The frantic pain of losing her five years past was soothed now to some extent, overlaid with a thin veneer of time and routine and the desperate resignation that came of finding, as he had done before in life, that no matter the pain one had no choice but to go on. But as he trod the garden path this evening it seemed to the Master that for the first time since she had gone his heart did not ache so much with loss, and it seemed to him strange that this should come to pass as he contemplated yet another death, and a long journey, and the passing of his own times.
But then he considered what Estella had been to him: heart’s guide and sturdy advocate of every venture. She had shown him—when he had all but forgotten—how to follow his heart again, and so he had done until the day she died, and then, it seemed, he had forgotten again for this little while. Estella would approve this enterprise, he thought with a smile; it was her blessing that gave his heart ease now, just as her love had ever eased his life.
Merry Brandybuck had cherished beyond words the love he had very nearly lived his life without; even now he shivered to think what his and Estella’s lives would have been without each other, if she had, in despair, found and followed some other path while he had struggled blindly on to ease the lingering turmoil left of war with unremitting travel and study and discovery. But she hadn’t done, thank the stars; the sweet girl had bound her heart to his before he ever knew it, and even yet he held her there.
He stood watching her—unobtrusively, he thought—until he felt Pippin’s presence next him and a warm grip on his shoulder. “Merry?”
Instinctively, he groped for Pippin’s hand. “Wait, Pip, ” he murmured, abstracted, and Pippin, wondering, followed his gaze across the room.
“Oh!” he said, his voice rising in a soft, teasing lilt. “I see.”
Merry shook his head. “Well, I don’t,” he muttered. “Help me, Pippin! Where has she been all this time? I could swear I have not seen her since we were tweens, but clearly that’s not possible.”
“I shouldn’t think so,” said Pippin dubiously, “for she’s been here in the Shire all along. Of a certain you must have seen her, Merry. She and Freddy have always come to all our parties.”
“Save us, Pippin! I didn’t know her just now—I can’t have seen her in years! And what’s that about Freddy? She’s a husband, surely?”
“Nay, not Estella.” Pippin shook his head. “She keeps house for Freddy in Budgeford.”
“She does?” Merry frowned. The Great East Road between the Brandywine Bridge and Hobbiton went right past the pretty lane to Budgeford—but he couldn’t remember the last time he’d been there. “How long has she been doing that?”
“Oh, years and years, I think,” Pippin reflected. “Since Odo passed away, at any rate, and Rosa went to Michel Delving to live with Poppy Bolger. Oh, but that happened while we were away at the War, and neither Freddy nor Estella speak of it; and you have been so often abroad since that it’s no wonder you didn’t hear of it, Merry. As for Estella herself, well, I think she’s rather like Diamond in a way. In that she’s unusual, I mean to say: not at all the rule.” He laughed a little. “Perhaps that’s why you didn’t notice her, Merry. She’s not like the girls we used to fancy—all dancing and ribbons and petticoats, as you’ll remember.”
They exchanged a glance, a little abashed at their boyish selves, remembering how it had been when they returned to the Shire, how everything that had so absorbed them the year before—pubs and parties and girls and pranks—seemed far and away out of step with their newly awakened and deeply torn sensibilities. To be sure they cut a dash, and were welcomed everywhere, always ready for a party or keen to tell a tale, but they had become too thoughtful, too knowing for most of the girls in the Shire; the innocent abandon of life as they had known it would never be wholly theirs again. Merry thought that Pippin had been lucky to find Diamond before he ever really understood his peril in this regard; but Merry had not been lucky, and he was acutely conscious of his own. He was out of step, he had stopped looking, and the dance was nearly over. He sighed deeply.
“Well, she’s very pretty,” he said.
“Yes,” Pippin responded judiciously, with the thoughtful air of a hobbit who knew a bit about beautiful ladies. “She is that. Not so sparkling as Diamond, but very lovely in a quiet sort of way.” He paused for a moment, then, seeming to consider his words, he went on: “She is…more than she appears,” he said. “Deep—like the Water where it passes under the Wooden Bridge in Long Cleeve. Do you remember that place, Merry? A sweet shimmer on the surface, but very strong currents below. You’ve seen her pictures? No? Oh—well, they are astonishing.”
Dinner was announced and the lady in question rose now from her seat beside the hearth to take her brother’s hand, setting aside her drawing materials and stopping for a moment to speak affectionately to Sam’s little girls. She turned then to Freddy, and Pippin said as Merry continued to observe her: “They’re quiet folk, Freddy and Estella, and they live a quiet life in Budgeford. You mind how he always looked out for her when we were small; he still does, and very properly, too, though of course it’s clear as crystal she’s a hand in looking out for him these days as well.”
“He’s never quite recovered, has he?” Merry murmured, looking after Freddy’s slender, frame. “How sorry I am, Pippin! I don’t expect we’ll ever call him ‘Fatty’ again.”
“No,” Pippin agreed. “But he’s quite recovered in spirit, and he’s a faithful friend. You should stop in at Budgeford, Merry; you’ll feel better to see him in his element. He’s a fine tract of land there and he made some splendid changes to the old smial when he began repairs after the ruffians broke it up. Doubled the pantries—and such cellars! Freddy sets a generous table, for all he doesn’t look as if he shares in it.”
“I didn’t hear about the smial.” Merry turned troubled eyes to Pippin. “It’s true, isn’t it?” he said unhappily. “I do wander in my mind, just as Freddy said. I get so caught up, Pip—with plans and books and projects—I just seem to miss things. You say the ruffians sacked the Bolgers’ hole back then?”
“Yes,” said Pippin, answering the question readily enough but patting Merry’s arm kindly in gentle solidarity with his concern. “It was a reprisal of sorts after Freddy was taken prisoner—in return for leading the rebellion, you understand. The Brockenbores all came to help him rebuild, of course—what a splendid lot of chaps they were! And every one of them absolutely loyal to Captain Bolger to this day!”
“I remember them.” Merry shook his head in wonder, recalling the hard-eyed, grim-faced band of hobbits who had followed Freddy into the hills of Scary. “Faith, Pippin! Who could have imagined it? Fatty Bolger, Captain of rebels!”
They smiled together, following Freddy with affectionate eyes as he squired his sister into the dining room, sharing this as they did so many other things with a warm glance and a flash of unspoken understanding, the sweet consolation of a lifetime of friendship. Pippin said suddenly, sincerely, “I’m awfully glad you’ve come back, Merry,” and Merry, feeling yet ashamed, did not meet his eyes but said: “I shan’t go away like that again, Pip. I promise.”
“Uncle Merry? Uncle Pippin?” Sam’s little daughters stood looking up at them. They exchanged a bemused look, mindful that their height could be a difficulty for children, and knelt as one.
“My ladies,” Merry said, bowing gravely over their small hands. “How you have grown! Are you having a good holiday? Has Uncle Pippin provided enough cakes and strawberries and cream? I am your servant, you know: you have only to say the word, and I shall demand that more be set before you!”
Rosie giggled and Elanor dropped a graceful curtsey. “That was pretty!” said Pippin approvingly.
“I’m practicing,” she confided, “should I ever meet the Queen.”
“Ah,” said Pippin, nodding. “Well, I think she will like your curtsey very much, don’t you, Merry?”
“Indeed yes,” said Merry. “Though I have just recently seen the Queen, Elanor, and I think she would dispense with curtseys altogether just to have the acquaintance of two such beautiful maidens as you and Rosie.”
Rosie, who was all of five, coloured prettily, her eyes bright with his compliment, but Elanor, who at nine knew the ways of her father’s world, was scandalized. “Uncle Merry!” she said. “You must always curtsey to the Queen!”
“I don’t,” he said with laughing eyes.
“Uncle Merry!” squeaked Rosie.
“Well, I will tell you a secret, Ellie,” said Pippin solemnly. “The Lady Evenstar is so good a creature that if you were to forget to curtsey, she would never say a word about it, but invite you to tea anyway!”
“I hope I may have tea with the Queen someday,” sighed Rosie. “Dad says she has wonderful cream cakes with sugared violets, and lemonade, and blueberries!”
“Well, now I’m hungry!” laughed Merry. “May we see you ladies into dinner?”
“Oh, no!” said Elanor, disapprovingly. “We’re only children and Dad says this dinner is especially for you and the grown-ups, Uncle Merry. We shall be having dinner in the nursery with the other children.”
“And a lovely lemon tart,” supplied Rosie with enthusiasm.
“And Baby Faramir will be there,” added Elanor. “Oh, Uncle Pippin, he’s so very pretty!”
“I take that as high praise,” said Faramir’s father, “coming from a lady with so many handsome brothers. And look! Here he is now, and Nanny Fern, as well.” He stood up, whispering behind his hand: “I expect she is come to collect you to the nursery!”
Nanny Fern was a stout little lady with a round rosy face and snapping black eyes. She wore a wide white apron and a lacey cap from which a few white curls had rather purposefully escaped to effect a little fluff around her face, giving her the look of a pretty child, even though she was actually quite old, having been Pippin’s nurse once upon a time. She carried small Faramir on one plump arm, where he was at this moment sitting up and looking brightly about. The baby exclaimed happily to see his father and Pippin took him up for a happy moment, holding him close and bending his face to plant a soft kiss on the little curly head. Merry watched with a full heart; how different now was the world he had known!
“Uncles,” said Elanor. “Rosie and I came to give you something.” She extracted a sheaf of small, stiff papers from her pocket and selected two. “Mistress Estella makes such very good pictures, and she drew all the guests for us while we sat by the fire,” she said. “Some of the pictures are very funny, but yours are quite perfect. We showed Dad, and he said you should see them. ” She gave them each a paper, and as she did so, Nanny Fern began to gather up her charges.
“Come now, chicks,” she said kindly but implacably, and lifting Faramir from his arms, she said to Pippin, “There now! I do beg your pardon for hurrying, Peregrin dear, but the others are all away upstairs and there’s only young Florri to look after them while I’m gone, and you know I haven’t trained her up properly yet. I’ll not be at ease until I’ve got all those children under my eye, so we must be off at once.”
“Just so, Nanny,” said Pippin solemnly, and Elanor took Rosie’s hand. “Do keep the pictures, Uncles,” she said. “We shall ask Mistress Estella to make us more tomorrow! Goodbye for now! I’m glad you’ve come back, Uncle Merry—I hope you like your picture!” And they rushed away up the stairs with Nanny and little Faramir.
Merry raised his hand to wave after them, but it froze in the air when he looked down at the sketch. “Save us!” he said sharply. “What in all the Shire—?”“Ah!” Pippin exhaled softly, as if he absorbed a gentle blow. “She has caught me dead to rights again! I don’t know how she does it, Merry. I think she can read hearts. There’s always more in her pictures than she ought to be able to see.”
Merry said, shuddering faintly. “It’s not possible … We’ve not even met in the last ten years, Pippin, I’m sure of it! How can she know so much about me as this?”
Pippin shook his head and met his eye without words.
With a sigh, Merry slipped the portrait resolutely into his pocket. “Feed me, Pippin,” he said gravely. “I’ve been away too long, and I’m not settled in my mind. I’ve not sat down to a Shire feast in well over a year, but they say the best way to settle a hobbit is to stuff him, so feed me, cousin, if you’ve any pity!”
“Poor Meriadoc!” said Pippin, catching his arm and leading him toward the dining room. “It’s not true, you know. The best way to settle a hobbit is to make him feel at home. I pray you do, Merry: come in, and be welcomed home!”
He thought he had never seen Sam so easy in himself. The mantle of prominence and high regard conferred by his election to the Mayor’s seat had without doubt effected a subtle transformation in the always-modest Master Gardener. To be sure, Sam maintained the same stolid sense of kindness and simple dignity he had always had, but now there was about him a gentle confidence as well, a steady assurance that told folk they were in experienced hands. Sam had become a gentlehobbit despite himself in these years, and a famous one, too. Merry had been proud to tell the King of Sam’s rising fortunes, and Strider had been delighted to hear of them.
Sam rose now to perform the simple rite he and Merry and Pippin had made a tradition at every special occasion they had marked since Frodo had departed the Grey Havens. Every eye met his as he took a deep breath and marshaled both his dignity and his memories. He lifted his cup. “To the Ring-bearer!” he said with reverence, and all down the table they rose as one: “Frodo!” they answered solemnly, and drank, and among them were eyes that grew bright with tears. Merry fingered them off his cheeks and Pippin stared into the depths of his wine while one tear and then another and more slipped down, until at last, almost without knowing it, he lifted a hand to brush them away.
Then, after the long silence, Sam raised the cup again and this time a smile wreathed his face as he looked down the length of the table: “Welcome home to the Shire, Mr. Merry!” he said. “We’ve missed you more than we can say!” and now there followed applause and several cheers and some of the younger and generally more solemn Bagginses cried, “Speech!” and everyone drank again. And then Pippin rose and gave a funny, tender toast that made everyone laugh and Merry think how lucky he was to have such a friend as this, and everyone drank Merry’s health with great enthusiasm and began to pass the dishes.
The plates were piled high and talk and wine flowed freely; the candles cast a golden glow over the room and the faces of the friends and relations who had come to remind Merry that he was a part of their lives and well-loved. He looked round and felt in the growing peace of his heart that he belonged to the Shire again, and he almost gasped with relief, for he had been afraid that it might not be so.
They coaxed him for tales of what he had been doing away from them for so long, and he recounted his adventures in Rohan and confided modestly that he had been knighted there—a full Rider of Rohan now in all respects.
“All?” echoed Pippin in amazement, the only one there who could know what that meant. “Merry, how did you manage it?”
He laughed. “In truth, it was a reckless wager,” he confessed, “which I took—mind you all—for the Honour of the Shire. I thought to prove that a mere holbytla could match in skill a Rider of the Mark, and while it cost me a good deal of humiliation while I was in training, so I did prove in the end!” He raised his cup, smiling roguishly as they exclaimed with admiration. “The King of Rohan was much set down, I can tell you, though he proved more than generous in the end when I claimed unlimited access to his pantries as part of my prize!”
They all laughed and several cheers went up, led by Pippin and Freddy. Looking down the board, he caught a glimpse of Estella, almost ethereal in the lowering candlelight; a cup of ruby wine suspended before her parted lips and in her dark eyes a lively expression of interest and something else he could not fathom, though he felt it, somehow, at the center of his heart. Involuntarily, he dropped his gaze, and when he looked back at her again, Rose and Marigold had claimed her attention.
“What did you do while you were in Minas Tirith, Merry?” Diamond asked, as conversations rose again around the table.
“Nothing at all heroic, I assure you, Di,” he said smiling. “I spent the better part of my time in the King’s library doing research and writing a book, and while I was enjoying the spoils of the pantry in Edoras I began another. I had barely set my hand to the page, though, when Pippin and my mother bethought at the same time to call me home, and so I came—for the better part of my heart is here, and no mistake, as Sam will say. I shall quite happily finish my books at Brandy Hall now.”
“What’s this?” wondered Thain Paladin amiably. “Is my wandering nephew settling at last, then? That is welcome news for us, Merry, and most certainly for my sister and the folk at the Hall.”
Merry turned to Esmeralda with remorse. “I own I am a trial to my mother, Uncle,” he said, flushing a little as he lifted her hand to bestow a penitent kiss. His mother smiled tenderly, but his father’s illness and his own inexplicable wanderlust in the face of it lay too heavy on his mind to grant him any excuse. He said in a low voice, his eyes darkening with shame, “But worse, I am a grief to my father, sir, who has ever been a patient fellow and has had but one son in whom to place all his hopes.”
“Oh, no, Merry!” cried his Aunt Eglantine, her sweet face drawn with dismay, and at his right hand Pippin and Diamond, who had been following this talk, echoed her distress. The Thain shook his head.
“Don’t you believe it, young fellow!” he advised archly. “No one is more secretly pleased with you than Scattergold, and I don’t scruple to tell you so! He’s not grieved any more than I am. Know this, lad: we’re not about to forget that you and Peregrin and the Honourable Sam there were drawn into unaccountable destiny, and took unaccountable hurts in consequence. No hobbits before you ever had such a path to walk, or such a weight to carry. Oh, Bilbo had his adventure, to be sure, but it never cost him what it did you lot. No more than I would Saradoc presume to complain; we are simple old fellows but we know our sons number among The Great.”
This last made Merry’s hands tremble in reaching for his cup. He sat back, cradling it, and exchanged a tentative glance with Pippin. To be so singled out in the Shire was to risk being uncomfortably alone. He saw in Pippin’s eyes that he knew this, and when Diamond quietly took Pippin’s hand in hers, he saw that she did, too.
“I thank you for the compliment, Uncle,” he said, bowing a little. “But too often it does not feel like a privilege.”
“Nor is it, child,” said the old Thain, with sympathetic eyes. “It seems to me that it is a duty.”
“Mr. Merry,” said Sam. “I caught a bit of what you were saying about writing your books at the Hall. I was thinking about the book you meant to write before you left. All about pipe-weed, if you remember; do you mean to write it still?”
“I do, Sam: Herblore of the Shire. I mind I asked you to put down a bit about growing seasons and soils and such.”
“Well, I have done,” said Sam, taking a folded paper from his pocket. “Very interesting it was, too, learning all about it. I’ve never grown leaf; takes plantations rather than gardens to do it, as you know, Mr. Merry. But I had occasion to speak with a fellow who does—grow it, if you follow me—a Longbottom up from the South to do business in Michel Delving. I stood for a pint of ale, and got him to tell me a few secrets of the trade. I hope you can use them; I as much as promised they would end up in your book!”
“Sam, that’s wonderful, and thank you! And listen, I’m glad you asked, because I’ve been thinking. I had an idea about the Herblore book as I was coming home along the Bree Road the other day and seeing the Shire again after so long. You’ll know this of course, Sam, but it occurred to me there are lots of plants that grow in this country that you don’t see other places in Middle-Earth. I thought that in addition to pipe-weed I might fill the book with all our native plants—descriptions, and how they grow, and where, and how we put them to use. What do you think?”
“A book of plants?” Sam said radiantly. “I think that’s a grand idea!”
“I thought so, too,” Merry smiled. “It would be a way of making a record of our little land. Of course, I shall have to go tramping about to see them all, and make notes. You could help, Sam; make a list of things I won’t want to miss.”
“I’ll do that,” agreed Sam, already imagining what should be said about some of his very favorite wildflowers and a few fine, indigenous grasses that might otherwise be overlooked along The Water. “I’ll just pass along these notes on pipe-weed, then, and start making a list for you. What a wonderful book it will be—and very useful to the Shire. Would you be making a copy, Mr. Merry, so we might keep one in Michel Delving at the Town Hole?”
“Why, Sam!” said Merry, pocketing the pipe-weed notes and considering this flattering expansion of his new idea. “That’s a delightful scheme! Do you think there is a copyist in Michel Delving who might make a really good reproduction for the Shire? Fine paper and a beautiful hand and leather binding and all of that?”
“I think I can name the very fellow!” said Sam, warming to the possibilities and fixing the young scrivener—who did fine Proclamations—in his mind’s eye. “I think we may as say it’s done, sir!”
Pippin had been very quiet through all of this, but he had been listening closely and looking very thoughtful. Now he smiled and spoke, clapping his cousin on the back: “Merry,” he said, “Heavy paper and leather bindings and a fine hand will certainly make your book of Shire plants very handsome—and without a doubt very useful, too, as you say, Sam. But you know, I think what a book like that wants is pictures.”
Sam responded instantly with delight. “Why, Mr. Pippin!” he exclaimed rapturously. “That’s the very thing! Think how fine if there was a little picture of every leaf and flower! We shall have to think who might be able to make them for you, Mr. Merry.”
Merry looked slowly from Pippin to Sam and back again in dismayed and fascinated silence. “Pictures?” he said, searching their faces, but they met his suspicious gaze with such open and artless enthusiasm and affection that he thought he must be more world-weary than even he had supposed he could be, and privately he chided himself for his too guarded nature and for forgetting how simple and honest were the ways of the Shire. His hand stole toward his pocket.
Great Smials was sleeping; there were no sounds in the corridor beyond his door or in the rooms to either side. Of course, the walls were thick and heavily paneled, both for coziness in extreme seasons and quiet in all of them: Tooks, after all, had been improving on the original delving for ages, tackling each new deficit as it was noticed with the unique perception and unflagging vitality for which they were famous. Great Smials was perhaps eccentric, but it lacked no comfort anyone could think of.
He lit the lamp on the table next his bed and climbed back in, taking up Estella Bolger’s little picture from where he had laid it aside before he went to sleep. His heart stirred at the sight of it, but whether it was elation or disquiet that roused it, he could not tell.
The portrait was a hurried pencil sketch, dashed off in quick, clever strokes and shadings and as true an image of himself as he had ever seen in a looking glass. Everything about it was exactly right, from the way his willful curls tumbled round his slightly uneven features, to the stubborn set of his mouth and the expression in his eyes: the sudden, curious attention he had bent on the artist. He realized he must have watched her do it; the sharp, searching look he had seen in her face when she had so unexpectedly met his eyes across the parlour had been her study of him, of course, but how could she see so much in one, fleeting look? And how was it that these hurried marks on a bit of paper could expose him so completely—for he could see clearly the dark well of hurt that he took such pains to hide, and the shame that niggled him for running away, and the sudden surge of turbulent confusion her presence had roused in him as well. Faith! Could she see all that, or did she just record lines and shapes and was it only he who knew what they were? He remembered Pippin’s gentle gasp, his rueful acceptance of his own unmasking: There’s always more in her pictures than she ought to be able to see … I think she can read hearts …
He closed his eyes and leaned back against the pillows, groaning softly. It pained him that his father understood the darkness that sometimes wrapped his heart, but the idea of that lovely girl being able to read it thoroughly alarmed him. Still, he thought hopefully, Elanor and Rosie had deemed nothing amiss; they had not seen a dark or dreadful stranger, only a likeness that was ‘perfect.’ Perhaps only he and Pippin and Sam could see the shadows; perhaps one had to know darkness to recognize it when it appeared. And if that was the case, he thought, then Estella Bolger had not really found him out, for most assuredly such a sheltered creature as she must be had never been touched by the dark.
He opened his eyes as a wandering breeze lifted through the window and brushed a cool breath of air against his cheek. The sky beyond the open portal was indigo and he could see that the stars were starting to fade. He got up and looked out again, leaning on his elbows; the hills were but dark shadows yet, but soon enough dawn would split the night on the high horizon and another summer’s day would come dancing forth. It would be hours till breakfast, though, after such a celebration as Faramir’s Naming Day had been; he was too wide-awake to sleep again and, he owned with a frown, too restless to wait for the house to stir. He not been restrained by domestic courtesy for a long time—in Rohan the Riders came and went with only a cursory respect for the hours, and in Gondor he had been free to wander as he would through a city that, in some quarters at least, never slept but kept a constant vigil in the dark.
He was wondering if he should try to find a book to read when once again the roving night air fetched the smell of sweet grass up to him, and suddenly he thought that a walk in the hills would be just the thing. He washed his face and hands in the bowl beneath the looking glass and dug in the chest at the foot of his bed for the rough, workaday clothes he had traveled in, and when he was dressed, for no reason he could think of, he took up Estella Bolger’s picture and put it in the pocket of his padded jacket. Lastly he slipped his light traveling pack over his shoulders. He never went walking without it: he was an avid collector, and one never knew when something of interest might turn up.
He let himself silently into the corridor and from there down the long stair to the main floor of the Smials. On the way down a darkened side passage to one of the lesser doors leading to the outside (a route he had discovered as a boy with Pippin), he passed a wide stone stair leading down to the cavernous kitchens and instinct made him pause and step down to see what might have been set out for early risers or those who might be hungry in the night—a custom that had long attended late-night celebrations in Tuckborough, where hospitality was an art. His instinct was rewarded: the long sideboard held baskets of breads and bowls of fruit and several covered platters of meats, and two wheels of cheese. There was a large copper kettle steaming slowly over a bed of coals on the hearth, and a barrel of ale set up in a corner. He made a small pot of tea and set it to steep while he wrapped up a little pre-breakfast picnic he thought now to eat beneath the trees; following this, a competent search of the cupboards turned up a traveler’s flask into which he carefully poured his tea together with a dollop of honey. Thus provisioned, he stowed these things away in his pack, tucked two small apples into his pockets and proceeded on his way, slipping out of the side door and into the kitchen garden, where he trod the pathway lightly to the garden gate and arrived at last in the shadowed lane.
The path into the hills started just beyond the stables. He turned now in this direction and could just see, at the end of the lane, the glimmer of the whitewashed gate. Noiselessly he made for it, savoring along the way the freshness of the new day. Early morning air was always cool and spicy, redolent with the delicate scents of resting trees and gushing springs and grasses washed with dew. The coming light would intensify these scents, and the heat of the day would thicken them, but there was a purity of fragrance in the lucent hours before dawn in the Shire that always filled him with a deep sense of reverence and a feeling of kinship with the land.
As he approached the gate now, a large barrel, set against the stable wall and bristling with dark shadows, caught his eye. Curious, he stepped out of the lane and into the grass to investigate and found it to be a collection of fishing poles. Immediately, he thought how good a trout would taste for breakfast. Further, he knew just the place to find the finest, fattest trout in Tuckborough, and so he chose a pole, hiked it out of the barrel, checked the line and made for the gate, leaving the hills for another day. The sky was purpling now, and the deep gloom round about was beginning to fade. He passed the gate through the last of the shadows and disappeared from sight of the Smials.
Someone had arrived before him. A smallish hobbit was sitting on the bank beside the water with his back to him, bundled up against the morning chill and intent upon his endeavors—fishing, no doubt, for the very trout he had set his heart on for breakfast! He sighed: too late. Well, you had to get up pretty early to outflank the Tooks on their own lands.
But the sound of his feet hitting the bank startled the fishing hobbit, who straightened and turned quickly to look at him from within the shadow of the rocks. The action was swift and defensive, of a sort more common on the Outside where folk were more naturally wary and vigilant. Merry could not discern the hobbit’s face, but said ruefully, in acknowledgement of his alarm, “I do beg your pardon! I didn’t expect to find anyone here. I hope I haven’t frightened your fish away.” As he spoke, a soft amethyst and silver dawn broke through the surrounding trees, and the air shivered, suddenly crystalline with light.
There was a muffled gasp, and a small sound like the tail of a fish slapping the water. The hobbit turned quickly back to the pool, and after a moment, a soft voice said, as though considering the matter gravely, “No—you startled them, but I think they mean to stay. Yes, there they are, the pretty creatures!” There came then a gusty sigh followed by a helpless whisper of laughter.
“Oh! Do forgive me for not getting up and shaking hands, Merry,” said the voice in mortified tones. “You can’t think how embarrassed I am, but I’ve been sitting here waiting for the light for I don’t know how long, and of course here it is right now! It’s paint or die, I’m afraid, but I promise I won’t take long!” The voice dropped wistfully: “You—you won’t go away, will you?”
He remembered then. He had not known the face last night, nor guessed the form today, but the moment he heard that sweet, solemn voice, earnest and low and ever so slightly edged with self-deprecating humour, he remembered it and knew who it was that sat on the bank. The pole fell silently from his nerveless fingers into the grass.
“E-Estella?” he whispered, peering at the bulky figure from which had come those soft, startling accents and apprehending of course that the hobbit was not a he but a she, and was furthermore not engaged in fishing, but in painting, sitting cross-legged on the wide stone with a square board across her knees, a thick cloak thrown over her shoulders and what was surely an old hat of Freddy’s pulled down over her soft, dark curls. On a stone to her left lay a worn leather pack, and set atop that was a wooden tray holding a collection of small pottery jars, their rims splashed with assorted tints of paint. A handful of brushes lay next the jars on a soft, finely woven cloth stained with pale, watered streaks of colour.
She bent her head, whether in continued mortification or absorption in her task he could not tell. “Yes, it’s me,” she said, and he sensed a breath of hesitation in her tone, as if she were suddenly uneasy.
“Faith, I must have frightened you!” he said contritely, for his own heart was beating fast. “I am sorry. I shouldn’t have blundered in that way.”
Again came the lilting whisper of laughter. Over her shoulder as she worked she said apologetically: “It’s quite all right, Merry. You couldn’t have known. I—I’ve had a fancy all this week to paint the wonderful silver light they have here in the mornings, for we’ve nothing like it in Budgeford where there are no hills to raise the shadows. I–I couldn’t sleep last night, and I was thinking of this place, how we used to come here when we were children. Do you remember? I thought how pretty it might be in first light. So I crept out ahead of the dawn to see if I could paint it. If—if you want to come round to my right side, you can see—!”
Had he not been so unsettled still by his return to the Shire and the circumstances of his homecoming—both joyous and sorrowful—he might have laughed at how he quaked in response to this ingenuous invitation. But he had no inclination to laugh at himself; he put his arm up to brace himself against the stones of the overhang, sternly and silently willing himself to behave as if this were an ordinary occurrence, as if he was quite used to being deprived of sleep and self-confidence and driven distracted into the hills at the crack of dawn at the thought of a girl he had once known and ought never to have forgotten, and a sketch that seemed to say that whether or not she knew or remembered him, she read him far too well for comfort. He sighed. Since he had come upon her in this most improbable time and place it hardly seemed odd that he was now rendered speechless into the bargain as well.
“I couldn’t sleep either,” he managed hoarsely.
He trod across the bank and stood leaning on the rough wall to her right, outside the light with his back against the curve of the stones, watching in an awed and fascinated silence as on the thick, handmade paper beneath her hands there appeared a misty wash of color: the pale blues and greens, dark teals and shadowed silver greys purling on the surface of the pool before them in the fair, translucent shafts of first light. He watched as a suggestion of deepness began to assert itself: the colours took on weight and depth and suddenly the true nature of the water was there, fresh and limpid, and in the center a sudden, swirling flash of iridescence: a rainbow diffused in a silver spray of tiny coloured drops of light.
He whistled softly, then leaned forward a little to look into the pond. Two beautiful trout were twining and circling in the bubbles rising from the impact of the falling water. A swift, almost painful joy rose in his heart to see them and to know he was home again and welcomed with happiness in Buckland and here in Pippin’s house, and with its advent some of his feelings of uncertainty passed, and he felt more himself again. He looked over and grinned at her concentrated profile. “I’ll have you know I meant to have those fellows for breakfast,” he said.
“Oh!” She stole an anxious sideways look at him from under the brim of her soft, dark hat—a look that struck such a strong chord in his memory that he caught his breath: When did she look at me like that before? Almost he could see it through a misted jumble of half-remembered moments, and then it was gone. She met his sudden, searching glance with a smile, though. “I’m nearly finished if you want to cast your line,” she said.
“I do not!” he declared, and laughed. “That painting is most certainly a masterpiece, Estella Bolger, and without a doubt you have immortalized those wretched fish for all time. Just think what folk would say if they knew: ‘Did you ever see anything so beautiful? Of course, Merry Brandybuck ate them afterwards—the savage!’”
She laughed, too. “Thank you,” she said softly, and finished up by brushing water across the whole of the paper, rendering the replicated light a shimmer on the page, exactly as it looked here, shining palely all around them. Then she dropped her brush back into the bowl of water and carefully set the board and the painting aside next her pack. Flashing him a sudden shy but trusting smile, she stood up, shrugging out of her cloak and extending her hands toward him:
“Now—at last I can make a proper hello! How do you do, Merry? How glad I am to meet you again!”
Well, of a certainty she had not forgotten him. He took her hands into his own, small and delicate and surprisingly strong as they met his larger, weapons-hardened grasp. He smiled to see the little smudges of paint on her fingers. “Estella Bolger,” he murmured, and even he could hear the wonderment in his voice. Where had she been all this time? He tried and failed to release her hands. “Let me look at you,” he said at last, and she stilled where she stood, a faint flush rising to her cheeks.
Now that he was close enough, he could see both the little lass he remembered and the changes wrought of the time that had passed: the solemn lines of the small face grown eloquent with compassion, and the watchful eyes warmed with the quiet assurance born of years. He thought her very pretty, her dark eyes and hair setting off a pale complexion and a sweet and winsome smile; moreover, he could sense an intriguing intelligence at work behind her eyes, thoughts that went beyond the tasks and pleasantries of every day.
Studying her face, though, he realized with a pang of dismay that he had erred in his assessment earlier: however sheltered she might be, Estella Bolger knew something of darkness. Fear and heartbreak left indelible marks, as he well knew, and he could see them both now, in the far depths of her eyes and along the sweet pensive curve of her mouth. No: she had not penciled those marks into his face by accident, nor was she unsuspecting of what they meant. All at once he understood her, and Freddy as well, who never spoke a word about what had been done to him in the Lockholes and bore the visible damage with such exquisite dignity. He knew well the loneliness of being set apart from all he knew by experience none could share; it was not for the Shire to entirely understand, of course, or to say so if it did—but it was no wonder Freddy and Estella chose to live so quietly at Budgeford.
She was small and very tidy and—he observed now with interest—unusually dressed. Apart from Freddy’s old hat (which was very fetching despite the fact that it concealed most of the pretty dark curls he had seen the night before) she wore a simple shirt of pale linen very much like his own and a quilted bodice of brown fustian fastened with narrow leather ties and embroidered around the edges with a vine of pale green leaves. Her sleeves were rolled up to the elbow. Her rough skirt was without apron, layers or petticoats and was split like a pair of trousers. He had never seen anything quite like it in the Shire before where girls sometimes hid breeks beneath their full skirts to ride, but it occurred to him suddenly that he had seen similar workaday garb among the shieldmaidens in Rohan. He thought about that and a slow smile spread across his face. It warmed him to the heart to think that, dark though her hair and lovely eyes might be, Estella Bolger could put him in mind of Éowyn of Rohan, for if ever before he had met a woman he greatly esteemed, it was she. Éowyn was now Lady of Ithilien, wife to Faramir for whom little Fair Took was named, and mother to two small boys of her own, but she would ever be a shieldmaiden of the Rohirrim to him, who had ridden to war with her, and found courage in her spirit, and fought and nearly died at her side on the Pelennor.
“You’re wondering about my dress,” Estella said suddenly, and he realized with a start that he was staring. He coloured and looked up to meet her studied gaze. “No!” he said lamely, “I—!”
“Well, I shan’t be offended if you are,” she said, smiling up at him. “A lot of people think it rather strange, I suppose, but I find it very practical for painting.” He shook his head, smiling his confusion, and she laughed and went on: “You see, when I go out to paint, I never know where I will find myself—up a tree, or hanging over the side of a bridge, or buried in the grass, or climbing about on rocks or roofs to get the best view. Petticoats just don’t serve such adventures. I hope you don’t find that shocking? I have to tell you Freddy has resigned himself!”
He was still holding her hands. Sheer force of will was all that kept him from lifting them to his lips in stunned admiration. Here was a woman who dressed for ‘adventure’, who climbed trees and scrambled up ridgepoles and who, conversely, in lace and firelight last night in the polite world of Shire convention, had completely taken his breath away.
“I like it immensely!” he declared. “It reminds me of Rohan which, next to the Shire, is my favourite place in Middle Earth. There are maidens there who dress in this wise, and very practical it seems to me, too.”
Estella caught her breath at this, obviously much surprised, and her eyes lit with pleasure. “Oh, I hope you will tell me about them!” she exclaimed. “Do they really wear such skirts as these?”
“They do,” he said. “They are a special kind of lass: shieldmaidens, who learn to ride and fight like their brothers, and protect their lands when the men are away. You might say they are fitted out for adventure, too.” Estella’s pretty face flushed with delight, and letting go her hands at last, he tweaked the soft brim of her hat. “Of course, they’ve nothing so charming as Freddy’s hat to wear!” he teased.
Her eyes widened. “Oh, save us!” she gasped. “I forgot all about it! Oh, Merry, I must look a fright!” She snatched the hat off and shook out a cascade of fine, dark curls, and he stepped back, catching and letting out his breath in a long, quiet sigh. It was obvious that she had no idea of the effect she had, though, for it was not a moment before she spoke:
“It is Freddy’s,” she confessed, “though you are the first to ever realize it. I took it up years ago when I—well, I thought it would be—” She paused, biting her lip and smiling up at him.
“Practical?” he laughed, finishing her sentence and flashing his boyish smile. “And so it is. Also, it’s much more becoming on you than I expect it ever was on Freddy.”
She flushed vividly and he found himself thinking what a very pretty girl she was and wondering why she was keeping house for Freddy still after all these years. She was well past the age when most women married in the Shire. Surely she had dozens of suitors, being of good family, and pretty and smart. He wondered what her story was and if he could find a way to spend more time with her. Suddenly he had a thought. He dug into his pockets and pulled out the apples he had carried from the Smials, then slid his pack from his shoulders. “Faith!” he said, “I nearly forgot I had these! Would you care for breakfast?”
“I can’t find him anywhere,” Pippin was saying breathlessly, slipping into his chair following a hurried search of the grounds. He frowned anxiously as he reached for the toast and jam and accepted a cup of tea from Freddy.
“He’ll turn up,” said the old Thain comfortably, tucking into a plate of bacon. “Probably feeling a little restless at such a large house party as this and took a walk to settle himself. Mind, he’s been living free in foreign parts for a long time.”
“I shouldn’t wonder if that wasn’t it,” observed Freddy, peeling and slicing a particularly beautiful peach into a dish of cream. “Not like him to miss breakfast twice, though. Fine victuals, too, Thain!”
The Thain nodded, unobtrusively eyeing Fredegar’s ravaged frame. “Have a bit of toast with that, lad,” he said. “Here, Peregrin, send the toast along to Freddy when you’ve done.”
Mayor Samwise was quietly helping himself to a bowl of mushrooms frizzled in butter and squinting now and then down the length of the lane. His vigilance was now rewarded. “Oho!” he said, his mild grey eyes firing brightly with enthusiasm. “There’s the question and the answer, Mr. Pippin,” he said, pointing with his fork, “—and a neat bit of work I call it, too!”
They turned in the direction Sam indicated and there beheld Merry Brandybuck coming down the path from the hills with Estella Bolger walking at his side. Her hands were full of wildflowers and he was carrying a square board and a leather pack. They were conversing gaily.
“Hoy!” exclaimed Pippin, sitting up in astonishment. The Thain chuckled quietly. “Good lad!” he murmured. “Good lad!”
Freddy watched Merry and Estella for a long moment as they strolled along the lane. “Took him long enough,” he said darkly, though a warm light shone in his eyes. “I own I was ready to give up hope altogether last night. I never saw such a fellow for missing the obvious when it had to do with a girl.”
“And we were as obvious as we could be,” said Pippin, meeting Sam’s eye with a conspiratorial grin.
“Well,” said Sam earnestly. “I own I made Rosie wait a good bit longer than she’d a mind to, but it was nothing compared to this. Now, you’re right, Mr. Fredegar: those two never spoke a word last night—so I wonder how they came to meet this morning?”
“Best laid plans,” said Freddy, shaking his head with a sigh. “If Estella had known what we were about last night, mark my words, she’d have stayed away; now this morning she goes wandering out on her own and all unknowing sets the thing in motion!”
“But how did Merry come into it, do you suppose?” wondered Pippin. “He kept a safe distance last night; I’ll swear he never spoke to her.”
“Took a walk, as I told you,” nodded the Thain, “and ran smack into destiny! Seems to make a habit of it, poor fellow, but this time I’m of the opinion that fate means to be kind.”
They watched covertly as Merry walked Estella to one of the side doors of the Smials and bowed over her hand, surrendering the board and pack as she turned to go in. “That’s the way!” murmured Sam approvingly, and Freddy nodded. When Estella withdrew into the Smials and Merry stepped back into the lane, Pippin stood up and called to him.
Merry startled, as if he were thinking hard about something other than breakfast, and then he raised a hand and waved, and ambled somewhat abstractedly across the yard toward them. “Will you look at him?” whispered Sam, and the Thain said low, “Go easy now, lads.”
By the time he arrived at the table, though, Merry’s smile was wide and cheerful. “Good morning, gentlehobbits!” he said in teasing greeting. “I had forgotten the pleasures of taking tea in the out-of-doors instead of round a smoky hearth! Good you caught me, Pippin, or I should have been looking for you elsewhere.”
“Well, I’ve been looking for you every elsewhere!” said Pippin severely. “But here you are at last, Merry—will you have some breakfast?”
“I will, thank you,” said Merry, sitting down in the chair Pippin pulled out for him and dropping his pack off his back onto the grass. He clasped Pippin’s shoulder affectionately for a moment; all their lives, upon meeting, it had meant the same thing: I have something to tell you! “Faith, those mushrooms look splendid! Pass them over, won’t you, Sam?”
“Been out for a morning’s walk, have you?” inquired the Thain, observing Merry over the rim of his teacup.
“That I have, Uncle,” said the latecomer, gathering up several slices of toast and a handful of bacon and then spooning a healthy portion of mushrooms onto his plate. “Send the jam round, Pippin?”
Pippin passed the jam and Freddy said lazily, “Saw you down there at the gate just now. Did you walk out with Stella this morning, Merry?”
Merry shook his head, liberally applying blackberry jam to his toast. “No,” he said, his eyes flashing at Freddy in a friendly way. “I couldn’t sleep and went out alone before dawn. I came upon Estella setting up to paint at our old fishing pool, Pippin; you remember the place, don’t you, Freddy? She made a splendid picture with the dawn—wait till you see it! It cost us a couple of beautiful trout for breakfast, but I promise you won’t mind at all. What a fine painter she is, Freddy! I never knew it!” He took a bite of bacon and glanced round the table. “I say, is there ale? I’ve had my tea. Ah, thanks, Pippin!” He sipped appreciatively, then looked up to see their expectant faces. “Oh, yes! Well, then I remembered I had a bit of food in my pack—good luck, that—so we had it for breakfast there on the bank, and then we talked for a while—catching up, you know—and then we walked back together.”
Freddy said thoughtfully, “Gathered flowers along the way, I see.”
Merry bent his head a little and smiled. “We did, yes.”
The others exchanged looks over his head. Clearly, Merry was not going to talk. Freddy said wryly, “Going to paint the flowers, is she?”
Merry sat back in his chair, his eyes shining blue as cornflowers. “That’s not the half of it,” he smiled, reaching out to clasp Pippin’s shoulder yet again. “What do you think, Sam? She’s agreed to paint the pictures for my book!”