The chamber was longer than it was wide, the walls and vaulted ceiling finely paneled, and the furnishings arranged to accommodate several purposes. Central to the room, in the wall facing the door, was a stone fireplace, and on either side of this, beneath round, recessed windows, the walls were lined with books. The area in front of the hearth and bookshelves made a trim sitting room where several softly upholstered chairs and small wooden tables were scattered on a fine, thick carpet before the grate. A neat stack of brightly colored cushions was placed to one side of the hearth.
Above the chimney-shelf was hung the famous sword, and a shield, as well. There was also a silken banner worked in the colors of Rohan on which a white horse with streaming mane galloped on a green field; and a magnificent sheepskin parchment, inscribed in jewel-like inks and set with splendid seals and ribbons. On the shelf below was a collection of both common and extraordinary objects: a short stack of books, a pipe-rack and canister together with a little tinder box, a piece of gnarled wood wrapped around an ancient-looking vial of iridescent glass and—yes, there it was!—the silver horn, together with a fine green baldric.
In the presence of these articles of legendary authority, the boy, born to the discipline of the river, quite unconsciously came to quarters; he tucked his hands into the small of his back and stayed himself with a reverence that contrasted sharply with his general pose of careless indifference. Seeing this, Berry smiled to herself with genuine liking. He was a rascally little creature, to be sure, but there was something of substance about him, too, and she found him sweetly pleasing. “Jamy,” she began, and then subsided, for it was clear he was too distracted to hear.
On either side of the hearth room were two raised galleries, separated from the sitting area by two identical short stairs and two lengths of fine wooden railings. On the right was a workspace that held a writing desk, a rough work table, several stools and a step-ladder. The desk was set squarely in the far corner and supported a large record book together with an inkstand and a box of quills. The table was covered with a jumble of maps and open books and several highly unusual—and very large—glass jars in which small forests seemed to be growing, and several more in which small creatures appeared to be living. Berry was aware that Jamy breathed a strange little sigh of joy when he saw these, but he didn’t move or take his hands from behind his back.
A sizeable cabinet, high and lined with many shelves was set against the long wall of the working gallery and this contained a dazzling assortment of interesting things: a line of mysterious pottery jars, each with a carefully written label attached to a string round its neck; a clay pitcher stuffed with feathers and plumes of all descriptions, some of which quite obviously had not come from the Shire; a number of standing books opened to colored illustrations that drew Jamy even from a distance; several large rocks of startling appearance; a huge, desiccated beetle clinging to a piece of dried moss; and a stuffed owl on a stand that surely had once been a tree limb. A number of flat baskets were scattered beneath the table and these appeared to be filled with things as well.
Above the desk was an awe-inspiring painting of a creature he had never seen before, a huge grey animal with long wicked tusks, astonishingly bedecked with paint and rugs, silken ropes and beads and tassels, and supporting a party of spear-wielding warriors in a tent on its back. Jamy caught his breath, enraptured.
To the left of the sitting room was a dining gallery: a long refectory table glowed warmly in the stippled sunlight that filtered through the casements; there were benches set along the sides and an armchair at each end. The table held a stack of plates and utensils, several tall clay flagons and a great many covered bowls and trenchers from which some very wholesome scents were wafting. But despite the vast deprivations of his morning’s work, Jamy seemed not to notice these; his eyes glazed only slightly as he turned away and back to the Master of Buckland’s treasure trove.
Berry poured ale from one of the flagons into a mug and brought it to him. “Sit for a minute and catch your breath, lad,” she said. “You’ve had a thirsty morning.”
The brew was wonderfully fragrant, and compelled by the stern inner imperative of all hungry hobbits, he let her lead him to one of the chairs before the hearth. “Hoy!” he breathed as he sank down, drinking deeply and gazing up at the sword and banner with delighted eyes, “This is … fine!”
“Well,” she said, turning to the table. “The Master should be along directly, and the family, and then you can sit down to a proper luncheon. You must be fair starved by now.”
Jamy came to his feet in a rush, his eyes kindling hard with alarm. “I’m only to deliver the letter, Berry,” he said quickly, setting the mug aside. “’Tisn’t proper, me sitting down with the gentry!”
“Is that so?” she said, “And what if the gentry want to sit down with you?”
He shook his curly head vehemently. “No! ’Tisn’t decent and you know it!”
“We don’t set store by such customs here,” she said gently, counting out the spoons. “I think we must leave this decision to the Master, and I think he will want you to stay.”
“Berry!” Jamy shifted unhappily, wholly unwilling but obliquely conscious of the idea that obligation must wait on such privilege as the Master of the Hall commanded. Berry smiled at him kindly, but he could see something troubled her. Perhaps she guessed her wily old father had sent him to the Magnificent to settle the score for his cheek. Jamy owned now with regret that this was probably the case and with a grimace he allowed there was nothing for it. Quite apart from the Master’s title, the authority of the sword and the parchment and the silver horn overrode all the objections he could make; he accepted his comeuppance with as much grace as he could muster. Squaring his small shoulders and looking up to meet her gentle glance with forlorn resolve, he said despairingly, “You’ll have to give the office, then, for I’m no gentry and no hill-hobbit, Berry, and my dad’ll feed me to the fishes in pieces if I shame him before the Master of the Hall.”
“Give the office?” she said, frowning. “I don’t understand.”
“Tell me what to do! Faith, Berry, you can’t think I know!” He groped at his pocket, suddenly afraid that the letter might have slipped out to add yet more discredit to the reproach of his rank, but he was relieved to feel the warm weight of it, snug yet against the worn fabric of his jacket. He drew it forth again and gently ran his small brown fingers over the seals. He raised his eyes to hers. “Ought I to bow to your Master when I hand over this letter?” he asked gravely.
Berry flushed. “What?” she cried. “Bow! Under no circumstances!” Descending from the gallery and taking him by the shoulders, she turned him gently toward her. “Brandy Hall is a fair hobbit household, if you please, young sir, ” she said kindly, but in a tone that, like the look in her eyes, brooked no argument. “There will be no bowing or putting on of airs here—either by you, or the Master, grand though he may be according to some folk. There’s a time and a place for bowing, I’ll allow, but not here and most certainly not now. Look at me—it will all be well.”
Jamy drew a breath, frowning down at the letter and turning his gaze once more to the sword and shield and the spellbinding gallery. “What’s he about, Berry?” he asked softly. “I thought I knew, but I think now I was wrong.”
Her hands slipped from his shoulders. She drew back to look at him, solemnly studying his face, her eyes a dark well of emotion he did not entirely understand but most certainly recognized: almost he could see again the turbulent blue gaze that had flashed upon him in the woods and set him so abruptly on this unexpected path.
“Why do you say that?” she asked gently.
He shook his head, his small face reflecting urgent, ardent confusion. “I don’t know. Only…this place…these things….” He gestured helplessly, a little shiver running across his shoulders. “I don’t know how to say what I mean….”
“Go look,” she said. “Look at the pictures and the books and at all those wretched jars. I know you’re itching to, and you’re right. He is Master of the Hall, but that doesn’t tell you anything compared to this. Go look.”
“You mean it? Up close? Ah, Berry! I won’t touch anything, I promise!” He clasped his hands behind his back again by way of deposit on his promise, and his green eyes shimmered with excitement.
“Remember you said it,” she said darkly. “And don’t open those jars—there’s all manner of things that will want to fly out!”
And so for some minutes Jamy engaged himself in standing on a chair and staring at the intriguing collection of artifacts on the chimney shelf, and then at the prizes on the wall above it. Then he turned to the gallery, peering ecstatically at the miniature forests and grasslands and backwaters that filled the jars, at basins of tadpoles and tiny, darting silver fish, at feathers and crystals and all manner and color of leaves, captured at the height of their beauty and pressed into immortality. He looked at the maps spread out on the table, and at the books that were opened there, and with some trepidation at the stupendous beetle and at the owl, which looked back at him with strange, stony eyes. All this he did with his hands clamped tightly behind his back, and his lips parted in wonder, and his own eyes shining with the look of a boy who has found jewels among the water-washed stones in the river at his feet and hopes with all his heart they are not a dream.
Berry watched him closely, fiddling with the linens, as each new discovery fed his passionate delight and lit his face, and quite suddenly she saw what her father had himself discerned in this saucy river-child he had so inexplicably set down at her feet. Oh! she blinked in surprise. I see! I’ll wager this little scamp puts him in mind of the two of them, so long ago. And save us, if Jamy’s any kind of example, what a pair they must have been!
He should have taken the royal packet from the post-messenger in the woods, of course, even in the face of that audacious protest, but the lad’s wholehearted impudence had made him laugh and raised him out of a truly foul humor. He knew he had unfairly made his own lads suffer in breaking the news of Bucca’s Tree to him, and the boy had pulled him up short, and no mistake, as Sam would have said. His decision to prolong their acquaintance through this wicked deception had been made on impulse; just as the letter from Rohan had warmed him, there was something about the little imp that had pleased him to the core and made him curious to know more about him. And, he thought there might be a lesson to be imparted and learned as well.
It had not taken long to clean up, after he handed off the rig and pony to the anxious Milo, and now he settled the startling crimson waistcoat beneath his dark tweed jacket (what was the point of wearing waistcoats if they just blended in with all the rest?) and adjusted his paisley cravat to a fault (Bilbo had been quite correct: a young hobbit couldn’t wear a cravat with any kind of authority) and, smiling a little, applied his hand to the door. Behind him, a shaft of sunlight from the window brightened the passageway; his snowy curls blazed into a sparkling cloud of silver.
The boy was standing on the workroom landing in front of the desk, his hands clasped carefully behind his back, staring up at Estella’s brilliant painting of the Mumakil in battle armor. In profile there was an expression of blissful amazement on his small face, and once again the Master was struck by something about him that was extraordinarily pleasing. Berry was setting out the tea; both she and the boy turned toward the door as he stepped in, and the lad caught his breath audibly, his face flushing with exquisite dismay.
Berry looked from one to the other helplessly, wincing at the boy’s painful comprehension. She said in a strangled voice, “I’ll just be seeing to the scones, then, shall I?” and fled, favoring her father as she passed with a look that was mostly indescribable, but nonetheless promised undeniably wrathful consequences if things did not come right but quick. He winked reassuringly, closed the door behind her, and turning back to the boy, held up his hands for inspection. .
“Well, young sir,” he said pleasantly, “I’ve washed, and now that I look at you, I think my hands may be a good bit cleaner than yours. Am I fit to hold my letter now, do you think?”
The boy closed his eyes and dipped his head for a moment in an agony of embarrassment. Then he straightened, and with an air of painfully shattered dignity, descended the stair. “Oh, sir,” he said, barely able to bring forth the words, “That wasn’t fair!”
The Master acknowledged this rebuke with a gentle smile of commiseration. He set one worn hand on the boy’s shoulder, tipping up his scarlet face with the other. “No,” he said, his dark blue eyes alight with sympathy. “I admit it wasn’t fair, but neither was it fair of you, young sir, to assume yourself the better of some raggedy old fellow you found beside the road. ‘Granfer’, indeed!”
“Yes, sir,” the boy said contritely, peeking at the crimson waistcoat with considerable admiration and then at the Master’s dignified face—so very altered, above a paisley cravat, from the woodsman’s seeming common features—with an anxious eye.
“But you ought to have told me at the start! I wasn’t looking to find the Master of the Hall at such work, sir, nor turned out so rough.”
“Thought I sat about all day in a shawl, did you, warming my feet at the fire and taking soothing possets from hovering nursemaids?”
“Yes, sir, but sure! You’re the Master, and prodigious old, sir, and you ought to have earned a seat at the hearth by now, as my old granfer used to say—oh, begging your pardon, and please don’t blame the postmaster if you took my sauce amiss, sir! He’s like to die of shame if he hears of it!”
The Master laughed frankly. “Then we shall make sure he doesn’t, lad, for you were only doing what you saw to be your duty. And I like to be out and about my business, though I own—” here the Master bent down and lowered his voice conspiratorially, “—just between you and me—that I do cry feeble when it’s a matter of some wretched task I don’t take a mind to do. I confess I did not stable the pony just now.”
“You never didn’t, sir!” the boy said warmly, his eyes bright with regard, though soon enough, despite this pleasant talk, they were again overshadowed with anxiety. “Oh, but I do beg pardon, sir, for I never knew it was you, and certain you should have had the letter, dirty paws and all, if I did!” And dutifully he rummaged the packet from Rohan from the safety of his pocket one last time and held it out. “I’m sorry, sir. I never thought to make such a tangle.”
The Master took the letter with a warm smile. “There’s no harm done, lad. Don’t fret yourself. I thank you for taking such very good care of this; the postmaster shall hear that you protected it beyond all my expectations.” He rubbed his thumb against the soft leather packet. “What fine tanning they do in Rohan, eh?”
The boy nodded, but his small face remained pale with distress. He shifted uneasily from foot to foot, and enough regrets spilled from him now in such an unhappy tone that at length the Master, dismayed at the mortification he had caused the child, was himself forced to consider his own regrets in the matter and to dig deep in his long memory to find comfort for the both of them.
Setting the royal letter down on a table between two chairs before the hearth, he motioned the youngster to take one seat while he took the other. The boy hesitated for half a moment, but under the Master’s compelling eye did as he was told, sitting very still with his hands wrung together in his lap.
“There,” said the Master when they were settled. “That’s friendlier. Now, lad, about my little prank: I didn’t do it to shame you. But I made the same mistake myself once and I’m not likely to forget it to the end of my days, nor the lesson I learned of it. I’d in turn teach it to you, if you’ll consent to listen.”
“Yes, sir. Did you do the same as me? I can’t think it!”
“Oh, worse! I took one look at my fellow—a Ranger of the North, he was—hard and dirty but about his business in a way that told his worth, if I’d had any eyes—and called him a ‘scoundrel’—and not only a scoundrel, but ‘foul’!”
Jamy’s eyes widened. “Foul, sir!” “Indeed, and do you know? I am ashamed to this day, for he went with us—my friends and me—into terrible dangers, and saved my life not once but many times, and humbly, with all the honour in the world and no thought to whether I was worth the effort or not.”
“Save us!” breathed the boy, deeply impressed. “But sure you must have been, sir!”
“Sure I was not,” the Master said, watching him closely, “Even if he had been the wretched cur he looked to be—which he wasn’t—he would have been a better fellow than I was for judging him so, do you see? And now, who do you think he was, that desperate, dirty fellow of no connections that I thought to rebuke for his look?”
“Faith, sir, hurry and say it!” cried Jamy, quite taken up in this tale, and wondering deeply on the nature of the terrible dangers.
“That fellow is today the High King of Gondor,” said the Master solemnly, “and a finer Man there is not in all of Middle Earth.”
“Save us!” breathed the boy, quite taken aback. “The High King a Ranger! But it’s the same mistake, isn’t it, sir, for a king oughtn’t to be going about confusing folk like that without his robe and crown, ought he? Did he forgive you, sir? I reckon he must have, for Berry said you were his friend.”
“Indeed I am his friend, and servant, too, these many years,” nodded the Master, pleased to see by this enthusiastic response that the boy was plucking up again. “But that is only because he was good enough to see my heart was in the right place, even if my head wasn’t. And there is the lesson: you cannot think to measure anyone by his look or actions alone. You must try to see what he is made of in other ways. Most often, if you look carefully and trust your instincts, you can discover who a fellow really is.”
“Why,” said Jamy, surprised to find he understood this. “That’s true, sir! When first you looked on me in the wood, I had the veriest feeling that you was a Captain, sir—a fellow to be reckoned with, you understand—but then it slipped away—I expect because you were not thinking then of being the Master of Buckland, but only of the tree that’s as dying.” He hesitated, raising his eyes to the old hobbit’s and saying as gently as he might, “I’m am sorry about your tree, sir. I know you were wrathy on account of it.”
A shadow crossed the Master’s face, but only for an instant. He leveled Jamy a searching look and then his face broke into a smile that made him look for a moment very much younger than the very old hobbit he was. “You are very kind, my boy,” he said warmly. “Do you know, I have suddenly realized what it is about you that makes you a lad after my own heart! You remind me of the Thain.”
The boy smiled uncertainly. “Faith, sir! I can’t say as I know any Thain. How am I like him, sir?”
“Well, for one thing,” said the Master, twinkling, “you make me laugh!”
He stood up, reaching for his pipe. “Now, I hope you won’t hold this against Berry,” he said, “for I forced her to take a hand in this deception, and I know she’s quite angry with me on account of it.” He dipped into his pipeweed canister and packed the pipe, taking up a straw from the hearth and gathering a flame from the fire. “For myself, I must admit I quite enjoyed being taken honestly for a simple fellow—“ here he applied the straw and puffed the pipe to life—“for it hasn’t happened in a long time, though folk round here make a show of pretending, all the while whispering “Magnificent” behind my back.”
The boy was looking up at him with an awed expression, his green eyes warming rapidly in the deep tan of his small face. He came to his feet. “Why, sir, that’s it! I’d almost forgot that part! I’ll hold that’s why they call you Magnificent!”
“What? How’s that?”
“Why, look at you! I see it now. I’d have marked you if you’d not been sitting in the wagon. Didn’t they tell me ‘taller than the Bullroarer’? And so you are! Come this way and look at your shadow, sir! That’s splendid!”
The Master did as he was so instructed and looked obligingly at his shadow, considerably longer and wider than the boy’s, flung across the sunlit carpet. “Ah,” he said sagely. “Well, it’s not a distinction I can claim for myself alone, I should tell you. The Thain and I grew tall together, and he maintains he has a fingernail’s advantage, but I say it is only because he is the younger, and not so burdened with years and important responsibility as I.”
He seemed now to discover an offensive wisp of lint on his jacket cuff and carelessly flicked it off. “And,” he continued, casually loosing two fine smoke rings into the air, “the Thain being a fellow who does stoop to letting himself be shamefully cosseted of an evening by way of his years, I think that makes me the better hobbit—and taller by default. Don’t you agree?”
“Ah,” said the boy, his eyes sparkling. “It’s a contest, is it? Well, sir, I never saw the Thain, but now you’ve brung it up, that does pose the question: if he is so tall as you, or nearly so in any case, how came the two of you to be so much bigger than the rest of us?”
“Ah,” said the Master, “that’s a story for another day— a long story, mind, and I’m not allowed to be at all hasty when I tell it! Long ago it happened, and very far away in an old forest that is probably a cousin of our own….”
Berry came back through the door now holding a tray laden with a plate of scones and dishes of butter and preserves. They turned at the sound and exchanged a sympathetic smile as she shut the door behind her and surveyed them with anxious eyes. The Master went to her. “Come, lass,” he said, taking the tray and passing it round to Jamy with a wink. “Say you will forgive me, now, for Master Jamy has, and we are getting on very well, as I knew we should from the first.”
“Well, I can’t think why you had to be so deceitful!” she declared indignantly, her ribbons trembling. “I was never so mortified in my life! Whatever were you about?”
Jamy said earnestly from the sideboard where he was carefully finding room for the tray, “It’s all right, Berry. Don’t be cross, for I’m not.”
“You’ve every right to be,” she said, glaring at her father. “I’m sure no post messenger ever suffered such mischief here before—and him only a lad, besides, Father!”
“Well,” Jamy said, glancing at the Master with a gleam in his eye, “he tumbled us both, and that’s the truth, but I’ll own I flat deserved it. Don’t think my dad wouldn’t thump me good for the sauce I dished out—or that yours don’t mean to make you amends.”
“Father, I wish you will not worry me so!” Berry cried, gripping his hands despairingly while the old gentlehobbit smiled and fondly kissed her cheek. “Oh, don’t fret, lass,” he told her. “It’s not often a diversion presents itself, and life is too quiet by half these days. You’ll forgive your old father a little adventure, won’t you?”
“I should have thought you’d had enough to last your whole life through,” she sighed.