"Oughtn't to be allowed, if you ask me," mused Ambler Took, giving voice at last to a week's worth of contemplation on the matter while forking hay into the stalls; his father Will sat nearby on an upturned bucket measuring out the oats. "I heard it's over a hundred and fifty leagues to land of the Horse Lords, Da. I know you love him, but even you've got to admit the Thain's too old for such a journey; you've worried over him yourself these past months since the Mistress passed. He won't come back this time - leastways not kicking. And what's to be done here, then, eh?"
"Hush, you!" said Will, his brow darkening in indignation. "I'll hear no word spoke against the Thain in my stable! Anyways, you haven't the facts of the case. Peregrin's no fool, and he has everything in hand, just as I supposed he would. There's to be a half-holiday tomorrow, and a party out on the lawn yonder, and what do you think that's all about? Well, our lad's going to transfer all his lands and titles to young Faramir there, with parchments and red ink and witnesses and all you could ask for to make it right and tight! Aye! - Fair will be Thain Faramir come the morrow, and then Peregrin will be free to do as he pleases and no worries for the rest of the Tooks - so what do you have to say to that, then?"
"What!?" cried Ambler, volubly astonished. "Fair to be Thain? Tomorrow? Save us, but what's come over Thain Peregrin, then? Has he cracked? Just like that - handing over the Thainship and walking away? I never heard of such a thing in all the history of the Tooks!"
He caught the flash of his father's wintry eye then and checked himself, continuing in a more respectful tone: "Not that everyone won't be proud to see Fair come into his own, of course - and a half-holiday to celebrate, too - but Da, it's peculiar! Whoever heard of it? I love the old fellow as much as anyone, but I reckon the Thain is supposed to die before the Heir can take his place! That's the way of things and ever has been, isn't it?"
"It is," Will said smugly, "but it's not the Law; it's just Tradition. Aye, you can raise your eyebrows, but I'll tell you something. I took breakfast this morning with Peregrin - by special invitation, if it please you! All his lads were there - Fair and Galen and Hugo and Wil - and Nick Cotton, who's come over again from Michel Delving to see that everything's set to rights, and Cousin Pervinca, and Frodo Gardner of the Hill over in Hobbiton. The lot of us are to stand witness to the transfer of titles tomorrow."
"What! Why, Da!" said Ambler, his eyes shining with affection. "That's an honour for you!"
"Aye, but I'll have you know it's Lawful, too, for I can see you're wondering after it. Young Nick explained it to us: seems there's a Rule, set down some fifty years ago or more by Old Mayor Samwise, as will cover very well the peculiarities of Peregrin's giving up his office before he passes on. It's to be read out tomorrow at the ceremony, so there's no questions asked. You'll see."
"Is that so? Well, I wager you could say it out right now, word for word," Ambler suggested slyly, making a show of forking hay so that he appeared indifferent. Old Will Took might be at home in the stables, but he had a talent for recall and a flair for reciting, and it took only a little nudging (in the absence of a little ale) to fire him to oratory. Ambler knew it would make his father happy to speak the piece, but beyond that, he longed to hear it for the first time in the quiet of the stable where he could ponder it, rather than from the edge of the festive crowd enjoying a half-holiday on the morrow.
Will didn't need to be asked twice; he straightened on his bucket and plucked the words from his ready memory: "…if any inhabitant of the Shire shall pass over Sea in the presence of a reliable witness, with the expressed intention not to return, or in circumstances plainly implying such an intention, he or she shall be deemed to have relinquished all titles and rights or properties previously held or occupied, and the heir or heirs thereof shall forthwith enter into possession of these titles, rights, or properties, as is directed by established custom, or by the will and disposition of the departed, as the case may require."
"Well!" Ambler was always impressed with verbiage. "I guess that does the trick, doesn't it? Though I own it's strange to think of our Thain Peregrin as 'the departed' and I still think he's mad to go. But what's that about 'over Sea,' Da? The way to the Horse-lords is over land."
Pleased with his recitation, Will shrugged lightly. "It's all one and the same, lad: Over Sea or Beyond the Bounds. Nick says so, anyway, and young Gardner agrees. He says the Rule was wrote to settle the Baggins Family claims when the headship was in question away back when Frodo Ring-bearer went away, but that Mayor Samwise also had a mind to his own self when he thought about it, and to the Master and the Thain as well."
"Why, how could he know he'd need it, Da? Or that Thain Peregrin or the Magnificent would ever think to quit the Shire?"
Will exhaled, a thready whisper of regret. Ambler heard it and felt a pang of sorrow for him; he knew the Thain's decision had come as a shock to his father, stubborn though he was in The Took's defense. The older folk of Tuckborough in particular had found the Thain's plans for departure quite distressing; they had known him all their lives and had looked to the joy of his bright presence for reassurance as they all grew old together. No doubt of it, Will would miss the comfort of the Thain's cheerful fireside when his time began to slip away, and old Mistress Pervinca would, too.
Pensively, Will said now: "Well, young Gardner says Mayor Samwise always knew he himself would leave the Shire one day, though he didn't say as much till fair late in life. Said the call was seemingly set upon him early, though - in the same way it was done to Frodo Baggins, on account of bearing that Ring, saving that Frodo took injuries as wouldn't heal and Sam went on healthy as a horse. Young Gardner said his Da felt such a yearning as wouldn't be denied in the end, and that he spoke sometimes of his feeling that Peregrin and Meriadoc might feel it one day as well."
He stood up, brushing stray oats from his trousers. "Well, I guess they have done," he sighed. "Peregrin doesn't say so, but something's been plaguing him this spring and I think it came to a head while the Magnificent was here. It's plain to see he's anxious to go. And the Magnificent - well, he's a restlessness on him too, old as he is. I marked it when he was here with us; I haven't seen him look like that since he was a young fellow and just back from the War." He caught Ambler's puzzled frown and said knowingly, "Oh, aye! You wouldn't think it to look on him now, but there was a time when Merry Brandybuck wasn't so easy in himself as you think he is."
Ambler chewed his lip, feeling both sympathetic and skeptical, and squinted through the cool dim of the stables to the sunny day beyond. "Well, best you make the most of the time left to you, then," he offered. "For now, though, I see the Thain's story-party is assembling in the lane. We'd best saddle the ponies."
"Aye, best get at it." Will looked out to see Fair's young sons galloping down the lane with Galen's little lads shrieking joyously atop their shoulders; the older girls knelt in the grass, tying the ribbons on the twins' sunhats, and Amy's teens were swinging tiny Adamanta, perched on the gate, gently between them. It appeared they were excited to begin today. "These excursions Peregrin's been taking up the hill with the youngsters every day seem to be doing him a world of good," he said thoughtfully, following Ambler into the tack-room. "And it looks as though the bairns like it, too."
"Well, I wager the Thain has a chest full of tales those little ones have yet to hear. And I heard young Per saying something as they make some sort of game out of choosing the story for the day - I wonder how that works?"
Will shook his head. "I don't know," he said, gathering what he needed from the pegs on the walls. "But I heard that, too, and I wondered what it was all about. I didn't think to ask this morning. Well, however it works, it's brought the bounce back into Peregrin's step, and that's good enough for me."
They whistled up the stable boys and set them to the task of loading the pack pony with the bundles and baskets they would find set out in the lane. Will saw to the Thain's mount. "Listen, Ambler," he said, as he threw the blanket up. "You're right about making the most of the time I have left with Peregrin. I'll be saddling three fresh ponies in the mornings after breakfast now, for I ventured to tell Peregrin this morning that in addition to these little family outings, he needs to ride some every day if he's to be ready for his journey, and he agrees; he's not been abroad in a saddle for half a year at least. I'll go with him - and Galen, seemingly, who sticks closer than his shadow these days. The other lads will be busy from here on out, what with half the Shire descending for the Wedding and Farewell, so they won't go, but I've been Peregrin's stable manager for fifty years now, so I'd say this is something I should do anyway."
"Well, there! And that's another thing!" Ambler vociferated. The stable boys looked up from their work, amused. Will and Ambler often provided entertainment for them. "Those two old fellows mean to ride south?" Ambler shook his head incredulously. "Astride every day for eight or ten hours? Save us, what's the matter with a waggon?"
"Well, if you'd ever listened to the Thain talk about the lands beyond the Bounds," Will advised severely, "you'd know the North-South Road this side of the Greenway is no such track as you'd wish to trust to a vehicle with wheels. It's barely there, for one thing, and grassy for another, and it passes through all manner of perilous places, including the Ford, and no wheelwrights within hailing most of the way. It's a rugged trip, and no mistake."
Ambler shook his head. "Think a fellow would want to sit at home by his fire when he got that old," he said darkly, "'stead of crossing some trackless waste on a pony!"
Will sighed. "I always knew your mother was more Hayward than Took," he said, shaking his head. "Bless her - and you, lad - but I don't think you understand the least thing about adventuring. But I guess there's no taking the practicality out of a Hayward."
"And no putting it into a Took," grinned Ambler, who was too practical to brook any hard feelings on this subject.
The morning was coloured with that particular freshness of spring known only to the river country, and the thin opaline mist that lifted off the Brandywine drifted away in sparkling tatters in the pale, golden light the steadily rising sun. The river was quiet this morning, murmuring low as it passed, and along the shore the trees rustled wakefully and the long grasses loosed their sweet perfumes under the hobbits' quiet feet. Jamy inhaled deeply and gratefully, glad, for the moment, of many things.
"Are we clear?" murmured Bo, who was in the rear guard.
"I think so," said Jamy, stretching his neck, trying to see and not be seen, but Theo, who was taller and had a better vantage point, motioned Mat forward with his half of their burden and said, squinting up the hill into the light: "We are; they're nearly to the bend. There!" He looked back at his brother and smiled. "It's good to see Berry brightening again."
"She's had a time of it, poor lass," Bo agreed, struggling forward with his end of the longish load Jamy was leading with. "So much happening and so little time to make sense of it all. But she and Tom seemed to find their happiness last night, and Father was clearly happy for them."
"He is happy," Theo said musingly. "All this fuss and bustle doesn't seem to affect him at all, does it? I think for the first time since I have known him, he is here, in the very brightness of the day, and not in the clouds, thinking too far ahead. It's as if he's moving in his own time at last, seeing to each and every little thing, but no longer playing at outrunning or outwitting fate. He is at peace, it seems. I'm glad for him."
Bo sighed. "It's hard, watching him put his affairs in order." He smiled ruefully and shrugged. "I knew the day would come when we would lose him, of course, but somehow I didn't think it would be like this."
"Aye," murmured Mat, flicking a guarded glance at Jamy, who was tucking in a bit of sacking that had come loose. "I remember the day when my old Dad knew he was done. Of course, he was old and feeling it, and coming ill, as well. Nothing like so vigorous as the Magnificent. But take heart, sirs: your father's not dying, only going away."
"True, but I think that's why it feels so odd," said Bo. "We don't see him winding down, so to speak, so his going feels unnatural."
Theo shook his head thoughtfully. "I don't think I would want to see Father winding down," he said. "Truthfully, Bo, aren't you grateful he's taken that out of our hands?"
"I suppose so," Bo said slowly. "I - I guess I just don't like to think of him all alone and dying one day." He sighed grimly and looked at his brother, and Theo's glance was quick and warm with understanding.
"Trust to the High King, brother," he said softly. "He will not suffer Father to be alone if he is ailing; the Fellowship will take care of him and Uncle Peregrin."
"Are you sure?" said Jamy, looking up and frowning to hear Bo expressing reservations.
"Oh, yes," said Theo kindly, remembering Jamy's open concern for the Master when he had set off alone to Tuckborough. "The High King and Lord Gimli will live yet many years, and Prince Legolas is one of the Fair Folk and immortal, as you may remember; he will stay in Middle-earth so long as any of the Fellowship remain. Father and Uncle Peregrin will not be left alone."
Jamy and Bo shared a comforting glance and set down their longish load to pull the dinghy out of the water and up onto the shore; Jamy set about preparing the little craft for its cargo while Mat and Theo angled to set their bulkier burden in the soft grass at the water's edge.
"You're sure they won't be too heavy, Mat?" Theo asked, settling his side of the package on the ground with a grunt. "We don't want to swamp the boat."
"Nay," said Mat reassuringly. "She's a strong little bucket. It's only a matter of stowing the cargo properly - here, Jamy, clear the floorboards there to the stern - and of course to finding the best place to offload when we dock on the far side. You say Mr. Gardner will be looking for us?"
"Yes," said Theo, stepping up the slope a bit to get a better view of the ferry as it made its way across the river. "He has a waggon waiting for him, for he means to drive Goldilocks to Tuckborough along with all the bags and boxes Berry sent along for the wedding. He said there should be plenty of room for these. Robin and Master Smallburrow will be there to help as well."
"Your coming was a stroke of good luck for us in this matter, Mat," Bo said, taking up his end of the longer package again as Mat bent to the one Jamy had surrendered. "We would have had to send these around by the Bridge if you weren't here to take them over the river, and there's no telling how much time we would have lost, not to mention all the questions asked."
"Well, we're happy to help," said Mat, smiling at Jamy. "Especially if it means the Magnificent will have such fine parting gifts as these are meant to be." Mat thought of Theo as the Master now, even though his public presentation was several days hence. But owing to the older hobbit's appearance at their first meeting, and the quiet conversation they had had together in the Old Master's study before the Betrothal party, Merry Brandybuck would always be The Magnificent to him.
"This fellow as is waiting for them in Tuckborough," Jamy said anxiously. "Will he have enough time to do what you want?"
"He's the best there is, lad," said Bo, smiling, as Mat stepped into the dinghy and carefully angled his end of the long, heavy parcel into the place he had chosen for it. "I've watched him at work a few times. He's got ten days and they'll serve him well. You've no need to worry on that score; he'll finish on time. Have you decided yet whether or no you're coming along with us to see him away and Tom and Berry wed? I know they hope you will."
Jamy shook his head, frowning at his feet, a faint rush of colour rising to his cheeks. "I'm torn yet," he said softly.
"I know it, and you've every reason to be, lad." Bo clambered aboard the dinghy with his end of the package and laid it down as directed; he shot a sympathetic look at Mat. "Well, don't fret about it. Whatever you choose to do, I think your father and mine will understand."
Mat, in the stern, squinted down an imaginary line of sight to the bow, measuring the balance of the little boat. "We're off to the Ford day after tomorrow," he said, "but we'll be back in plenty of time, if he's a mind to go."
"The ferry is nearly across," Theo reported from the high ground.
"Best get moving, then," Mat said briskly. "Hand in that the other and we'll be on our way."
Theo jumped down and helped Bo to lift the smaller package, which was roughly the size of a small barrel, but considerably heavier. Jamy and Mat braced to receive it and lowered it quickly into place in the stern.
"Well, we'll hope to see you back in time for elevenses, then," Bo said by way of a send-off, and Jamy gave a shout of laughter. "Elevenses?" he scoffed. "Think you're dealing with greenhorns? Me and Dad are the best, Uncle Bo! Oh, I see what you're getting at - well, you mark me! We'll be back before second breakfast, so don't you be thinking too hard on claiming my rations!"
In the beginning, he had intended to surrender: to yield what was left of his life to the thundering pulse of the Wide World and to die on the hill above Tuckborough with as much grace and dignity as he could muster. He had had a good life, after all; he had not thought he should spoil it with gloom and regret at the end. But then Merry had come and offered him another life, a way and a reason to go on, and his children, always so protective, had rejoiced in his continuing, even if it was to be away from them; and Galen had brewed calming draughts, and Laury had guided him in declaring his new intention, and after that he had felt the currents shift. The discordant songs of World and Shire still sang at times in his blood; and a strange, scrambling sort of fear yet clutched his heart at odd moments; and sometimes in the night he woke gasping and struggling, tossed by dreams he could not remember, but through it all, he felt his course had steadied somehow, and the days began to get easier.
He added his own remedies as instinct and intuition moved him: he wore now every day the Elvish brooch and cloak that had sustained his strength and declared his purpose on all the Outland journeys he had made before; he rode out every morning for an hour or more with Will Took, a decision born of Will's concern and his own understanding that he was needful of preparing for the long road; he chose with care and finality the mathoms he would distribute among his loved ones; he packed a couple of trunks with things he thought would be nice to have in his new life and shipped them down to Sarn Ford, where they would be loaded up together with Merry's and sent on ahead to Edoras. He began to sit down, one at a time, with his children. And as he did these things, he felt better.
But the best restorative, the gift that reanimated his spirit and returned him altogether to the light (as much as anything could do in the Shire now), was presented to him a few days after Merry had returned to Buckland. He had gone up the hill ("one last time") intending to retrieve his smuggled cache of wine from its hidey-hole beneath the stone, fearing for its future should the elements seep into it or certain young hobbits discover the hoard and indiscriminately lay waste to the treasure. Galen attended him, as usual, and young Perhael came as well, needful (he explained earnestly) of being useful in some capacity other than minding the bairns. He went on to say that it wasn't that he didn't welcome the children's antics and affections, but he was nearly a tween, after all, and quick and capable and wishful of joining his older male relatives in considering matters of greater importance than children's games. Pippin and Galen smiled at one another and welcomed him warmly, though Pippin took some pains to impress upon the lad that both the smuggling and the recovery of the booty was not so much a matter of importance as a matter of setting things right and avoiding any unintended consequences of an old hobbit's whimsical self-indulgence.
When they had pulled all the bottles from their hiding place and packed them carefully in leather pouches filled with straw, Perhael drew apart from his uncle and grandfather and wandered away, looking all about the grassy highland he had known from childhood with eyes that seemed, in the knowledge of his grandfather's experiences there, to detect some things he had not seen before.
"Grand-Per!" he called from the center of the meadow, after stopping and turning in a slow circle. "You can see forever from up here! Did you know that?"
"Aye," Pippin answered guilelessly, thinking as he watched the lad that while Per moved with Paladin's restless sense of urgency and Fair's lissome grace, he looked on the world with a heart like Sam's, sweetly bedazzled. "I did! Though, in truth, a good deal of the Shire - not to mention the whole of the World - is well beyond our sight here. Even an Elf could not see so far! But I have always made up for that by remembering the places I have been and what they looked like, and then I fancy I can see them, too, shimmering there in the haze."
Perhael looked north in the direction of Hobbiton, where he often went to visit his Aunt and Uncle Gardner at Bag End, and squinted with concentration into the distance. "It works! I vow I can see The Water!" He scrubbed his hands through his curls, arms akimbo, a gesture Pippin warmed to remember Thain Paladin had employed when his thoughts came too thick and fast.
"Wait!" Perhael whirled and came bounding back, his eyes shining. "Grand-Per! I've an idea! We all want to spend more time with you, and you know how everyone has been clamouring for stories, and you wondering where to start - how if we took tea up here in the afternoons, and heard your stories? And here's the thing: we could tell you where to start! Each of us could take a turn at being blindfolded and spun about, and then when we don't know where we are, we'll point and whatever direction that is, you could tell us what lies there beyond the horizon - places you've been, and the things you did there, and people who lived there! Stories about the Wide World as you know it, Grand-Per - no one else could tell them!"
Pippin blinked and caught his breath. "What a splendid idea!" he said, his heart warming hugely to think he might yet have such gentle times with his kin. And it was true: a great many stories would be lost to the Shire when he and Merry took the road to Edoras, and only Elanor Fairbairn away in the Tower Hills would have The Red Book, in which some of those stories could be read. The beautifully illustrated Thain's Book was going with him and Merry to Gondor as a gift for the King.
Galen laughed, shaking his head. "I think you have a talent for children's games, Per," he teased, "however you may fight the notion! But you have made of this game a matter of great importance, and I think it may prove the best medicine Grand-Per could hope to have. Well done, lad!"
And so every afternoon the story-party met in the lane and went in a fine procession up the hill to the high meadow. Pippin rode up, as part of his regimen of preparation for the long journey, and he led the pack pony that carried the picnic food by the reins. His grandchildren raced to march in the lead where they played upon reeds and whistles and drums and sang gustily, and his children, grown now but refusing to be left behind when there was time to be had with him, came up as well, even Fair, who had little enough free time on his hands these days.
As they came to the barrowfield they gave way to ceremony, meaning to honour their family and forbears as they wended their merry way through the field of memories, leaving flowers for Diamond and Paladin and Eglantine and Great-grandfather Adalgrim, and Thain Ferumbras, poor old fellow, and bowing at the grave of the Old Took - in case he should take their little revelry for disrespect. But Grand-Per assured them on the first day that the Old Took would have loved to hear them laughing and singing, for he had been a friend of Gandalf's and knew how to have a good time in life. And then they ascended to the meadow, and while the grown-ups set out their scrumptious teas, the children drew names, and in this way chose the stories and songs and histories Grand-Per would leave with them.
It was great fun; he had forgotten he knew so much! The children were called one at a time to the center of the circle, where their eyes were bound with a cloth and they were spun in laughing circles until they had quite lost their bearings, and then, very solemnly, they would turn slowly about and trusting to the magic of instinct, throw out their hands to choose for Grand-Per the direction of the story to come.
When they pointed east, he told them of the Inn of the Prancing Pony at Bree where there were Big Folk and Little and where there was a specially sized wing just for hobbit visitors. He described the hushed peace of Rivendell in the days of Lord Elrond, whose Ring of Power wrapped the valley in the most amazing feeling of safety; the biting flies of the Midgewater Marshes, and the deep snows of Caradhras; the lights of Caras Galadon in Lothlorien; and the Argonath looming on the Anduin.
When the direction chosen was west, he described for them the Tower Hills and told them the secret of Elostirion; he recounted the sights and sounds of the harbour at the Grey Havens and told them of Undertowers, the home of the Warden of Westmarch, whose beautiful wife was Aunt Elanor to some of them. He told them, too, what little he knew of the Straight Road Frodo and Sam had been allowed to take over the Sea, and as much as he could remember of the lovely Elven ships on which they sailed.
In the north, he sketched for them the beauty of the King's court of Annúminas and the ancient 'lake of twilight,' once called Nenuial. He told them of the magical garden there that Queen Arwen had made for her children, where all the bushes grew in the shapes of animals (one long hedge was a dragon!), and coloured lanterns glowed along the pathways at night. He told, too, the story of the Battle of Greenfields, in which their ancestor, the Bullroarer, some thousand years earlier, had won a triumphant victory over a band of orcs who had thought to invade the Shire and found they had to think again. The little Long-Cleeve grandchildren were especially proud of the Bullroarer, for they were of the Northern Clan and so were twice descended.
Then, when the eager young hands pointed south, Pippin found himself seeing as if he had done only yesterday, the way to Rohan: the Old South Road, the meeting with the Greenway, Tharbad, probably much grown now, and the Gap of Rohan, the gateway to Isengard and all of Rohan. And then the children bade him follow the road he would ride to the end, and so he told them of the White Mountains and the Entwash and of Wellinghall in Fangorn, and of the White City, Minas Tirith, where once he had served as a member of the Tower Guard.
He did not tell any tales of the dark places in the earth, nor of what had passed there in his experience so many years ago, for these stories belonged to him alone, and Merry and Frodo and Sam, and they would be left to such tales as history chose to tell when enough time had passed to render them fables pleasant enough for folk who had never known war or nightmare. The Red Book abided yet in the Tower Hills should anyone truly wish to know, and there would be copies of The Thain's Book coming back to the Shire in time.
With each story, though, the places of the Wide World that he had loved grew strong again in his mind, and the folk there more beloved, and every day the children looked out from the meadow and they could see more and more of the World beyond the Bounds, and he knew in time that they would be able to see him there, too, and this made him glad, for he had thought perhaps they would forget him when he was gone, but he knew now they would not.
They were going to miss Buckland's 'Hail and Farewell' - the party that would present Theo as the new Master of Buckland and give the Old Master a chance to say goodbye to his folk. It had promised to be a party of special magnificence, and they were sorry to miss it, but time was short, and in any case, Jamy had almost decided to go along with the family to Tuckborough next week and there make his farewells to the old hobbit. He felt deeply reluctant to say goodbye, and found himself wanting to put it off as long as possible.
They came in sight of the Ford in the afternoon of the second day. Here on the southern boundary of the Shire, the main channel widened and the current thinned to a depth of a foot or two. The stony course in which the river ran could be clearly seen beneath the water here and fish broke the surface with their fins sometimes as they slipped between the rocks. It was no place for a boat. Still, nature appeared to have recognized this discrepancy, and so it was that just ahead of the Ford a tall outcropping of rock rose up as if to cleave the waters and the river, most of it flowing southwest, dug suddenly away to the west as well. The tide divided and a channel some thirty feet wide cut away from the Brandywine toward the village of Sarn Ford and struck through the willow-shaded meadows for close to a quarter of a mile, a course that after it's abrupt departure ran roughly parallel with the river, but deep enough for boats and separated from the Ford by a broad, mounded embankment that stood like an island outpost between the two. Jamy, at the helm, followed his father's quiet instructions and carefully guided the dinghy to the west, past the rocky sentinel and into the deep meadow-channel.
At some point in time the river-hobbits of old, appreciative of the clever hand they had been dealt with regard to the Ford, had capitalized on their good fortune by digging out a long, narrow canal that met the channel soon after it broke away from the river and drew off some of the flow. In this way, they were able to move all of their watercraft through the little waterway into a wide lagoon for docking, leaving the channel open so that the waters might flow swiftly toward a rendezvous at the far end of the stony Ford and boats might safely pass to the south.
The village at Sarn Ford was not large by Shire standards; still, the ramshackle collection of holes, houses, and houseboats that were spread out over land and lagoon there sheltered the greatest concentration of river-folk in the Shire. Here lived fisher-folk and those, like Mat and Jamy, who made their living on the water, together with an indispensable group of highly specialized smiths, wrights and boat-builders; a few civil servants like the Post and Dock Masters; and the Thain's agent who oversaw mail, packages and news that came to Tuckborough from the Outlands and maintained a liaison with the King's Rangers who were installed in a large dwelling of thatch and timber in the wood on the far side of the Ford. There was also a small but elite coterie of brewers, whose several alehouses did a booming business. A marketplace was set up at the northern end of the village on the road to Sackville and other points north, and once a month in good weather the farmers of the South Farthing came to sell and exchange with the river-folk a wide variety of goods: pigs and chickens and root vegetables for trout, catfish, pike and eels; pipeweed for fine, fresh bunches of watercress and stout baskets of reed and grass; milled flour and sugar for blocks of peat and freshwater clams; and now and again, friendly gossip over a half-pint or two at the Trout and Tumbler. Often whole families came to Market Day, and the farm-folk crossed the little stone bridge built over the channel to picnic on the island, while their children splashed happily in the waters of the Ford with the river bairns.
Mat and Jamy passed into the canal and down to the lagoon, where Jamy spied at once the Lyssa, lying quiet under the watchful eye of Perch Byford, sitting for his father, the Dockmaster, who was up seeing the Third Rotation away at the west end of the channel. They waved to Perch, who answered with a wide smile and a vigorous thumbs-up, tied up the dinghy and swung aboard, and Jamy, who had been so long away from his home, wandered every inch of the deck and the cabin and the holds below, his hand trailing along the rails and walls, his eyes alight with happiness.
"I'm so glad to see her again, Dad," he sighed, sitting cross-legged on the bunk as Mat stood watching with a smile at the weathered cabin door. "She's beautiful as always, though she does need some paint and polishing, as you say. How was she scoured so?"
"There is salt in the air at the Barway," said Mat, "and sand when the wind blows. 'Tis a harsher world altogether than she's used to; you'd not think so, perhaps, but our river air is mild compared to what blows off the Sea. As it is, I'll have to take a storehouse of supplies along when I go this time, for she'll be weathered hard in a year if I don't."
"Dad, you will let me see the Barway when I've twenty years, won't you?"
"Aye, lad, I will," said his father, nodding gravely. "I've a feeling you'll have earned it - and then some - by that time." Jamy gave a little bounce of satisfaction and Mat came to stoop beside the bunk. "I've something for you," he said shyly, pulling out the drawer built in beneath the mattress and drawing forth a long wooden box. "Something of the Barway so's you'll have a sense of where I am."
The box was full of sand and shells and bits of plain and coloured rocks and tiny dried plants that looked like webs, and he knew it smelled of the Sea, even though he had never smelled the Sea before. He caught his breath in delight. The sand was soft and white and so fine it clung to his fingers and the shells, flat and fanned and conical and spiraled, were blue and white and grey and some on the inside glowed a pale, lustrous pink, and everything felt and tasted of salt. There were two kinds of rock: one was smooth and frosted, and Mat said it came out of the Sea where it had been rounded and gentled by the water like their own round river rocks; some of these were broken in half and he could see they sparkled like jewels within. The other was coarse and uniformly grey, and Mat told him that the high cliffs that rose up along the Barway were formed of this, hard and strong and thrust up out of the earth as if in defiance of the Sea.
Most of the shells were small and perfect, but two, of the spiraled sort, were larger and more beautiful than the others. Mat drew one, smooth and delicate, up out of the sand and held it close to Jamy's ear. "Do you hear anything?" he asked, and when Jamy nodded, his eyes widening as he detected the hollow whisper within, Mat said, "It's a mystery how it got there, but that's the sound of the Sea." Jamy listened, and something within him, hidden deep, roused to the sound and his senses stirred with excitement. Someday, he knew, he would see the Sea!
One small shell, a flat, whitish cone with ridged rays and concentric circles spread over its surface, had a little hole in the center, and Mat said it had once been a house for a tiny creature that clung to the rocks along the shore.
"A lot of the Men wear shells like this on leather thongs about their necks," he said. "It says they are a brotherhood, having seen service together on the Barway. I have one, too." He drew it almost shyly from beneath his shirt to show to Jamy; it was threaded on the same sturdy string that held the little silver locket he kept of Jamy's mother. Then he pulled an identical bit of lacing up from the depths of his pocket and held it out. "I thought maybe - " he said softly, and Jamy took the lacing and slipped it eagerly through the hole in the shell and Mat tied the leather in a knot at the back of his neck. "Now you look a sea-farer as well as a river-hobbit," he said approvingly, and Jamy fingered the shell, pleased and smiling thoughtfully, for he considered now that perhaps it mightn't be so bad for his father to have to stay so long on the Barway, if the Men and the Hobbits cared enough to style themselves like this, as companions and brothers-in-arms.
They had business to attend to before they took the Lyssa back to the Bridge, where Mat meant to do his cleaning and repairs. There were supplies to purchase and creditors to pay; and also they carried important letters from Brandy Hall, one for the Postmaster in the village, and a handful for the Rangers' station on the far side of the Ford: one to be handed in at the station itself, the others to be posted on to Rohan and Gondor.
But it was too late to do any of that this afternoon, and so they went in search of supper, settling on the busy common room at the Trout and Tumbler, where they were sure to find a few old friends. When they came in, however, they found much more than that, for Mat was greeted with a great shout of welcome and cries of hip-hip hoorah!
"Oh, save us!" he groaned, ducking his head, but Jamy, close beside him, laughed softly and with pride. It appeared that news of Captain Bucket's success on the Barway had already made its way to the Ford; the throng raised their mugs and shouted in salute as Mat came over the threshold, and though it embarrassed him no end, it pleased Jamy, who flushed with delight as his father's friends made much of him.
"Mattie! Welcome home! And Jamy, too!" cried Chub Byford, who was Perch's brother and kept the bar. "Three cheers for Mat Bucket, lads! King's pilot, he is!"
Mat rolled his eyes, waved Jamy to a table by the fire, and went to the bar to lay down his coin for the board. He was denied, however, by the innkeeper, Bert Fenbrook, who sang out from his place at the barrels: "Nay, it's on the house, Mat, and proud to see you - it's not often one of our own is decorated by the Crown!"
"Save us, Bert!" declared Mat, in tones of astonishment. "The rest of the Rotation isn't even home yet; how did the news beat me back?"
"Carried Tilman's report to the Thain's clerk, didn't you, Mat?"
"I did - but sure it's not gone to Tuckborough and back by now?"
"Sure it didn't need to!" Bertie shot back. "Don't you know Toby has to read everything before it goes on to the Thain? Gave us the news day before yesterday, he did, and we've been waiting on you ever since. Figured you went up after Jamy there, but you've been awhile. What kept you?"
Mat hesitated for an instant, flicking a glance at Jamy. "We've been a few days at Brandy Hall," he said, as casually as he might.
A good many eyebrows went up at this; Mat's opinion of the gentry was well known. "At Brandy Hall? Ho! What's this, then? Since when do you do business at the Hall, Mat Bucket?"
"Jamy there does business at the Hall," said Mat with a sly smile, jerking his thumb over his shoulder as Bert bustled forward to inspect the two steaming plates that Chub had set on the counter. "I just went to fetch him."
A hush of expectation went round the room as he picked up the plates and went back to join Jamy at the table; Bert followed with the two mugs of ale he had tapped from the barrel. "Well, now - I'm guessing there's a tale in this," he said genially, setting down the mugs and looking searchingly from Mat to Jamy and back again. "And it looks like it falls to you to tell it, Jamy, my lad. Now, I thought you went up to work for Reg at the Bridge; how'd you end up doing business at the Hall?"
At a nod and a wink from his father, Jamy told how in the course of his duties with the Postmaster he had carried a letter from the King of Rohan to the Master of the Hall, and how they had met, and discovered through Jamy's misunderstanding a kind of kinship. The group, hanging on his every word, laughed and teased when they realized how the Master had tricked Jamy in the beginning, and grimaced to think of the comeuppance he must have suffered after; but when Jamy had finished telling of the Master's kindness and subsequent invitation to stay at the Hall - which he did with a great flair and flourishes, and considerable dramatic effect with regard to his adventure on the Withywindle - and when Mat had added his frank confession that he had been wrong in his sweeping indictment of the gentry, having found in the Brandybucks folk he not only liked and respected but was forever indebted to for Jamy's sake, the others applauded and drank to his good sense. The Master of the Hall was a legend in his own time and they admired him, but now they declared that in bringing Mat Bucket around he had proved himself nothing short of a Wizard among hobbits, and there followed cries for a toast. Behind the bar, Chub raised his mug and bellowed, "A blessing for the Magnificent, then, lads!" and they all raised their mugs and sang:
Walls for the wind, and a roof for the rain, and drinks beside the fire -
Then, "Hurrah!" they cried at the end, and drank.
"Ah, but alas for the truth, lads!" Mat lamented, setting down his mug. "For as my lad will tell you, it's not to be."
"Save us!" said Bert, struck suddenly with horror. "He's not dead, then?"
"No, no!" said Jamy, shaking his head vigorously. "But he's leaving the Shire in two weeks' time, and the old Thain with him. The King of Rohan is dying - which is why he wrote - and begs them come to him in the land of the Horse-lords. Then they mean to go on to see the High King in his White City."
"The Master's a hundred if he's a day!" protested Bert. "And the Thain not much younger! They'll never make it back!"
"No," said Jamy sadly, feeling the force of this truth in his heart. "But they don't mean to come back anyhow. They've given up their offices - Mr. Theo Brandybuck is Master of Buckland now, and there's a new Thain in Tuckborough, too."
"Save us," breathed Chub into the sudden, reverential silence that fell on the room. "That's the end of an era, that is." The others nodded soberly in agreement.
"Well," said Old Pickthorn the Postmaster, whose son was Toby, the Thain's agent. "I can't say as I'm surprised. My Toby hasn't seen or heard from Thain Peregrin since he called the Moot to decide what might be done about the Barway. He's been dealing with young Faramir Took since the autumn, and I guess that makes sense now, doesn't it? 'Talso explains the two big trunks as come from Tuckborough not two days ago that I'm directed to send over the Ford to the King's Rangers."
Mat smiled. "Look for two or three more coming up from the Hall any day now," he advised.
The young but dour Bob Holman, originally from Sackville but now established comfortably on Smith's Row at the Ford, shook his head. "It's the old wanderlust as they used to tell of in tales, come on 'em again," he said darkly. Bob was the sort of hobbit who disapproved of eccentricity on principle; he had no truck with it and suffered no one who displayed it. He was not alone in this. But he had an uncle up in Buckland who had been ferrier in the stables at Brandy Hall for years and who had absorbed with great appreciation any number of wild stories about the Master's youth that were told at the Hall - all of which he gleefully passed on "just to see Bob go off on 'em!" So it was that despite himself, Bob knew more than most on the unseemly subject of adventuring, not to mention prominent folk who had done it.
"Well, didn't old Mayor Sam Gamgee pick up and take hisself off not two years past?" he demanded now. "My Uncle Bill said then - 'Mark me,' he said - 'once a Traveller, always a Traveller. It's itchy feet they've got!' They was four to begin with, you know. There's two already gone, off over the Sea, they say, wanderin' who knows where. And now the wanderlust has come stalking the Master and the Thain again, and them in their old age, too, when decent folk oughtn't to be thinking of such things. No good can come of this; they'll wander to their deaths, if you ask me."
"Well, it's fair to say they were headed that way anyway, Bob," Bert said testily. "You can't begrudge an old hobbit a change of scenery."
So it was that unbeknownst to him, the 'Hail and Farewell Party' become an occasion of greater significance than he supposed, moved from the environs of the Hall to the town square at Bucklebury as the news of his going spread by word of mouth and it became clear that a good many more Bucklanders than could be accommodated at the Hall wanted to farewell the Magnificent, and also to see Young Master Theo confirmed in his place. The council of elders in Bucklebury went so far as to summon both Theo and Bo to the village to put before them their idea of how best to send off the retiring Master of Buckland, and the result was a fete the like of which the Magnificent could never have thought to anticipate. With that in mind, they told him nothing save the date; and being preoccupied with weddings and schedules and mathoms and deciding what to pack, he did not think to ask for the details.
He had begun to sort through his things, putting the last few items he wished to keep with him for the rest of his life into his trunks and sealing them for the barge that would take them downriver to the Ford. He was astonished at the great many things he had collected in the course of his long life - things he couldn't possibly take with him - and he spent some time deciding which of these would go to the mathom rooms and which would be distributed among his family and other folk of whom he was inordinately fond. In so doing, it was forcibly brought home to him that this leave-taking was like no other he had ever known, for this time it was forever. This extended to his surroundings as well; he found himself preparing to take leave of all kinds of things, saying to himself: "I shall never look into that drawer again, nor smell that special lavender tucked in amongst Estella's handkerchiefs," or "How I shall miss my jars! I hope the lads will take care of them," or "I wonder if I shall want this book one day and be sorry to have left it?" And when these thoughts began to make him melancholy, he plotted to conquer the hollowness of 'forever': "I believe I will pack a half-dozen jars of strawberry preserves and have Berry ship me some more next year, for there are none so good in Gondor, and none at all in Rohan, and I'm sure I shall pine for Shire preserves when teatime comes around!"
One of Theo's first official acts as Master of the Hall had been to decree that his father's study would henceforth be known as The Master's Library, and that it would remain as much intact as his father chose to leave it, all its books, histories, drawings and objects of interest to be preserved and dedicated to the memory of Meriadoc the Magnificent. The Horn of the Mark, bequeathed to Theo on his investiture - and ever after to his descendents - would be kept in The Library over the chimneypiece in a specially-designed wooden case carved with the runes of the Horse-lords and the symbols of the House of Brandybuck, with a glass panel in front and a lock and key, which would be kept on the Master's ring. Theo meant to build a new study for himself and for Rory and the Masters who would follow after him; he planned to inaugurate a suite of rooms in the main corridor off the courtyard sometime in the next year, offices that would be closer to the Gate and thus more convenient for the folk who came to the Hall on business.
The Magnificent had been deeply touched by this gesture and he was careful, then, to leave behind as much as he could. Certainly he didn't need all the things in the study, though he would miss the warmth and familiarity of having them nearby. But there were books to be had in Edoras and Minas Tirith - even copies of his own should he wish to look at them - and he thought he might begin a new series of nature studies when he settled in at the White City and had a chance to walk the Pelennor and the banks of the Anduin. In the end, he took his sword and shield from over the fireplace; the narrow stack of private journals he kept on the chimney shelf together with his pipe rack and the Elvish crystal vial with its hopeful contents that had been the gift of Treebeard; a map of Cardolan from the jumble on the table; and, from Estella's portfolio, some quick but characteristically truthful pencil sketches of their children, and two beautifully rendered portraits of Brandy Hall: one from the landing across the river, and one from the front lawn that showed, close-up, the bright yellow doors beneath the blooming lintels and the windows made from coloured glass.
Finally, from a secret drawer in the bottom of his desk, he took Estella's sketch-keeper, the book of pockets and envelopes she had used when they were courting in Tuckborough and Buckland, and in which she had ever kept all the little drawings she had made of him over the years, together with a carefully pressed bouquet of heartsease and strawberry blossoms taken from the Elvish glade where they had plighted their troth. He had ever meant to take the book with him when he must go into the earth at last, for it would never mean more to anyone than it did to him, whose restless heart had found in it its quiet, constant match.
Theo took charge the day of the Farewell Dinner and declared that he and Bo and Tom would ride to Bucklebury in the late afternoon with their father who - though vaguely puzzled as to why the farewell party should take place in the village - welcomed the chance to exercise his pony against the long journey to come. Theo also announced that Rory might be trusted to drive the ladies in the surrey. The ladies' eyebrows rose at this, and Eirien announced worriedly that she had better sit beside him in case he needed help, but Theo said with quiet authority that Rory must begin to take more responsibility now, and in any case, he had ever been a good hand with the ponies. For his part, Rory was so delighted to be entrusted with this duty that he magnanimously allowed Eirien to sit up beside him, completely overlooking her outspoken doubts with regard to his skills - a gift for which Cammy, Berry and Ella, dressed in their best and fearful of being mussed by Eri's restless bouncing, were very grateful.
The gentlehobbits rode slowly, two abreast, and the conversation proved wonderfully distracting in terms of any questions that might spoil the surprise of the party. Bo had chosen this ride to broach a conversation on the subject of Tansy Boffin, who had flitted through the Hall for elevenses this morning with her papa and confirmed with sparkling smiles the rumour that she would be joining them all in Tuckborough next week for Berry's wedding. Theo knew his father was pleased by this; the family had long considered Tansy the perfect match for Bo: a game and winsome lass, and clever, with dark auburn curls that kindled copper in the sunlight, a pretty button nose sprinkled with golden freckles, and an expression in her thoughtful hazel eyes that Theo knew must remind his father of his mother, for certainly it made him think of her! Tansy had ever been his father's choice for Bo, and Theo knew he listened gladly now as, uncharacteristically tongue-tied and sweetly awkward, Bo solicited their opinions with regard to the wedded state; smiling to himself, Theo allowed himself to hope that his brother might be betrothed before their father departed the Shire.
The scene in Bucklebury most certainly took the Magnificent by surprise. The four of them drew up at the town square some ten minutes behind the surrey and as a bevy of grooms materialized to stable the ponies, the old Master dismounted slowly, staring incredulously at what was, for all intents and purposes, a bustling sort of Fair sprung up in the center of the village. A great banner (Hail and Farewell, Masters of the Hall!) was strung across the plaza and coloured paper lanterns hung in all the trees. Flags waved like standards on a field, and all around the square charming little stalls were set up, draped with coloured fabrics and ribbons. These were preparing a wealth of food and drink and other delights in anticipation of the feast to come; the odours rising with the smoke and mingling in the breeze were delightful. A large number of tables had been set out in long rows that stretched across the center of the park, and these too were festive, decorated with coloured cloths, large jars of wildflowers and lanterns to light the hours soon to come when the sun had slipped away. A band was playing merrily on a small platform on the far side of the square, and a lively collection of young hobbits danced and played on the grass.
"What in all the Shire is this?" murmured The Magnificent.
"Oh, Father!" cried Berry, pink with pleasure as the ladies came to greet them. She took his hand excitedly. "Isn't this splendid?"
"I should think so!" he said, looking round at all of them as suspicion of conspiracy dawned in his eyes. "What have you done?"
Bo smiled fondly at their father and Theo was surprised to mark the veriest hint of tears in his eyes. "This, Father, is all the care you have lavished on Buckland over the past fifty years, returned now with fulsome thanks."
"But it's absurd! All these hobbits - and a Fair! I thought dinner, a little speech - !"
"Oh, there was no stopping this, sir," Tom said, surveying the scene with eyes that matched Berry's for pride and joy. "Seems when word got out, all these folk thought to see you one more time. Some have traveled all the way from the Bridge, and others have come up from the Withywindle; Cammy's folk are here, and Tansy's, and a good many others from over the Marish, too. And Robin is about somewhere - has a booth to dispense his ale, he has - so the over-river Gamgee Gardners are represented as best can be, as well. All these folk have come to do you honour, sir, and to say goodbye. They're cooking up the feast, too."
"The Hall is providing the afters, Father," Cammy put in, and Eirien said with a wide smile, "Grandfather, there are so many cakes and pies!"
"Great heavens! Do you say so?" He looked around, his glance amazed. "So many!" he murmured.
"Am I to understand you're actually taken by surprise?" said Bo, laughing even as he blinked back his tears. "Well, it's only fair; we've waited all our lives to see it! Of course, Buckland itself gets most of the credit here; the folk wanted to make this a holiday for all of us to remember: the day Buckland said a fond farewell to Meriadoc the Magnificent and made welcome Theo Greatheart in his place."
"Bo!" hissed Theo, colouring fiercely as his father turned to him with a wondering smile. "Don't say that!"
"Why not? It's a fine thing!" Bo beamed, clapping him on the back. "Father, only listen! I heard it first a few days back in the Cap and Feather, from a fellow who says our Theo is known the length of Buckland for his goodness. There is not a hobbit poor or bankrupt among us, he said, that Theo has not set on his feet with kind words and work and coin enough to start again. Greatheart, he called him. Save us, Theo, but I'm proud to be your brother - though I think I have been too long in the woods that I didn't know of it before this! Ah! Don't tell me you did, Father?"
"Oh, aye," said their father, his blue eyes shining warm with pride. "I have heard of Theo's good works, here and there. And I wonder that you did not, Bo: many of those folk Theo first heard of from you, when you would come in from your days in the wild, worrying over one fellow or another you had met who seemed to be in desperate straits. Did you never wonder how they had won through?"
Bo shook his head with a sigh. "You know, I don't understand it, but in some ways I begin to think I do not always attend as I should - " He glanced at his father then and coloured faintly.
But the Magnificent smiled somewhat; clearly he was thinking of the day Éomer's letter had come into his hands and Bo and Jamy had found him in that strange, lost state, shocked to realize the years that had slipped past him well-nigh unnoticed. "Well," he said gently, "At least you can say you come by it honestly, my lad."
He turned then to Theo. "Greatheart!" he said softly. "Theodoc, how splendid!" But Theo felt as yet unnerved by such a public assessment of his private endeavours, and with the excessively flattering tag that would now define him in the eyes of Buckland. It wasn't that he didn't like it, he reflected, but that he felt unequal to it and graceless in the light of it, and suddenly unsure of how to behave. He reddened at his father's searching glance, and shook his head wordlessly. Here I am again more Bolger than a Brandybuck, he thought, bemused. Uncle Freddy would understand how I feel, but Father - !
But his father's quiet gaze said he did understand, and the cast of his oddly boyish smile seemed to give voice to sympathy of a very personal nature. Theo recalled suddenly that the Magnificent had not always been fond of his nickname either. He said in a low voice, "It's just that I don't want to appear proud, Father."
"Theo," the Magnificent said, just as quietly. "You must remember: the name is for them to discern and for them to use, a reflection of their approval." He laughed softly. "It could be worse: did you know we've a predecessor who was called Proudneck? Nay, Theo, they do not think you proud; this is their way of telling you you've passed first muster and come through with flying colours!"
Theo smiled in relief, and the old Master turned to look again at all the hobbits crowding into the square. "Save us!" he said softly. "I never thought I should have to say goodbye to all of Buckland!" He shook his head, then turned back to them, his eyes twinkling suddenly. "Tom," he said, "where do you suppose we might find Robin's booth? I think I need an ale if I am to meet and greet all these folk, don't you?"
The afternoon was fading softly into evening when they had at last received their guests and the feast stood ready: the lamplighters had kindled the lanterns sometime before so that colours flickered in the branches of the trees and on the tables, and the square had begun to glow with a warm, pale light even as twilight descended. Food began to appear on the tables now as matrons bustled to and fro, and wine and ale and cider was set down in pitchers and jugs. The Magnificent's family was ushered to the high table where they might look out over the throng, and the folk in the square, seeing them settle in, moved quickly to their seats so that the feast might begin.
Theo, as Master of Buckland now, called the festivities to order. He was warmly welcomed, and his few remarks, carefully crafted, were received with heartwarming enthusiasm. All attention then turned to the feast, and after a suitable interval, during which a good many cups and plates were emptied more than once, with considerable industry and satisfaction, the afters were then brought forth with great ceremony ('to make the speeches sweeter,' as the saying went) and when everyone was settled happily with nuts and cake and dainties of every description, the Magnificent rose to address the gathering.
Bo Brandybuck thought with a pang that went straight to his heart that this would be the last time his father would ever be called upon to solemnize a special occasion in the Eastmarch. The lump that had never quite left his throat since the moment they had arrived here rose again as he watched the old hobbit rise with his customary effortless dignity to address the throng. As usual, the effect was profound. The flashing blue eyes and arresting countenance, at once stern and tender to look upon, moved the Bucklanders deeply. The Magnificent stood before them, tall, white-haired, resplendent in soft brown wools and (for him!) a relatively conservative waistcoat and cravat of shining brown silk embroidered with acorns and oak leaves - and all around him the air and the light seemed to shimmer. The hobbits in the square hushed, their faces wistful with admiration and affection as they looked on him; and among the eldest, Bo could see many whose eyes, like his, were bright with tears.
A smattering of applause broke out and spread quickly through the square, rising in seconds to a mighty resonance from the crowded tables of the commons up into the shadows of the cool spring evening. It lasted a long time. The Magnificent raised a gnarled hand for quiet, but the Bucklanders came to their feet then in a groundswell of sustained admiration, and the family, delighted for him, rose to join in.
The Magnificent consented to this display of admiration with gentle fortitude, though there were shadows of pain banked deep in his eyes, and for the first time Bo thought to wonder what his father meant to do in this moment. The situation was virtually unique. There was no useful precedence to be found in the very few others who had gone before him: Old Bilbo Baggins had made a joke and disappeared - literally! - a feat impossible to replicate now that the world was rid of magic rings; Mayor Sam had written letters of farewell to those he loved best who were not his children, overwhelmed by what needed to be said and unsure of being able to say it properly face-to-face in any case; and the great Frodo Baggins - well, he had managed to slip away wholly unnoticed, anxious to be gone before anyone realized he was going. Odd, Bo thought suddenly, how none of them could find rest in the Shire at the end.
The Magnificent stood tall and straight but swaying slightly. Mat Bucket might have noticed how much like a mainmast in a high wind he appeared then: steady as ever but hard-pressed not to break under the weight of the storm. His lips were set in a tight line and both Bo and Theo, in the act of exchanging glances around him, marked the glimmer of tears in his eyes. At length he raised his hand again to quell the ovation, and the Bucklanders, with a few last cheers, quieted and settled back expectantly on their benches.
The old hobbit took a deep breath. "My dear friends," he began, looking out over the square. His voice was made husky and low by emotion, but by some trick of air or the place where he stood his words carried even to the far tables in the back.
"What a splendid gift this is that you have given me!" he said, and he bowed his head a little, blinking hard and swallowing with difficulty. The Bucklanders observed this and stirred in quiet concern; in such an unprecedented situation as this, Bo knew they were alert to the possibility that the Magnificent, overwrought perhaps by age and sentiment, might forget himself and try to say more than might be suitable. He supposed they were ready to provide a distraction if it came to that; they would not want him to feel badly about anything tonight.
The Magnificent raised his head, his expression tender. "You have ever been kind to me," he began again, "a Master of Buckland who, for many reasons, has tread a much less conventional path than you might have hoped. I must tell you how much Estella and I - and all the family - have appreciated your forbearance over the years, accepting our foreign travels, tolerating my Outlandish interests, gamely attempting to ignore all the times I have flaunted time-honoured tradition - "
"Here, then, Master, while you're at listing yer shortcomings, don't let's forget yer waistcoats!" called a cheerful old wag in the rear and there was a burst of laughter from the crowd, relieved as the tension broke, and entertained as well, for the Magnificent's flamboyant waistcoats had ever been one of his trademarks and were widely noted and fondly discussed everywhere. Bo watched his father peering out to see who had shouted and recognized an aged acquaintance who had many times over the years stood them a friendly ale or two at the Ruffians' Gatehouse just outside the Hay Gate on the road to Bree. He laughed with the others when his father met the audacious jest with a wide, boyish smile, and a cry of, "Robin! Wherever you are, fetch my friend another ale, won't you?" A half-dozen jesters threw up their hands with shouts of "Ale, right here!" and there was more laughter and a short round of applause.
The Magnificent genially waved them all to silence and then rather consciously appeared to adjust his waistcoat and cravat. He looked down at his silken finery, hooking his thumbs in the little watch-pockets. "Do you think perhaps I should have worn the red one with the dragons?" he asked with a grin, and was rewarded with a cheerful storm of applause and even a few high-pitched whistles.
He raised his hand, his smile drifting a bit. "It is many years now since I learned what it means to say goodbye," he said, looking out, and a shadow passed over his aged face. "Not the jolly, fare-you-well, see-you-again-at-Yule kinds of goodbyes we say all the time, but the truly crushing business of letting go of people that we love. I can tell you, I don't like it at all: I never did. So you will understand how very grateful I am for this splendid evening, in which I perceive that you have taken on the task of saying goodbye so that I may be relieved of it, and so that I may say with gladness - to my friends, my neighbors, my dear little country - fare you well! May you and yours go on long after I am gone and may you all remain as safe and happy and prosperous as you are tonight."
"Here here!" cried the Maggots and the Boffins at the over-river table, full of ale and family sentiment, and Bo looked for Tansy there and found her looking at him, blushing at her father's exuberance. He wished they were already betrothed so that he might have her close beside him now. His father went on:
"Now, in token of the faith I have in you, it is my intention to bequeath to you two of the greatest treasures I possess. The first is my family, my sons and daughters and grandchildren, for whom I bear the dearest love, and in whom I know you have already found good friends and helpful neighbours, and will now find steady, thoughtful, and courageous leadership. I know you will be as kind to them as you have ever been to me!"
More applause swelled up from the tables and there were cries of Greatheart! which made Theo blush. At the end of the table, Bo saw Rory watching his own father with shining eyes.
The Magnificent took up a pitcher from the table and poured a measure of wine into his cup.
"The second of my treasures," he said, and now his face was serious, focused and intent, "is one that has never been seen outside of Brandy Hall, nor indeed in any other place in the Shire save Great Smials in Tuckborough and Bag End in Hobbiton. It is a custom that has sustained me every year of my life since the end of the War of the Ring, and has served to remind me how very fine hobbits can be, and how very lucky we are to be able to go on in the beautiful lands of the Shire. But lately, as I think it over, it seems to me that these are things that should be remembered not just by the very few, but by all hobbits, for they speak to our common history and a legacy that belongs to all of us."
A soft murmur went round the tables; not everyone, by a long shot, had sat down to dinner with the Magnificent before, but over the years everyone had heard the occasional report of this ritual, and they knew it to be one of the most privileged and sacred in the Shire. Bo watched them looking at one another with widening eyes and he saw what he knew his father had hoped to see: they understood that by sharing this moment with them he meant to honour them in a way that nothing else could.
The Magnificent's face grew still now, and pale, and his eyes were dark beneath the bright lanterns. He closed them for a brief moment before he continued.
"It has ever been the custom of my House," he said now, and his voice seemed to expand into the darkness, "to open ceremonies of great import at the Hall with a gesture of remembrance to the days that made me who I am, and a tribute to the Hero of those days - a valiant son of Buckland whose praises are rarely sung here but whose courage and selflessness are known and held in honour the Wide World over beyond the Bounds. Tonight, as I take my leave of you, I mean to share that remembrance with you. It is a mathom of sorts. May you find it useful; may it lift your hearts as it has ever lifted mine."
He raised his cup then, and on either side of him they stood, his sons and daughters and grandchildren, taking up their cups, even small Eirien, who stood very gravely with her little mug of cider in her hand. Bo saw Rory look down and smile and gently lift her up to stand on the chair beside him so that she could see what was happening. He was growing up. The folk in the square rose silently as well, hushed with surprise and a little dazed, and all took up their cups; and softly on their ears, in every corner of the square, fell the prayer of Meriadoc the Magnificent, whose eyes were bright now with tears. He said:
"Drink to the memory - ever enduring! - of our dearest Friend and Cousin: the Ring-bearer of the Free Peoples of Middle-earth and Deliverer of all our Lands and People - Who, without his aid, would have gone into the Dark forever. Born in Buckland and in love with both the World and the Shire, he offered up his life that Evil might be vanquished, and suffered such Injuries in the Struggle as could never be Mended, and so was granted Passage into the West with the Immortals. Whether or no you remember me, remember him! Never forget he was one of Us."
He lifted the cup on high and his voice rang out: "Frodo Baggins!" And there was a gasp, as if his audience was also moved to tears, and then they answered hugely, roundly, the acclamation rising and falling through the square like the coming of thunder: "Frodo Baggins!" And they drank to the memory of the Ring-bearer, awed and jubilant.
But the Magnificent bowed his head, weeping now in earnest, the tears sliding down his withered cheeks, and Bo knew he wept for the suddenness with which the end had come, and for all that was passing from his hands into a Shire he would never know. "Frodo! Frodo" his father sobbed, and Bo was up and beside him in an instant and Tom was at his back, and mourning, he turned to them, trembling in the strength of their embrace, and Theo rose and faced the crowd and lifting his cup again on high, shouted, "Meriadoc the Magnificent, Master of Buckland!" and Bucklebury rang with cheers.
* About.com: Death and Dying - Toasts to Honor the Living