The courtyard was a large open space enclosed by the circular stable path and three turf-and-ivy-covered walls of the Hall, freshened with dappled sunlight and a scattering of leafy apple trees just coming into flower. Here and there a matron or two shouldered trays of bread or laden baskets across the yard and in through the elegant arched doorways that lined the verdant walls. A flirtatious knot of tweeners, lads and lasses both, were working and laughing together in the kitchen garden, and further on a couple of old gaffers sat at an old wooden table, smoking and arguing peacefully over a game of draughts. Everywhere was some sort of useful activity; the Captain thought with some surprise that the setting was not so very different from the quay at Sarn Ford, where his own folk worked and played and went about their business every day. A number of small children dashed past, shrieking as they played a game he himself had used to play when he was small, and he watched until his eyes were drawn away from them to a patch of grass beneath one of the greening trees where two maid-children sat together, isolated and preoccupied.
The Captain had a fondness for children and was sensitive to their feelings, and he saw at once that the little maids sat apart because they suffered some unhappiness. A corner of his heart, independent of his fear and anger, wondered in a fatherly way what it could be. The smaller girl was slumped disconsolately on the seat of a swing that hung from a branch of the tree, and the older, who appeared to be her sister, sat close beside her on a small wooden bench, absently drawing on a board spread with parchment that lay across her knees. Now and then she glanced up and answered the little one’s sighs in a gentle, abstracted way.
They were pretty little lasses, daintily wrapped in soft woolen cloaks against the lingering morning chill: the younger looked a sprite, with a tangled halo of sooty curls framing a small, impish face of the sort he knew only too well—a face at once bright and ardent and unpredictable, upon which every little woe must be engraved as heartbreak and every small delight as bliss— but the older was a coming beauty, with great, dark, knowing eyes and cheeks of palest rose, her dark curls falling over her shoulder in a long plait that was tied with a flutter of blue ribbons. The two of them made him think suddenly of his own wee maid-child, gone before ever she had a chance to breathe roses into her tiny baby face: Jessamine. He should have liked to bring Jessie ribbons for her hair. Lyssa hadn’t worn them after they were wed, proud instead to wear the ruffled cap that among the river-folk bespoke her status as his wife, but his little lass might have had ribbons, had she lived.
The gatekeeper, who had been perched atop the gate rails watching the waggon trundle toward the stable, hopped down into the road now. He was a merry-looking hobbit of some seventy years or more, nudging old age with a garrulous charm, and possessed of an inquisitive gaze and a casual, conversational manner that belied to great extent the gravity of his commission. “Good morning, sir!” he said with a brisk nod, holding the gate ajar in readiness as the Captain came forward with wary intent. “I don’t think I know you, but you’re welcome to the Hall all the same. You’re up from the river, I see!”
The Captain frowned sharply, expecting now to be the butt of some arrogant jest; but glancing up defensively, he saw that there was no malice in the old face, nor in the fellow’s smile, which was quite affably deferential. There was, however, a thoughtful spark of curiosity in his bright, bird-like eye, and the Captain entertained this with dark suspicion.
The gatekeeper marked his mood and pensively scratched his grey head. “I hope there’s no offense been taken, sir,” he said, “for certainly none was meant. You look a hobbit who knows the boats, is all, a fellow of experience, you might say. We’ve a particular interest in the river-folk of late—”
His confiding smile froze in place as he met the Captain’s look of cold deliberation and he broke off, concluding meekly: “But there: you’ll know your own business, sir. Who might you be wishing to see today?”
The Captain said with stony authority: “I should like to see the Master of the Hall. Quickly, if you please.”
The gatekeeper’s face assumed a somewhat pained expression; clearly he wished to be on good terms and felt himself falling behind. “Well now, as to that,” he said, flushing unhappily, “as to seeing the Master, we’ve had a bit of a changeover, as it happens, here at the Hall. I do beg your pardon, sir, but I am forced to ask: which one would you be wishing to see?”
“Which one?” The Captain’s eyes narrowed. “Which one? I’ve come to Brandy Hall, haven’t I? There’s only ever been one Master here.”
“Well, now, as a general rule, that’s true, sir,” the gatekeeper said solemnly, and suddenly his look of professional anxiety gave way to one of deep personal indignation. “But times, seemingly, have changed! I don’t like to complain, sir, but very out of the ordinary are the times just now! And no notice given to the public at large yet, either, which leaves it to the Gate—which is to say myself, sir, and I can’t say as I like that—to explain the situation to folk such as yourself.”
“Well, what is it?” said the Captain roughly, his fingers beginning to tingle with frustration. “What manner of situation can it be, that a visitor can’t get through the gate as he needs to?”
“Just so, sir,” agreed the gatekeeper, nodding sententiously to indicate that he was in complete agreement with whatever the visitor was feeling. Whereupon he cleared his throat, and once again drawing on his rather tattered professional demeanour, set himself to explaining:
“Ordinarily,” he said, “the Gate would not share matters private to the Master’s household with strangers, sir, but there’s no way round it at present, so I beg you will be patient while I lay the matter before you. To begin then, the Magnificent—that is, Mr. Meriadoc Brandybuck, sir, he as we have called The Master for something more than fifty years—came home from a journey to Tuckborough this week past and announced his intention—quite unlooked for, if I may say so, sir—to retire into the Wide World with the Thain—that is, Mr. Peregrin Took of Great Smials—and to take up residence in the city of the High King in the southlands. (You may imagine our consternation on hearing this, sir!) Further, the Master allowed as how all his lands and titles were to be transferred on the spot to Mr. Theo—and the Master not even dead yet, sir, if you can imagine such a thing!—which was done, and very pretty it was, too—with all the proper witnesses signing in red ink and the Mayor actually coming along from over water to put his seal to the whole business—but as it comes ahead of the Magnificent’s departure by some weeks yet, and as Mr. Theo is not the sort of gentlehobbit to usurp his father’s rightful place before he’s rightfully dead—or at least removed, sir—we have, for the time being, two Masters of the Hall!”
The Captain closed his eyes and sighed, gripping the gatepost.
“I quite agree, sir,” the old gatekeeper said gravely, slightly misinterpreting the cause of his distress but solicitous nonetheless. “Very irregular it is, and, as I expected, quite vexing for visitors, as well as for the Gate. I have been called out of my own retirement on account of it, sir, young Milo being needed to run errands every live-long day all over Buckland. A very busy time it is here at the Hall; there is much that must be done to prepare for the Magnificent’s leave-taking.”
It took the Captain a moment to find his voice, frozen for a moment in a sudden spasm of alarm. If the Master who had set himself Jamy’s overlord was actually leaving the Shire in this bizarre manner, what then would become of Jamy? Was he a body servant? Might the Master take him away with him? “I-I—I must see the Magnificent,” he said, feeling as if the words could not come fast enough from out his throat. “At once!”
“Oh dear! Oh dear!” The gatekeeper clasped his hands together, deeply chagrined. “I confess I had hoped otherwise, sir,” he lamented, “for as it happens, the Magnificent is engaged with the Law and the Gamgee Gardners this morning on the very important matter of Miss Berry’s Wedding Contract. Mr. Frodo Gardner has come all the way from Hobbiton to meet with him, and only just arrived on the ferry this very hour, and with several other members of his family, too. Very important folk they are; I think it will be some time before the Magnificent is free, sir.”
The Captain ground his teeth and the gatekeeper skipped ahead, hopeful of promoting a compromise: “Would you perhaps care to speak to Mr. Theo Brandybuck, sir? I assure you, he is quite up to the mark: as good as Master even now.”
“I—” Panic rising, the Captain tried to recall what Reg had told him about the letter from the Hall. How had it gone? Was it only the Master, or was it his folk as well who had taken a liking to Jamy and wished him to stay on? He grimaced. He thought perhaps it was the family; surely someone among them would know where Jamy had been set to work around here. And then, for all that, very likely the son would do just as well as the old gent—better perhaps, for the Magnificent was obviously wildly eccentric, if not entering upon senility, and could probably be expected to get mulish if his back was put up. “All right,” he conceded. “Mr. Theo then. But quickly, now!”
“Very good, sir!” The gatekeeper, vastly relieved, ushered him in and shot the bar behind them. “I shall send a runner to Mr. Theo immediately. Now then, what name shall I say?”
“Captain Bucket of the Lyssa, out of Sarn Ford.”
“Captain Bucket? Captain Bucket?” The gatekeeper’s eyes widened and he broke into a broad, toothy smile. “Why, bless you, sir, if we haven’t been looking out for you these ten days or more! It’s young Jamy’s father you are, then, come up from the Barway! A very long journey you’ve had yourself, sir, and no wonder then that you’ve no mind to delay: you’ll be longing to see your lad.”
The Captain’s body stilled on the instant. “You know my boy?” he said softly.
“Oh, of a certain, sir! He’s a favourite round here, and no mistake! Very friendly little fellow, and sharp as a tack, too. I’d send round for him but Mr. Bo and Master Rory took him off this morning to see to some work as needs doing in one of the backwaters. He’ll be happy to see you, sir! Speaks of you often, he does, when he’s time to stop and chat.”
The Captain gripped the gatekeeper’s shoulder. “Is he working somewhere close about?” he asked. “I beg you tell me where; I’ll go straight to him!”
“Why, bless you, sir!” the gatekeeper returned, quite astonished. “I’m sure I don’t know where they’ve gone. I’m sorry I can’t bring him round straight away for you, but Mr. Bo will no doubt be back with him within the hour, as it’s coming time for luncheon and they’re always on time for victuals in the Master’s apartments. But I expect you’ll want to speak to Mr. Theo, in any case.”
The Captain let go the old hobbit’s shoulder and leaned dazedly against the gate; he took a steadying breath and passed a trembling hand across his brow.
“Here, are you all right, sir?” the gatekeeper asked, taking his arm in some concern. “You’ve not got the sunstroke, or something, after your long travel?”
He shook his head with a growl, his desperation dispensing with what courtesy he had been able to muster. Could there be any more excuses for delay? “I’m fine! But I should like to see your Young Master, if it please you, now!”
The old hobbit patted his arm warmly. “But of course, sir. Now then: for a runner—oho! Why, here’s good luck and better! Mr. Theo’s young ladies—just the thing!” He turned to the courtyard and, raising his voice, called: “Hoy, young misses! What do you think? Here’s Captain Bucket arrived at the gate and waiting to speak to your father! Show him the way?”
The dark-haired girl who had been drawing beneath the tree jumped up, thrusting the board aside. “Oh!” she cried, clasping her hands. “Oh, Eri, it’s the Captain, come at last!” The little lass beside her scrambled up as well, her eyes wide and her woes seemingly forgotten for the moment as she loosed a cry of delight that sounded so like Jamy that the Captain’s overburdened heart nearly gave way. Certainly his anger did. The girls came at once to greet him, and each in turn laid her small hand in his startled one and bobbed a pretty curtsey, the elder murmuring, “Oh, sir! Oh, sir! Jamy will be so glad!”
Not knowing what else to do, he bowed gravely in return, charmed but painfully confused by their unexpectedly friendly address. Words failed him utterly in this bewildered state, but as he gazed distractedly down at the two of them he saw all at once that Theo Brandybuck’s littlest daughter wore a duster beneath her fine cloak that was smudged top to bottom with grime, and that her rosy little face bore unmistakable traces of jam. He couldn’t help but smile at her and when she beamed back, he laughed softly. Imps, it seemed, were born of the gentry as well as the river! Not for the first time, he wondered at the nature of these Brandybucks.
Of course, Eirien was not in the least hesitant. “Come in! Come in!” she cried, throwing wide the door and tugging imperatively at his hand. He followed meekly enough, but pulled up short as soon as they crossed the threshold, an expression of sheer incredulity flooding his watchful face. “Save us!” he murmured in a stunned voice.
“It’s this way!” sang Eirien, swinging to the left.
But the Captain did not hear. His astonished gaze swept the length of the long corridor, the carved entryways, the tunnels and staircases beyond. He stared, aghast.
Ella thought she understood. “You’ll be wondering about the stairs,” she said kindly. She had friends in the village and so she knew that most hobbit holes were laid out on one tidy level (with perhaps a sloping tunnel to the root cellar) and that most folk weren’t altogether approving of any more steps up or down than it took to climb a ladder or cross a stile. But Brandy Hall was a vast family seat, home to hundreds and designed with the entrepreneurial abandon characteristic of the early Brandybucks; it filled the better part of Buck Hill on three levels, and had stood for many hundreds of years in defiance of all the circumspect structural traditions of the Shire—as, indeed, had the Tooks’ even greater Smial in Tuckborough. As a child of the Hall, Ella knew that only Brandybucks and Tooks could be expected to take staircases in stride and that nearly everyone else regarded them with suspicion. “They’re very safe, actually,” she assured the Captain. “They’ve been standing for centuries. We go up and down them all the time.”
The Captain closed his eyes for a moment. “Does my son go up there?” he asked. His kind mouth was set in a stern line of disapproval and all at once a troubling thought came to Ella: the Captain was frightened for Jamy, and beyond that, very uneasy about presenting himself at the Hall.
“Oh, yes!” she said, hopeful of soothing him. “Uncle Bo has taken Jamy into his rooms up on the third floor, and my brother Rory goes up to keep him company sometimes.” She smiled up at the Captain, but noted a flicker of pain in his eyes that she did not altogether understand. “Jamy likes the room,” she ventured. “He can look down on the river, which pleases him very much. And he and Rory have a tremendous lot of fun coming down in the mornings.”
“Fun?” The Captain frowned, his eyes narrowing. She wished he would smile again; he looked so very amiable and handsome when he did, like Father and Uncle Bo. “How is that, Miss?”
Eirien tugged at the Captain’s hand. “I’ll show you!” she exclaimed, and dashing through the nearest archway, she ran up the staircase beyond to the first landing. “Watch me!” she commanded, and clambering up onto the wide, smoothly polished banister, she settled herself, pushed off, and came sliding down at a great speed that sent her petticoats flying up to reveal a useful pair of lace-trimmed trousers beneath, and then shot off the end to land with a whoop and a thump on her sturdy little feet. “You see?” she laughed. “It’s fun!”
The Captain tried and completely failed to hide the smile that leapt to his face, tugging at his mouth and crinkling up the corners of his eyes. For the second time they heard his soft laugh bubble up. “Something tells me that whatever else he does, Jamy finds a reason to make that trip more than once a day,” he observed as Eirien skipped back to them.
“Oh, yes, and not just him!” Ella replied cheerfully. “They say Grandfather rode the banisters until he was eighty.” And while she knew it for the truth, she also knew somehow what the Captain would think of this, and she could not help but giggle when he stared at her in astonishment.
Mindful of their errand, she said, “Won’t you come this way now, sir? It’s not too far to our apartments, just along here—” and he nodded, his face settling into an expression at once thoughtful and hesitant, but falling into step with her as she led the way down the main arcade. Eirien danced alongside, taking up his hand again and chattering happily about luncheon. “You came on a good day,” she confided. “There’s jam tarts for afters. I was thinking they would cheer me up, but you did it first!”
“Did I?” The Captain looked at her thoughtfully, and then at Ella. He seemed to be making a decision. “I thought there was something amiss,” he said then in a rather fatherly tone, and when they looked up enquiringly, he shrugged: “I saw you sitting apart there when I came in. I thought you looked sad, the two of you.”
Ella nodded, trying to smile, but Eirien’s bright eyes narrowed with sorrow and indignation. “We were feeling very sad,” she agreed. “Grandfather Merry is going to go away soon, and we will never see him anymore!”
“Aye,” said the Captain, nodding gravely. “I heard somewhat of that from the gatekeeper. You will miss him, then?”
Eirien’s little mouth turned down and tears filled her eyes. Her chin quivered as she nodded. As the tears began to fall, she turned aside and buried her face in Ella’s prettily embroidered waist. A stricken look came into the Captain’s eyes. Did he think he had made Eri cry?
“Oh, no, sir,” said Ella, stooping to hug Eirien and stroke her curly hair. “Don’t you distress yourself. It’s just that it’s so hard for Eri. She has but six years, and she loves Grandfather so.”
“Ah. I’m very sorry, little one.”
Eirien nodded tearfully. “I wish he will not go, sir!”
“Well,” he said, “I’m sure there must be a good reason, else he wouldn’t.” He hesitated. “What is it takes him into the Wide World, then?”
“Oh,” said Ella, “Father says that Grandfather has always had one foot in the Shire and one in the World, ever since he went out to the Great War when he was young. He has gone back any number of times since. He has many friends abroad, including the Kings—that is, the High King Elessar in Gondor and Éomer King of Rohan.”
“Kings?” the Captain repeated, nonplussed.
“Yes,” Ella continued, “But now the King of Rohan is dying and he wishes to see Grandfather one last time, and of course Grandfather very much wishes to attend him. But it is a long journey—hundreds of leagues! Uncle Peregrin is going to go with him—they have ever adventured together, you see—and afterwards they mean to go and live at the court of the High King and Queen in Gondor.”
Ella saw the Captain blink in surprise when she spoke of Grandfather’s travels and adventures, but he said kindly, “It sounds like the old gentlehobbits are used to travel. Perhaps they will ride back again to see you one day.”
“Father says not.” Ella shook her head sadly. “Grandfather is very old—one hundred and two years!—and Uncle Peregrin is Younger, but not very. Father says the trip south will be harder on them than they suppose, and that coming back will not be possible. ” She sighed and bent to kiss Eirien’s cheek. “But Grandfather is going to write us letters, Eri, and we’ll write letters back and send him presents all the time. You’ll see: it will be fun! Think of all the things Grandfather will see and write to tell us about and all the things we can tell him! I hope to hear how the Queen does. She is an Elf, you know,” she confided to the Captain, “and Grandfather says she is ravishingly beautiful.” She sighed. “They call her Evenstar. Isn’t that lovely?”
“Pooh! I don’t care about the Queen!” said Eirien loftily, emerging from her vale of grief as quickly as she had descended into it, and dashing the tears from her cheeks with a mighty sniff. “I want to hear about the Oliphaunt bones!”
“Oliphaunts!” The Captain blinked again. “I think I heard some stories of Oliphaunts on the Barway; but sure they’re only make-believe.”
“Oh, no!” Eirien skipped ahead. “They’re not make-believe! I’ve a picture of an Oliphaunt, and Grandfather saw a great many of them once in a battle, all dressed in rugs and jewels! They are as tall as Buck Hill; did you know that? And Grandfather says there is a great pit in Gondor that is filled up of their bones.” Her eyes widened. “Ella, I shall ask Grandfather to send me a bone!”
“A bone!” Ella shook her head in laughing dismay, and the Captain’s grin crept forth again, like the sun venturing out from behind a cloud. “Well, that sounds perfectly horrid, Eri,” she said, “but I’m sure you will ask him all the same, won’t you?”
“Yes, and he will send it, too!” Eri declared with satisfaction.
The Captain said thoughtfully, “Do you send many letters and parcels, then? Does it help you not to miss your folk if you write to them when they are far away?”
“Oh, yes!” Ella said, looking up very seriously. “Grandfather says that when you have friends who are far away, letters and presents can help you feel as if you are with them still.”
“Aye,” he murmured gravely. “I suppose it might, at that.”
They went on again, Eirien running ahead to point out various places and objects she felt to be of interest, and soon enough they came to a stop before the heavy door marked ‘T. Brandybuck & Fam.’ The Captain had been gently attentive up to this point, and only occasionally had manifested open amazement or quiet dismay at the surroundings, but now he looked at the sign on the door before them and grew solemn, and still. Ella wondered at this; she had thought in the beginning that he must be feeling as Jamy had in the beginning, overawed by the Hall and by a way of life she knew to be quite unimagined on the river; but this look she could not read, and she hoped her father would know what to do.
“Eri, run and tell Father Captain Bucket has come,” she said, and when Eirien had danced away ahead of them, she turned to the Captain and said, “Won’t you please come in, sir? This is where we live, and Father’s study is just down this way.”
He nodded silently and fell into step with her. They could hear Eirien calling, “Papa! Papa! Wait till you see who is come!” and then the sound of her father’s voice, pretending to scold: “What? Don’t tell me the Ents are come to tea again? Save us, child! Well, we shall have to take tea in the woods this time, miss, for I can’t have those fellows in the drawing room again. I’m sure they’re very pleasant but they leave a dreadful lot of twigs about—and such poetry! It can’t be allowed in a decent hobbit household!”
Eirien cried, “No, silly!” and beside her Ella heard the Captain draw a sudden breath. Peeking up at him, she saw his handsome face had gone very pale and his mouth was drawn with apprehension. “Oh!” she said, her heart going out to him. “You musn’t think Father is really cross; he’s just playing, sir! Eri is forever bringing invisible folk to tea!”
The Captain looked at him with deep misgiving. Now he was at last in the presence of gentry as he had expected to find it, and though he approached the young Master of the Hall with all the purpose and dignity he could muster, he shrank a little within himself. The young gentlehobbit was very near his own age, a sturdy fellow with dark hair and watchful brown eyes, handsomely turned out and obviously at ease with the trappings of wealth and power. He had the look of a hobbit whose life was well and carefully ordered, and his judicious appraisal had been swift but sure.
The Captain took a steadying breath; he had let his guard down with the little lasses—so sweetly trusting they had been!—but he steeled himself now for the ugly confrontation he had come for. Already he felt his disadvantage; in his tearing hurry he had not thought to brush his coat or sponge his trousers, and he remembered suddenly that his hair had not been cropped in months. He bunched his fists down deep in his pockets; he kept any number of useful things there, the presence of which at any other time he would have found wonderfully comforting, but today served only to make his pockets bulge and sag, which he had no doubt made his appearance all the more ramshackle. No matter how kind those little lasses might have been toward a lost lad from the river, he thought, Theo Brandybuck would not in any way be kind to him. Instinctively he set his jaw, preparing for the worst.
The young Master smiled at his daughters, a bright, boyish grin, and extended his arm in welcome to the eldest. “Father!” exclaimed Ella, stepping into his embrace and raising her face to receive his kiss, “What do you think? Here is Captain Bucket come at last!”
“Is it indeed? Well, this is splendid!” The young Master turned eagerly to the Captain, his hand outstretched. His ready smile went all the way to his eyes. “Indeed, I hoped it was Captain Bucket—I thought I saw the family resemblance. Welcome to Brandy Hall, sir! I’m Theo Brandybuck.”
The Captain blinked. Surely this dance must be for the benefit of the little girls, whose delight in his coming was apparent, if innocent of the circumstances. He scrubbed his hand quickly on the clean muslin shirt that lay rolled up in the bottom of his pocket, withdrew his hand and took the other’s, raising his eyes defiantly, aware of the children smiling up at the two of them. “Your servant, sir,” he managed through his teeth.
“And yours!” returned Theo, with a surprisingly direct glance, “But come in! Come in!” He turned to his daughters: “I must speak privately with the Captain now, but I should like you to do an errand for me, if you will. Please tell Mama that the Captain has come and to set another place for luncheon, and then go back out to the gate and keep a lookout for Uncle Bo and Rory and Jamy and send them along here as soon as ever they appear! Can you do that for me?”
“Yes, Papa!” Ella nodded and, smiling at the Captain, she took Eirien’s hand and turned to go. Eirien called blithely, “Goodbye, sir! I’m glad you’ve come, and I shall make sure you get a jam tart for afters—two if you like!”
The Captain could not help but smile at her, despite his deep forebodings, and he raised his hand in an affable farewell salute. Theo said with a fond chuckle as he closed the door: “Eirien is quite incorrigible, I’m afraid. Very like my father, as it happens. But he has been considered wonderfully charming for years, so we have hope she may someday acquire some dignity. Please, won’t you sit down, Captain? I’m glad we’ve some time to get acquainted.”
The Captain looked about the tidy paneled office, conscious of the fine rug beneath his feet, the comfortable furnishings, and, in particular, the several striking paintings that adorned the walls. The one above the fireplace showed two little lads playing on the ferry landing next the river. He hesitated, miserably out of his element. The young Master was gesturing in a friendly manner toward the two handsomely upholstered chairs that were pulled before the fire, the table between them holding a lamp and a well-appointed tea tray.
“Mr. Brandybuck,” he said softly. “Let’s be clear: I’ve come for my boy.”
“Of course you have!” said Theo warmly. “And not a moment too soon, either! Faith, but Jamy will be delighted, Captain; quite honestly, I think he’s been somewhat anxious for you. I know he’s looked for you every day these past two weeks, and my brother tells me he’s taken to keeping a candle lit nights in his window for you as well.”
“That candle!” The Captain could see it in his mind’s eye, could feel again the moment when he guessed its real significance; he shook his head to clear the memory as a lump rose in his throat. “I saw it burning away up there when I passed by last night. I’d a mind it was there for somebody who was hard expected, but I never thought to make it was for me, Mr. Brandybuck,” —his voice hardened— “leastways not til Reg told me when I got in that Jamy was down here with you.”
“Oh!” A look of dismay came over Theo’s pleasant features. “I never thought! I should have sent a letter down to Sarn Ford for you, explaining what we’d done and why! You passed us by—upriver, too!—and had to come back again! And you passed us last night, you say, in the dark? Isn’t that—?”
“Foolish?” The Captain, feeling the ground being cut from under him with every pleasant rejoinder, wondered how long the young Master meant to play this game. But determined not to undercut himself, he tempered the urge to be sharp and instead said candidly, “Aye, sir, it was. But I had to see my boy. We have been too long apart.” He hesitated, then raised a hardening gaze to Theo’s. “And if I may speak plain, sir, it was a shock to learn he was nowhere about where I left him.”
Theo’s face was gravely attentive, his features lined with regret, and the Captain hesitated, wondering. It did not appear that this was the autocrat he had expected to find here. Perhaps fortune had smiled on him after all today, by replacing the old Master with the young in the parley he had come to make. For the first time he wondered if it was possible that he and the Brandybucks could come to some sort of understanding about Jamy without stirring up a hornet’s nest of resentment, without the awfulness of shouting or cursing or coming to blows. He bent his head to sort through his thoughts, trying to decide if it was worth the risk to try.
“Captain Bucket,” Theo said suddenly, quietly, in what seemed a characteristically straightforward way. “I beg you will be at ease. I can see that you are troubled, that some difficulty lies heavy on your mind, and I hope you will feel free to say whatever it is you need to.” The Captain looked up guardedly and Theo met and held his gaze. “I promise you, all will be well,” he said. “There is nothing and no one to threaten you here.”
Well, it was now or never, then. The Captain took a deep breath. “Mr. Brandybuck,” he said as boldly as he might, “Reg says as you’ve put my lad to work here. Sir, I can’t—I won’t have you taking Jamy into service. He’s my boy and I won’t stand by while he’s bound over to gentry and cheated of his rightful place on the river—you’ve no right, sir!” His voice had begun to shake, and though he had begun cooly enough, his face was flushed with anger now. “You’ve no right at all to take my son from me!”
“Bound…into service?” Theo repeated, seemingly taken aback, and the Captain, thinking to press this unlikely advantage while he had it, said firmly: “I mean you no disrespect, Mr. Brandybuck, nor any of your folk, but I won’t have my boy serving gentry, and that’s that.”
“Oh, my dear fellow!” Theo was now openly and genuinely distressed. “No—no, this is all wrong! I am so sorry—please, please won’t you sit down and let me see if I have wits enough to explain what’s happened here?”
The Captain had meant to hold his ground, but something in the other’s face made him stop and reconsider; slowly he lowered himself into one of the soft chairs before the fire, his eyes never moving from the young Master’s stricken face.
Theo threw himself into the other chair. “Where shall I begin?” he wondered distractedly. He leaned forward, his hands outstretched. “Let me tell you as quickly as I can: Jamy is not in service here, nor in any way held against his will. My father took him in, it is true, and my brother has asked his opinion and taken his good advice on some work he is doing along the river, but our only intent has been to foster him—to hold him in safekeeping for you.”
“Safekeeping, is it?” the Captain returned, shaking his head stubbornly. “I ’prenticed him to the Dockmaster for safekeeping.”
“Yes, but something went wrong there, I think,” Theo said, and the Captain, meeting his quick, worried glance, gave a nod of resignation. “Aye,” he said grudgingly. “That’s true enough—but it doesn’t answer. How came the Master of the Hall to decide my lad needed safekeeping?”
Theo shrugged. “There are often strange alliances between the very old and the very young, and such a bond was forged when Jamy and my father met: they seemed to recognize each other as friends from the beginning.” He shook his head, smiling. “I wish you could have seen it, the two of them trying to outfox each other! It’s my belief my father sees in Jamy the little lad he was used to be, a very long time ago—”
“What?!” scoffed the Captain. “You don’t mean to say the Master of the Hall—well, the Master that was—was ever such a rascally little fellow as mine?”
Theo laughed outright. “I do indeed! He is one hundred and two years old now, and beloved of everyone who knows him, but anyone in Buckland will tell you he has ever been a rascal—well, a ‘respectable scapegrace’ is better, I suppose. He glories in it, actually, being eccentric and unpredictable,” —the young Master shook his head, as if to say he knew how odd this was— “but like your lad Jamy, he’s a charmer. Folk forgive him because his spirit is contagious.”
The Captain kept a wary silence and Theo’s face grew pensive. “I think my father recognized in Jamy’s spirit one very like his own, and so at first he was disposed to keep him close at hand for that reason alone; but he is a hobbit rich in experience as well as in years, Captain, and it did not take him long to mark that while Jamy had a bold and reckless tongue—and charm enough to bring the leaves dancing off the trees at midsummer!—he was, beneath it all, not only unhappy, but angry. My father determined to know what was wrong, and soon enough he had coaxed your story out of Jamy, and in mulling it over, he thought the boy might be better off waiting for you here than back at Bridge. The question was put to Jamy and he agreed; he stayed happily, of his own free will.”
The Captain rocked back in surprise. He could not take it in or make it work, the disparity between the situation as he had expected to find it, and as the young Master of the Hall was recounting it now. Jamy had stayed on happily, of his own free will? “No!” he said with decision. “You cannot tell me my son took up with gentry so easily as that!”
Even as the words left of his mouth, he realized how offensive they were and winced. He knew himself for a decent river-hobbit, and while it was true that he had uttered disparaging words of this nature for the better part of ten years now and never stopped to consider, it was also true that at this moment he knew those words had ever diminished him, and no more so than now. Theo Brandybuck had proved a gentle and well-intentioned adversary, and had turned his anger and suspicion aside with more kindness and humility than the Captain had expected or indeed, deserved after this. He raised a regretful face. “I —I’m sorry. That was uncalled for.”
“No,” Theo said seriously. “You’re quite right to doubt it—Jamy himself was uneasy early on. It was my sister who brought him into the Hall with his letter, and she will tell you he had every intention in the world of delivering it and getting out as quickly as he might. When she told him he would be staying for luncheon, he wept and told her he could not in all conscience do such a shocking thing—that it would shame his father and certainly offend her folk. He was well-schooled and careful of himself. He thoroughly expected to be judged riff-raff and chucked out at once—but that’s not our way, Captain, and I promise you he was received with the greatest interest and affection. We have all of us enjoyed getting to know him: my wife, my brother…my children call him friend and my father looks upon him as a late-come grandchild in his own image. You have nothing to fear or regret, sir: your Jamy is a good lad, and loyal to his upbringing. He has done you proud here, and I hope he will tell you that we were kind to him, for we surely meant to be.”
The Captain dropped his head to his hands, appalled, as suddenly he understood in full: he had been altogether wrong! And hadn’t Reg tried to tell him? Considering it now, he could not think why he hadn’t listened, saving he was so tired and frightened and so desperately at ends: worried about the Barway, worried about Jamy, worried about what would become of them now that he was duty-bound to the King and the river’s end…. He looked up at Theo in blank dismay.
“It seems I need no help from Jamy to cover myself with shame,” he said, flushing painfully. “I—I have wronged you. I beg you will forgive my uncivil accusations, Mr. Brandybuck, if only for Jamy’s sake. I deserve no quarter, but he—”
“It’s quite all right,” Theo said.
“No, no it’s not. I—I tangled with gentry-folk once upon a time, away downriver in the Southfarthing, and I came out the worse for it. I’ve never forgiven them as did it, and I came to believe on account of them that all the gentry were so small and mean as they. I never thought to find friends in such a place as this.”
Theo nodded sadly. “I’m sorry, too,” he said. “Sorry that such harm was done to you, and that because of it you slept the night in fear of us, and of what we might have done to your boy. It was too much for you to bear. I can’t change what happened to you, Captain, but I will help to ease its effects in any way I can: you have the friendship and protection of the Hall from this day forward, and I hope you will call upon me if ever you find yourself in trouble again.”
“Nay, but I couldn’t.” The Captain shook his head ruefully. “I’m already beholden for the care you’ve shown Jamy, and all unasked, too.”
“Well, I hope you may change your mind one day,” said Theo, his dark eyes kindling with slow-burning indignation. “I should very much like to show your Southfarthing ‘gentry’ something of how decent gentlefolk behave!”
The Captain laughed softly. “Well, I own I should very much like to see that.” He glanced at Theo with a shy smile. “Someday, then…perhaps….” He looked away as the wood shifted and crackled in the grate, and a heavy sigh escaped him.
Theo took up the teapot, poured out two mugs of sweet tea and passed one over. The Captain took it with a nod and a slightly distracted smile and leaned forward, bracing his elbows on his knees, holding the cup in both hands. He seemed then to lose himself in contemplation of the fire, a small frown pinching the space between his brows.
Theo took the opportunity to study the river-hobbit, taking in the details that his initial glance had deliberately overlooked; he had sought a quick judicial impression rather than a close evaluation before. But now he considered the sturdy figure and pleasant, weatherworn features, the shy smile and discerning gaze, the guarded manner that was so gently shadowed with grief of long duration. He sipped his tea and watched and waited, but the Captain remained preoccupied. He played at patience for a while, but when the silence threatened to continue indefinitely, he gave up and took matters into his own hands.
“Captain Bucket,” he said quietly, playing a hunch. “I meant what I said.”
The Captain looked up, started out of his reverie. “I beg pardon; what was that, sir?”
“You are in trouble, I think. As I said before, you have only to ask.”
The Captain shook his head disgustedly. “It’s as plain as that, is it?”
“Yes, I’m afraid so. You’ve more than Southfarthing gentry on your mind. Whatever it is looks to be a fearful burden.”
The Captain closed his eyes over another deep sigh. “I’ve got to go back to the Barway. Soon, and a longer turn this time. A year at the least, and not much leave.”
Theo set down his cup. “Why? Has there been more trouble?”
The Captain looked at him curiously. “You know of the troubles on the Barway?”
“Yes, somewhat. I heard whispers down on the docks in the autumn.” Theo marked the Captain’s surprise to hear this and sought to explain: “It’s part of my job, you see,” he said, “to know of any ill winds that might blow trouble to the folk of the Eastmarch. And a good many river-hobbits make the backwaters hereabouts their home. There was a good bit of talk, very quiet, of course, for it had been decided the children were not to be told. Later, my father heard more from the Thain.”
The Captain nodded grimly. “Then you know why Jamy was left behind.”
“I do, and it goes without saying you did right to do so.”
The Captain’s eyes filled with tears. “It was those barbarians from the south—them as stole our folk away in the first Rotation. I can’t bear to think of that, Mr. Brandybuck, those three of our own—one was a lad, sir, hardly older than mine!—taken from every one and every thing they ever knew and made over to slavers! Lost for the rest of their lives they’ll be, and cruel used, hard and against their upbringing from what I hear of those lands. It’s unspeakable, is what it is; I can’t sleep sometimes for thinking of that lad and what I’d do if it was Jamy.”
Theo remembered his own feelings on hearing the shocking story his father had brought back from Tuckborough, the old Traveller’s eyes darkening with grief as he told it. It won’t ever happen again, but it took those three lives to make it so. They say King wept to hear of it.
“I wonder you went at all after that,” he said. “I wonder that any of the river-folk wanted to go after that.”
The Captain grimaced. “Well, as a rule we’re not opposed to an adventure, sir, so long as it’s close to home and we’ve time to spare. But for me—well, as it happened, I had no choice.”
“We heard as much from Jamy. And this time?”
The Captain shook his head wordlessly.
Theo considered him for a thoughtful moment, then took a battered pipe and a soft leather pouch from his fine tweed pocket and set about filling the bowl. “A smoke always sets a good pace for a story, I think,” he said.
The Captain’s eyes flickered. “The waters run deep here,” he observed wryly, sitting up and rummaging in his pockets for his own smoking gear. His pipe was rather newer, he saw, and he gestured at Theo’s as he packed down his leaf: “That’s seen some duty.”
“Yes,” Theo nodded, rubbing the bowl with his thumb. “It came down to me from my Uncle Freddy. They tell me it saw him through the Brockenbore Rebellion.”
The Captain’s eyebrows rose. “A rebel, was he? During The Troubles?”
“He led the Rebellion at Scary,” said Theo, setting a flame to his leaf. “They caught him, though, and threw him into the Lockholes where he nearly died of neglect. The thing is, Captain, he was a very proper sort of gentlehobbit for the most part—as I’m sure I seem to you—but he knew when to roll up his sleeves; he knew when he had to stand up for what was right. I hope you will believe that I can do so as well.”
The Captain pulled up a mouthful of fragrant smoke and loosed it in the direction of the chimney. “My Dad smuggled supplies up and down the river for the Rebellion,” he said pensively. “He hated those Ruffians—invaders, he called ’em. Among our folk he was known for a good sailor and a honest cove, but what he did for the Rebellion was hero’s work.” He smiled quietly. “What he did brought honour to our family, and to the clan.”
“Ah,” said Theo, exhaling softly as he contemplated his pipe. “Then this is a matter of honour.”
“Aye,” the Captain nodded. “I’m afraid it is.”
“Tell me,” said Theo. “Tell me how this happened, then.”
It was not an order, and the Captain knew it, but for the second time that day, the story of the Barway came tumbling out, though this time he stammered a little over the honour he had been accorded by the Harbour Master, for he felt shy to speak of it in Brandy Hall, where even the children spoke of Kings in an offhand manner. But Theo was captivated; he demanded to see this marvel, and so the medal was fished from the Captain’s pocket and greatly admired and extolled by the young Master, who shook the Captain’s hand and declared that all the Eastmarch would claim bragging rights on account of him now, and that Jamy would burst his buttons with pride.
Ah, but how long will that last?” the Captain asked solemnly, never far from recalling the point of his troubles. “How will that pride comfort him once I’m gone again?”
Theo shook his head, his eyes dark with sympathy; he sighed. “I make it is still too dangerous for a child there?”
“Aye, we hold it so, though the garrison has been enlarged and ship’s crews as come in say word has gone out across the Sea that the King will give no quarter to anyone caught trading in slaves. But his complaint has not been answered by the barbarians, and so we continue to be on guard, And there is an edict now on the Barway: no folk with fewer than twenty years—Man or Hobbit—or lady-folk of either kind, will be allowed to come there so long as the southerners remain a threat. There’s no place for Jamy on the Barway.”
“There’s no one you’d trust to take him? No family, no friends?”
“No family, save the ‘Southfarthing gentry’,” the Captain said with a tinge of bitterness. “And no friend I’d wish the task on.”
Theo looked honestly bewildered and the Captain wondered if he ought to explain. He had warmed to the young Master of the Hall as they talked, and had come to believe that the other’s seeming regard for him was real, despite their differences. In another place and circumstance they might well have been friends; he thought now it wouldn’t hurt to let his guard down just a little.
“Jamy has ever followed me,” he sighed. “When Lyssa—my wife, sir—when Lyssa died, Jamy was hardly more than a faunt and I’d no family save my old dad, who sailed with me. Some of the village wives offered to look after him, but Jamy ran off to the docks looking for me every chance he got. He made it onto the river, too, as little as he was: the day I met him halfway between Sarn Ford and Deephallow, sir, dangling off the tinker’s barge—‘coming to see you, Daddy!’ and the tinker crying ‘there’s no stopping him, Mat!’—I knew I was beat. I hadn’t much heart for village life after Lyssa passed anyway, so I took Jamy and my Dad up with me, and we lived and worked on the boat. Ten years we did that; my Dad passed on last year.
“Truth to tell, Mr. Brandybuck, there’s not a goodwife on the river would have taken Jamy when I signed for the Barway, knowing they couldn’t hold him; and no captain as would sign him to a crew, either. I ’prenticed him to the Dockmaster because he had to sign a contract and I knew he would hold it dishonourable to break his word. It was the only way I could think to keep him from coming after me, which he would have done, sir, and no mistake, even if the Barway is two hundred miles beyond the Bounds! I’d do it again, only Reg says he wasn’t happy.” He shook his head despairingly. “I don’t know what to do now,” he said.
“Well—perhaps I do.” Abruptly, Theo leaned across the table and caught the Captain’s arm. “Leave him with us!” he urged. “He’s been happy enough here, and if we explained it was a matter of honour, I think he’d understand. Bo can keep up the work along the river, and the children can provide play and company his own age, and if you like, he can take lessons with them; he’s not keen on it, for he reads and writes well enough already, but there’s always something to learn, as my father says. Further, you must have friends or clan who can take him on as crew now and then, to keep up his skills and his friendships on the river. We can explain all this to him together, Captain, and make him see the good of it. Faith, the very fact that he ended up here at all is proof enough he’s meant to be here, for what could be more unlikely, considering your past? Let us help you—with your blessing this time, and your guidance for his comfort!”
“I couldn’t ask it! You’ve done so much already—!” the Captain remonstrated, trembling with uncertainty. “Ah, but, save me, sir! I’m torn! I can see the good of it, if only he’d listen, but—!”
“Have no fear that we cannot make him see reason, Captain,” came a voice from the doorway, grave but pleasantly engaging. “We Brandybucks are great believers in Destiny as well as common sense. I knew your lad Jamy had both the moment I laid eyes on him!”Theo spun toward the voice, swinging to his feet. The Captain, turning to look, found himself on his feet, too; it was the first time in his life that awe had moved his body of its own accord, but the hobbit who stood in the doorway inspired nothing less.
“Father!” said Theo happily. “This is splendid! I hoped to snag you at some point to meet the Captain.”
“Well, we just broke for luncheon, and rumour travels fast.” Meriadoc Brandybuck stepped over the threshold and carefully closed the door behind him. He was taller than any hobbit the Captain had ever seen, magnificently dressed in a suit of dark green wool with a silken waistcoat of a startlingly prismatic apple-green, together with a matching cravat and pearl stick-pin, and his impressive height was crowned with a nimbus of sparkling silver hair. The Captain stared. No wonder they call him The Magnificent!
“You must pardon my finery,” the Magnificent said, twinkling amiably as he marked the Captain’s disconcerted gaze. “Young Gardner is a stickler for the conventions, and I promised Berry I wouldn’t embarrass the family.”
He smiled broadly at Theo. “You know, it throws Frodo-lad quite off his guard when I don’t do anything shocking,” he chuckled. “I can’t imagine why, but I get the feeling he’s come to expect it of me!”
“Oh, poor Frodo!” said Theo, shaking his head fondly as he came round the chair to join his father. “He’s come all this way on very short notice —and over water, too—to help Tom and Berry, Father—Robin and Goldilocks, as well; I hope you aren’t being difficult!”
“Not a bit of it! In truth, I daren’t step sideways for fear of Berry; I do hope she forgives me soon, Theo. But don’t be worrying over Frodo-lad: he’s more experience with eccentrics than he could like—after all he’s head of one of the largest, most interesting families in the Shire now, and if that’s not enough for you, he’s brother and uncle to Tooks!”
The Magnificent turned now to the Captain, and his blue eyes flashed keenly. His aged features bloomed into a surprisingly boyish smile that seemed to the Captain as open and genuine as his little granddaughter’s, and holding out both hands in greeting, he said kindly, “My dear sir, I have so looked forward to this meeting. Welcome to Brandy Hall! I am Merry Brandybuck and I am delighted to know you at last!”
The Captain gave his hand, his heart thudding, and the aristocratic old hobbit took it eagerly, folding his free hand over the top of their mutual grasp in a warm, protective gesture. “Now, don’t you worry,” he said, leaning in confidingly. “Master Jamy will come round when he understands the whole of it. That’s been the problem all along, you know. Like any good father you tried to keep him safe, but he didn’t know from what.
You tell him your truth now and let him think it over. He’s a smart lad and he’ll see the reason in it, just as we do.”
The Captain was drawing a shaky breath to reply when sounds of commotion and beating feet were heard in the corridor outside the door. It burst open and a fair, tousle-haired boy in his late teens lurched through, panting in the breach. “Father!” he blurted, locating Theo. “Ella said that—oh, save us, oh, sir! Jamy, it’s true!”
And through the door shot the Captain’s own boy, his green eyes bright as stars and his small face, framed by that impossible mop of russet curls, flushed with fearful hope, as if he had been afraid to believe the news when it came to him. “Dad!” he cried, his eyes brimming suddenly with tears. “Dad!” And blindly he launched himself across the room, where his father dropped to his knees to gather him into a fierce embrace. “Jamy!” he whispered. “Jamy! Here’s my lad at last!” And the boy clung to him, weeping.
Over their heads the eyes of the Young Master met the eyes of the Magnificent, seeking reassurance. “Avo acheno,” murmured the elder in the Elvish tongue, shaking his white head sagely. “Don’t look back. I’ve no doubt it’s meant to be, Theo, and no matter what happens now, we must trust it will all come right in the end.”
“Save us!” she cried. “Here’s the Captain barely set foot in the house, and come expressly to see his own boy, and how can we help? Set a place, did somebody say? Certainly not, for how could these two have a proper reunion with a dozen or more strangers saying ‘pass the salt’ and ‘pour the ale’ and ‘do tell us of your adventures’ every minute? Not to mention the fact that Father and the Gamgee Gardners will no doubt be discussing wedding business over the board— no, what Jamy and the good Captain want is some time alone.” She smiled at Jamy. “What do you think, my dear? How if I pack a picnic for the two of you and you can spend the afternoon showing your father about and getting cozy again?”
Jamy’s flushed face brightened further. “Oh, Mistress, that would be fine!” he declared delightedly, as his father looked on in bemusement and the Magnificent gave a little nod of satisfaction. He nestled close beneath his father’s sheltering arm. “Can I show him where I sleep, Bo?” he asked, and Bo, who had just been presented, quickly nodded assent.
“Actually,” he said, meeting the Captain’s eye, “I was thinking I might move my gear into Theo’s spare room for a little while so you and Jamy can bunk together. You will be staying on for a day or two, I hope?” He put a hand on Jamy’s shoulder. “I don’t think we could bear to see this fellow away today, in the midst of all this uncommon bustle and confusion.” He hesitated as the Captain stiffened uncertainly. “Of course, if the two of you have business elsewhere, we shan’t keep you,” he said quickly.
The Captain looked down at Jamy’s eager, upturned face, and then glanced at Theo and the Magnificent, who stood together a little apart from the others. “Nay,” he said slowly, nodding at Bo. “We’ve nowhere to be just yet. I think we can manage a few days, if the Masters and the Mistress agree.”
The Masters agreed, much to the Mistress’s satisfaction, whereupon Berry and Tom were introduced and won the Captain’s promise to attend their betrothal party the next evening, where the children were planning to give one of the toasts. “I’m not sure what they’re up to,” she whispered, eyeing both Jamy and Rory suspiciously “but it’s sure to be memorable!” Jamy and Rory laughed at this and Jamy waggled his eyebrows in a most impudent way, but he coloured brightly when Berry laughed and bent to kiss him, ruffling his hair. “I shall miss you, Jamy Bucket, when I am wed and you are gone back to the river,” she said, and to the Captain she murmured, “Don’t take him away too soon, will you?”
Mrs. Theo had given them two of the fine speckled trout Jamy and Rory had caught on their morning ramble with Bo, cleaned and wrapped in leaves and ready for the fire, and there were a splendid lot of extras carefully tucked up into the knapsack she sent alongside. They set the fish on to cook and rummaged out the rest of their picnic and when it seemed they had done all they could in silence, the Captain said cautiously, “I’m told you’ve been helping Mr. Theo’s brother learn something of the river. Have you been sailing, then?”
“No-o,” said Jamy, and then because he was bursting to tell, he told his father of the weir on the Withywindle and how Tom and Bo had looked for a river-hobbit to help but found none willing, and how he had determined what could be done and so had been invited to Haysend to help build and handle the raft. He detailed the operation with great care and enthusiasm and when he had done, he looked concernedly at his father; the Captain had been listening intently, in surprise and also in some dismay.
But he bent now on Jamy a look of affectionate pride. “I knew you were ready to show folks a thing or two on the water, even so young as you are,” he said warmly. “Mr. Theo told me you’d done me proud here, lad, and he was right. You did well in working out that matter, and it’s no wonder to me now that his brother seems to look on you as a partner in his ventures along the shore.”
Jamy hugged his knees happily, his eyes shining with satisfaction. “Now what about you, Dad? What’s it like on the Barway? What did you do there?”
The Captain looked out on the Brandywine, passing by as it ever did. “You know, lad, ” he said, “you can sit and watch the river go by your whole life and never stop to think of where it goes or what it does once it passes the Bounds. I doubt I’ll ever look at it the same way again, now that I’ve followed it all the way to the Sea.” He sighed. “That’s a sight, that is!”
The boy shivered with expectation. “Tell!”
The Captain described the mouth of the river, the high cliffs, the untamed shore and the treacherous bar, though he said nothing as yet about how that bar was about to affect their fortunes.
“It’s a wild place,” he mused, “but uncommon beautiful. The Men tell tales of other places where rivers come to the Sea: there’s one in the north where the Fair Folk have kept a fine, sheltered harbour of stone from before time, seemingly; and one to the south that’s called The Mouths of Anduin, where that river breaks up into six little channels as it comes time to meet the Sea. But they’ve all agreed ours is the wildest and most curious, for it’s a place where the earth seems bent to the purpose of secrets. Oh, aye, it’s true! The better part of the channel and the river itself is hidden from the Sea, and the whole shadowed by steep bluffs overlooking. Only by accident did pirates find the Brandywine, it seems—though now, of course, the secret’s out.”
“I mean to see the Barway,” Jamy said lazily; he had finished off his trout, a small loaf, a wedge of cheese and a number of other small, savoury dishes. He paused in speaking to angle a fat jam tart into his mouth.
“Mayhap,” the Captain returned noncommittally. He nodded at the sticky sweet in Jamy’s fingers. “You know, you’ve the little maid to thank for that. She’s a charmer, she is; we met earlier, and she promised I should have ‘two jam tarts for afters.’ I see we’ve two apiece there—mind you leave mine be! The little sprite wrapped them herself, so she told me as her mother passed over the pack, and proud of herself she was, too! What’s her name again? It’s one I’ve not heard it before—”
“Eirien,” Jamy answered around a mouthful of jam. “It’s an Elvish name—means Daisy. The Master knew a great many Elves once upon a time, and lived in their lands for a while, so they know Elvish things here. Almost everybody calls her Eri—all save Bo. He calls her Crazy Daisy.” He laughed softly. “She’s a funny little lass; like I always imagined my sister would be.”
“Did you, now?” said his father softly, marveling at how many revelations were to be found beneath the cloudless faces of children. “I never knew that. But I own we must think alike, lad, for I thought of wee Jessamine myself today when first I laid eyes on Miss Daisy. She’s an original, as your granddad was used to say.”
Jamy nodded, licking his fingers. “Aye, like the Master,” he said, his eyes lighting with enthusiasm. “He’s splendid, isn’t he, Dad? Do you like him?”
“I do,” said the Captain, remembering that arresting figure and the warm greeting he had extended to a stranger. He hesitated. “I hadn’t long to speak with him, but he was kind enough to offer me a good piece of advice in the little time we had, Jamy.”
“He did? What was that?” It was easy to see that Jamy set great store by the Master.
“He said I should tell you the truth, lad. He said he knew I’d left you behind to keep you safe, but that you didn’t know from what, and that I should tell you. He said you’d understand then, and if you had some time to think, you’d see the reason of it.”
Jamy’s mouth quirked warily. “Maybe,” he said cagily. “Are you going to tell me the truth, then, Dad?”
“Aye,” said the Captain, “I am. But first, lad, there’s something else I need to tell you—” He sighed. “By now,” he said, meeting the boy’s open gaze with a pang of regret, “you’ll have had time and reason to decide for yourself that I was wrong all these years about the gentry—and you’d be right to think so. I’m not proud of this, Jamy, but the truth is I didn’t know any better until today, when I had to come after you here. I confess I expected to be barred, or failing that, pitched out my ear, but nothing I expected turned out to be true. These are good folk here, and when I met them I saw what a fool I’d been.”
“Dad—” Jamy said softly. The look in his eyes told how true he knew this to be and how much he wanted to absolve the Captain of his error.
But the Captain shook his head. “No, lad, don’t excuse me!” he admonished, driven to confession and determined to see it through. “The truth is, I’ve been sore in my mind for a long time, on account of something bad that happened to me once. But I had it wrong; I never should have tried to blame every gentlehobbit in the Shire for the faults of a few who never did and never will deserve the name—and lad, I hope you’ll think better and not worse of me for admitting my fault. These Brandybucks, now: this is gentry as ought to be. I can see you’ve been treated well here, and kept as safe as I could wish, and I want you to know I’ve told the Master and Mr. Theo that I’m beyond grateful for what’s been done for you. You couldn’t have come to better hands in your trouble, lad, nor me to a better lesson—or a kinder one, considering.”
Jamy looked up at him, speculation tracing a frown between his brows. The Captain glanced from his son to the river and back again, and loosed a painful sigh into the silence. “Do you understand?” he said. “I was wrong.”
Jamy nodded wordlessly and then it seemed the moment passed into the usual quiet, careful reserve that could be expected to follow such a difficult exchange. But a moment later watchful civility surrendered to the lad’s need to know. Casting a sidelong glance, curious and troubled, from beneath his soft fringe of curls, he said softly, “What happened, Dad? What had you to blame the gentry for?”
The Captain shook his head. “It’s no matter, lad. The point is—”
“You said the truth.”
“About the Barway—”
“You said the truth!”
The Captain shut his eyes for a long moment, and when he opened them again it was to Jamy’s small face, tense now with anxiety, and with regret he saw not only confusion but fear stirring in the boy’s eyes. “All right, then,” he agreed. “I’ll tell you the story.” He smiled wryly, laying his hand on the ground beside him. “I suppose you’re too big to sit close anymore?”
But it seemed Jamy was not too big, for while he flushed at the question and ducked his head, he nonetheless moved quickly to settle in close beside the Captain, his back angled in beneath his father’s arm. The Captain forbore to pull him any closer. “Well, then, let’s begin,” he said quietly, and his heart contracted a little as he felt Jamy lean of his own volition into his side.
His eyes once again on the river, but carefully, steadily gauging the boy’s reaction as he went, the Captain told the bitter story of how his mean contempt for the gentry had come to be. To begin, he told of his marriage to Lyssa: how they had met at the River Festival and fallen first into an unlikely friendship and then, to their surprise, into love, and how she had been forced in consequence into an unwelcome betrothal to another, ‘better’ hobbit, who was not better, but gentry, and so more acceptable to her father, who had no use for a ‘common’ lad from the river, however honourable he might be among his own folk.
Jamy frowned blackly. “Old villain,” he muttered. “I hate him!”
“Careful now. He was your other grandsire, when all’s said and done. Dead now, though, as I hear it.”
“Good! I’m glad! I’m shamed to have him at all.”
“Well, I can’t say as I’d disagree. He was a bully, and no mistake.”
Jamy nodded in dark agreement. “But Mum wanted to stay with you?”
“What happened then?”
Steeling himself, he told how Lyssa had run away from the great leaf plantation that was her home to the simple hole on the slopes above the river that was his, and how they had married according to the ways of the river, with the blessing of the clan and all the sweet festivities that were customary, but without the approval or the presence of her family, who summarily declared she was no longer one of them. And he told of the rare happiness he and Lyssa had known, despite the ill-will of her folk, and how much they had loved Jamy and hoped for even more happiness with the coming of the little maid-child.
Beside him Jamy sighed. “Did she know she was going to die, Dad?”
“No,” he said kindly. “It came too quick to think about; she was sorrowing over the wee lass who’d come too early when her own trouble came upon her. I think the midwife knew—I remember her face—but it took the rest of us by surprise.”
Jamy hunched his shoulders. “Were they sorry, then, those folk of hers?”
“Well,” he said grimly, thinking it over. “In their way, I guess they were.”
Unconsciously, he pulled the boy a little closer, took the child’s hand—so small to be so skillful on the river!—in his, and began to explain what had happened: how Lyssa’s father had cursed him on the day she died, and how her brothers, thinking to avenge the loss of the sister they had earlier disowned, had hunted him down in the dark of night after he had laid her gently in the earth, the little one tucked safe in her arms.
Jamy stiffened suddenly beneath his hand, and sensing his distress, the Captain nearly stopped in the telling of his tale; he had never told it for just this reason, for fear of hurting Jamy. But calling to mind now the Master’s advice and Jamy’s own demand for truth, he forced himself to go on, and so told as gently as he could how in the dark next the river where he had wandered in his grief Lyssa’s brothers had ambushed and beaten and broken him, and how they had laid such terrible hurts upon his heart that he had forgotten his better nature and turned small and petty and taken up his hateful ways toward the whole of gentlefolk.
Jamy shuddered then, and twisted in his father’s embrace, burying his face, awash with tears, into the hollow of his shoulder. “There now, lad,” the Captain murmured, awkwardly stroking the tangled curls. “There now. Don’t take on.”
But the boy gave an anguished cry. “No, Dad!” he choked out. “No! They hurt you!”
“It’s over and done, and no need to carry it forward.”“I hate them! I want to kill them! I will, when I grow up!”
“No, you won’t. You won’t stoop so low, Jamy Bucket. You’re a decent river-hobbit and you’ll not make the same mistake I made. All these years, lad, I carried that hurt with me, and hated every bit of gentry that ever crossed my path, and what did it make of me in the end but a fool?”
“They hurt you!”
“Aye, but how do you think it ended for them? The old one died with no one to mourn him, a miserable old cheat by all accounts, and with his curse turned back on him, for those fine lads have all but squandered their holdings, as I hear it, and laid waste to the grand estate they thought to protect from the likes of me. And me? Well, I’ve got you, now don’t I, who’s more treasure than I ever hoped to have again, with Lyssa lost to me.”
Jamy raised his face, tear-stained and angry, and the Captain tweaked his curls. “Don’t you go tarnishing my treasure for vengeance’ sake, lad. We Buckets are done with that now. Let’s be honourable and make your mum proud of us.”
Jamy still glittered with anger, but he took a breath and nodded slowly. “All right,” he said. “I won’t shame you, Dad.” He considered the river for a while, his eyes and mouth set hard. “But someday,” he muttered softly, “someday I’ll meet them, and then I’ll have my say in this business.”
The Captain looked at him for a long moment and then he sighed, but he said nothing more.
After a quiet while spent contemplating the river and watching the fire burn down, Jamy stirred beside him. “Dad? About the Barway now?”
“Oh!” said the Captain, far gone in his thoughts but quickly brought round to his duty. “I nearly forgot!” He felt strangely reluctant to go on, sorry to disturb the warmth and trust they had renewed between them, but Jamy was stalwart and resigned.
“Well,” he said, “I own the truth can be rattling, sir, but if the Master says I need to make sense of it, then I guess I’d best hear it all. I expect there’s more to be told of the Barway?”
“Aye, but I’m not where to begin —hold now, let me think—”
Jamy swiveled beneath his arm to peer up at him, vivid with attention. “Start with why you left me behind for safekeeping,” he suggested. “I mind the Master and I talked some about that.” And the Captain marked that Jamy did not seem angry about this, as he had done all those weeks ago, but only needful of knowing why it had been. With a slow smile he nodded assent and Jamy settled back again against his chest and shoulder.
The Captain propped his chin on the mop of chestnut curls. “It’s odd,” he said, “but now we’re come to it, that’s the easiest part. I don’t know how that came to be: I couldn’t find words nor ways for it in the beginning, so feared I was to think of it, but it seems now that we’re telling truths, it isn’t near so unspeakable as I thought. You’ll not like to hear it, lad—there’s no changing that—but I reckon you need to if—if you’re to forgive me, eh?”
“Dad!” said Jamy, sitting up. “Don’t think that! If I didn’t say so, I’m sorry I was angry, and I’ve already forgave you, for the Master made me see you didn’t like leaving me any more than I liked you going on without me.”
“Did he? Well, that was a kindness, and one I’ll thank him for when next I have a chance to speak to him—but all the same, you’ve asked and I’ll tell you the truth.”
And so he painted for Jamy’s mind’s eye the barbarians of the southern lands, and the strange vessels that bore them north over the Sea: the rusty red sails raised so high as to cry their coming on the far horizon, and the powerful oarsmen who could bring them down upon the Barway in half the time expected. He told how in the deep holds of the barbarian ships there were imprisoned innocent folk taken in slavery from the shores of their own lands and doomed to struggle ever after with the bitter labours and unimaginable perversions of the far southern deserts, until at last, lost and worn away in health and spirit, they were grudgingly released to death. He told of the six Men and three hobbits—one of them yet a young lad like Jamy himself—who had been captured in the surprise raid on the Barway in the autumn, and then (for so much as he could bear to think of it) the little he knew of the strange, savage land that awaited the luckless captives, and the brutal customs that would henceforth define their days.
“I dare not say more,” he apologized to a white-faced Jamy at the end of this narration, “for sure your peace is as shattered now as mine when first I heard those tales, but I hope you see how it is now, lad, and that I’d good reason to want you safe within the Bounds behind me. I can’t think of that boy even now without losing a night’s sleep; I’d have died, Jamy, if it had been you.”
Jamy shivered, squinting out over the Brandywine as it passed sparkling between the gentle green shores of the Shire. “Did I know him, that lad?” he asked softly.
“Nay, I think not,” said the Captain. “He and his Dad came of the fisher-folk south of the Ford.”
“Is his Dad gone, too?”
“Aye, lad, he is.” The Captain thought of the lonely promontory that overlooked the Sea at Eryn Vorn. “There’s a fine stone been set now on the Promontory above the Barway,” he said. “One of the Men from the garrison cut the names of the lost into it so they might never be forgot.”
Jamy’s body trembled beneath the Captain’s hand. He said softly, incredulously, “Why did you go?”
“Ah—well, you know most of that story, Jamy,” said the Captain with a wry smile. “I had to go, to defend Bucket’s honour, and to prove that you and I deserve our reputation on the river and among our folk.”
“But the red ships!”
“Well, once burned, as they say. We weren’t about to make the same mistake twice; we made some changes when we got down there, and the King—who they say was sore grieved over the lost hobbit-folk in particular—sent down an order that no women or young folk with less than twenty years could come to the Barway again.”
Jamy gave a disappointed hiss. “Save us! Five years till I can go!”
The Captain sighed heavily. “Jamy, understand this: the real reason I had to go was that Tilman warned me after I had refused the clan head and the first Rotation, that there were folk who took it ill, who thought I’d got above myself and my loyalty to the clan; if I hadn’t gone this time, they could have turned talk on us. I couldn’t risk that, Jamy, not when your future depends on what folk think of me. So I went—and I did well enough, in terms of Bucket’s honour—only now—”
The Captain took a deep breath, and despairing, sighed it away. Now we’re come to it, he thought, and all the fear and dread that he had held at bay on the long trip upriver and down again to Brandy Hall engulfed him with such a vengeance that he could hardly breathe. O lad, please understand! Please forgive what I’ve had to do!
But Jamy had sensed the Captain’s fear and parsed his words for meaning. He sat up alertly, “Only now? What’s happened, Dad?”
The Captain put his hand in his pocket and brought out the small box covered in dark blue silk that he had carried home from the Barway with such a strange mixture of pride and self-reproach. Silently, he held it out to Jamy. The watchful green eyes widened and the boy unconsciously rubbed his hands on his trousers before he took it up, as if he knew it for something exceptional, far beyond his ken. A look akin to reverence crossed his small face as it came into his hands, followed by a faint flicker of apprehension. “What’s this, sir?” he asked.
And so the lid was lifted away and the silver medallion flared up in the dappled sunlight, the stars on the dark blue ribbon glimmering alongside. “It’s an anchor!” Awe-struck, Jamy traced the carving, then turned the silver circle over in his fingers, his lips parting in wonder. “Where did you get this, Dad?” he breathed. “This Tree on the back—that’s the King’s standard!”
“So it is,” the Captain acknowledged gravely, realizing that Jamy must have seen the White Tree somewhere here at the Hall. He himself had not known the device before he went to the Barway, for the river-folk were only just learning of the world beyond the Bounds, and only of necessity. Any dealings the Shire had had up to now with the Outlands had been conducted over the long roads, north and south, not up or down the river, and the river-folk minded their own business, and left the landed folk to theirs.
“They call it The King’s Anchor,” he said, meeting Jamy’s wide-eyed gaze with a rueful smile. “I had it of the Harbour Master there on the Barway.”
He hesitated and was wondering what to say next when Jamy suddenly smiled delightedly and cocked a guesser’s eyebrow. “It’s a prize!” he crowed.
“For being best?” His son’s eyes were shining, sparkling green, the same as Lyssa’s had done once, bright and filled with pride.
He laughed then, softly, colouring faintly as Jamy bounced to his feet, radiant with excitement. “Well, all right,” he acknowledged. “All right! But it was only a matter of moving goods over the bar, and shouldn’t I know the ways of my own river better than Men who’ve spent their whole lives sailing on the Sea?”
“Oh, you did better than all our folk, too, I wager!” Jamy exulted. “You showed them all the way to do it—I know! Oh, Dad, wait till they see this up at the Hall—I told them you were the best pilot on the river! And even the King says so now!”
Abruptly the Captain knew it was time to speak his piece, even though he must force every word past the hard knot of pain that was forming in his breast. “Jamy,” he said, “I’m guessing you’ve heard some tales of glory here at the Hall—what with the Master’s adventures and all—and that you know well enough that a King’s prize most often comes with strings attached, or after a heavy price has been paid. This one is no different, lad. It says I’ve proved to be of great value to the Barway.”
“But that’s good, Dad! That’s—!”
He drew a rough breath and came to his feet, cutting Jamy off. “They want me back, lad,” he said heavily. “They want me to take command of the little boats, to choose the best from each Rotation and marshal them quick into fleets for crossing the bar. It’s—it’s a year, lad, maybe more.”
Jamy stood motionless, the blue box slipping silently from his fingers into the soft grass. He stumbled back a pace as the colour drained from his face and his eyes darkened; an anguished gasp tore from his throat to whisper away on the endless murmur of the river. “Oh, no, Dad—please, no—!”
The Captain’s heart contracted, as if it would shut down upon itself; he closed his eyes against the pain and gently shook his head. Jamy gave a low cry and turned away.
“Oh, lad—!” The boy was trembling visibly, like a sail torn on the wind; conscience-stricken, the Captain reached for his hand. “Jamy—!”
But the back of Jamy’s curly head shook fiercely and he jerked his hand away, mutely imploring to be left alone, and so the Captain drew back and into himself, biding his rejection with stoic endurance despite his aching sorrow, knowing that the pain that enclosed his heart was but the faintest echo of the betrayal and abandonment that smothered Jamy’s, and anguished to think the boy knew, as he did, that there was nothing to be done. He stood helpless, shut out, listening to his son gasping and sobbing out a fearful tide of grief, and he winced with every shuddering breath, sick and sorry beyond measure. He wondered if there would be anything left of the two of them when it ended.
At length the sobs subsided and gave way, and the Captain looked up anxiously as Jamy heaved a great sigh and stood quiet. The boy raised a sleeve to wipe his eyes, his face yet turned toward the river, then rubbed his face briskly with his hands and shook back his hair and squared his narrow shoulders.
“I’m sorry, Dad,” he said softly, turning to face the Captain at last. “Once I started, I couldn’t stop it.” His face was pale but resolute, and there was in his eyes an odd new expression, considerate and knowing and determined. The effect was jarring; to the Captain it seemed as if his little lad had wept away his boyhood and stood before him now, far too soon, a tweener. He caught his breath, dismayed. What have I done to him?
But Jamy took the hand he had earlier rejected. “When do you go?” he said quietly.
“A month. But, Jamy, listen—”
“It’s all right, Dad. I was wrong to fuss.”
“No, you weren’t! Jamy, don’t swallow this whole for my sake. Listen—there may be a way. We could pack up and go north, live apart from the clan—”
“We could do it—find a quiet backwater—”
“—take up farming—”“Farming! Farming?” Jamy broke out in a great peal of laughter and threw himself into the Captain’s arms, hugging him fiercely. “Oh, no you don’t! You’ll not be making any hayseed out of me! Even Bo knows better than that—I’m a river-hobbit, and too proud by half!”
He bent down and caught up the blue box where it lay fallen in the grass and carefully settled the contents; he pressed it gently back into the Captain’s hands. “My father is first pilot on the Barway and decorated by the King,” he declared in a voice that sang with pride, “and I—well, I own I can’t bear to go back to the docks again, sir, and I’m not too keen on farming, but I’ll find a berth somewhere and do my part this year, I promise! We’ve some time yet—we’ll find a way!”
“Oh, my dear lad!” cried the Captain, sinking down again upon the log, quite overcome and anxious now to set things as right as they could be. “I would take up farming if the docks were all I could offer you now—but, as it happens, you’ve found yourself a berth, on your own and on your own merit, too.”
Jamy dropped to his knees. “Dad! What’s this? Found a berth? And on my own—?” He gave a sudden gasp. “Save us, sir, you don’t mean the Hall?”
The Captain took the small beloved face in his hands. “Tell me true,” he said. “Have you been happy here, such as you could be without me? Would you stay, and not wander, and do your best for the Brandybucks if they kept you on?”
“Sir! Are you saying they’d keep me? That I can stay at the Hall?”
“I am,” said the Captain, as Jamy’s eyes lit with stars. “It’s a strange way for things to come round for us, but Mr. Theo and the Magnificent have made the offer, subject to your knowing the truth of things, which I think you do, now. If you stay on, you can keep helping Mr. Bo along the river, and taking your lessons—oh yes, you will, for I’ve a thought to send letters from the Barway and won’t you want to read them?—and you can work and play with the other youngsters as you’ve been doing—“
“—and if you like, we can see about getting you a few jobs on the river through the year, so that you can keep your hand in, and see your old friends again. What do you think? Could you make a go of that?”
“Oh, sir! It’s all come right, hasn’t it? I feel like I should be here if I can’t be with you—for this is the finest place I’ve ever been outside the Lyssa—not because it’s so grand, mind, but because it’s so interesting—wait till you see the Master’s study, Dad! He’s a sword and a shield and an owl, and a beetle this big!”
“Will you be all right here when the Master goes? I’m told you’re great friends.”
Jamy sighed. “Well, I won’t like it, sir, but I reckon I’ll learn to bear it with the rest of the Hall. We all cried when he told us what he meant to do, and he cried a little, too, but there’s nothing to be done; Bo says Éomer King’s letter has set him on seeing the Wide World one last time, and saying goodbye to all his friends there—kings and knights and elves and princes and all manner of such folk, sir—though the Master would never admit it was the ‘last time,’ if you ask me —and as we love him, we’ve got to let him go and not stand in his way.”
“How long before he goes?”
“A little less than three weeks. He and the Thain are getting ready now, sealing wills and contracts and deciding what’s to be shipped and what to take on the journey. There’s to be a great Farewell Party at Tuckborough a fortnight Highday, and Tom and Berry’s wedding the same day.”
“What? At Tuckborough? She’ll not marry from home, then? And won’t Buckland want to say farewell to their Master?”
“Oh, aye. There’s to be a Farewell here, as well, and Tom and Berry’s Betrothal. But Tuckborough is in the middle of the Shire is what I hear. There’s a great lot of folk from all about will want to say goodbye to the old gents, they say, and then Tom’s folk live mostly on the other side of the river and some a good way west, so it’s easiest for everyone to travel the roads to Tuckborough than come over the river to Buckland.”
“I see. You’ll want to go, I expect.”
“Well, I did—but it’s a good six days I’d be away, Dad, and I’ll want to be with you, too.”
The Captain got to his feet and pulled Jamy up with him. “Let’s go for a sail,” he said. “We’ve time and then some before we’re expected back for supper. We’ll work out a plan: see if you’ve time to help me bring the Lyssa up from the Ford and maybe help with refitting before you’re off to Tuckborough, and then see about some time together after you get back and before I have to be off. For now, though, I’d like to hear more about your friend the Master and his friend the Thain and these adventures they’re said to have had. This place fairly sings of tales I don’t know and I want to hear them, too!