Across the drive was the wide park that spanned the distance between the Smials and the Stock Road. The gardeners were out in force, trimming and tidying the grounds beneath the oaks. The old Thain smiled fondly to see Goldilocks walking across the lawn in animated conversation with the Master Groundskeeper; no doubt they were finalizing the elaborate plans being made around the Wedding and Farewell that would be taking place next week. Life was going on with considerable efficiency, he reflected with satisfaction.
As the drive swept away from the Smials, he came to a wide cart track that struck west into a small forest of birch trees and there he turned in, his stick tapping smartly on the packed earth. This was the passage to Tooks' Hamlet, where the colony of artisans who worked in support of the Great Smials was installed. The manufactory was laid out in a clearing in the leafy wood: a scattering of cottages and workshops and one or two snug storage smials, all built around a small circular park. Here the spinners and weavers of the Smials worked, and the fullers, and potters, carpenters and carvers, candlestick and candlewick makers and chandlers, and the paperwright and bookbinder—all the skilled and imaginative folk who provided the hobbits of the Great Smials with the furnishments their uniquely shared and greatly numerous households required.
A little further on, in a more isolated clearing toward the back of the wood, were set the forges around which the tinkers and coopers and smiths and glaziers worked in a haze of fire and smoke and inventive camaraderie. The Thain had expanded the original glazier's forges with cautious optimism some forty years before, knowing that carefully applied metallurgy could benefit his folk if fairly and thoughtfully used; but he had wrapped those forges round with a good many Rules and Rights of Procedure, for he had no wish for things to come to such a pass that the Green Hills Country might one day look like the Ring of Isengard. Merry and Sam had come on the run when they learned what he was about, but after a long afternoon spent parsing every line of his official documents, even they had had to admit that the Rules were as iron clad as the forges, and Merry had said, his eyes sparkling with admiration: "I confess I'm a little set down, Pippin; you don't need looking after at all anymore!"
In the still of the morning the distant thump of the bellows and the clang of the hammers in the smithies pulsated through the wood, joined by the lilting sound of the weaver's voices raised in song as they worked at their looms in the weaving-house, and the laughing banter of a circle of young potters who were sitting at their wheels outside the pottery under the trees. Pippin stopped on the path outside the Hamlet for a moment, his head cocked to one side, listening. The little place was buzzing this morning, and not just of everyday necessity; many of the artisans were working in advance of the festivities being planned and the sounds of industry and happy anticipation rang out from every quarter. He smiled at their good cheer, pleased to know his borough was yet, and with luck would ever be, indelibly stamped with Tookish diligence and good humour.
When he came into the park, his tall figure—draped as it was these days in the Elvish cloak of legend and crowned with his cottony white curls—was immediately spotted by those out of doors, and he was welcomed with cries of pleasure and surprise. Kith and kin alike then came forth to meet him, to take his hand warmly and to say how fortunate they felt to have known him and how much they would miss him when he was gone. He was somewhat taken aback by these remarks, for he remained blithely unconscious of the great veneration in which he was held; he was frequently, in these last days, overwhelmed by the outpourings of affection his appearance continually provoked in folk he knew but little. Still, gently, in the way he had that had always put others at ease, he welcomed their friendly overtures without condition and dallied for a while with them, laughing and jesting, until he judged he must excuse himself from the press, for he had come there by appointment. Then, making his farewells, he made for the cottage of the woodworkers, whence he had been summoned by a note left beside his breakfast plate at some dark hour before dawn.
The woodworkers' cottage was churning with activity, a-swirl with sawdust and redolent with the musky, slightly peppery scent of Shire oak being stripped and planed for construction. Fully a dozen hobbits were hard at work in the great-room and Pippin paused on the threshold of the open door to inhale with deep enjoyment the spicy fragrance of the wood that drifted with the fine, powdered dust and rose from the astonishing litter of curled shavings warming on the flagstones in the light that flooded through the open casements. Looking round, he eyed the freshly smoothed staves stacked against the walls with keen appreciation. Ale barrels, those would be, he thought: a fine, golden draught would begin to draw its flavour from those staves someday soon. It occurred to him then that such a barrel (to say nothing of more than one) might be a very welcome sight when he and Merry came at last to Gondor. Shire ale and Buckland beer would be in short supply in Minas Tirith; he made a mental note to add these to his shipping list, which—according to Faramir—was already alarmingly long. "Save us, Father!" Fair had laughed the previous evening. "We shall be sending fleets of wagons every year!" Pippin had laughed too, feeling very happy and warmed by these words; with letters and parcels coming and going at such a rate, he and Merry might never feel so very far from home.
"Good morning, Thain Peregrin!" A cheerful voice brought him back to the threshold of the woodworkers' cottage as the master carpenter came bustling forward to meet him, brushing a blizzard of powder and wood chips from the dark green smock by which he was distinguished from a room full of tan-clad subordinates. Pippin smiled at his address; the folk of the Smials had been arguing about what to call him now that he was retired and 'Young Faramir' legally held the title. It had finally been decided that Faramir was The Thain, but that the elderly Peregrin, for the little time he would remain among them, should be addressed by his former title as a way of honouring him and his long service to Tuckborough. Pippin knew Faramir had welcomed this idea with enthusiasm and relief—having been more than a little concerned that if there was the least misunderstanding he might go down in Shire history as a ruthless usurper—and so for this little while they were Thain Faramir and Thain Peregrin, and as everyone knew why, they went on very smoothly. It was fair to say, however, that Faramir had far less time to stroll about the grounds than Peregrin did, and considering this, Pippin was inclined to think that being 'retired' had advantages not previously considered in the scope of things.
"You're here to see Hugo, I'll wager," the shopmaster said, scrubbing at his hair and loosing a cloud of dust. Pippin waved his hands in the air and laughed and said, "Yes, please, but at his convenience, Evo; 'twas he who summoned
"Aye, I knew that! I'm told he needs your help."
Pippin's open features registered the astonishment he felt at this, but the master only smiled. "We've tucked him away at the back where it's quiet and he's not too much disturbed. It's a heavy commission he's taken on, sir, and not much time to see it done. That's not to say we don't go along for a peep and a visit now and then, though; there's none of us here as couldn't learn a thing or two from that young fellow! But come along now, sir; I'll show you the way."
"Has he got all the tools he needs?" asked Pippin anxiously, trying to fathom what his goodson might need from him. "I know he didn't come prepared for such a project."
"Oh, aye, he's well set up," the carpenter said affably as he led the way through the great room, the other workers watching their progress and shyly returning the old Thain's friendly winks and nods. "He carries a basic pack of his own, as any carver does, but we've everything else he needs—including extra hands—and a good stock of oils and rubbing compounds besides. He's apprenticed one of my best lads to help with the finishing, too, and that's freed him up to see to what he does best."
Pippin followed him through the room, careful to set his stick precisely as he moved across the cluttered floor. He was more than usually mindful of his balance this morning, for he was stiff from riding. "He's eating well? I don't think I've seen him at table since the packages arrived from Buckland."
"Oh, not to worry, sir. It's true he's hard at it each and every day, but I wager he's used to eating on the fly, this being his living and all. Mistress Laurelin brings him a basket twice a day and sits with him when she can, and the little lasses come with his tea and tell him all the news of the day."
Pippin remembered eating on the fly; it had been a long time, and he was rather looking forward to doing it again. He was coming back to life with all his old impetuosity now, and it made him feel younger and hardier just to think of all the things he might yet be able to do. He nodded brightly and followed the shop master down a narrow corridor to the back of the cottage.
The workroom set aside for Hugo was small, but very well-ventilated and full of light; it had two good-sized windows through whose open casements came light and air and the sweet spring scent of the outdoors. There was no fire in the little grate, for the place was warm with sunlight, and here the scent of dressed oak, so concentrated in the great room, was ephemeral and gently laced with linseed oil and beeswax.
Hugo was sitting on a stool next the worktable, his sandy head bent over a seemingly featureless rail braced between his knees, and perched behind him on one of the open windowsills a solemn, dark-haired tween sat working wax with a cloth into the deep clefts of a narrow, carved panel. The shopmaster knocked briskly on the doorframe.
"Morning, Hugo!" he said. "Here's Thain Peregrin come in answer to your summons." He gave Pippin a wink and a nudge. "Very nice to see you, sir; I'll just leave you to your business now. Arlo, I'm sure Thain Peregrin and his goodson would welcome a cup of tea. Why don't you come along and see to it?"
The tweener coughed discreetly and at a nod from Hugo extracted his small frame from the windowsill; setting his work on the table, he made for the door, murmuring "'Morning, Thain" as he passed. Hugo called cheerfully, "My thanks, friends!" and the lad and the shopmaster departed down the hall.
"Well, Hugo," said Pippin, and his goodson favoured him now with a shy smile, as if he had been caught out.
"There you are, sir. I see you got my note all right; Laury said that was the best place to leave it. Thank you for coming."
"You're welcome," said Pippin, warmly returning the smile. He was very fond of Laury's husband, and a bit in awe of him, too. For as plain and unassuming as Hugo seemed to be—being neither dark nor fair, nor short nor tall, nor quick nor particularly witty in his conversation—the work of his hands was infused with genius, not only beautiful beyond comparison, but almost uncanny in its understanding of form and function as it related to the beneficiary. It was Hugo who had carved and inlaid Pippin's walking stick after Fair and Amy had conceived of it, and all agreed it was perfect—in every way, a tangible extension of Pippin's spirit, carved with the grasses and insects and wildflowers of the highlands, banded with the silver radiance of sun, moon and stars, and set with cabochons of smooth red carnelian, the stone that had ever been the seal-bearer and herald of the Thains.
"Have a seat, won't you?" Hugo waved a hand in the general direction of the furniture. "I just need a minute more with this—" He bent his head over the wood again and Pippin reflected on how much like Laury he was, absorbed into the very nature of his work, and gifted in return with vision that far surpassed the ordinary. He wondered if the twins would be the same. He thought so; the bright aspect of their fairy inheritance was tempered even now by random moments of grave consideration and studied calm—it occurred to him that they must find their old grandfather rather giddy on occasion!
He looked about. One wall of the workroom was given over to an arrangement of wooden shelves and these were filled with numerous glass jars and pottery vessels holding oils and stains and polishes, the names of which were neatly printed on the labels that were hung on strings round their necks. A wide-necked pot of beeswax sat on the worktable close by the cloth and panel the boy had left behind. There were several tool trays set out upon the table as well, filled with a variety of carving tools and strips of glasspaper, and there was a basket packed with soft, clean cloths. Two wooden chairs with seats of woven rushes rounded out the furnishings, together with the stool on which Hugo sat, and the floor was covered here, as in the rest of the place, with sifting sawdust, though here, instead of the neatly planed curls that abounded in the great-room, there were tiny twists and wedges of fawn-brown oak scattered about underfoot.
Along with the piece the apprentice had been working on, a number of other flat pieces of intricately carved and polished oak were laid out on the table. Of these, two were about seven inches square; the rest matched those for length, but were only about four inches deep. Pippin, gripping his stick for balance, bent over to peer closely at the carvings, then looked up again at Hugo in frank admiration.
"I was afire with curiosity to know what Theo was about in sending those great, bulky packages here," he said, his green eyes alight, "and then when I learned that they were pieces of oakwood and addressed to you—well, I was quite delighted, Hugo, for I was sure then you must be making something for Merry." He picked up one of the finished squares, running his fingers over the sculpted surface; the contours were silky smooth, as if they had been carved out of butter instead of the densest hardwood in the Shire. He shook his head in amazement.
"Hugo, this is wondrous work!" he said. "And the runes and emblems there are just exquisite. What joy it will be to Merry to have this—made from the Tree of the Brandybucks! I cannot tell you how he mourns its end. This is a box, then, is it?"
"Aye." Hugo got up, carefully setting his other project on the open windowsill behind him. Seeing it now all of a piece, Pippin stared at it for a long moment, his eyes narrowing thoughtfully. It looked to be tree branch, perhaps like these panels, from the great Tree itself, a long, straight, sturdy bar of oak, intriguingly twisted in several places. It had been peeled of bark and was faintly traced with a profusion of designs, some of which Hugo had already brought to life with his chip knife. Pippin studied it, and his eyes narrowed further.
Hugo came around the table now and gathered the pieces that lay there, fitting them together, matching the joins to show Pippin the box that would be. "Here there will be two brass hinges," he indicated, pointing, "and there a little brass lock and keyhole. Theo says he will fill it with writing paper, and pens and inks and sealing wax."
"How like a Brandybuck!" laughed Pippin, his eyes shining. "They're always organizing and thinking ahead, you know. And what a splendid idea—it will be a great boon to Merry to have everything he needs to send a letter tucked away in this beautiful box from home. But Hugo, tell me— surely it cannot be!—the other there: it cannot be a stick?"
Hugo bent his head and busied himself taking the box apart and laying out the pieces once again, but Pippin could see he was grinning hugely and after a moment he looked up and laughed softly. "A brave fellow is Theo Brandybuck," he said, his grey eyes smiling, "and a clever one, too." He turned and fetched the branch, holding it flat in front of him so that Pippin could examine it.
"But it's not a stick, sir—not for the Magnificent, whom everyone knows detests the very idea! No, indeed—this is to be a staff, and it shall be as fine as I can make it—the idea being to conceal its more practical nature until such time as the Magnificent may find it useful in getting about."
"A staff!" Pippin reached out to run his fingers over the astonishing carvings that had begun to rise from the oak on the lower end of the long branch, then followed what would be their metamorphosis in the tracings yet to be carved, his eyes shimmering with delight. "Will there be inlays?" he asked hopefully. "Like mine?" He lifted his own stick so that the bands of silver and carnelian flashed in the sunlight, and Hugo nodded, pulling a roll of drawings from a drawer in the table and spreading them out before him, laying the long staff over the top to keep them flat.
"Aye, gudefather," he said, in the way of his northern folk. "There will be inlays. Copper and brass and green malachite, in the fashion of the Horse-lords." He pointed to the intricate designs he had sketched onto the parchment, concealed as yet in the raw wooden staff. "Here the bands, and here; and the stones here, and here again just below the top, which will be crowned with this device."
Pippin looked closely and caught his breath. "Save us, Hugo, you will be famous for this across the world! It is too splendid for words!" He looked at his goodson and cocked his head. "You're right—Theo is clever. This is so splendid that Merry may possibly forgive you both for it sometime before the end!"
Hugo laughed again. "I never saw the like of the Magnificent for standing on his dignity when it comes to age," he said. "Will he ever be old, do you think?" And when Pippin, in mock horror, threw up his hands in a warding gesture, he grinned and took up the staff and set in on end between them. It towered over him, though not so much over Pippin.
"I want your help before I go on with this, sir."
"My help?" Pippin said, even more puzzled now as to what Hugo needed from him than he had been before. "Hugo, it's more than perfect! How could I help?"
"Well, as you can see, sir, it's far too long yet. I need to know how long to make it and how to size the top-piece. Now, Theo says in his letter that you and the Magnificent are much the same height, and he says that if I size it for you, it will do for his father as well. That's why I summoned you, sir; you must stand alongside it here so that we may decide its proper length."
"Hmm," said Pippin, lifting an eloquent eyebrow, a tiny smile tugging at his lips. He could never resist. "Well, I'm afraid if you size it for me, Hugo, it will be much too long for Merry. I am considerably taller than him, you know."
Hugo shot him a laughing glance. "Well," he said solemnly, going along; all of Pippin's children knew well enough how this game was played. "We shall have to make do despite the discrepancy, then, for there is not another hobbit in the Shire who comes close to standing eye to eye with either one of you."
"Hmm," said Pippin, pretending to frown.
"Well, I'm sure I can count on you to do your best to decide on a dignified and honourable length for this staff, sir," Hugo said blandly, "seeing as not only the Magnificent's but your own interests may depend upon its rightness. 'Tis is a long road to Edoras, after all—and longer still to Gondor. I daresay a querulous traveling companion could make it endless."
Pippin laughed delightedly. "You have me there, Hugo! Well done! And longer is better, I should think, for Merry has always fancied a staff like Gandalf's, something so tall and fine it could never be mistaken for an old hobbit's walking stick!" He smiled fondly then, thinking of Merry, and tapped his ear just below the point. "Somewhere around here would be well, I think. He will just be able to see that splendid crown-piece from the corner of his eye!"
"You are a wise hobbit, sir," said Hugo, marking the place on the staff.
"Aye," sighed Pippin, preening a bit. "It comes with age, you know. But we mustn't tell Merry, or he will certainly suppose then that he can think himself the wiser! Ah, here is our tea! And toast and preserves, and bacon, too! Arlo, you are a lad of supreme talents; mark me, you will go far in life. Hugo, have I ever told you about the first time I went out into the World? Here—I'll pour! What a chase it was! We ate on the fly then, too, and it was splendid, I can tell you!"
"Well, there's no turning back now!" Bo said lightly. "All your worldly goods are gone away to Gondor!"
Bo made a point of speaking lightly these days and Merry knew he did it to mask the intensity of his feelings; he was clearly torn between the joy of having secured Tansy's promise to wed in a year's time, the unhappy fact of having to say goodbye to his father before his bridal could be accomplished, and the bittersweet mixture of pride and loneliness he could not help but feel as Theo at last took up his full-time duties as Master of the Hall. Berry was similarly distressed, and her father sighed inwardly to think that both of them might have been wed and raising families by now had he not allowed himself to be brought so low in the aftermath of Estella's death. His children loved him, to be sure, and he was grateful for it, but he should have seen they had set far too much aside in order to be a comfort to him.
He was well on the way to making it up to Berry, of course: the wedding, hastily but decisively coordinated by Goldilocks at the Great Smials and Cammy at the Hall, was imminent now, and Berry would soon be safe with Tom, tucked up in that pretty hole in Woodhall and blazing with all the happiness she had so long deserved. Berry would be fine, but he could not think of anything he might do to ease the heartache of his leaving for Bo. They were much alike, he and his younger son; he knew Bo was not facing his departure with anything like Theo's quiet resignation, and he wished he could do something to ease the lad's feelings.
He flashed a smile, the one people described as 'boyish', and was pleased to see Bo's eyes glint with watchful amusement. "Well, not everything's packed in those trunks, you know," he said. "I still have my traveling gear and a few gifts and treasures tucked away as yet—and, of course, a bit of finery held back for the Wedding and Farewell."
"Ah—your court clothes! I always thought them very fine, Father; I shall like to see them again!" Bo smiled, his dark eyes warming. "Planning on bowing out in splendour, I take it?"
"Of course!" Merry said, and Bo snorted affectionately.
"It seems appropriate, somehow," the old hobbit continued, as he fell into step with his son, heading up the hill. "Pippin means to wear his, as well." He looked at Bo and shrugged. "Caps the legend, if you will."
"That it does," agreed Bo. "The Shire will likely never see such a sight as the Travellers ever again!"
Merry smiled pensively. "You know I never liked the idea of being a 'legend' all that well," he said, "but it was always manageable. Lately, though, I'm feeling for the first time that it's become something of a burden. People pay too much attention, Bo! I'm beginning to think I should have followed Freddy's example and clammed up for fifty years!"
Bo said kindly, "You really didn't expect them to make such a fuss at the party, did you?"
"I did not!" Merry said with feeling.
He supposed that sounded stuffy and prideful, but the truth was he had been staggered by the affection accorded him at the Bucklebury Farewell, and overwhelmed by the transfer of Frodo's observance. It had been like cutting off his arm to let that go, but then to have them take it up so reverently, and with such joy—! It had been some time since he had gauged public regard for the Hall—the five years since Estella's death, at least—and he had been truly humbled by the honour they had done him and the sympathy they had offered for his oldest and most private grief.
"I did not expect it," he said again, and then he smiled a little, his eyes twinkling. "You know, Bo, regardless of my own view of the matter, I know I am perceived hereabouts as—(ahem)—Aged in the Extreme. So I rather imagined folk would be more than ready to see the back of me—that if they said anything at all about my going it would be along the lines of 'About time, too!' or 'What?! Leaving? I thought the old coot had been pushing up daisies these past ten years!"
Bo laughed. "You thought Bucklanders would say that about Meriadoc the Magnificent?"
"I did—but they surprised me!" He sighed, meeting his son's openly affectionate gaze—so like Estella's!—with sudden resolve. He said low: "Bo, I haven't said, but I'm very grateful to you, my dear—to you and Tom and Theo— for looking out for me at the party. I never thought to be so undone by saying goodbye."
"I know, sir," Bo said softly, and Merry bit his lip, for once again he could see the sorrow in his son's eyes, and they were coming to the gate and must part there: Bo to see to a problem in the woods south of Bucklebury, and he to some errands in the Hall.
He stopped in the road. "My dear," he said contritely, "I'm sorry to think I shall miss your bridal. I have wished for it for a long while, you know. But all of this came about so quickly, so much to do in so little time—"
Bo shook his head. "Don't fret, Father. It's my fault, mostly. Poor Tansy! I don't know what made me think I had all the time in the world."
Merry sighed; really, would he ever stop regretting the foolish things he had insisted on doing at other stages of his life? Fleetingly, he wondered if his father had had so many regrets.
"I expect it was the fine example I set you!" he said wryly. "Thank the stars your mother and Tansy were blessed with patience, lad. I know I never deserved to be so happily wed as I was!" He could not help but smile then: "Very clever of Tansy, I thought, to give you a push by stepping out with the odious Mr. Potts. I do like her, Bo!"
"Oh, she likes you, too, sir!" Bo said eagerly. "She says her only sorrow in marrying me is that she's come too late to get to know you better." He blinked away the rising glimmer of tears in his eyes. "Ah, forgive me, Father! It's just hard to think we shan't ever have you at our table, or be able to set a chair for you at our fireside."
Merry nodded silently; he more than understood. Hadn't he felt the same way about Frodo? What he would have given to be able to lead his cousin into the warm, golden circle of his family and his hearth even once over all these years! And now his children would feel the same absence at their own firesides—how life came round sometimes, and in such unexpected ways!
His own fireside. He started as suddenly it flashed upon his mind what he could do for Bo: what he could bestow that would occupy the good fellow's mind and heart for the year he must wait for Tansy—a year in which Theo Greatheart would be hard at work forging the Master's authority in his own name, and Berry would be gone to her new life in Woodhall with Tom.
"Bo," he said. "I was just thinking about the Crickhollow property. You stay there from time to time, don't you, as you move about the woods?"
"The guest house where you and Uncle Peregrin lived after the War? Aye—I always look forward to stopping there. It's a pretty little place—though you know, Father, I noticed when I was through there last that it's begun to show its age. It needs some shoring up."
"I know. Something must be done. I don't know that we've ever discussed it, but that little place has a long history, Bo. My Great-grandfather Gorbadoc gave it to Grandfather Rory for a wedding present, and Rory gave it to his sister Primula on her marriage to Drogo Baggins about twenty-five years later: Frodo lived there for the first twelve years of his life. It reverted to a guest house for the Hall for a long time after Frodo's family had gone, and of course Frodo and Sam and Pippin and I sheltered there the night before we left the Shire with the Ring. Pippin and I retreated there after the War for a year or more, and then some years later your mother and I lived there for a time—that was before you and Theo were born. And my cousin Berilac had it when he married—that was before the War—" He stopped, shaking his head with a grimace. Beri had been gone more than fifty years now, but the thought of him still called to mind a rush of grief and anger: he should not have died so young! He should have been here all these years! He caught himself: this was not the time. He took a breath and moved on:
"The point is, Bo, that good hobbits have always lived in that house: decent, honourable folk who lived and loved and started married life and families there. I think I should like to give it to you and Tansy now, if you've a mind to rescue it. I've not been there in years, but I remember it had a lovely little garden and one of the nicest bathing rooms in Buckland: splendid copper tubs! Your Uncle Peregrin was in heaven! You'd have a year to restore it, Bo, while you wait to be wed. What do you think?"
Bo turned to him wide-eyed. "A house? Truly? I had thought to add your rooms to mine at the Hall, but oh, Father— a house of our own would be wonderful, much better than enlarged bachelor quarters! Tansy would be so pleased—she's never said, but I think she's as leery of the Hall as Tom is."
"Aye, she's a country girl and used to the idea of her own little place—and I think you're not wed to the Hall in terms of a place to live, eh? I think you would both be happy there, lad. Shall we make it so? I don't think Theo will have any objection, save that you won't be so close anymore when he needs you."
It felt very good as well to see Bo smile like that, and to watch his eyes fill with dreams. Merry chuckled as Bo pulled him into a mighty bear hug. There: hadn't he known it? They would all be fine, and he could go now with a clear conscience.
Part workroom and part sitting room, the chamber was furnished with long tables for cutting and quilting and construction of larger pieces such as draperies and rugs. There were several charming little dressing rooms with curtains and looking glasses set into a natural alcove on the inside wall, and a number of comfortable chairs and sofas were scattered randomly about, upon which the ladies of the Hall were wont to arrange themselves in little sewing circles. More often than not these were composed of tunnel- and floor-neighbours who nodded agreeably to all the other circles but tended to remain pleasantly insular. Brandy Hall was much like a village for all it was enclosed under the vast roof of Buck Hill, and near neighbours quite naturally stuck together.
This cliquing up had been the comfortable way of things for a good many years, but recent events at the Hall—the Magnificent's retirement and imminent departure from the Shire, Theo's sudden ascension to the Master's chair, and most importantly, the shockingly abbreviated fortnight between the announcement of Berry Brandybuck's betrothal and her subsequent wedding to Mr. Tolman Gamgee of Woodhall—had created such a jostling atmosphere of rumour and curiosity that the ladies of Brandy Hall (with a gentle nudge from Camillia Brandybuck) proved—to their own surprise—that no social protocol was so set in stone that circumstances couldn't blast it loose when it stood in the way of progress.
At an afternoon tea party held shortly after the Master had made his stunning announcement, the new Mistress of the Hall impressed upon a gathering of her friends and neighbours (upstairs and down) the necessity of pulling together. The marriage festivities having been removed to Tuckborough for several reasons—not the least of which was the Magnificent's planned departure from the Shire with the Thain a scant few dyas thereafter—they were to be denied the pleasures of cooking and serving the wedding feast, and of decorating the Hall and putting up the guests, and so it stood to reason that their task now became one of seeing (in fond memory of the bride's mother) that Berry was outfitted—both at her bridal and in her new home—with everything she could possibly need. The ladies of the Hall agreed: Berry and Tom were innocent of the circumstances driving their too-sudden nuptials and help was warranted.
Berry had protested that there was not that much to be done. She had not been idle since her tweens: like all hopeful Shire lasses, she had hemmed and embroidered drawers full of tea towels and pillowcases (carefully leaving small frames open on the embellished borders wherein her initials might later be entwined with those of her betrothed) and she had sewed beneath her mother's encouraging eye the requisite number of sheets, tablecloths, napkins and bathing towels deemed appropriate for a well-appointed Shire household. She thanked the ladies very prettily for wishing her well, but declared artlessly that she was quite prepared to set up house; she had ever thought of herself as a practical girl.
The ladies of the Hall received this information with quiet smiles and bestowed upon their young cousin many fond embraces, and then they met again in private, where they agreed that such an impossible timetable had deprived Berry of the extra time a lass normally used to add some frills and fripperies to her more functional household stores. Thereafter they set about rectifying the situation, meeting each afternoon in the sewing room, and on one last, memorable occasion, taking tea and fruit and biscuits and finishing up a lavish shower of trimmings and trappings right under Berry's unsuspecting nose, for indeed, this time she sat among them, working on the bodice of her wedding ensemble—a creamy corsage of pearl-coloured silk on which she was carefully embroidering a border of flowers, leave and crimson berries.
Indeed, while she sat sewing and Cammy sat beside her piping the seam that would join the deep, finishing flounce to the overskirt of her gown, and Ella sat on the rug at their feet tying Bryony Took's shimmering ribbons to a handsome wreath of braided honeysuckle vine, the ladies of the Hall sat close about them and from beneath their flying needles and stiff embroidery frames a host of charming and useful 'fripperies' came into being for the bride: fine drawn-work napkins and soft knitted tea cozies, embroidered squares for sofa cushions, dainty crocheted table mats and several of the charming lace shelf panels that were currently all the rage among young newlyweds. Celandine Burrows, who was ninety, and her daughter Amaryllis, produced three cutwork aprons between them, and not to be outdone, Celandine's sister-in-law Juniper Brandybuck, who was ninety-five, served up half a dozen snowy linen dust bonnets, trimmed with lace and ribbons and some very rare mother-of-pearl buttons. Berry, dreaming alternately of wedding Tom and bidding her father goodbye, was distracted enough to remain oblivious and the ladies tucked their finished offerings away in their sewing baskets against the next afternoon, when Berry and Tom would be sitting for their gifts in the drawing room. The day after that, the Magnificent and his family would depart for Tuckborough.
Ella said, "There! The ribbons are ready! What do you mean to tie on your wreath, Aunt Berry?"
"Why, her name-fruits, child!" said Juniper, who was also named for berries, and was somewhat sensitive on the matter of name-flowers. She had worn blue juniper berries in her wedding wreath together with greens and seed-cones from the same plant, and a blue gown and ribbons to match. It was true that she had felt a little regretful about not having a bright name-flower, but her good taste and elegant simplicity had been much remarked at the time. Of course, hardly anyone present now was old enough to have seen it, save Celandine and Melilot Goodbody.
Celandine, for one, was preserving her memories. "Why, Juni!" she said, pouncing on the opportunity to speak. She had been waiting for an opening, provoked by the seemingly casual opulence of Juniper's dust bonnets. "Haven't you heard the story of Berry's Naming? Estella told me once how she and Merry had come to Name this child, and I must sat it was typical of Merry—too clever by half! This young lady has far more options for her wreath than you might suppose!"
From the number of swiveled heads and curious glances this brought about, it was clear that most of the other ladies had not heard the story either. "Won't you tell us then, Berry?" Amaryllis asked, unwittingly aiding her mother's offensive, and a number of fair, younger voices cried, "Oh, do, Berry!" and so she acquiesced, blushing rather uncharacteristically at finding herself the center of so much eager, feminine attention. Somehow, she reflected, she had got rather more used to managing her father and brothers of late, and they were not interested in a thing she had to say! Tom, of course, was a different story, but she was yet a maid at Brandy Hall and could only look forward as yet to the changes he would make.
"Well," she began. "As I understand it, it was a sort of challenge my mother set my father when they learned I was on the way. The boys had been named for the Men who were Father's heroes in the War, but Mother was adamant that I should be named for Family and the Shire if I turned up a girl. Father took up the challenge with great enthusiasm and declared that not only would he find a name, but that it would be one that would honour not only the Shire but both of my grandmothers—rather a tall order when you consider that they were called Rosamunda and Esmeralda!"
"Gracious! So they were!" said Amaryllis, her eyes widening. "Oh, but then surely he lost the challenge, for Berry has nothing to do with either!"
"Oh, no! He won the challenge—though in truth I think you could say he cheated, for while my name does all he intended it to, he had to rely on the Elvish tongue to make it so."
"Elvish!" The ladies stirred uncertainly; they knew such unconventional Namings occurred with abandon in Tuckborough but the general feeling was that Buckland was blessedly free of such eccentric doings—little 'Daisy' Brandybuck notwithstanding. Celandine said ingenuously. "Why, who would have thought?"
Berry laughed; she and Cousin Celandine were much alike when it came to driving home the point. "Well," she said, "as Celandine says, Father was indeed very clever: first, he considered that his mother's name—Esmeralda—was a Tookish form of emerald—a jewel-name, if you will, which is often rendered Beryl outside of Tuckborough. But, he also had occasion to know that Beril in Elvish is the flower-name Rose. So he reasoned that Beril recalled both Grandmother Esmeralda and Granny Rosamunda—and then he added lea for the Shire and good measure!"
"What did I tell you?" Celandine smiled triumphantly, knowing full well that Juniper was glaring at the back of her head. "Will you wear roses in your wreath then, Berry? You would look lovely in them!" (Juniper stifled a gasp of indignation at this point and Amaryllis caught on with a start and murmured disapprovingly. "Really, Mummy!")
"I shall wear roses," Berry said, smiling kindly at Juniper and blinking a little as the sewing circle leaned forward to listen with keen interest; details such as these were discussed at great length for weeks before and after weddings, and critically assessed as well. She went on gamely: "Goldilocks has advised me that she has a wild rose bush just coming into bloom in Tuckborough that will do nicely. The flowers are white, small and soft, with just a kiss of pink. And then I shall tie in some things from the Hall: rosehips for my name-fruits, and oak leaves and acorns for Father, in honour of the Tree, which is dying and will come down after he has gone."
"Berry!" said Juniper sharply. "You're not wearing fruits of the dead tree?"
"Oh, no!" Berry said quickly. "No—the leaves and acorns will be taken from the sapling that is meant to replace it. I thought it might please Father to know we held it as dear as he."
"Here now! Let's not be forgetting the emeralds!" protested Coral-bell Goold, who also had the distinction of a jewel-and-flower name. "Have you a strand of emeralds to wear in your wreath, Berry? I had a string of coral beads, but I shouldn't wonder if you've got emeralds: my grandmum used to say the Old Took fairly draped his daughters in jewels!"
"He may well have," smiled Berry, tying off the last red rosehip and shaking her curls, "but they have not come down to me! Grandmother Esme was descended from one of the Old Took's sons—Hildigrim by name—and he was married to a proper Baggins, who I'm sure had no use for jewels! And for her part, Esme may have been born a Took, but she'd enough Baggins sense in her to make a solid Brandybuck as well, and I'm sure she was never so eccentric or extravagant as to drape herself in ropes of emeralds, either!"
"But surely your Father and Mother must have come by some jewels on their travels!" Coral protested. "Why, your father counts the King and Queen among his most intimate friends!"
"Alas! said Berry, her eyes sparkling. "If truth be told, both Father and Mother were more apt to arrive home from abroad with books or packets of seeds or ponies from Rohan than with casks of jewels!" She sighed. "It's a shame, Coral, I know; but I shall have to make do like every other lass, with flowers and fruits and ribbons. I'm perfectly happy to do it; I suppose when it comes right down to it that even our branch of the Brandybucks are at bottom plain and practical folk."
Marguerite Goldsworthy laughed merrily. "Well, that rather begs a question, then, Berry," she said, twinkling over the rim of her teacup: "Where in all the Shire did your father acquire his astonishing taste in waistcoats? Not even the Tookish connection can explain that; I'm sure I've never seen Thain Peregrin in anything to rival them!"
Berry laughed along with the others. "I can't say for sure," she mused, carefully setting aside her finished bodice and taking up her tea, "though I know my mother used to say that even as a lad he took great care in choosing which little weskit to wear each day. I recall Uncle Peregrin once laying the blame for that at the feet of the famous Bilbo Baggins. (Here Celandine murmured darkly: "Mmhmn!") Still, dazzling as they may be, I think they suit him splendidly. They're part of what make him The Magnificent, don't you think? Can you imagine him without them?"
"I can't," said Ella, fluffing the ribbons round the wreath emphatically. "Grandfather is famous for his waistcoats!"
"Just so," nodded Cammy, shaking out the flounces she had been working on with a snap.
"But poor Estella," cried Celandine, shaking her head dramatically. "Can you imagine having to make up all those waistcoats, and from such shocking foreign materials? Why, I'm told some of them are shot with gold and silver threads! Oh, and the embroidery! Shall I ever forget the red one with the dragon! You know, Estella often used eyebright in her later years; I wonder that her sight wasn't dimmed completely from the glare coming off those nonsensical garments!"
"Ridiculous!" snorted Juniper, jumping at the chance for a comeback even though it was quite clear that Celandine was joking. "I happen to know that Estella loved making those waistcoats for Merry, and conspired with him to make each one bolder and brighter than the last! She knew the silly things pleased him no end, and that was good enough for her!"
"Oh, bother, Juniper!" said Celandine, who despite her propensity for argument knew when enough was enough. "I'm sure I never said they didn't have a splendid marriage—I can't think of two people who were better suited for each other. Berry, I hope you and Tom will be as happy as your parents were—truly, I never saw such fond devotion!"
Berry blushed again, unused to hearing folk speak of her parents as a love affair of legend, and hastily took a sip of tea. Bergenia Banks, who had come over from Bree for the Master's Farewell and stayed on to see Berry away to her wedding, spoke a little timidly into the sudden pause in the conversation: "Berry, do you know if there's any truth to my mother's story that you were named for my father?"
"For Cousin Berilac? Oh, yes!" said Berry readily. "It's quite true, Genie, and it's actually the nicest part of the story. For once Father had Berilea worked out, he realized it could honour his Cousin Berilac as well my grandmothers, and that pleased him very much indeed—for you know he never stopped missing your father, even after so many years. He called him Beri from childhood, you know, so he made short work of pruning Berilea down to Berry as a special remembrance."
"Oh!" Bergenia, who had been a babe in arms when her father had perished in the river, went pink with pleasure and Berry said impulsively, "You know, Genie, Father loved Cousin Beri so much, and I know he thinks of him often even now. I think he would be quite delighted to be able to tell you some of their adventures together as children; he so rarely gets to see you, and this is, literally, his last chance! Do come to dinner with us tonight and we'll see if we can't get him reminiscing! He's got an endless store of tales to tell and I, for one, should like to hear one before he goes that doesn't include a battle!"
"Careful!" chuckled Juniper, sharing a twinkle with Celandine. "We're old enough to remember those two as youngsters at play. I should gird myself for tales of battle if I were you, Berry! And Genie, I guarantee you'll hear a few tales your mother never knew to tell!"
"Well, here's another tale that I daresay none of you ever heard," said Cousin Melilot Goodbody, shaking out the pillowcase her daughter Cressa had just finished monogramming and casting a mirthful glance at Juniper and Celandine, both of whom shifted uneasily. Melilot was ninety-nine and her memories trumped both of theirs. Further, she had shared a birthday with Estella Brandybuck, and an intimate friendship as well. "She never said a word to anyone but me that I know of, but Berry, Estella had a name of her own picked out for you, just in case your father came up wanting!"
"Really?" said Berry, frowning and sitting up with interest. "I'm sure I ever heard anything of it. What was it, Cousin Melilot?"
"Well, "said Melilot, smiling serenely as she folded the pillowcase on her lap so that Berry and Tom's entwined initials could be seen on top. "It was Niphredil."
"Niphredil!" exclaimed Celandine in astonishment, while the other ladies murmured in confusion and Berry exchanged a startled glance with Cammy. "Whoever heard of such a name? Oh, but I expect it must be some foreign name she heard abroad and thought to surprise him with. What was it, Meli? A jewel or a flower?"
But it was Berry who answered: "It's a white flower," she said, marveling, "found only in the vanished Elvish lands east of the Misty Mountains. It grew in the grass of Lothlorien, together with the little yellow flower called Elanor that is Tom's sister's name-flower. How very odd!"
"Oh, well!" the ladies nodded, much enlightened then, for all of them knew something of Mayor Sam Gamgee's beautiful daughter Elanor, who had been lady-in-waiting to the Queen, and who had for many years now been a Fairbairn of the Towers and wife to the Warden of Westmarch. Elanor had been named for a fair Elvish flower and no harm taken.
"Well, Elanor is easy enough!" said Celandine in some exasperation. "Wasn't she Ellie to one and all every day of thirty years before she wed? But what in the world did Estella mean to do with Niphredil? You don't strike me as a Dilly, Berilea."
"I should hope not!" said Berry, turning to Melilot. "Oh, come, Meli! You look like a cat with cream on its whiskers! Do tell us what Mother was thinking—I'm sure I could never live down Dilly as long as I lived—it sounds like a pickle!"
Melilot laughed richly. "Why, bless you, my dear! It's nothing to do with pickles! Your mother had the very best of intentions, as you'll see in a moment. It was an altogether charming idea, but in the end, she saw what Berry meant to your father, and let it go. I'm only telling you now because you're about to be married, and perhaps you'll be thinking about a family soon, and well, it was a very special name."
"Niphredil?" Berry said doubtfully; her heart fluttered, though, to think she and Tom might someday have a family.
"Oh, well, it's pretty enough," Melilot said, waving dismissively. "But that's the flower part, and not the point. It was the 'little name' tucked up inside that so caught your mother's fancy—and mine, too, if I may say so. You don't hear it? Tush! She thought to call you Freddie, my dear!"
"Ohhh!" cried Berry, clasping her hands in delight. "That was lovely! For Uncle Fredegar, of course—I wager if I'd been a lad, then, I'd have been Freddy, as well! I so loved Uncle Freddy—we all did. Why, I think I'm a little sorry now that I wasn't named for him!"
"Don't be, my darling," said Cammy, patting her hand. "For you're perfectly Named—bright and sweet and tart as can be when it's necessary—and only think of trying to find a vanished Elvish flower for your wreath, my dear!"
"I mind Elanor Fairbairn wore a wreath of kingsfoil for her wedding, and a gold chain of her name-flowers that had been a gift from the Queen for her year at Court," Berry mused. "Tom was only nine at the time, but he told me she looked like an Elvish princess and was so beautiful and otherworldly that she made him feel quite shy! His own sister! Oh, dear! I hope I shall be beautiful for Tom—!"
"Well, you want to be careful, if it's going make him shy!" said Amaryllis, laughing.
The very old ladies—Melilot, Celandine and Juniper, together with several others who had been sitting and sewing quietly—took up their teacups with thoughtful eyes and tender smiles of remembrance. Estella's brother, Fredegar Bolger—solemn, determined old bachelor that he had insisted on being!—had been counted a real catch in his day, being not only a robust and handsome lad but, during the Troubles, a fearless and daring defender of the Shire. That adventure had not ended well for him, though; the punishment he had subsequently suffered in the Lockholes at the hands of the Ruffian invaders who had captured him reduced him to a shadow of his former self, and most of his dreams to nightmares; and unable to believe there might be respite from these things—despite what The Travellers had to say—he had turned in upon himself with stern, philosophical resolve. Always a kind and mannered fellow, he had continued in his upstanding ways—hosting elegant dinners and weekend house parties at the fine, family manor he had inherited from his father, taking up his place on the Budgeford Agricultural Council, and serving as a shrewd and ready advisor to the Mayor, the Thain, and to the Master of the Hall, who was his brother-in-law—but beneath his graceful exterior he remained as crushed and broken as the day he had emerged from the Holes into the sunlight. To his way of thinking, no lass should have to take for husband such a shattered wreck as he felt himself to be, and so he had quietly foresworn marriage and diffidently lived out his days a bachelor. He would never have supposed that there were a good many lasses who would have taken up with him in a minute had he asked, and that a number of them had wept bitterly over what fate had denied them. But he had banished all thought of a wife once his mind was made up, and had gone on to live happily enough in his reserved way, dividing his time between Budgeford and Brandy Hall—where he maintained deep and loving ties with his sister and the Magnificent—and Tuckborough, where the Thain could always be counted on to make him laugh.
"Freddy Bolger!" sighed Celandine, taking up her scissors and turning once again to her cutwork. "One of the best of the generation, he was. And when Cousin Merry and Pippin go, they'll all be gone."
There was a knock at the door and Berry peeped in. "Father? Theo said you wanted to see me. Do you need something?"
"Not a thing but you, daughter. I looked for you earlier but they said you were locked up in the solarium with a great gaggle of females. I thought it better not to trespass upon the mysteries. Was I right?"
"You were!" laughed Berry, coming in and closing the door behind her. "It was the most delightful sewing circle—I think Cammy must have had something to do with it; she is so good at bringing folk together. Everyone was very kind and keen to talk about the wedding, and what do you think? The Dowagers were there—all three! Melilot and Celandine and Juniper, and each one as tart as a gooseberry! Of course there was quite a spirited discussion of name-fruits as opposed to name-flowers—oh, and jewels! I think you should know that Coral Goold considers you quite remiss for not fitting me out in ropes of emeralds, Father. It is apparently my due! Bergenia was there; I invited her to dinner so she might hear some stories of her father before you go; she so longs to know more of him! And I finished my gown and had a lovely tea and learned a family secret—which no, I'm not going to tell you, because it's a female sort of secret for now."
"Save us!" said Merry in mock alarm, reaching out to draw her into the light of the hearth. He liked to see her softened like this, pink-cheeked and starry-eyed; indeed, altogether a much more agreeable-looking lass than the tyrannical nursemaid she had been in danger of becoming. "I'm very happy for you, my dear," he said warmly.
"Thank you, Father," she said, bending down to lay a kiss upon his cheek. She straightened with a light in her eye. "Now, then: what are you about? I know you're up to something—and here I've only just forgiven you for deciding to leave us!"
"Have you truly?" he said hopefully, for she had been deeply shaken and quite distressed in the beginning and there had been a gulf between them for several days.
"Yes," she said decidedly, folding his hand between her own. "I have had much advice on the subject: Tom reminded me that all of the Travellers have been called away now—Master Sam and Cousin Frodo and you and Uncle Peregrin—and that it seems as if it was meant to be. And Theo said that we must never forget who you were, you and the others, and what you and Uncle Peregrin mean to the Kings and to the folk of the Reunited Kingdom: and Bo holds that you are the last of the Travellers and have never been ours to keep anyway, though he wishes it might be otherwise. I confess I had forgot all that for a little while, Father, I think because you were so—wounded when Mummy died. But I am remembering now how brave and strong you are and what good friends you have in the World; I know you will be well."
"That's my girl," he smiled, bringing her hands to his lips and kissing them soundly. "And hasn't your Tom proved himself a wise fellow!"
"Yes, he is a darling. Now then, what are you up to?"
"Why, nothing so bad as you imagine!" he laughed, releasing her hands. "Sit down, if you please, lass. I want to talk to you."
She eyed him with amusement as she sank into the chair next him. "Father," she said, "you don't mean The Talk, do you? * Truly, you needn't, for Mummy spoke to me years ago!""What?" he said, with a droll grimace. "Save us! I'd no intention whatsoever—and I'm sure I gave the whole business over to Theo weeks ago, in any case! No, sweetheart, I've something I want to give you—an bequest, if you please, on the occasion of your wedding. I suppose I could have waited till The Day, but I thought I should like to have the moment here in Buckland, in the Hall where your mother and I were so happy in our own marriage, and where you grew from a sweet, funny little maid into the beautiful bride you are soon to be."
"Oh!" she said, and she bent her head as she had used to do when she was small, blushing and shy of him, just for the moment. When she looked up at him again he reached into his pocket and extracted a slim, rectangular box covered in green silk and tied with a thin silver cord finished with a pair of tiny silver tassels.
"Oh, Father! How beautiful!"
"Well, I'm sorry to say it isn't filled with ropes of emeralds," he said, laughing softly. "But it was very special to Mummy and I know she meant for you to have it one day."
"Something of Mummy's? Oh, but I thought—!"
"I know I asked Cammy and Auntie Di to go through Mummy's things with you after she died, but I this kept back a-purpose—for just this occasion." He smiled and took her hand again.
"I don't know that you've ever seen this before; Mummy held it too dear to wear, save when we went to Court, where it was much admired. I think a good many of the King's folk assumed it to be a hobbit fashion of long tradition, though in fact I've never seen anything like it in the Shire and it was my friend Gimli who envisioned the making of it shortly after your mother and I were wed. I liked his idea and commissioned him to see it made, and he had it ready and waiting on our first trip to Minas Tirith, so that your mother might wear it at her Presentation to the King and Queen. She ever after considered it part of her Court Dress and I'm not certain she ever wore it here in the Shire. I do know that she treasured it as much for its artistry as for its value—you know she admired skill in arts wherever she found it—and more than once she said that it should come to you someday, for by happy accident it is set with one of your name-jewels. I hope you may wear it to your wedding, my dear, in memory of your mother, who loved you so very much, and that you will keep it afterwards in trust for the family."
Berry's eyes had filled with tears as he spoke, and with his last words several spilled over onto her rosy cheeks. "Oh, see now! You have made me cry!" she lamented, dabbing at her eyes with the edge of her apron, but he only chuckled and gave the box into her hand, so she sniffed and slipped the cord and opened it.
"Ohh!" With a startled gasp, she drew from the velvet interior of the box a chain hung with silver starflowers and held it up to the light. "Oh, Father!" she breathed, for so finely crafted were the chain and little flowerets that they seemed born of light rather than precious metal, flickering and dancing in her fingers like living things. Each shimmering blossom was centered with a sparkling crystal encircled by polished beads of deep rose quartz, and each tiny, pointed petal was as fine and delicate as its living counterpart in nature. There were ten of the small, bejeweled stars dangling from the row of silver rings that formed the chain, and the whole was finished into a smallish circlet with an intricate catch of silver filigree.
"These are Mummy's name-flowers!" she whispered, awestruck, laying them across her wrist. "Oh, how beautiful they are! I've never seen the like of this, Father—no wonder she held it so dear and so secret: it is surely too fine for the simple life of the Shire! Oh, but it is perfect for a wedding, and wearing it, I shall feel as if I have Mummy with me—thank you so much, Father!"
He had been watching her with smiling eyes. "I hoped you would like it," he said, getting up. "Here, let me help you on with it."
She frowned slightly, winding the chain around her wrist. "It looks a bit big for me. Oh, I should hate to have to shorten it—"
"You won't need to," he said, taking it from her with a smile. "Be witness now not only to the skill of Dwarvish craftsmen, but also to the imagination of Gimli, who kept foremost in his mind the idea that he was making it for a hobbit lass—see here."
Holding the chain, he went down on one knee, glancing upward with a wink and taking her foot in one hand; gently he fastened the gleaming circlet about her ankle. The starry blossoms tinkled faintly as he set the catch and sparkled in the firelight, several inches below her skirts. "There!" he said. "I thought it should look as lovely on you as it did on your mother; you have the same pretty ankles."
"Oh!" she gasped, springing up, her cheeks pinking with surprise. "Who would have thought! What an elegant idea!" She twisted her foot this way and that, admiring the effect. "Oh, Father!" she said suddenly. "You don't think it will make a scandal? Auntie Di told me once that Northtook lasses used to tie ribbons about their ankles when they wished to be especially flirtatious. Of course, that was in olden times, but it would be considered very bold now—"
"Very Tookish, too, if you ask me!" he laughed. "But no, lovey, this is altogether different. It comes of the Outlands, specifically of the King's Court, and was bestowed upon your mother a mark of rank and distinction. That honour now passes to you."
"A mark of rank?"
"Aye. Listen: however ordinary Sam and Pippin and I might ever have thought ourselves, and however we have been perceived here in the Shire over the years, in Minas Tirith we have ever been minor royalty and accorded far too much honour for our own good. Gimli set out to make a gift worthy of a royal consort when he conceived of this, and so your mother was perceived."
Berry smiled, sitting down again and setting her foot against the fender, the better to admire the circlet of stars. "Lord Gimli thought of Mummy as a kind of princess, you mean. How lovely! But how did he come to imagine this?"
Merry sat back in his chair. "I will tell you a secret about the Lord of the Glittering Caves, my dear. For all his skill with weapons and forges, and all his bluff and bluster, my friend Gimli is at heart a diamond in the rough—a great lover of beauty and protocol. It is my personal opinion that he was born to be a courtier; he has an astonishing sense of propriety with regard to royal occasions, particularly in terms of dress and accouterments. Do you know: he has an entire set of jeweled beads and bells for his beard! And so he reasoned that a race of folk defined in part by the fact that they go on bare feet might have some tradition of adorning the feet of their ladies on special occasions—a bangle round the ankle serves to highlight a pretty foot, you see? That is how he came to suggest it. We have no such custom, of course, but I thought it a charming idea and knew your mother would be charmed by it, so I asked him to make it up. Of course, I'd no expectation that the result of my commission of a gift for my wife would be an object of such artistry that it must become an heirloom of the House of Brandybuck, but so it was, and is! Your mother prized it, certainly, and when you were born and we named you—in part—for your Grandmama Rosamunda, she thought of it and its beads of rosy quartz and said it must come to you in time. I think the time has come; I hope you will wear it in happiness and good health, my dear, and one day, when the time is right, pass it on to your own child, with all our love as well as your own."
Berry leaned over to put her arms around his neck and held him for a long moment, and then she kissed him and sat back while he undid the clasp and gave it once again into her hands.
"It is a good thing," she said thoughtfully as she placed it in the box, "that I am marrying into a family that understands these lovely, Outlandish things, isn't it?"
"Indeed it is, my dear," he said, smiling fondly and thinking of Sam. "Indeed it is, and how lucky we are that it fell out that way!"
"Dad?" he said at length, holding up one of the pink-enameled spirals that so surprisingly contained the sound of the Sea. "I've a mind to give Berry one of these shells for a wedding present. Is it all right to give one away? They're so fine, and I've a wealth with two and naught else I could give her." He hesitated. "She's been good to me," he offered. "Like a sister."
Mat's eyes warmed in the shadows beyond the ring of the lamplight; he loosed a stream of smoke into the cool night air. "I'm proud to think you'd do that, lad," he said frankly. "You've a good heart, and that shell's a beauty, and rare. And Mistress Berry is an uncommon knowing lass, to my mind, made in the image of her Dad as she is; I reckon she'll love a bit of shell that's come of the Wide World and will set it on her sideboard as soon as she comes to her new home."
"I think Tom will like it, too," Jamy said reflectively. "His Dad went away over Sea, you know; I'm thinking he could get a sense of his Dad's journey by listening to this shell, just as I'll be able to imagine you on the Barway with mine."
"Why, that's just the thing, then! It's a good gift, Jamy, and well done of you."
"Well, I won't let go the other, I promise; though I'm giving the prettiest one to Berry. Lasses like pretty things, don't they?"
"They do that," said Mat, sighing a little. "Fellows just like for a thing to work, most often."
Jamy nodded somewhat absently and silence descended, punctuated by the soft whisper of the Shirebourne hurrying past on its way to the Brandywine and the creak of the lines as the Lyssa rocked gently in the quay. He wrapped the shell in a clean piece of swansdown, kept on board for rubbing down the brass, tied it round with a measure of twine, and set it aside with a wistful sigh.
"Something on your mind?" Mat suggested.
"What? Oh—no! No, I think I'm just tired. I'm out of practice, you know, sailing—" Jamy stretched out on the deck and gazed upward. "Look at all the stars, Dad," he said, and Mat looked; the sky was full of them, tiny pinpricks of light stretching across the bowl of the heavens from one horizon to the other.
"Do you reckon there's one as shines right over Gondor?" Jamy asked. "If I knew which one it was, I could look to it—" and Mat said softly in the shadows, "I don't rightly know, lad," and his heart ached, for he knew that a part of his boy's heart was lost to the Magnificent and likely to be torn between the Shire and the King's far-distant lands for as long as the old hobbit lived on there.
Jamy lay in a brown study, frowning at the night, and Mat sat smoking and thinking. He had answers for the questions he thought to be coming, but it looked more and more as if Jamy could not bring himself to ask them. Mat knew what distressed him well enough, but he hesitated to push. Far better for Jamy to open his heart than for his father to pry it open, he thought, but how long should he wait? It was not to be long: the boy shifted restlessly on the deck amid a flurry of sighs and grunts, and at length he loosed a whimper of real distress, and that was enough for Mat.
"I think you should go," he said, setting down his pipe.
Jamy's head came up sharply. "What?!"
"I think you should go to Tuckborough. You're his envoy, aren't you? You've a right, if not a duty, to see him away, lad."
"Oh, Dad—no!" Jamy said, sitting up and shaking his head, and Mat heard plainly then the grief and guilt that tormented him and he said quickly:
"There's no harm will be done to me, lad. I've work to do and I'll be here when you get back. You go and see the Magnificent away, and meet the old Thain, and see your foster-sister wed, and then you come back and tell me all about it while we paint the boat, eh?"
"Really? You mean it?"
"I'll hold you to it—it's that or stay and scrub out the bilge, boy!"
"Save us, sir, not the bilge! I'll go!" And Jamy scrambled up to stand laughing in the lamplight, his face shining with love and thankfulness and relief, and Mat saw clearly—even more so than when they had first met again—what he had become in consequence of the strange turn their lives had taken: an older, subtler version of the little boy he had cherished, sobered and refined by reversal and responsibility, and deeply stirred by a raft of novel experiences.
Mat shivered a little, as if a goose walked over his grave. He thought to wonder if every father felt the same to see his boy grow up, but he could not shake the feeling of dismay: if Jamy could change this much over the course of a mere two months' absence, what manner of stranger might he be in a year's time, when Mat was free to come home again for good?
Jamy slipped in under his chin and wrapped him in a tight embrace, all arms and elbows yet. "Thank you, Dad," he said. "I'll go and be back before ever you miss me!" and Mat nodded, for he could not speak, and he held his lad close for as long as he could, so that Jamy might remember how much his father loved him.