“Him?” He looked back over his shoulder at the old hobbit with his cart and pony. “I only just met him, Miss,” he said cautiously, unsure of her eye, and then peeking up at her as if he couldn’t help it, he flashed his impertinent smile. “I make he’s a sharp old cove, though, if you’re asking what I think of him!”
She bit her lip. “He is that,” she agreed, and measuring the boy’s small, cocksure swagger, she frowned uncertainly.
She opened the door and stepped through, holding it while the boy passed in and closing it behind him. He caught his breath as the latch fell, his little figure grown suddenly taut as he gazed in awe up and down a long arcade: a wide passageway that ran the length of the courtyard and served as port of entry for the great many tunnels and staircases—each framed by a handsomely carved wooden archway—that wound about the vast interior of Brandy Hall. There was an air of great antiquity about the dark woods and muted bricks, a sense of many generations having passed the well-worn stairways and the smooth, stone floors into which all but the sharpest sounds seemed to be absorbed.
“Well?” Berry said sharply, and then she felt a pang, for too late she realized the child was entertaining sudden and serious misgivings. That he was something of a rogue there was no doubt, but he was also just a lad, and he was definitely caught off his guard. She put her hand on his shoulder, thinking to steady him.
He answered to the touch. “Save us!” he said with a little shiver, finding his voice and bravado. “Did you ever see the like? I never did, and that’s the truth! A regular warren, didn’t they say, and don’t I see that’s bang on to the truth! Who made this?”
“Brandybucks, of course!” she replied with some asperity. “We’re handy that way.”
He looked up at her in plain astonishment, his curls spilling into his startled eyes. “You, Miss! A Brandybuck? And your old dad? Same as the Master?”
Relieved to see he had recovered his aplomb, appalling though it might be, the girl gave a short laugh and steered him away to the left down the long arcade. “Certainly!” she said. “And you may call me Berry, if you like. Nearly everybody is a Brandybuck here—or related to one in some fashion or another. I expect even you yourself come of some branch of the family, for you carry half the name, now don’t you, Master Bucket?”
Jamy stopped dead, his imp’s mouth a perfect ‘o’ of surprise. “Bless me if I never thought of that!”
“No more should you,” said Berry, pushing him forward relentlessly, “for no doubt it happened long ago when your folk first took to the river. I should think the name of Bucket has its own legend now.”
Jamy accepted the compliment with largesse. “Aye, that’s so!” he said, nodding brightly. “My dad’s fair esteemed amongst the river captains, and my granfer, too, in his time.”
“Ah!” she said, teasing drily. “I thought you looked a hobbit of consequence the moment I saw you! Though what a little prince of the river-folk is doing bringing the mail to our doorstep, I’m sure I can’t say.” She looked at him expectantly, her eye on the slight outline of the letter in his pocket, but he looked away from her, suddenly silent, and she saw his mouth tighten slightly, as if he set his teeth.
She stopped, dismayed, and waited till he turned to look at her. “I don’t bite, Jamy Bucket,” she said in a milder tone. “And I meant no offense if you took any. You are most welcome here at Brandy Hall. It’s only that I’ve got used to being sharp with my father, you see, and it spills over sometimes.”
He nodded, frowning a little, his eyes darkling green as with some softly wounding anger that he could or would not bring to words.
“He doesn’t listen, of course,” Berry added, thinking to explain herself and give the boy some time. “He will have his own way if he’s not checked, and nothing I say will convince him he’s too old to caper about as he does. He’s a hard streak of daring in him, has my father, and he always did.” She sighed moodily. “He does what he likes, really, no matter what anyone thinks.”
The boy looked at her sideways, a quietly measuring gaze nearly obscured by that impossible profusion of russet curls, the hard contours of his little mouth softening. “Aye,” he said quietly after a moment. “So does mine.”
Understanding passed between them. In unspoken sympathy, they resumed the hallway and walked comfortably together beneath the last arch, entering into a long, curving passageway that was plainly delved along the very side of Buck Hill up which Jamy had just come, for a number of windows they passed looked out upon the pathway there and the broad-leafed wood beyond. The spring sunlight sparkled on the round panes, and some of the casements were unlatched, so that little breezes came frisking through to lift and toss the green ribbons that were woven through Berry’s light brown curls. Jamy found himself looking surreptitiously at those ribbons; he did not have a wide experience of females, but of those he had known, none had ever worn ribbons in her hair. He liked them, and it came to him suddenly that if the woods and then the Hall had spiked his uneasy sense of being far and away out of his element, these soft, fluttering bits of ribbon eased any fear he had about it: shipwrecked he might be, but there was something to be said for the surprising shore on which he had run aground.
Along the inner wall of the vaulted passage were a number of heavy oak doors, finely planed and paneled, behind which, Berry explained, various Brandybucks of the Master’s family made their homes. Long walls hung with lamps and a good many family portraits, rendered in an antique style and darkened with age, marked the separation of these apartments.
There were also a number of open chambers that were used by the household at large. The first along the passageway was a drawing room, which Berry explained was used for entertaining large numbers of hobbits on festive occasions. At each end of this chamber was a large fireplace, and in between the walls were covered with intricate hangings depicting the life, work, and citizens of Buckland. Jamy smiled to see that along with the farms and the forests, the river had also found its way into these images, and the boats at the dock near the Brandywine Bridge, too. The room was partially filled with trestle tables and lit by four imposing, two-tiered candelabrum which were suspended from the ceiling, and at the back two doorways led away into shadowy anterooms of unknown description.
“Quite dazzling it is,” said Berry, pointing out the features of this room to Jamy, who had stopped dead to marvel at it, “when all the candles are ablaze and there is singing and dancing and recitals. And my—the Master loves a party, so we often see it so.” Jamy goggled silently, and smiling, she drew him onward.
Two private apartments followed the drawing room and then they passed a kitchen alcove with a red brick wall at the back, behind which, Berry informed her companion, the actual bakery and cook’s room for this wing of Brandy Hall could be found. The front part was hung with all manner of baskets and trays and wooden containers. Large numbers of dishes were stacked neatly on the rough tables, and linens were folded and stored on the shelves. Beyond this room was yet another open to the passageway: a combination buttery and tap-room wherein teeming barrels and bottles and casks were stored in a splendidly outfitted chamber. “Of course that’s to serve this entire passageway,” she explained.
“Aye? Then where is everyone?” Jamy asked, peering into the buttery. “It’s beyond quiet, Berry. They say a raft of hobbits live in Brandy Hall and we’ve not met a living soul!”
“The sun is shining,” she said. “Everyone is out and about. Well, all save Cammy and the children who’ve been away in the Marish seeing her folk. But there’s much to be done nowadays about Brandy Hall and Bucklebury, and everyone pitches in, that can. It’s time for spring cleaning, for planting, for clearing and gathering the deadwood….”
“Oh, aye,” said Jamy, trotting along beside her. “I ken to that; I met your old dad and your brothers in the forest with that load of firewood when I came up from the ferry. Though that’s not what they were about just then—save us, but your old dad was in a fair temper, Berry!”
“Oh!” she cried, turning to him in dismay. “The Tree is really dying, then?”
He looked up, surprised and curious. “Aye—but, how do you know about that?”
“My brothers were afraid it might be. Was—my father was very upset about it?”
“Hoy!” The green eyes widened. “Fair burned me alive with one look, he did, when I tripped into the middle of it—and that was after he raked your brothers! ‘Twasn’t any secret—oh, no!—how put about he was, Berry, though I own he set it aside quick enough when he laid eyes on me. But he flat declared he would not face the Hall with it. Why? Will your Master be angry, do you reckon?”
“I think he will be very sad,” said Berry. “Poor Father…”
“Well, ‘tisn’t his fault!” Jamy bristled. A fearsome glower creased the bridge of his neat, if impudent nose. “He said hisself as that tree is seven hundred years old, and your fellow—what’s his name? Tom?—said as that was a fair and proper lifetime! Is the Master so unfair as that?”
Did nothing escape the little gremlin! Mention of Tom sent a faint blush of pink to Berry’s cheeks, but she managed to laugh softly at Jamy’s righteous indignation. “No! He’s a very good fellow, is the Master. But see here, Jamy Bucket, what about you? What have you got there that is so important that you must put it into the Master’s hands your very self?”
Her fond amusement settled Jamy’s stirred instinct for battle and once again an impudent smile turned up the corners of his mouth. “A letter.” He darted away from her, his eyes lighting mischievously. “And ‘twas the postmaster as said it must come straight to The Magnificent’s hands, on account of it being held up for who knows how many days by the tradesmen’s parcels on the dock.”
“Well, dear me!” Berry returned solemnly. “ ‘The Magnificent’, is it? How very impressive! Oh, but, come, Jamy!” she cried, her curiosity getting the better of her at last. “You really are too hard! Don’t I keep the Master’s apartments and know his business besides? It’s not carrying tales to let me look at it!”
Jamy grinned and relented: he had already decided he approved of this pretty, be-ribboned miss who was so frank and funny, if also very fierce, and who had unaccountably made him feel at ease in this unfamiliar place. She reminded him in a vague way of his mother, lost to him these ten years, but tenderly wrapped in memory. “All right, then,” he said. “I’ll show you.” He took the soft leather package out of his pocket and held it up for her inspection as they walked along. “It comes from the King of Rohan,” he confided, holding it carefully in his small brown hands. “Feast your eyes!”
She did, and they sparkled to see the seals and wrappings. “Oh, so it does! I’m so glad to see it! That’s something to make the old gentlehobbit happy in spite of the Tree! They’ve been friends these many years, you know, he and the King of Rohan.”
“Friends?!” He looked up, incredulous. “The Master of Buckland is friend to a King?”
“Two, if you please,” she informed him loftily, her eyes dancing, “for the High King in Gondor writes too, when he can. And certainly, they are friends. Why should they write, else?
“I don’t know! The postmaster said as it was Important Business of the Southern Crown.”
“Mayhap,” she acquiesced. “But in truth, they have a great fondness for each other, my—our Master and the Kings. They adventured together when they were young, you know. Have you not heard the stories of the Master’s days with the Riders of Rohan, then?”
“Faith, I never heard any such!” he cried, settling the letter back into his pocket and flushing with excitement. “Adventures! With Riders and Kings? Will you tell me about them? Is that why he’s called The Magnificent?”
She laughed and shook her head, the soft green ribbons dancing with her curls. “No,” she explained. “All the Masters of Buckland have some such tag bestowed upon them. It’s tradition. He didn’t come to be called The Magnificent until he had been the Master for a while, and I’m sure I don’t know what made them choose that name. Though in truth,” she mused gently, “I guess you could say he was always a little out of the ordinary, even for Buckland.”
“Aye, marry, and him a friend of kings!” said Jamy with decision, and helpfully remembering the words of the woodsman—which he had well-nigh ignored at the time they were spoken, but recalled now with considerable enthusiasm in the light of adventures with kings and Riders of Rohan—he observed, “Then it must be true what your dad said, Berry. That the Master is a fair grand old fellow?”
She stopped abruptly before a set of wide oak doors that fitted into a sudden sweeping curve in the outer wall. The doors were very old and polished to a quiet satin finish but otherwise they were remarkable only for the utter simplicity of their design. “Grand?” she repeated, looking at him in genuine astonishment. “My father said the Master was grand?”
“Aye. What’s wrong with that?”
Berry’s eyes flashed indigo beneath fierce, fine brows; obviously her aged parent’s wanton lack of propriety with regard to speaking of the gentry had proved too much at last. “Well!” she cried, considerably vexed. “He’s quite the wag and telltale, isn’t he, the sly old fellow! I hope he never thinks I won’t catch him out for this! Grand! I ask you! Oh, but save us!” She looked at Jamy in some dismay. “What’s come over him? And what does he expect me to do with you?”
He shook his head uncertainly, but nodded at the doors. “I recollect as he said you’re to put me in the Master’s study, Berry. Maybe this is it?”
With a sigh, she took from the pocket of her gown a fine set of polished silver keys, and sliding one into the lock, turned it with a nearly soundless, well-oiled click. “It is,” she said, turning to look at him. “Come in then, Jamy Bucket, and see for yourself what The Magnificent is about, for this room is his own and full of all the things he likes best.”