow from the corner of his eye. It resolved itself into the yellow banding on the collar and cuffs of Frodo's shirt. The boy was standing down past the foot of the central table, a very grubby Merry in his arms. His own shirt was now little better than Merry’s. It looked like he had retrieved Merry off the floor beneath the bench. The little one was chattering away at his big cousin, patting him on the shoulders and chest (and smearing various bits of food and dirt on Frodo in the process), quite content to be the center of his adored cousin’s attention.
Not that Frodo was paying him much attention. The lad's eyes were trained on Sara’s arm around the back of Esmie’s neck. Bilbo willed Frodo to look at him. After a moment, Frodo did. Bilbo made sure he had the lad’s eye, deliberately looked at Sara and Esmie, then looked back at Frodo, raising an eyebrow. Frodo's lips tightened, but he gave a slight nod and walked with Merry back to the children’s table. Bilbo watched him sit next to Merle and start chatting with the little ones. In no time at all, Bilbo could see he was telling a story to entertain the table. Well, in that, he takes after me, was Bilbo's contented thought. He sipped his wine and watched Frodo talking to the youngsters.
A tingle in his spine let Bilbo know he was being watched. He slowly looked around the table until his eyes met Sara's. Sara gave him an intent stare, looked over his shoulder at Frodo telling stories, then caught Bilbo’s gaze again and leered. Whatever appetite had returned to Bilbo evaporated. He stared back at Sara, until the other finally dropped his eyes, but the smirk did not leave Sara’s face. Instead he leaned into Esmie and nuzzled her ear, while his hand slipped further down one breast, tips of the fingers just under the edges of the fabric. Bilbo saw the hand squeeze, saw Esmie giggle and bend her head so he could rub his face on her neck, saw Sara steal another sly glance in his direction.
‘Kinsmen, friends, most excellent hobbits of a most bountiful Buckland!’ Bilbo was not entirely certain how he had ended up on his feet, but there he was and now he had to keep going. ‘I wish to thank you all, and most particularly my cousin Rorimac, Master of Buckland (cheers and shouts of approval), and his ever gracious wife, Menegilda, our beloved Mistress of Buckland (even louder cheers), for their generous hospitality of these last two days.’ Bilbo stepped back from the table and bowed quite formally and elaborately to Rory and Gilda. Rory was looking rather bemused, and Gilda’s stare held a touch of suspicion; they had been on the receiving end of his pranks too often to be entirely comfortable when “Mad Baggins” turned his attention their direction.
Bilbo looked around the room, a cheerful grin on his face that did not reach his heart. The room was still buzzing but had grown somewhat quiet, as the relatives and visitors waited for Bilbo to do something odd and amuse them. He saw Sara watching him in tipsy puzzlement, hand pulling out of Esmie’s blouse. Bilbo felt a surge of anger, and grinned more broadly, showing almost as many teeth as Smaug. They’re wrong. I’ll be damned if I will let them humiliate me and drive me from my lad. Not by some sot who paws over his own wife at table. He let his anger burn away his shame. Bilbo looked past Sara and Esmie to the children’s table and held out his hand.
‘And also my thanks to my little cousins and the other young lads and lasses of Brandy Hall who have kept me quite busy with demands for stories and songs these last few days. You have been very good all the meal long, so I think it's time for a reward, don't you?’ The children screamed, “Yes!” and began bouncing about. Bilbo’s anger disappeared at the sight of their innocent joy and he clapped his hands to get a little quiet.
‘Very well, then, what shall we sing?’ he called back, knowing that this would annoy a great number of adults whilst delighting all of the children. ‘How about “Bellows’ Beasts”?’ A shriek of delight came from the end of the room, and not a few groans of dismay from the older folks. The tweens looked rather pleased over at the side as this meant they had permission to make a great deal of noise, for who would tell “Mad Baggins” no?
Farmer Bellows had many a beast,
Bilbo began, and Frodo led the little ones in shouting out the next line,
And he brought them all to the Harvest Feast!
General chaos followed. Bilbo sang out the leading lines, and the children chorused in return. The dining hall was soon full of the sounds of children imitating the calls of all the barnyard animals that Farmer Bellows brought to the feast. After the initial groans, most of the adults joined in on the fun. His cousins Wilifred and Wilibard Bolger, Wilibald and Prisca’s sons, adding their deep, bull-frog voices to the oinks of the pigs and the baas of the goats, much to the children’s delight.
Children were soon running all about and singing, or simply shouting. Bilbo saw Frodo speak to Merle, and she skipped all the way from the children’s table to Bilbo and held out her arms for him to pick her up. Bilbo hoisted her up onto his hip without missing a note, and the two sang the song together until they ran out of animals. Slowly, the roar in the room died down as the song ended, and parents began to shush their excited offspring. Some of the tween boys were having a contest for which one could oink in the lowest voice, while the girls giggled madly. The Bolger brothers leaned back from their places at the main table and offered advice and examples.
Bilbo, Merle still in his arms, moved closer to Gilda. She shook her hand at him. ‘I should have known you’d do something like this, you troublesome boy!’ but she was laughing and Rory was grinning.
‘I do apologize for the excitement, but the children looked bored,’ he twinkled back.
‘The children?’ Rory exclaimed. ‘Yourself, don't you mean? You aren't happy unless you are the center of attention, the louder, the better!’
Bilbo shrugged at the accusation, and let Merle lean down and give her Gammer a kiss before he went to return the girl to Esmie. All around the room, parents were retrieving children and calling farewells as they set out for their own rooms or homes. A number stopped him on the way down the table to give him their regards, pinch Merle on the cheek, and bid them a good night.
By the time he got to end, Sara had retrieved Merry from Frodo and had the boy sitting on his shoulders, where Merry kicked his feet, fingers in his father’s hair, delighted at being the tallest in the hall. Bilbo handed Merle over to Esmie, and took a quick look about for Frodo. The lad was standing a few feet back from Sara, half hidden in a shadow from one of the support pillars. He gave Bilbo a big grin for having disrupted everything. Mac and Dilly fussed with Berry a few yards off, trying to get the child to calm down enough to be wrapped up for the trip home.
‘Well, Uncle Bilbo,’ Sara boomed, ‘that was fair good entertainment. We'll have a devil of a time getting these two to settle down and sleep tonight!’ He bumped his shoulders up to jostle Merry and make the boy screech and grab a firmer hold on Sara’s hair, though the man did not seem to mind. It looked like he had sobered up a bit during the song.
‘Though I do hope you’ll sing a bit of something else before you go home,’ Sara continued, and the man’s expression became crafty. ‘Songs for the youngsters are well and good, but some of us like more grown-up fare, something a bit more full, more round.’ Sara's eyes glinted maliciously. But it's said you like to entertain yourself with the children, so perhaps you aren’t familiar with a good courting song. You know, the kind a lonesome lad will sing to woo his pretty lass.’
‘Oh, I know such songs quite well,’' Bilbo smoothly replied, ‘having had much more experience with them than you can possibly imagine, but they’re not always the best to sing over supper. They can get rather embarrassing, you know.’ The bristling of Bilbo's eyebrows would have done a wizard proud, though his tone was light.
‘But supper is over, and the evening is not ended! I think it would be amusing to hear you try to sing such a song, uncle,’ Sara taunted.
‘A challenge I cannot refuse,’ Bilbo replied. ‘Here's one I made up as I was sitting at supper tonight,’ and Bilbo began to sing:
At the lonesome inn down the River Road
Men swear there's a Mistress fine,
A beauty unmatched, or so I’m told;
I say I shall make her mine.
The Master’s vice is the talk of the town,
He loves his own ale too well.
Mug after mug, he will swallow it down,
Though there’s plenty left to sell.
I shall wait by the door until the floor
Becomes his bed for the night,
And to the sound of this rumbling snore
I shall gaze upon the sight,
Of his lady fair with the fiery hair,
As she moves to come with me
And we’ll steal away to where we’ll share
Our love so sweet and free.
The Master won’t know, as she serves his beer
Why her laugh is merry and gay.
And we’ll wait until late, for the snores so dear,
To once again steal away.
‘I’m afraid that's all I could come up with while I was sitting here tonight. A few more meals like this and I’m sure I could have quite a song to sing,’ Bilbo concluded in a blithe voice, staring pointedly as Esmie’s bosom. ‘I appear to have been greatly inspired and I’m certain I shall gain more inspiration the longer I stay.’ He left off his inspection of Esmie’s chest and beamed into Sara and Esmie’s shocked faces. Bilbo noted that Frodo had enough wits to have ducked out of sight behind the pillar.
‘I do not find that song amusing at all, Bilbo,’ Esmie finally said in strangled voice. She turned and swept out of the hall, Merle pulled along behind her. Sara stared down at him, face red from something besides drink for once.
‘I don’t think you’d ought to sing any more,’ Sara snarled. His hands clutched Merry’s legs in a powerful grip and the child squeaked a bit at the feel. Sara appeared not to notice. Merry began to cry. ‘In fact, old man, I think you’d best go home as soon as may be,’ Sara went on in a threatening tone, ignoring Merry’s tears.
Bilbo allowed some of his own cold anger to show. ‘I think you’d best learn how not to make your wife a wanton in front of the Hall, you thoughtless lout. As for leaving, I’m a guest of the Master, and his pleasure alone rules this smial. Now, get your drunken face out of here before you embarrass yourself yet worse. You’re a disgrace to your sire.’
Sara growled low in his throat, but he did as he was told and stomped out, a weeping Merry on his shoulders. Bilbo watched him go. A small movement caught the corner of his eye, and he turned to find a rather pale Frodo standing at his elbow, also watching Sara depart. After a moment, Frodo turned to face him. Bilbo waited for the lad to speak first.
‘Did you really just make that up? It wasn’t something you'd heard somewhere?’ the boy asked in a hushed tone.
Bilbo grinned rather evilly. ‘Made it up on the spot, my lad.’
‘You shouldn’t have said that in front of Esmie,’ Frodo hissed at him with some heat.
Bilbo let go his grin and let his anger show plainly. Frodo took a step back, dismayed by the expression on Bilbo’s face. ‘I said no more than the girl needed to hear. You said yourself, Frodo, just last night, that how they behave is unseemly. It’s not your place to speak of it, but, as an elder kinsman to them both, it is mine. I doubt Sara has enough wits about him to understand, but I should hope Esmeralda can see what a spectacle she is making. They’d best count their luck that I didn’t do I wished and sing it before a full audience.’
Frodo was aghast. ‘You wouldn't have!’
‘I most certainly would have, and I most certainly will if they don’t mind their manners and be a bit more respectable in public!’ Bilbo shot back. ‘I’ll not have that drunkard insult me and get away with it.’
‘How did he insult you, Uncle Bilbo?’ Frodo asked, confused.
Bilbo realized Frodo had either not heard or not understood the exchange before the song. Idiot! Be careful! It won’t do to involve the boy in your fights. He took a breath and considered his answer. ‘Well, perhaps “insult” was the wrong word, Frodo. I should have said “offend” and I was greatly offended seeing him handle Esmie without a thought for who was watching, especially with all the children about.’
Frodo scowled and glared in the direction Sara had gone. ‘Well, I agree with that. He should behave himself. Mac doesn’t act like that, nor does Uncle Rory or Uncle Saradas. It’s not like he doesn’t have good examples, or wasn’t brought up the right way.’ Bilbo was a touch amused at the boy’s prim indignation. Frodo turned an accusing eye back on Bilbo. ‘But you shouldn’t have sung that to Esmie. It was very rude.’
‘I’m an old man. I’m allowed to be rude to all of you children,’ Bilbo dryly replied. ‘Now, if you’ll excuse me, Frodo, I believe I shall retire.’ Bilbo nodded good night and left.