With one hand held protectively over the beautiful letter tucked into his jacket, he turned to the path and made his way up and over the riverbank. The great mass of Brandy Hall loomed up off to the left beyond the broad-leaf forest that bordered the river, and it was with some trepidation that he eyed the Hall now as he turned off the main path to follow a smaller one leading up the grassy hill and through the woods.
He had glimpsed the Brandybuck mansion from the river now and again, flashes of windows and doors through the trees. He knew that there were three great front doors along the overlook (all painted a brilliant shade of yellow)—and twenty lesser ones (of other colours) tucked away here and there—but never had he been so close, nor even guessed at the enormity of the structure that filled the hill and rose up behind those doors and shining windows. He gaped now with astonishment, for it was larger and grander than he had ever supposed.
“Save us! How can they find anyone in that great warren?” he wondered. “And where’s the gate, I ask you?” There was no sign of one, only the suggestion of a long expanse of frontage, carved into the face of Buck Hill. Nor were there yet signs of any Brandybucks or others abroad who might show him the way. He squinted up at the hill and slowed thoughtfully.
In truth, he had all along attached more importance to the letter he carried than to the place and person he carried it to. The river folk of the South Farthing had no Masters and he was happily, until this day, unschooled in the traditions of Buckland. But now, coming face-to-face with Brandy Hall, he was seized with disquiet. He began to wonder what manner of hobbit was accounted grand enough to own the title ‘Master of Buckland’ and administer the affairs of the Eastmarch from this mighty Hall.
“The postmaster calls him The Magnificent,” he considered as he climbed. “And the bargeman says he’s as tall as the Bullroarer ever was, and that he has a sword and a silver horn and wears beautiful waistcoats and walks in the Old Forest whenever he takes a thought to and never comes to harm. Why, you’ve not been paying attention by half, Jamy Bucket, for by all accounts the Master must be something like a King himself!” And he wondered now if he had ought to bow when ushered into the Master’s presence to deliver his Very Important Letter and wished he had thought to ask before.
The path wound in among the trees, the canopy fluttering with new leaves and the middle branches strung with tangled nets of ivy. His view of the Hall was obscured entirely now by a raft of standing tree trunks, oak and birch and ash, some yet damp and whispered green with moss. A faint mist drifted through the wood, rising out of the warming leaf mold, kindled golden here and there by stray bits of noonday sunlight that managed to sniggle through the leaves and branches high above. He walked softly, listening, for as a child of the river he was out of his element in such sounds as were wrapped about the land, with the water only a whisper far and away behind. But without the song of the river so close against his senses, he was reminded suddenly that the trees had a language of their own, and all the other growing things too, and that even the path beneath his feet had a voice, hushed and thick with secrets.
“How it presses down!” he thought with a shiver, meaning the stillness of the air held close within the wood, and he had a sudden painful longing for the breezes that leapt and danced so freely above the deep currents of the Brandywine.
His longing brought the voice of the river back to him with a rush: the murmur of the strong, slow undercurrent and the hush of cool, amber backwaters; the soft, early-morning slap of the water on the sandy banks at Sarn Ford, breaking dawn bathing the lowlands in a thin wash of light as the tea boiled and the river folk sat close in little knots around their flickering deck-stoves. Almost he heard the soft voices and low laughter drifting reassuringly across the water, the bells clanging as the river streaked with gold beneath the rising sun and the deckhands scattered to their duties, the captains assuming their posts, and the boys scampering to the lines and the lookouts. And suddenly he laughed at himself, for weren’t these splendid things, quite magnificent things in themselves—and nothing for a mere hill-hobbit to despise, however lordly he might be?
“Why, Jamy Bucket!” he thought. “How you forget yourself! A downriver hobbit and a barge-poler in your own right—not to mention a duly-sworn King’s messenger—and here you are a-shiver over some fancy old bit of gentry!” And if the quiet sounds of leaf and branch and the looming presence of the Hall had bemused him for a few minutes, they did no longer; he remembered himself and swaggered a little, his pluck restored, pleased and mindful that he was about important business and once more in full command of his promise.
The path curved and plunged ahead and he followed briskly, for now there seemed to be hobbit voices drifting with the mist. Pricking his ears in their direction he quickened his pace, hopeful of finding some knowledgeable local folk somewhere ahead along the path. He thought he could hear several voices speaking somewhere up ahead beyond the trees; encouraged, he followed after.
Soon enough the edge of the wood came in sight, the Hall rising splendidly up beyond, and here he came upon his quarry: a group of work-a-day hobbits clad in coarse, rugged jackets and breeks, a small guild of woodsmen about their business from the look of it, gathered about the wide circumference of a single great oak tree. The spreading branches, thick and dark, garlanded with ivy and a few new leaves, blocked the light high and low on the edge of the greenbelt, and cleared a great open circle around the vast trunk. The woodsmen were deep in spirited conversation about the tree, and so intent upon their concern that they did not notice him as he stopped on the path, watching and waiting for a moment when he might speak.
There were four hobbits. Three were like his father—coming to middle-age—two of them dark-haired and dark-eyed with fair, thoughtful faces, like enough to be brothers, a younger and an older. The third was sturdy and flaxen-haired, with soft grey eyes and an earnest, gentle expression. The last was a sharp old fellow with a silver mane and a flash of blue fire in his eyes that spoke to a strong spirit yet well used to directing underlings. The old hobbit watched the younger ones with a stern eye, perched on the seat of an ancient, well-worn cart piled high with deadwood, a sleepy little pony standing dolefully in the harness.
The hobbit-brothers were leaning down, watching intently and speaking to the other as he knelt among the tangled roots at the foot of the tree, seemingly measuring and marking and occasionally thrusting away a heap of dead leaves and twigs to probe experimentally at the hard-packed soil with a variety of tools, head down and up to his elbows in the damp detritus of the forest floor. The conversation rose and fell in fragments: “Now, you’ll see this right here…” “Yes, yes, I was afraid of it…” “I’m sure that’s…” “Oh, are you…?”
At last the overseer stirred. “Well,” he said in an old, impatient voice. “Let’s have it, Tom. You’re far and away the best arborist in the Shire and I’m glad to know you’re here if something is amiss. But as my good lads haven’t seen fit to enlighten me, what is it? ”
The older of the brothers looked up anxiously to meet the old hobbit’s measuring gaze. “I’m sorry, Father,” he said frankly. “We should have told you earlier, but we hoped to the end that maybe Tom could see a way out.”
The stern visage hardened. “Theo, I’m not so old that you need spare me the truth.”
“We know how you feel about the trees, Father,” said the younger brother quietly.
The dark blue eyes flickered from one face to another without comment. “Tom?”
The arborist came to his feet with obvious reluctance, brushing his hands on his trousers. “Uncle,” he said. “I know you love this old tree; you’ll know my old dad did, too. So, if you follow me, you’ll know it breaks my heart to tell you this. But there’s no doubt about it, and no hope for it: the Tree is dying, sir.”
There was a thundering silence. The old hobbit looked up into the great canopy. “It’s stood from the days of the Oldbucks,” he said in a shocked voice. “Seven hundred years!”
“And a good, long life, sir,” said the fair-haired hobbit encouragingly. “Nearly an age, as our folk reckon it.”
“Aye, a full span,” the elder agreed abstractedly, looking upon the tree now as on the face of a mortally stricken comrade. “A thousand acorns every year and shade and shelter, too. What a loss! Nothing to be done, you say? Ah! I don’t like it! I don’t like it!”
He gazed in blank despair at the great tree for a long moment and then his eyes came clear and settled on the others who stood waiting in a tense circle. “Well, we must tend it kindly to its passing, then,” he said grudgingly. “Bo, you and Tom will see to what’s needed to help it along?”
The younger of his sons said with quiet resignation, “It won’t do, Father. It needs to be taken down. If it’s left to fall, it will do more harm than good in the end.”
The pony grunted as the reins twitched, the old hobbit seeming abruptly as gnarled as the tree roots and just as unyielding. His eyes flared with indignation. “Taken down!” he repeated, his old voice harsh against the sudden stillness. “I’ll not take it down before its time! That’s harm, sir, —and violence, too!”
“Father,” the older son came forward to lay his hand upon the old one that clutched the pony’s reins. “We know you'd rather the trees were left to live or die as would please them, but there's real danger to letting it stand—risk to the Hall and the folk, if it falls to the wind. It'll tear the left wing right out of the Hill, for one thing."
But the old woodsman shook his silver head in dismay. “All the Brandybucks that ever were—seven generations!—have known this Tree, and every Master of the Hall has accepted stewardship. I won’t answer to the family, or to the Hall—and surely not to the Old Forest!—for destroying it while yet it lives.” He sighed gustily, a mixture of anger and impatience. “Everything comes to die,” he said bitterly. “Let it pass on its own.”
A sudden memory came to the watching boy of his grandfather, now deceased, sitting on the jetty at Sarn Ford of a cool, breaking dawn, smoking and resolutely downing a mug of ale. He recalled the old hobbit squinting impassively out across the river as the boats weighed anchor, and his father’s face next him on the rail, lined with quiet regret. “Granfer, hurry! It’s time to go!” “I hain’t no more for the river, lad. You go on without me now.”
The woodsmen looked at one another, all around. “Father,” began the younger son, but the old fellow bit back angrily, his face flushed with resentment: “It’s the way of things to fall when they are too old to stand, Bo! Until then, do them the courtesy of assuming they are yet of some use to the world!”
The younger hobbits let the subject go, a silent, tacit agreement among themselves, and the elder turned away, powerfully distressed. Abruptly his hard eye caught sight of the boy standing alone on the path. “Here!” he said sharply. “What’s this? Who are you, young hobbit, and what are you about?”
Brought so suddenly to attention, the boy took a step back, startled to find himself trapped in the blazing blue gaze, momentarily unsure whether to stand or fly. For an instant he sensed an alarming authority in the passion of those ancient eyes, but in a breath it was gone and all that was left was a querulous old hobbit sorry for his Tree.
Well, didn’t he have a job to do, same as other folk? He gathered himself, confident that he was a match for any of these forester fellows, and strode forward. “Name’s Jamy Bucket!” he announced, meeting the old hobbit’s hard stare with an impudent grin by way of return for the momentary fright. “I’m just come downriver from the Hay Gate. Can you tell me how to get in here? I’ve a letter for your Master and I’m tasked to deliver it quick.”
The old one peered closely at him. “Are you now?” he said, and behind him the other three came forward to look at Jamy with friendly interest. The older brother, his eyes yet shadowed with his father’s anger, nonetheless flashed a teasing smile of welcome. “I see no letter, Jamy Bucket. Have you lost it on the way?”
Jamy caught the jest and tossed it back. “Lost it!” he said indignantly, rocking back with his fists on his hips. “What! Think I would drag an important letter about in the open, to fall into the river or brush up against something in this dripping wood?” He reached into his jacket and produced the fine letter from the King of Rohan, holding it up for all to see. “Not a bit of it!” he crowed, flushed with importance, “For here it is, and as fair and fine as when it was trusted to my hand—which as was the only one found clean enough and careful enough to see it here, I might add!”
The old hobbit, who had been grinning into the upper folds of the rough scarf wound about his neck during this lecture, looked now at the royal packet, his face quickening with interest. Leaning down from the cart he said, “For the Master, you say? I’ll take it, then,” and he put out his hand.
The boy looked with undisguised revulsion on this grimy mitt. “I should say not!” he said hotly, stepping back and holding the letter up and away. “No offense, granfer, but d’you think the Master will want to see your grubby marks on this letter, which as is certainly Important Business, and what has come from a King, no less? Think he wants it brought in with the coal bucket? Why, I had to wash just to bring it here! At any rate, I’m to give this into his hands and nobody else’s, so if you’ll just direct me, I’ll be taking it to him myself.”
The three younger hobbits exchanged a startled glance at this, and the arborist’s gentle expression faded to something approaching indignation. “Now see here, lad,” he began in a scandalized voice, but the old hobbit said suddenly, gruffly, “Nay, Tom. The lad is only keen to do his duty and bring his letter to the Master—who no doubt is smoking his pipe with a nice cup of ale and warming his toes before a good fire up there in the Hall, eh, young hobbit?”
“Like as not,” said Jamy cheerfully. “What else is a fellow going to do when he’s old as dirt, I ask you? But you know your Master better than I!”
The younger fellows blinked at him, but the elder looked at him with a warming eye. “Indeed I do,” he said, smiling blandly. “Splendid fellow—a bit grand, you’ll follow me—but I would not be playing him fair if I didn’t see you up to the Hall just as soon as ever I could. Hop up here, lad, for I’ve a mind to make my way back anyway, and you might as well ride as run alongside.”
“Well, I call that a good fellow!” Jamy declared, well satisfied with this offer, and sliding the letter into his pocket once more he clambered up into the cart beside the old hobbit. The three young woodsmen looked at one another. “Father,” ventured the oldest. “What—?”
“Oh, not to worry, Theo,” the elder said, eyeing his oldest thoughtfully. “I’ll have more to say on this business of Bucca’s Tree back home, and I shall expect you to, as well. Mind you, though, I don’t expect to change my opinion. Meanwhile, hurry on, for it’s past time for luncheon and you know how cross your sister gets when she sets a table and has to wait!”
The three stood looking honestly bewildered as he twitched the reins in earnest; the pony startled awake and plunged forward with a peevish snort, plodding toward the path, the cart jolting and bumping behind him on the uneven ground. Then he found the smooth track and headed up the hill in a wide, shady arc that brought them out on the edge of the open lawn that fronted the ancestral Hall of the Brandybucks.
“You’ve not seen anything like this before, I’m thinking,” said the old woodsman, considering him with an expression of placid amusement. “Where do you come from, Jamy Bucket? I think you said the Hay Gate?”
“The Hay Gate?” Jamy said, knowing himself to be well and truly dazzled, but irritated all the same at the old hobbit’s pride in his Master’s holdings. “Nay, granfer, don’t take me for some hayseed!”
“O-ho,” said the woodsman. “Well, what shall we call you then?” The pony rambled along the side of Buck Hill and Jamy twisted in his seat until he could see the yellow doors no more and then turned back again.
“My father runs boats on the Brandywine,” he said shortly, “from out Sarn Ford to north past the Bridge.”
“I see. You’re not fisher-folk, then?” The dark blue eyes were bright with interest.
“Nay, just for supper. My father packs goods—leaf and ales and fodder and such things as folk need—along the river.”
“Does he? That sounds a fine life! You live on the boats, then?”
“Aye….” His mouth hardened and he looked away a bit consciously, nodding at a hole in the center of the path. “Mind where you’re driving, there.”
“I see it. But I see you’ve a story, too. What’s a lad from the river-folk doing running post for the Hay Gate?”
He flushed angrily. “Minding my own business, granfer!” he cried. “And your Master’s, if you please!” Frowning, he muttered fiercely, “And I’ll thank you to remember it’s a King’s letter, and no ordinary post!”
The old hobbit raised his eyebrows, peering sideways. “Bless me, young fellow, I’m sure I never meant to offend. I’m only about my duty, you know, same as this fellow coming up at the gate here who’s set to ask your business. Don’t you beset yourself, though; I’ll see you through.”
They came now to a crossroads, where the path curved up from the ferry landing and met the one coming up from the woods before it turned east again to Bucklebury. Here to the left was a long fence and in it was an open-work gate through which Jamy could see a large courtyard laid out in what appeared to be a natural cut in the meandering green flank of Buck Hill, the Hall rising up above on both sides and also at the back, the hilly turf giving way to glossy ivy on the down slopes. On either side of the court were five narrow arched doorways, each faced with brick and overhung with trailing vines and leaves, and in the far back, tucked in under the hill amid the ivy, was a brick-faced stable, and before it a stable yard of neatly swept earth.
It was a working courtyard. In the sunny corner behind the gate was a kitchen garden, newly hoed and staked in anticipation of warm growing days to come. Down the middle was a line of ancient apple trees, just coming into leaf after the long winter. At the center stood a fount and tubs where two young maids bent to scrubbing linen, and next them were the lines where it should be hung to dry. On the right was a cookhouse and next it a storage room. Several kitchen maids could be glimpsed seated on benches in the sun there, shelling winter peas into large wooden buckets. The woodsman drew up at the gate and there came the sound of a bolt being shot back.
“Well, it’s about time!” came a female voice, and a pretty, honey-haired young lady swung open the gate and stood aside, her hands on her hips. “You’re all of you late, and—and you’re not all of you here! Father!” She stamped her foot. “And who’s this, I’m forced to ask?” She threw the gate back into place behind them with a bang, an incongruous gatekeeper in a pretty green frock with ribbons in her hair. Jamy eyed her with some alarm, but the old hobbit gave a little snort of laughter and cried out happily,
“Why, Berry, here you are, and I was expecting that lad—what’s his name, the new gatekeeper? Where’s he gone?”
“Milo, and he’s gone to eat his lunch in the stable, as there was no point in two of us hanging on the gate!” She looked up at him, exasperation edged with concern. “Where have you been, and where are Tom and the boys? Oh, Father, you haven’t left Tom on his own, have you? You know how unhappy it makes him, trying to find his way around the Hall!”
“Never fret, lass. Your brothers have him in tow.” The old hobbit winked solemnly at Jamy. “Though if I may be allowed to say so, he wouldn’t have to suffer so if he’d just get on with it, you know. I daresay he must want for company at that snug little place of his over in Woodhall. I fear he takes after his gaffer when it comes to wooing, Berry. I should be inclined to give him a little push if I were you.”
“Well, you’re not!” she snapped, and then she said beseechingly, “And you wouldn’t dare to tease him, would you?”
“Wouldn’t I?” smiled the woodsman, his blue eyes warm with affection as he leaned down to catch her hand. “Ah, bless you, dear; don’t worry. You know I only want what will make you happy. I quite warm to him, if truth be told. And now look, I’ve brought a nice bit of firewood for you.”
Blushing faintly, the young lady tossed her curls and looked disdainfully at both the firewood and at Jamy, who contrived to sit up soberly under her wrathful eye. “Very thoughtful, I’m sure. And who’s this, I ask again?”
The old fellow leaned further forward and looked gravely at his daughter. “Now listen, Berry,” he said quietly, so as not to be overheard by the folk in the yard, “and don’t ask questions of your old father, for I’m hungry and I’ve still got to stable the pony. Take this young scrap to the Master’s study and settle him in. His name is Jamy Bucket and he’s come bearing a Very Important Letter for the Master.” “What? Well, why don’t you—?”
“Didn’t I tell you not to ask questions?” he said, patting her hand, “Listen now: Master Bucket desires of me that I fetch the Magnificent to him at once, and I’m off to collect him this minute.” He smiled confidently at Jamy. “Now, young sir, if you’ll just hop down and go along with my girl, she’ll see you in. Never fear she knows the way, for she tends the Master’s apartments, and has these five years, and proud I am to say so, too.”
“Save us!” murmured the girl in some amazement, looking from Jamy to her father and back again with startled blue eyes. “What’s it all about? And aren’t you about being the flatterer today!”
“I am,” said the old hobbit with grave conviction. “Oh, and Berry, you might fetch the boy an ale while he’s waiting, dear. He’s come downriver this morning from the Bridge and I daresay he hasn’t seen second breakfast, let alone elevenses or luncheon yet this day…am I right, lad?”
“Aye, it was a fair famishing trek, old granfer, and a thirsty one,” Jamy agreed artlessly, jumping down. The girl’s head came up sharply and an odd light came into her eye. The boy caught her look and, dampened, said politely, “I’d be obliged, Mistress, an’ it’s no trouble.”
“Would you?” She flicked a glance at her father and then frowned at the boy. “Well,” she said tartly, “that’s only fair. No breakfast or elevenses for a working lad? What’s the world come to?”
“There now, that’s settled then,” said the old fellow with satisfaction. “Be a good girl, Berry, and see to his comforts. I’ll just be seeing to the rest.”
“I wager you will,” she murmured, watching him switch the pony forward with a look of puzzled speculation glinting in her eyes. Suddenly she raised her voice after him: “You hurry up! Don’t you be taking your time, now!”
Laughter drifted back to them over the old hobbit’s shoulder.