The Master wore a heavy traveling cloak of deep green with the intricate signature of Rohan embroidered on one breast in gold and wine-coloured threads, and his luggage, transported from the Hall in a handcart by one of the grooms, now departed, was scattered at his feet. There wasn’t much: only his sturdy pack, a hamper of provisions— enough to sustain him on the road this day and the next—and a few substantial barrels, together with a few small casks, of beer. Buckland’s beer differed from Tuckborough’s in temperament, the Buckland brew being darker and less prone to giddiness (a contrast that also applied to the Master and the Thain), but it was always warmly welcomed and eagerly anticipated at The Smials. The Master thought that if at any time he should arrive without it, he would no doubt be sent home again to get it. His soft leather pouch of pipeweed nestled with his favorite pipe in one of his pockets, and the rest were filled with a variety of necessaries he thought might be needed on the road. The cart and pony he would drive waited on the far side of the river, an arrangement he had held for many years to more easily facilitate the frequent trips he made to Tuckborough and back.
They spoke quietly together, their new arrangement warm and increasingly comfortable, and the Master said little, letting Theo go on at length about the myriad tasks that must be done in the next week and smiling kindly to see that it was just as he had hoped: with the shadow of his too-often eclipsing influence lifted, Theo stood confidently in the light.
At this moment Theo was considering the return of the party from Haysend. The early morning upriver packet had just passed the dock, sliding close enough to hand off a message from Bo. The Master, in turn, passed across a carefully worded letter addressed to the Dockmaster up at the Bridge.
“Bo says they arrived in time for luncheon yesterday,” Theo said as he scanned the note scrawled hastily by his brother the night before, “and our clever Jamy had the solution mapped out by early afternoon! It all went off slick as a whistle and he was quite the hero at the end of the day. Bo says Rory was an exceptional hand with the ponies, and both the lads had a splendid time. No one fell in or was injured or met with any river maidens, thankfully—though Tom is not so sure he didn’t see one!—and Haysend fed and housed them well. They will be back tonight. That was well done!”
The Master said thoughtfully, “Theo, you’ll look after Jamy while I’m away this week? My letter to the Dockmaster will transfer his obligation to the Hall, by my request and under your authority. I’ve asked that his things be sent down as soon as possible, so he should have them in the next day or two. You’ll find a place for him, won’t you? I like him; I’d like the Hall to look after him as if he were our own.”
Theo nodded. “I know what you mean, Father: that little fellow is no up-from-the-river lad for hire. It’s odd, how he fit right in from the minute he came to us. Cammy likes him very much and it’s plain to see the children do, as well. He’s awfully fond of you, too.”
“It’s mutual. I don’t know how I shall say goodbye to him when the time comes, when we’ve only just met, and so well, too. What he will think, I don’t know…though perhaps his father will have captured his heart back again by then. His father should be arriving soon, Theo; I should think within the week or a little more. I’m sorry to think I might miss him: I should like to meet the fellow. I’m curious about him.”
“So am I,” Theo agreed. “Any man who could bring up such a boy on his own among the river-folk is someone I handsomely admire. I quite look forward to meeting Mat Bucket.”
“Mat—! Now, how did you—?”
“Bo winkled it out of Jamy the first day—before he shut up like a clam! Bo says there’s something amiss between Jamy and his father, though he’s no idea what it is. He said Jamy scowled like a Corsair when he asked, so he decided it was probably best to leave it alone.”
“It probably was—then. But I did a little winkling myself early yesterday and pried the story loose. He and the Captain parted in the midst of a sad quarrel eight weeks ago, and I’m sure they each regretted it the minute the other was out of sight. Poor little lad! I explained a few things about overly-fond fathers to him, and I think he will be more than happy to see his own again when he returns.”
Theo’s knowing smile acknowledged their own history in this regard. “I’m glad to hear it, Father. I thought it must be something like. He was touched by the story you told about meeting Grandfather on the road to Bywater; he let fall a tear when no one was looking. I felt for him, poor child.”
“Did you see that?” said his father in surprise. “I marked it, too—which is why I went winkling the next morning.”
Theo sighed, frowning. “He is a winning little fellow. You know, Berry told me he was frightened nearly to tears to sit down to lunch with us the first day—he declared it was a positively indecent idea, he being up from the river and we being gentlefolk, if you please! Bo says as near as he can learn, Jamy was born and bred to his odd opinion of the gentry.”
“Not so odd, Theo, outside of Buckland and Tuckborough. Mind that Sam Gamgee called me ‘Mr. Merry’ for all the years of our friendship, and you ‘Master Theo’ when he’d been the Mayor for thirty years or more and you were barely out of your tweens!”
“Aye; ’twas a hard habit with him, as I remember now. But this business of Jamy seems to go a little further than that, don’t you think? I’m for guessing it’s his father’s trouble—some mean experience he had when he was young. It must have happened somewhere along the river, but I can’t think it was here, for as you say, Buckland isn’t given to airs. And north of the Bridge are humble farmers who are grateful to the river-folk for moving their goods.”
His father frowned. “Ah, but the South Farthing might yet nurture some uppish opinions; there are folk there among the leaf growers who had much the same social pretensions as Lotho Sackville-Baggins once upon a time; they were all in that underhanded business together during the War, and mind, the only thing that kept the ruffians from their doors was the Tooks, though the southerners never admitted it. I can think of a few who might still cover themselves with airs and look down their silly noses at the folk who move their leaf up and down the river. You must make sure, Theo, that Captain Bucket is welcomed respectfully to the Hall and made to feel as comfortable as possible.”
“It’s done, Father. I mean to make every effort.”
“I’m sure you will. Oh, and here’s a bit more of the story: the Captain will be coming from the Barway.”
“The Barway! Is that it?! Well, that explains a good deal. And Captain Bucket would be the leader of the second Rotation, I’m guessing. Little wonder then that Jamy isn’t with him; no hobbit child is safe on the Barway just now, no matter how well he wields a tiller or a barge pole. I hear our folk are working on the gate even as the King’s men are meeting hard battle with pirates and other marauders...”
“Battle?” said the Master, suddenly alert. “On the Barway? Save us! I had not heard of this. Do you say Jamy’s father could be in danger? Or worse, the Shire?”
“Nay, I think not,” Theo reassured him. “The story I heard was that the King’s men are fierce in protection of the Brandywine. Also, the hobbitry was kept well behind the lines—if lines there are in sea battles. But the river-folk have kept their tales pretty close along the docks here, and don’t speak of it at all before their young ones, which tells you how ugly those stories may be. The tales started coming back mid-autumn, but I daresay you missed them, for you were with Uncle Peregrin then, and I wager you were neither of you paying any attention to the news of the day.”
“Ah.” The Master nodded. They had stayed out-of-way, he and Pippin, in the aftermath of Diamond’s death. “That explains it, then. How came you not to tell me after, though?”
“I forgot, Father! Once we had you safe home again through the snows, we settled in for winter and I didn’t think of it again. And I haven’t had any occasion to go to the docks since, which, if I had, might have reminded me. But Fair can probably tell you a great deal more about it, and fresh news, too, for the Tooks have an agent at Sarn Ford who reports to them as need be.”
“Do they?” his father murmured. “But of course they would; Pippin was in correspondence with the King over the whole matter last year.”
“Aye, though it’s been in Fair’s hands since Auntie Di passed,” Theo reflected.
The Master paused to frown at this, but just then the mists thinned and the ferry could be glimpsed coming slowly but doggedly across the river, just past the halfway mark, and looking to be on time. Squinting upward at the morning sky, he reckoned, “Well, I should make it to Woodhall by noon, then, and to the Hut by suppertime. Is Robin Gamgee still biding with Tom at Woodhall?”
“Aye, he’s there looking after the place while Tom makes his rounds, and you can count on him to bustle about and make you welcome if you take it in mind to rest there, sir. He brews a fine ale, does Robin. Have you ever had it? Oh, be sure to have one if he offers. It’s a rare delight, and a close secret how he makes it! But don’t get him spinning tales, Father, or you’ll be three days getting to Tuckborough instead of two!”
His parent laughed. “Don’t I remember his father doing the same? No, I’ll away on time; I don’t fancy making the last miles to the Hut in the dark.”
“What did you and Uncle Peregrin do in the days before you built the Hut, Father? I can’t imagine the road to Tuckborough without it.”
“Why, slept alongside the road, if you please! Very fortifying! When was the last time you slept in the grass, Theo?”
“Me! You misremember my childhood if you have any memory of my having done so after I came into my tweens! And don’t try to impress upon me the virtues of lying on the ground, sir; it’s Bo you want, if that’s your aim! I assure you I am ruthlessly civilized!”
The Master chuckled softly. Times had changed and folk with them. The Hut had been built some forty years before, the whimsical (by practical Shire standards) creation of the Master and the Thain, who in their younger days had spent a great many hours riding back and forth on the Stock Road between Great Smials and Brandy Hall to see one another. Sixty miles lay between the two Great Houses and as the trip took nearly two full days, it was necessary to make a camp for the night, which was oftentimes a cold, wet proposal—nothing at all to a young hobbit, of course, but increasingly less comfortable as the years went by.
One year, while making the long passage to Edoras and Gondor, the two of them came upon an Outlands innovation—attributed to the High King— that they judged thoroughly delightful. The Crown had lately installed along the Greenway and the Old South Road a run of way-stations, small lodges set a day’s journey apart, where King’s men and Rangers and such other travelers as might be could find shelter of a night and stabling for their beasts in bitter weather. One wet night spent warm and dry (and imbibing heavily fermented drink from a large barrel kept beside the fire) convinced the Master and the Thain that this was precisely what was needed on the Stock Road back home, and when they returned they built one of their own, halfway between Tuckborough and Buckland: a small cottage with a loft (should large traveling parties overflow the great room and more sleeping space be needed) and a shelter for the animals next to the wide meadow.
The handsome structure was absurdly tagged The Hut by the waggish, older-fashioned residents of the Smials and Brandy Hall who had no use for houses and thought it a blight on the landscape, though few of them traveled very far and fewer still had actually seen the place. Still, it proved a snug little refuge, with a woodpile, a decent stock of beer in the root cellar, and a good, warm hearth piled with cooking ware. There were cunning little bed frames built along the walls, with feather ticks and extra blankets tucked up in cupboards beneath, and there was the small, clean stable just outside. Those travelers who used it were very fond of it indeed and took care to keep it up, often leaving a batch of clean straw, or chopping a bit of wood, or performing other household tasks by way of recompense. In time, another lodge was built just beyond the lane to Nobottle on the road to Long Cleeve, for the Tooks made frequent journeys that way; and later the Thain suggested to the Mayor that one be set on the Great East Road into the Westmarch, so that both settlers and visiting relatives might find comfort of a night on their way into those outlying lands. This was done: a work-party comprised almost entirely of Gamgee Gardners had swarmed to the western Bounds and built in a week a chalet that would hold them all, should they ever take a fancy to journey to Undertowers together.
Thinking of the Gamgee Gardners reminded the Master that he had meant to ask his son about something that lay heavily on his mind, and as the ferry was still a considerable distance from the dock, he judged he still had time to do so. “Theo,” he said tentatively. “I hope I have never interfered in my children’s private lives since any of you came of age, but I’m worried about something, and I wonder if you can tell me….What is taking Tom so long to speak for Berry? It’s plain enough how fond they are, but however much I tease about Sam taking his time with Rose, I’m sure he never took so long as this to speak once he knew his mind. What is keeping them?”
“Ah!” Theo sighed and winced a little in a way that suggested there was more to this subject than he cared to say. Suddenly suspicious, his father said sharply, “Save us! Is something amiss?” but Theo shook his head with a rueful smile.
“Father,” he said, meeting his parent’s puzzled gaze squarely on, “Tom has not come to you or spoken for Berry because she will not let him. She knows they will of course remove to Woodhall when they are wed, and she vows she will not leave the Hall—”
“Not leave the Hall!” the Master said blankly. “Whyever not? Hasn’t she told me a hundred times that Tom is at sixes and sevens there?”
Theo nodded silently, but now his manner changed. Clearly he was in doubt about what he must say next. He fixed his eyes on the ferryman guiding the little craft through the mist, and frowned unhappily. His father said, “You’re all but Master now, Theo Brandybuck. What is it you have to say to me?”
Theo gathered himself with a sigh. “All right, then, sir,” he said. “But don’t say I didn’t try to spare you. Berry won’t leave the Hall because of her obligation to you. She won’t marry Tom because she’s taken it into her head that you must have someone looking out for you and as she is your only daughter, she must stay with you to the end.”
His father stared, astounded. “What?!”
“Cammy and Bo and I have all told her you’ll be fine with us, but she won’t hear it, Father. She insists it falls to her to take care of you.”
“I don’t need anyone to take care of me!” the Master sputtered indignantly. “I’m—I’m—!”
“You’re a hundred and two years old, Father,” Theo said dryly. “I’m sure you’ll agree that by any standards save your own, it’s worrying.”
“Save us! Did I ever hear the like? And to ‘the end,’ if you please! And what has young Tom to say to this?”
“Nothing, sir. He doesn’t want to make her unhappy—but he is, if I am to believe Bo, who is his confidante. And of course he will not speak to you, not only for fear of Berry, but for fear of seeming to say he doesn’t care what happens to you, but only wants to take your daughter for his wife.”
“Theo! That’s absurd! It won’t do at all! We must see them wed—and soon! See here: once I have Pippin’s consent to Edoras, I shall write you, and you can explain to Berry and Tom what I am about. Tell her by no means is she going to look after me all the way to Rohan! Then tell her that I will be most distressed if I can’t see my only daughter wed before I depart and, Theo, set Cammy and the girls and some of the other ladies of the Hall to making a great fuss about gowns and furnishings and all of that. That should see her settled before she knows what’s what!”
Theo laughed admiringly. “Father, you are shamelessly underhanded!”
“Yes, I am,” said the Master comfortably. “It’s a useful trait, though I shouldn’t try it if I were you—at least not the ‘shameless’ part. It doesn’t suit you somehow.”
“Certainly not. But I like your plan and I shall be on the lookout for your letter. It would be a great happiness for all of us to see Berry and Tom wed at last. Cammy and Bo and I will do everything we can to hasten the day.”
“Good!” said his father, smiling. “Now, as long as I am meddling, do you think Bo will make that trip to Rushey when he gets back?”
“Oh, yes,” said Theo, laughing softly. “I think the threat of Folco Potts was the end.”
“Is that pretty girl really walking out with Folco?”
“No—well, yes, but Cammy says her heart is not engaged. How could it be when she has yearned after Bo for so long?”
“And what’s been keeping your brother all this time?”
Theo smiled fondly. “The same as kept you, I think, sir.”
“Save us!” sighed the Master as the ferryman tossed the rope and Theo caught it and slipped it round the post. “Is he as dense as all that?”
“Oh, yes!” Theo replied earnestly. “But Cammy thinks Tansy is every bit as fond of Bo as Mother was of you, so there is hope yet, Father!”
The ferryhobbit, who was one of the Smallburrows from Stock, sang out, “Good morning, Mr. Brandybuck! How may you be this fine day—and young Mr. Brandybuck, too?” and they passed the baggage across as they spoke of the weather and the river and the state of the Master’s health and the preponderance of tadpoles in the shallows this year, and when all was settled properly, the Masters of the Hall embraced.
“Well, I am ready to go, my boy. Goodbye! I know you will do splendidly. Tell Rory and Jamy I am proud of them, and Berry that I won’t take ‘no’ for an answer even if Tom will! I shall write before the week is out!”
“Put in to the dock at Brandy Hall now and again this week and whistle him up,” the Master of the Hall advised, “for he’s just lately come to stay with us until his father returns and I’m sure he’d be glad of a conversation with one of his friends from the river. He’s been marooned since the Captain left, running post for the Haygate.”
“You don’t say!” observed Master Smallburrow, squinting sympathetically. “That’s a boatload of misery for the poor little chap, for there’s not a lad on the water loves it so much as he! Well, I willstop over for a chat if your folk won’t mind, and thank you for telling me, sir. I can’t think why Captain Mat didn’t leave him on a boat, but he’s always been close that way; doesn’t like to hand his boy off to anyone, and never has, all these years since Lyssa died. Now there were a sweet lass, and no mistake. She wasn’t one of us—meaning the river-folk, sir—but she took to the life as if she’d been born to it. I mind she used to sail with Mat, before the little ones came.”
“Not born to the river?” the Master wondered. “Where did she come from, then?”
“Why, the South Farthing, sir. Before she wed with Captain Mat, Lyssa Bucket was one of the Headstrongs, them as farms leaf in the southlands.”
The Master caught his breath. “Gentry!” he said softly.
“Oh, aye sir, though not your sort, if you take my meaning. Too proud by half are the Headstrongs—and wasn’t her fine papa set ablaze with fury when she ran off with Mat Bucket just as he was fixing to marry her off to some half-wit Bracegirdle! The story goes he never forgave her, Mr. Brandybuck, not even after the poor girl died along of the sweet little lass what came after Jamy—and he never saw fit to look at Jamy once, neither! A hard sort of hobbit, I’d say, for Lyssa was a good girl and a fine wife and mum, and if she chose Mat, well, she could of chose worse from among her own kind, as I’ve seen now and again. Lyssa never shamed herself, coming to us from gentlefolk, though if you ask me, her folk shamed themselves, behaving so about it.”
The Master of Buckland sighed heavily as the ferry came gently to the far dock. “I daresay you are quite right, Master Smallburrow!” he said with feeling.
The Master climbed back up into the cart once the pony was sure of the ground beneath his feet, and they went forward through the leas in a sprightly fashion. He rummaged through his pockets and took out his pipe, a fine Elven-carved antique that sported a pearl mouthpiece and bands of silver that he had had as a gift from Bilbo Baggins many years before. He rubbed the smooth bowl fondly with his thumb and extracted his pouch of pipeweed. Then he dug out his little tinder box and setting a straw to the coals buried deep in the ashes, he lit his pipe, closed up the box and settled back on the seat to enjoy a quiet smoke.
By now the morning mists had begun to lift and disperse and the grasses, drenched with dew, sparkled in the sunlight and began to give off a fresh, sweet fragrance. The little Stockbrook, tumbling down through the fields from Woody End, murmured busily as it made its way to the Brandywine, and so lulled with sound and scent, Merry Brandybuck was soon deep in contemplation of his errand and of what he had learned this morning of his children. He hoped with all his heart that Berry and Bo would each marry soon; it was but a half-life, when you were young, going on without the warm comfort of someone who loved you.
He came to Woodhall a little before noon and made his way through the village to the little glade where Tom’s charming homestead was delved into a grassy slope that looked out upon the morning. The hole was pretty as a picture. Its front elevation was a long, rambling curve, and in it was a large front door, a smaller garden door and a number of gleaming casement windows. A flagstone path, bordered thick with moss and periwinkle led from the gate to the front steps, and a low split-rail fence wound around with vines surrounded the garden. A cluster of flowering plum trees shimmered pink and white in one corner of the plot, knee-deep in jonquils and forget-me-nots. A sunny flower garden, just coming into shy and early bloom warmed the borders and trailed over the fence, and a neat kitchen garden was staked out next to the smaller door. The old hobbit smiled to himself as he paused at the gate; how happy Berry would be in this pretty little place, so carefully laid out and with such an eye for wild and tamed beauty alike. He could see that like his father before him, soft-spoken Tom Gamgee ran far deeper than he looked; he and Berry would do well together, and faith, she must not make him wait any longer!
Robin Gamgee was sitting on the flagstone terrace in front of the door, sharpening a scythe in preparation for cutting the grass. His short brown curls and broad figure called to mind his Grandfather Cotton, as did his doggedly purposeful manner. The story was that he had come to Woodhall several years before to help Tom get settled in, but it seemed of late that he was staying on indefinitely. To a certain degree, this was understandable: the last of the Gamgee’s many children, Robin and Tom had been inseparable in childhood, the elder always looking out for the younger, and now that they were grown and both yet bachelors, it was tidy enough that they should bide together and keep each other company. Still, it was no secret that Robin had cherished intentions of farming and that moreover a very fine piece of Cotton land had been bequeathed to him but three years past by his Uncle Jolly and was at this moment providing glorious, if wasteful, pastureland for a good dozen of his relatives while he stayed resolutely on at Woodhall. Robin had his reasons, of course, and if he was surprised to see the Master of Buckland standing at the gate this morning, he was also pleased and suddenly hopeful, for he was struck with the thought that perhaps Tom’s unassuming suit for Berry Brandybuck might have been accepted at last. He set the scythe aside gladly and came to his feet.
“Uncle Merry! What a surprise! Come in, come in!”
“Hello, Robin,” said the Master, letting himself in at the gate. “I see I find you well.”
“Indeed you do, Uncle,” said Robin, shaking his hand. “I am very happy to see you. I hope you’re not looking for Tom, though, for I was of the opinion that he was with you!”
“So he is—or was. He and Bo are down at Haysend helping to break up a tangle on the Withywindle that was set to flood the fields.”
“Are they? Well, it sounds like he’s making himself useful then, though I hope I may see him soon. But what brings you to Woodhall then, if I may ask it, sir?”
“The road!” laughed the Master. “I’m on my way to Tuckborough, but I thought to stop for lunch and pass a little time with you. No, no, don’t concern yourself—I won’t plunder your larder! I’ve provisions in the cart.”
“Ah! Well, you’ll let me wet your whistle, won’t you?” said Robin, turning toward the door. “I’ve a new batch of ale just set up. It won’t take but a minute to draw, and we can sit here on the porch in the sun, if you like. ‘Tis warm out of the breeze. Pull up that chair there!”
When Robin returned with two stout mugs and a pitcher of ale, together with a thick wedge of cheese in which was buried a small red-handled knife, the Master was seated on the terrace spreading out the packet in which Berry had packed his lunch. “What a pretty place you have here,” he said, casting an appreciative eye over the hole and the garden. “Well, there never was a Gamgee who didn’t have a way with growing things! How are all your folk, Robin?”
“They’re well, sir. The letter box is always full of news—and more little Gamgees and other such, whose names I too often forget! But have a drop of that now, Uncle Merry—I’ll value your opinion.”
“Theo said it was excellent,” said the Master, taking a draught. He set down the cup with a slow smile. “And so it is! Your reputation is well-earned, Robin! Will you share my lunch? I’ve plenty, thanks to Cammy and Berry. Even the pony has too much to eat!”
“Thank you, Uncle, but I’ve just finished elevenses and you’re eating for a journey, so tuck right in. Trips always seem to me a hungry business, and it’s a fair trek to the Smials, I know, for I’ve been up and down the road a few times myself.”
“You go often to see your sister, then?”
“Oh, aye,” said Robin, smiling shyly. “ I always stop to pass the time with Goldilocks, but truth to tell, Uncle, there’s a lass in Whitwell who has a stronger hold on me.”
“Is there? Well, I hope I may wish you joy soon, lad! Will you be taking up your place in Bywater, then? You’ve been here so long with Tom I thought perhaps you had set on staying.”
“Nay, I never meant to,” Robin said, his face falling into serious lines. “But I can’t leave Tom alone. Not ’til he’s brought his own bride home, or at least won her promise.” He caught the Master’s questioning glance. “It’s my duty, sir,” he said simply. “He’s the youngest of us all and I owe it to Mum and Dad to look after him.”
“Save us!” murmured the Master, as if to himself. “And here’s another reason to see it done!” And quite unexpectedly he looked up and smiled at Robin, his blue eyes flashing conspiratorially in the sunlight.
“You know something, sir!” Robin cried. “Has Berry consented at last?”
“Not she!” said the Master, “But I am now apprised of the situation, which I may tell you had not been explained to me before—”
“Oh, no, sir!” said Robin hastily, looking slightly distressed. “But no one could mind how to broach the subject without seeming to slight you—which we wouldn’t for the world, sir!”
“Dear me!” said the Master rather humbly, wondering if he was the only person in the Shire who hadn’t known the particulars of Tom and Berry’s dilemma. “Well, Robin, I own I am affronted to think that everyone believes I require a nursemaid, but I am mighty glad to be told the truth of this at last. What a wretched reason for Berry to keep Tom waiting! Still, I have it in hand now, my lad, and I daresay by the end of next week, we may see satisfying events in motion. Not a word to anyone until then, though: I’ve a bit of mischief to see to first!”
“Oh, bless you, sir!” said Robin fervently, seeming for the first time the image of his father. “That’s the very best news I can think of! Though it’s a good thing I’m bound to the garden here this week, for I’ve no talent for keeping secrets and if I stir abroad I’m sure to say too much. Will you have more ale, sir? We’ll drink to Tom’s hopes.”
“And Berry’s too, my lad. How very fine this ale is, Robin! How do you make it? I know there’s something extra in the mix…”
“Ah, sir,” said Robin with a twinkle, “that’s my secret, and nobody knows it! Even my old Dad had to be content with drinking and not knowing how it came about. He was fond of it, was Dad.”
The Master sighed, “I miss Sam…”
“Aye, sir, so do we all. I wish he could have seen Tom take Berry to wife.”
The Master smiled into his mug. Poor Sam! As if Tooks in the family weren’t enough, now there would be Brandybucks as well! Well, he himself was glad of it: Tom was an admirable young fellow from a fine family, and just the person to steady Berry’s undeniably Brandybuck sensibilities. He could not see that Berry would be anything but happy with her choice, and he knew that both Estella and Rose would have been delighted. He felt a pang, though, to think that not even Sam would be there to share in his paternal pleasure and satisfaction.
Suddenly it occurred to him that there was much about his current situation that was seemingly like to Sam’s, and that Robin was someone who could speak to the after-effects of the path his father had taken. He hesitated for a moment, sipping his ale, and then said curiously: “Robin, when your father went away to the Havens, were all of you very angry with him? Did you mind that he left when he still had good years to go that might have been spent with you?”
Robin considered the question solemnly. He carved a bit of cheese with his red-handled knife and chewed thoughtfully. “No, Uncle. How could we grudge him what he so sorely wanted? Mind, it hurt our hearts, but we knew what he was about, and who could blame him, sir? Mum was gone and we were all well able to see to ourselves, and he’d done his best for the Shire every day of his life. No sir, we kissed him goodbye and sent him on his way, and I daresay a day don’t go by that we don’t think of him, but only to hope he found Mr. Frodo again, sir, and the Elves, and his peace. You know, he never said much about suffering himself, and he always gave the hero parts to you and Uncle Peregrin and Mr. Frodo, but I think he saw more than his own share of dreadfulness on that journey to Mordor, don’t you, Uncle? I wager he had hurts to heal in the Undying Lands as well.”
“You would be right to think so, lad. I know what Frodo said of him and what he wrote in The Red Book, and there’s no doubt Sam more than earned his place on that ship.”
“I’m double glad he went then, sir. Do you know, Dad always read The Red Book out loud to us all, and I never got a chance to read it for myself. But I always suspicioned that he skipped over some of the worst things that had to do with him.”
The Master nodded. “It would have been just like him to do that. No matter how well the Shire—or the world!— thought of him, he never seemed to think of himself as anything other than plain Samwise Gamgee, and half-wise rather then full-wise most of the time.”
“Aye….,” said Robin, and then suddenly he laughed. “Oh, but Uncle! Talking of half-wise, do you mind when Faramir came courting Goldilocks and was used to spend hours and hours with us every day, helping in the garden, and running errands, and sitting down to supper and Dad hadn’t a clue in the world what he was doing there? And nobody would say a thing, because it was Faramir’s place to speak, and he was afraid to, for fear Dad would refuse him on account of he was a Took, and finally Dad called Uncle Peregrin to Hobbiton and asked—just as humble and earnest as you please—if Master Faramir might not have chores to do at home, for he seemed most eager to have something to do, but with so many Gamgees, there wasn’t much left for him, let alone much provender left for supper? And poor Uncle Peregrin had to explain to him what Faramir was about? That was a half-wise moment if there ever was one! We all went out to the barn and fell down laughing!”
The Master laughed with Robin, recalling Pippin’s telling of the story years before. “Flabbergasted, Merry,” the Thain recounted solemnly, his eyes sparkling with laughter. “Absolutely shattered. He had no idea. And Gamgees joined with Tooks! You should have seen his face! I felt such a villain!”
“They will enjoy that story at Tuckborough, Robin,” he chuckled as he packed up the remains of lunch—leaving out an apple for the pony—and rose reluctantly to take his leave. “Especially Uncle Peregrin.”
“I hope he’s feeling better, sir,” said Robin as they strolled out to the cart. The Master climbed up into the seat, and Robin caught the apple he tossed and offered it to the pony while he scratched his ears affectionately. “I was through there a fortnight back and I heard somewhat that Uncle Peregrin was worrisome. Weren’t you there with him till nearly Foreyule?”
“I was, and he was seeming well when I left.” It occurred suddenly to the Master that he had not had a letter from Pippin in over a month, and that Robin’s information, together with Theo’s with regard to Faramir taking the reins on the Barway, did not add up as it should. What could be the matter? A little clutch of apprehension stirred his heart. “Do you say he is unwell?”
“I couldn’t say for sure, sir. Goldilocks only said that they were worried after him, for he seemed not to be himself. Well, she looks after Uncle Peregrin pretty close, so I guess she would notice if he took a head cold or some such thing. I shouldn’t fret over it, sir. She worries more than most. Save us, but I expect she’s in a regular stew by now, getting ready for your stopover! You know how Goldilocks is, Uncle: the sweetest, most managing lass that ever was—and that’s saying considerable when you mind the rest of my sisters!”
Goldilocks Gamgee had come to Tuckborough on her marriage twenty years before, the shy, uncommonly pretty and deeply cherished bride of Faramir Took, who had known her from the cradle and announced his intention of taking her to wife at the age of eight (a confidence his father the Thain had prudently withheld from his friend the Mayor until such time as the Mayor discovered it for himself—though of course he never did and the Thain had been forced to deliver the news anyway). Goldilocks was the third daughter—and sixth child—of Master Samwise and Mistress Rose, and along with her carefully selected trousseau—which included a small apothecary trunk laden with seeds gathered especially by her Dad with a critical eye to what might enhance the rather sparse borders at Tuckborough—she brought to her new home a powerful sense of family and a gift for seeing to it that everyone was looked after in a way that made them feel very comfortable and well-loved indeed. Thain Peregrin’s folk were naturally disposed to be open and affectionate anyway, and a shimmering atmosphere of tenderness had existed at the Smials for years, reflecting the romantic devotion of the Thain and his bewitching wife; but Goldilocks, who had inherited her father’s talent for dispensing love with hands-on care, elevated this upon her marriage to something approaching an art, and The Smials had been happily tucked up in her capable and loving hands for years.
Mistress Diamond, who had been an admirable chatelaine herself for many years, wisely chose to see Goldilocks’ formidable talents as a gift rather than a challenge, and was quite grateful to surrender the keys to her son’s very capable wife as soon as was decently possible so that she might retire to a less complicated life. Thus freed from housekeeping, she practiced her skills as an apothecary, played enchanting games with her grandchildren, took occasional trips to the North Farthing to see her folk (and indeed the two of her children who had settled there, as well) and walked with the Thain in the meadows and along the whispering brooks of the Green Hills Country in the long, gentle twilight of their story. She was wont to say that Goldilocks had given her back her bride days, and she was very grateful.
In the end there was not a Took relation on the place, no matter how far removed, who did not look to Goldilocks with deep affection in turn for some kindness she had done one or another when they most needed one to be done, and chief among her admirers was Thain Peregrin himself, for he had discovered while Diamond lay dying that pretty Goldilocks was more like her storied father—steady, selfless and adamant in her affections—than he had ever yet supposed. While he sat holding Diamond through the many hours of their prolonged, heartbreaking goodbye, while Galen and Laurelin saw to the herbs and medicines and the atmosphere of the sickroom, while Faramir saw to the lands and the folk who normally looked to The Took for direction, while Amethyst, calm and sure, set herself her father’s advocate and Merry Brandybuck came to share and absorb some measure of his grief, Goldilocks, herself beset with deepest sorrow, saw to the everyday work of the smial, and the grief and worry of the great extended family, and the needs of the children and—with implacable determination—the comfort and nurture of the Thain in his most painful hours.
Merry Brandybuck had seen first-hand in the difficult weeks he had spent at his cousin’s side after Diamond’s passing that Goldilocks was a force to be reckoned with, and he had been profoundly impressed—if occasionally cosseted far beyond his notions of propriety. Indeed, it occurred to him now that Jamy held the same opinion as Goldilocks with regard to the management of aged hobbits—an ominous sign when he came to think of it: Goldilocks would most certainly have something to say about Pippin riding to Edoras—“and no mistake!” as her old Dad was used to say.
“Save us!” he thought as the pony jogged placidly along the Stock Road. “I knew in the fall I was no match for Goldilocks! I think I shall have to be very sure of Pippin before his young folk hear anything of this, and make certain Faramir hears of it before Goldilocks in any case. Pippin will know best, of course, but surely Tom and Berry’s wedding will help to make her mild!”
Pushing open the door to the Hut, he lifted the lantern and looked around. The room was only faintly illuminated by the lavender-grey light outside the casement windows, and the corners of the room and the wide loft above were lost in shadows; but the familiar scents of wood and hearthstone, candles and old furniture filled his senses as he made his way in, and at the touch of his feet, the woven grass mat that covered the floor loosed a sweet, languid fragrance. He took a deep, tired breath and let it go, smiling fondly at the snug little cottage; most certainly it was a good place to come to at the end of such a long day.
The Hut was sparsely but quite adequately furnished, with three or four shabby old chairs drawn up to the hearth, and at the center of the great room a long wooden refectory table set about with benches. Around the walls were the little berths, each with a cupboard beneath holding a feather mattress and a blanket or two, wrapped in herbs and muslin. A wooden stairway led to the loft, where there was a floor for more sleepers, and a stout guardrail to keep them there; Pippin had never forgotten his fear of rolling off the flets in Lothlorien while he was fast asleep.
The Master settled his lantern, bag and cloak on the long table and went back outside to collect his hamper of provisions, stopping for a moment to listen to the sound of day’s end: the settling of the birds, the sudden hush of the land in the deepening shadows, the murmur of the little stream that ran down from the hills and skirted east through the meadow alongside the road. Then he lifted the hamper out of the cart and went into the Hut.
Tired though he was, he set about building a fire in the grate and put the kettle on to boil for a cup of tea. Then he went through his hamper and began to prepare his supper. Very soon he had bacon frying and some potatoes and onions sliced up and ready to mix in with a bit of salt. It had grown darker outside and was now very dim within, so he lit another lantern and a few candles to brighten up the room and sat down with his tea. When the skillet was done, he added a sausage and a small loaf to his plate, and sliced up an apple as well. Then he raised the trap door to the root cellar and peered in, pleased to find there was still a good supply of the beer he had left there in the autumn. Plate in hand and mug at his feet, he settled down in one of the soft, scruffy chairs before the fire to eat, and for a long while he contemplated the state of his affairs.
He was inordinately pleased with his scheme to remove the overreaching shadow of his life and reputation from Brandy Hall. Theo had blossomed overnight: a full partner now rather than a retiring acolyte and well on his way to accepting the Master’s chair without concern. He could not but feel for his son; when he had been young and part of the Fellowship of the Ring he had most certainly felt insignificant, untried, and unacceptable beside the others. But Gandalf had believed he had a part to play and insisted he be given the chance, and so he had won through with honour. He could do no more for his own son than to believe in him and set him properly on the road to his own destiny.
It had shaken him to learn that Berry was as much compromised as Theo by his artless influence. His lovely daughter was the apple of his eye, and he shuddered to think she might have sacrificed such happiness as Tom offered her now to tend him instead (as if he needed tending!). He was well satisfied that his plans would soon release her to that pretty little place in Woodhall and Tom Gamgee’s gentle affections.
As for Bo, well, his portion was no fault of his father’s, save that he had been born with the same restless confusion with regard to his own happiness. Given over to his brother’s best interests, his scholar’s curiosity, and a passion for the living world around him, Bo was too immersed to notice or set aside any time to attend the stirrings of his heart. Like his father before him, he would need to be brought face to face with the last precious moments of possibility left to him. The Master smiled to recall that Pippin and Freddy had done this for him; Cammy and Berry would do it now for Bo. He hoped with all his heart that Bo would go to Rushey tomorrow, and that Tansy Boffin would prove as surprisingly constant and adorably wise as Estella had been.
His thoughts turned to Pippin. No letter in a month and strong hints that he was ‘not himself’…what could it mean? He pulled reflectively on his pipe, loosing a spiral of smoke. Surely he would know if Pippin was ill or in trouble: he always did. As close as brothers, they had over the years come to a keen and unspoken sympathy with one another that extended well beyond place and time. If one was hurt, the other knew it; if one was needed, the other reached for him in ways neither could ever explain. They just knew. But Pippin had not reached for him since Diamond lay dying, and when they had parted late in the year with winter coming on, he had not been ailing. That he missed Diamond was manifest—indeed, his grief had rendered him in the beginning as fearfully lost and bewildered as Merry had ever seen him—but it had not broken him, as Estella’s death had nearly done Merry. Pippin had always had a way of filtering pain that let him get up again, battered and exhausted but quietly compliant. His was not a mind to harbour darkness, and he was rarely, if never, ‘not himself.’
He could make nothing of it in the end, and he sighed, for he was just the smallest bit uneasy. He rose from his chair seeking to distract himself by tidying up, washing the pots and dishes and putting them away again in their little cubbyholes. Then he made up a bed close to the hearth with one of the feather ticks from the cupboards and his own thick blanket and pillow from home. He banked the fire, snuffed the candles, pulled on his heavy cloak and went outside for a breath of air before he slept.
It was quite dark now and the sky was filled with stars, the hush of twilight given over to the altogether different and mysterious sounds of the night. The pony whiffled a soft greeting from the stable and an owl hooted from somewhere in the trees. A chorus of cricket song swelled up from the grass in all directions.
He stood still for a moment while his eyes adjusted to the dark and to the faint, silvered outlines of the world in starlight, then stepped off the porch, conscious of the peppery woodland scent of the Green Hills, always such a contrast to the damply rich odors of humus and waterweeds on the riverfront at Brandy Hall. He gazed across the starlit meadow, and drawn by the sound of moving water, picked his way through the long grass toward the brook. The water purled along in its narrow, stony bed, and for an instant it seemed to him that it must be tumbling over flashing diamonds, for all the stars in the heavens were reflected in the dark surface, glimmering in the singing motion of the current.
Dazzled, he knelt to look, and a wistful longing came over him: a long-forgotten child’s wish to catch and hold a star. He smiled to himself and slipped his hands into the water. At his touch, the tiny lights splintered and flashed across the surface, but when he lifted his brimming hands from the stream, he drew a soft enraptured breath, for they were filled with stars. He held them for as long as he could and when at last they trickled, shimmering, through his fingers and fell back into the stream in a sparkling shower of light, he watched as the water bore them away into the darkness, and was astonished suddenly to realize that he was crying.
He set out for Tuckborough at first light, as soon as he could see the road in the dense grey dawn. Thin tendrils of fog drifted among the trees, but the road was clear enough and the sun would be rising soon to warm away the mist. The pony was sleepy and wanted to wander and graze if he must wake up. He was unappreciative of the treats offered him in bribe; he took a lump of sugared honey without comment, ate an apple in an indifferent fashion and fidgeted through the harnessing with a wretched gracelessness that even the Master’s low, friendly chat did nothing to dispel. But once he was driven purposefully out onto the road, he acknowledged the Master’s air of haste and headed westward with tolerant dignity, to say nothing of speed.
While they pushed along the road, the Master made a cold breakfast from the hamper at his feet: bread and ham and cheese and several apple tarts he had failed to discover the night before. He had a flask of tea as well, brewed up before he departed the Hut and still warm, and this he sipped gratefully as they went. This stretch of the Stock Road was bordered on both sides with woodland and there were few holes or houses to be seen. The pony, wishing to be back in the meadow at the Hut, lagged a bit and had to be goaded forward now and then, grunting with studied indifference. They passed quietly and without meeting anyone for several hours, and the sun rose golden on the day, and the Master practiced what he must say to Pippin and hoped with all his heart his cousin would be glad to hear it.
Halfway through the journey, the woods on the north side of the road suddenly thinned and the land opened out into the farms and fields that would stretch all the way to Bywater and Hobbiton. Here there were folk to be seen now and again beside the road, working in the fields and tending small kitchen and flower gardens in the thin morning light. Many offered friendly waves and greetings, for they recognized the elderly Master of Buckland who went back and forth so often to see their Thain at Tuckborough.
The Master returned their greetings in kind, and smiled now around his pipe with silent amusement as suddenly the pony revived from his ennui and trotted briskly forward in an engaging manner; this was because a number of ponies at work in the fields and hedgerows had turned their heads to eye with rustic admiration the traveling pony from Stock. The traveling pony sniffed disdainfully; he was come of Rohan stock and had never in his life trod a furrow. The Master’s eyes twinkled behind the smoke wisping from his pipe; he knew the conceited fellow would get his comeuppance soon enough, for the ponies in the stables at Great Smials were all very proud—being not only descended of Rohan, but bred by Tooks as well—and would see him for a social-climber, being a Bucklander and up from the river and all.
The need for haste propelled the Master; he squinted often upward at the sun to assure himself that they were making good time. They were—he would see Tuckborough long before sunset— and three hours out he gave them both the luxury of a short rest in a leafy glade, where he took a walk for comfort’s sake and ate what was left in the hamper and let the pony graze and drink from a little spring that bubbled up under the trees. Then they were off again, the miles fading behind them as the sun began to dip westward slightly, neither of them paying special attention to anything but moving forward on the long Stock Road to Tuckborough.
Presently, though, a sound intruded on their reveries and they looked up to behold another pony approaching at an even pace from the opposite direction, a fine little beast fitted out with what looked even at a distance to be beautiful tack and with a hobbit astride who appeared to be more than at ease in the saddle. The Master nudged his pony to the side of the road to give the other room to go by; the pony, at first inclined to be aggressive, suddenly became aware that he was in the presence of aristocracy and complied with swift and respectful grace. Coming closer now, the rider called cheerfully, “Hoy! There you are, Uncle Merry! I thought I’d meet you soon!” and the Master recognized with surprise the handsome face and form of Faramir Took.
If Theo Brandybuck was steady and elegant, Faramir Took could only be described as dashing. Alone among the Thain’s four children, he had inherited from both his parents in equal measure the warmth and weathercock sensibilities of the Tuckborough Tooks, and the timeless aura of beauty and mystery that attended the North-tooks of Long Cleeve, in whom the blood of the fairy-wife could yet on occasion be seen. These gifts he bore without pretense, his manner quite naturally gentle, pleasant and forthcoming. While yet two years older than Theo, he seemed, like his father, to be still a boy in many ways, with his laughing green eyes and tousled black curls, and his careless disregard for his altogether striking appearance. He was dressed this day in dark green trousers, a white linen shirt, both cuffs and collar over-embroidered in white, and a plaid waistcoat of green and red. Neither his collar button nor the fine leather buttons on his waistcoat were in use. A green wool jacket of noticeably beautiful weave and construction was slung across the saddle in front of him, a testament to his wife’s affection and considerable skill with a needle. He looked a fairy king masquerading as a stable hand, and eloquently worthy of the little name the Master had bestowed upon him at his Naming Day.
“Fair Took!” The Master cried. “Bless me, lad, what are you doing out here? Were you looking for me?”
“I was, Uncle,” laughed Faramir, sliding dexterously off his splendid little pony and leading him forward to the cart. “I thought to come and meet you, if you don’t mind. You’ve made good time, sir. You must have started early.”
“I did that,” the Master nodded, wondering. Pippin sometimes met him on the road, anxious to have his company, but if memory served, this was the first time Fair had ever done so.
“Ah, and I see you’ve remembered to bring the beer!” Fair exclaimed, casting a raffish eye over the contents of the cart. “Father was sighing this morning over its anticipated appearance. He’s a rare affection for it, I must say. He says some of his best memories are the ones he’s forgotten because of it!” He grinned suddenly and his expression was so like his father’s—both teasing and knowing—that the Master laughed despite a growing sense of unease.
“But how do you do, Uncle?” Faramir said now, looking up at him keenly. “You look fine, sir. Very fit. Is everything well at the Hall?”
“It is,” the Master said, “As I shall tell you later on. But first you must tell me what brings you out to meet me, lad. I’ve had some worrisome hints along the road. Is there some trouble at the Smials?”
The laughing look in Faramir’s eyes stilled suddenly and the odd, faerie-wise solemnity of his North-took folk rose in its place. He tied his pony to the cart with a long leather line and set his foot to the hub of the wheel. “Not exactly,” he said, his face unreadable. “But can I ride back with you, sir? I came a-purpose. I want to talk about my father.”