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Timeframe: Before, during, & after Bilbo Baggins’s birthday party, over the course of a year, in Chapter 1 of “The Fellowship of the Ring”
Foreword: While rereading The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien recently, I came across this nugget of Shire lore in one of his letter drafts:
If the master died first, his place was taken by his wife, and this included (if he had held that position) the titular headship of a large family or clan . . . .
A well-known case, also, was that of Lalia the Great (or less courteously the Fat). Fortinbras II, one time head of the Tooks and Thain, married Lalia of theClayhangers in 1314, when he was 36 and she was 31. He died in 1380 at the age of 102, but she long outlived him, coming to an unfortunate end in 1402 at the age of 119. So she ruled the Tooks and Great Smials for 22 years, a great and memorable, if not universally beloved, ‘matriarch’. She was not at the famous Party (SY 1401), but was prevented from attending rather by her great size and bulk. Her son, Ferumbras, had no wife, being unable (it was alleged) to find anyone willing to occupy apartments in the Great Smials, under the rule of Lalia. Lalia, in her last and fattest years, had the custom of being wheeled to the Great Door, to take the air on a fine morning. In the spring of SY 1402 her clumsy attendant let the heavy chair run over the threshold and tipped Lalia down the flight of steps into the garden. So ended a reign and life that might well have rivaled that of the Great Took.
It was widely rumored that the attendant was Pearl (Pippin’s sister), though the Tooks tried to keep the matter within the family. At the celebration of Ferumbras’ accession the displeasure and regret of the family was formally expressed by the exclusion of Pearl from the ceremony and feast; but it did not escape notice that later (after a decent interval) she appeared in a splendid necklace of her name-jewels that long lain in the hoard of the Thains. (Letters, pp. 294-295)
I have now grown this small seed into a whimsical Gothic blossom, one that indulges a certain black humor while examining Frodo, Merry, and Pippin as both cousins and friends, while providing a surprising answer as to why Frodo stayed unmarried. Childhood sweethearts and dangerous inheritances do not mix well, after all. I hope my creation would have met with the Professor’s approval; may my readers enjoy it as well.
“Pearl! Pearl Took! I need you—come here now! What in the name of all are you doing, girl?”
Pearl closed her eyes and gritted her teeth. If I just wait long enough, maybe Aunt Lalia will call for Pimmie or Vinca and leave me alone. Please, please let her give up—
Her great-aunt’s voice rang out once more, even more insistent. “Pearl, I’m perfectly sure you can hear me. Move those furry feet, child! It’s time for my daily air! Come roll me to the door, now, or your father will hear of your disobedience, I swear it!”
Pearl sighed heavily, disappointed she was to have no reprieve today of all days. She wanted to pick an exceptionally big bouquet of the last summer flowers to grace tonight’s dinner table. Frodo had come yesterday to stay for a few days, after all, and he deserved the very best for his birthday, regardless of what Great-Aunt Lalia thought of him. She snatched up a few stray blooms and hurried up the flight of stairs that led from her mother’s private garden to the main apartments of the Great Smials. She hastily opened the door to the parlor, breathing harder than she wished. She pinned a smile on her face as she entered.
“No need to roar, Aunt Lalia, I’m here. Shall we go?”
Lalia Clayhanger Took glared up at her great-grandniece from the wheeled chair she sat in. Her gaze drifted to the flowers Pearl clutched, and she gave a snort of derision. “What’s this? Flowers? So you’re still mooning over that Baggins boy. I’ve told you a thousand times over to stop making a cake of yourself over him. The Bagginses aren’t the marrying kind, and are crazy as loons. Look at the boy’s uncle! Bilbo’s daft and always will be, despite his Took blood. You’re the prettiest hobbit in the Shire and my favorite, and I’ll not have you throw yourself away on a dreamy lad who’s more likely to go off and hunt dragons than give you children.”
Pearl counted to three before she dared speak. “A opinion, Aunt, not a proven fact. Let us go. It takes me a while to wheel you to the Great Door, you will recall.” Thanks to the fact you are the fattest hobbit to ever draw breath, Pearl added silently, feeling particularly uncharitable.
Pearl’s lack of charity aside, the inescapable truth was that Lalia Took was massively, enormously fat. Her lengthy reign as the ironhanded matriarch of the Took clan had required a great deal of mental activity, but no physical exertion or exercise. The combination of this with an appetite hearty even by hobbit standards had produced a vastly rotund woman who could not move from her spacious suite of rooms without her wheeled chair or a walking stick, and the aid of her numerous relatives. Some of the younger set, often chafing under Lalia’s autocratic rule, had taken her nickname of “the Great” and impudently altered it to “the Fat.” Pearl was quite certain no one had the courage to call Lalia that to her face, not even her impish baby brother Pippin or their bold cousin Merry.
Pearl jammed the flowers into Lalia’s water pitcher, reasoning it would be changed soon anyway. She then grabbed the chair handles and pushed with all her might. Pearl, as always, had to struggle to get Lalia’s chair out the door and into the hallway. Pearl found herself wishing that the Great Smials, as huge and as comfortable a many chambered hobbit hole that had been built in the Shire, wasn’t so old. The floors buckled in spots, worn by generations of Tooks trampling them with their well-furred feet. But at least Lalia’s weight kept her on the lower level, instead of the most unhobbity upper story earlier Thains had built. After all, I can manage stairs, but not that well, Pearl thought.
After a slow and ponderous journey, Pearl saw with relief that they had reached the Great Door of the house. It was already open, letting in the warm autumn sunshine and a light breeze. Pearl carefully parked Lalia on the threshold, and then stooped and tucked a small rock under one wheel of the chair. The flight of stone stairs was steep, and Pearl had been frequently warned to be careful about this particular duty by her parents. Pearl sat down on the top step and spread her lace-trimmed skirt over her legs. She hoped Lalia’s failure to browbeat her about Frodo while being moved meant that the subject was closed.
It was not to be. As soon as Pearl had settled herself, Lalia launched a fresh verbal attack on her grandniece’s sweetheart. “Your mother and aunt are spoiling that boy disgracefully. Why have a birthday dinner for him two weeks before Bilbo is having a huge joint party? It’s to be an absolute extravaganza by all accounts, and supposedly Gandalf will be staging a fireworks display the likes of which we’ve never seen. With a celebration like that for his coming of age, Frodo should hardly be imposing on Eglantine and Esmeralda. Was it his idea, so he could see you?”
“You know perfectly well that’s not true, Aunt Lalia,” Pearl replied as she prayed for patience. “Aunt Esmie does this every year, because she misses Frodo, and so he can spend more time with the relatives he cares about the most, like Merry and Pippin. Since we will all be going to Uncle Bilbo’s soon for the big party, Mother offered to have the dinner here instead of at Brandy Hall because Tuckborough is closer to Hobbiton. I think it was very kind of Mother to do that.”
Another loud snort erupted from Lalia, and she opened her mouth. Before she could utter anything, a quiet voice cut into the conversation with calm force.
“It was indeed kind of my sister-in-law to do this, and I am most grateful. Hullo, Aunt Lalia. How are you feeling on this lovely morning?”
Esmeralda Took Brandybuck, with her son Merry in tow, swept up to Lalia’s side and gave her crotchety relative a kiss on the cheek. She bestowed a glance of wry sympathy on her niece as she straightened, provoking Pearl to stifled laughter. Esmeralda’s aura of serene authority—highly uncommon for a birthright Took—and her position as the mistress of Brandy Hall since her mother-in-law’s death meant she was one of the only people in the Shire who challenged Lalia on a regular basis.
“My apologies, Aunt Lalia, but I must steal your usual companion. Eglantine and Cousin Lilac need her help in the Blue Parlour, to finish and arrange the confections for dinner. I brought Merry along to keep you company in the meantime.”
Pearl hastily climbed to her feet as Merry made a sketchy bow to Lalia. He looked at Pearl quickly and rolled his eyes skyward; Pearl grinned, ducked behind Lalia’s chair, and stuck her tongue out at her discomforted younger cousin. Esmeralda shook Pearl’s shoulder lightly with a frown.
“Very well, Esmie, if you must. Is your youngling strong enough to manage me in my chair?”
“Merry is nineteen and very fit; he will do a splendid job for you. Pearl and I are leaving now, Aunt.”
Lalia tapped the top step with her walking stick; Merry sat down nervously. As Pearl began trailing after her aunt, she heard Lalia demand, “Well, boy, do you know any good riddles? Most of your Took cousins are worthless at the riddle game—hope you have the wit to do better.”
“I—I believe I do, Aunt Lalia . . .”
Pearl giggled with sheer relief, and then hurried to catch up with Esmeralda in the passageway that led to the Blue Parlour.
Pearl caught up with her aunt as Esmeralda prepared to enter the parlour. The girl could not restrain her joy; she gave the older woman a hug and a wide smile. Pearl exclaimed, “Thank you for rescuing me, Aunt Esmie! With the way Aunt Lalia was attacking Frodo, I was tempted to send her tumbling down the stairs!”
Esmeralda patted her cheek. “Hush, don’t talk like that! I know Lalia is difficult, but she is the head of the family and must have some respect.”
“But she said you and Mama were spoiling Frodo, and that the dinner was his idea—”
“Ignore such nonsense, dear. Now let’s go in, and be happy so you don’t upset Cousin Lilac—it bothers her when you’re angry.” Esmeralda clicked the door open and called out cheerfully, “It’s Pearl and I, Lilac. What would you like help with, and where is Eglantine?”
The tiny, wizened hobbit at the side table looked up from the plate of mints she was arranging in a dish. “Tina went to fish Pippin down from the tree he climbed on a dare—Pervinca really should learn to keep quiet.” Her eyes twinkled in amusement. “Are you being good, Pearl?”
Pearl embraced her elderly cousin affectionately. “Of course I am—I’ve been with Aunt Lalia, so I didn’t have a choice.”
Lilac grimaced. “Oh, well.” She sighed in frustration. “Lalia never does mellow, does she?” She shrugged humorously. “Please fix some more plates of sweets, Pearl.” Pearl began to work industriously, anxious to please her cousin.
Lilac Took, at ninety-nine years old, was perhaps the most beloved member of her large family. One of the numerous descendants of the Old Took’s son Isembold, she had never married, which was a puzzle in light of her gentle humor and appealing character. She had lived her whole life in the Great Smials, and had become the tutor to many of the Took children because of her skills in both book learning and the domestic arts. Her aged hands could no longer stitch the fine embroidery they once did, but her abilities in confectionary and distilling remained unimpaired. Pearl, one of her more gifted pupils, had helped Lilac prepare the candies and cordials for the dinner, eager to display her housewifely talents to all and sundry.
“Does the room suit, Esmie? This is very much your affair, after all, and I know how special Frodo is to you.” Lilac hobbled to Esmeralda’s side and touched her arm.
“The parlour is beautifully decorated, Lilac—thank you.” Esmeralda stopped, a lump welling up in her throat as she saw in her mind’s eye the eleven-year-old Frodo Baggins standing in the entry of Brandy Hall and staring at her with Primula’s huge, soulful blue eyes as he arrived after his parents’ funeral. “It’s very good of you to take me in, Cousin Esmie,” he had whispered, and won Esmeralda’s heart in an instant. She devotedly fostered Frodo for the next nine years, treating him as her own son as she fought to give birth to a Brandybuck heir. Frodo had returned her love, rejoicing with her when Meriadoc was born and becoming the boy’s big brother, protecting and nurturing Merry with absolute care. While Esmeralda could not argue with Bilbo’s adoption of Frodo—there had been no question it was the best thing for Frodo on several levels—it had been a dreadful wrench to see him leave Brandy Hall for Bag End. After the first year, Esmeralda had approached Bilbo and asked to hold a second and more private birthday party for Frodo a few weeks before their bigger joint party. Bilbo agreed, and since then Esmeralda held a dinner every year for Frodo, inviting only those relatives and friends he loved the most and insuring he was the sole center of attention.
Esmeralda traced a pattern on the lace tablecloth with her finger and admired afresh the elegance of her favorite room in her ancestral home. The Blue Parlour gained its name from the blue furnishings and trim decorating it. Part of a series of colored rooms that the Old Took’s wife, Adamanta, had redone two hundred years before, its large windows looked southwards over the orchards that provided fruit for the household. Esmeralda, pleased Eglantine remembered her likes so well, hummed a song under her breath as she began helping Lilac and Pearl.
A sudden loud racket erupted at the parlour’s entrance; three heads jerked up together in surprise. A hobbit woman stumbled through the door as she dragged a tiny hobbit boy behind her. He wailed at the top of his lungs while kicking wildly. “Put me down, Mama! Put me down! I wasn’t going to fall, I wasn’t!” His shrieks increased in volume and he tried to pummel his mother’s leg.
Eglantine Took deposited her recalcitrant son in a heap on the floor and put her hands on her hips. “You most certainly were, Peregrin, and you know better than to take your sister’s dares! Now be quiet, or you will not, I repeat will NOT, be allowed at the birthday dinner tonight! Do you understand?”
The little boy sniffled, and said reluctantly, “Yes, Mama. I’ll be good.”
“Then do so while I finish things here.” A flustered Eglantine smiled at the others. “Hello Esmeralda, Lilac. Sorry for the interruption—didn’t want Pippin taking another crack at that tree. How is everything?”
Pearl kissed her mother on the cheek and then gestured at the table. “We’re almost done. Doesn’t it look nice?”
“Yes, dear. You did a lovely job.” Eglantine said affectionately.
Pearl, about to show her mother the results of her candymaking, saw a small hand edging towards the plates from under the table. She screeched, “Pippin, you little brat, stop—hands off!” She pulled Pippin out and he in turn began yelling again.
“Children!” Eglantine snapped. “Can’t you exhibit some manners for at least a few minutes?”
“It’s not my fault Pippin can’t behave,” Pearl said sulkily. “Maybe I should take him back outside—I’d rather babysit him for a while than have him wreck all my hard work in here.”
“That is a wise thought, Pearl,” said Esmeralda soothingly as she glanced out a window. “In fact, I see Frodo walking to the orchard. Why don’t you meet him there? You haven’t had time to talk to him much.”
Pearl’s face lit up, and so did Pippin’s. He cried, “I want to play with Frodo! Come on, Pearl!” He climbed to his feet and pulled his sister to the parlor door.
“Then please behave, Pip—Frodo and I want to do more than chase you round . . .”
Lilac chuckled as Pearl and Pippin departed, still arguing. “Those two are entirely too much alike. You’ll never have any peace as long as they share a roof, Eglantine!”
“You may be right, Lilac,” murmured Eglantine as she drifted over to the window and joined Esmeralda. The two sisters-in-law watched as Pearl and Pippin ran to the orchard, waving at Frodo. Even at a distance, the warmth of his greeting for Pearl was obvious as he hugged her tightly. Eglantine made a small sound of satisfaction.
“Matchmaking again, Tina dear?” Esmeralda’s drawl held a note of reproof.
Eglantine blushed. “Just a bit, Esmie.” She was very pretty still, with a fluttery, flirtatious charm she had bequeathed to Pearl along with the prettiness. “You shouldn’t blame me—it would be a very good marriage indeed, on both sides.”
“Yes, becoming mistress of Bag End is fine, but you’re not believing those ridiculous stories about Bilbo’s hidden treasure, are you?”
“Not at all, Esmie, not at all,” said Eglantine airily. “Frodo is the only hobbit lad in the whole Shire, it seems to me, who really is Pearl’s equal in appearance and in brains. They’re close in age too. Don’t you like the idea of them marrying?”
“Of course I do—I want Frodo and Pearl to be happy. I sometimes wonder if Pearl isn’t more in love with Frodo than he is with her, that’s all,” said Esmeralda softly.
“Fiddlesticks, Esmie, he may be reserved in public, but Pearl has told me enough for me to be certain he loves her quite the same. He’s always adored her—remember how he helped her walk the first time when she was a toddler, and fussed over her whenever they were together. They’ve been childhood sweethearts forever.”
“Yes, I know—perhaps I worry that they have been too absorbed in each other for too long. It might be better to court others before they make a final choice. And I needn’t remind you that Lalia is adamantly opposed to the match. If she keeps living and stays head of the family, you won’t succeed regardless of the arguments you and Paladin make.”
“But that’s the problem, Esmie!” Eglantine said plaintively. “After giving in when Lalia demanded Pearl as her companion, Paladin and I can’t force Pearl to marry someone else, simply because Lalia picks him!”
Lilac shuffled over and leaned on her stick. “My darlings, none of this matters.” She pointed at the two figures in the orchard. “They are in love—which means the rest of us cannot rearrange their hearts, unless we use some sort of magic.”
The three women looked at one another, and stared thoughtfully out the window.
Blissfully unaware of their elders’ scrutiny, Frodo and Pearl strolled underneath the apple trees, swinging a chortling Pippin between them as they held his hands. Frodo gave Pearl a sideways glance, and decided the time had arrived to pay her an open compliment.
“You’re looking very pretty today, Pearl.”
“And you’re looking very handsome,” she replied, adding mentally, Only handsome because Pip is here . . . If we were alone, I’d use the right word—beautiful.
Frodo’s looks were hardly conventional for a hobbit, but Pearl knew she was not the only girl who sighed over him, and often. His features were far finer-boned than other hobbits, with an ethereal cast, and he was thinner than most, to the point that Esmeralda tried to fatten him up when he visited. It was Frodo’s eyes, though, that gave him an extraordinary beauty. Large, deep blue, and possessing bottomless depths, they had always enthralled Pearl. Her first memories of Frodo were of his eyes. He’d picked her up once when he was nine and she was two, and she stared into those blue pools, seeing nothing else and grabbing at his face so she could keep drowning herself in them.
Frodo in his turn surveyed Pearl with the mixture of love and concern, desire and nervousness that she ever provoked in him. She had light brown hair that gleamed with golden highlights; her face and ears, so like his own, were winningly fragile, and her blue-green eyes sparkled and changed color with her constantly shifting moods. Pearl’s well-brushed feet were uncommonly small and her nose had a saucy uptilt. Her beauty was exotic enough to cause some superstitious elders to mutter she proved the truth of the legend that an early Took had taken a fairy to wife. Frodo had regarded her as his personal toy when they were children, enchanted with her prettiness and precocity and happy to let her trail after him at every family party. Age brought a sharper awareness of her desirability, and he felt quietly prideful she ignored all her other suitors and stayed devoted to him alone.
At the same time, though, Pearl exhibited a sensuality and willfulness—a wildness—that gave him pause. He remembered Gaffer Gamgee’s occasional bawdy jests, during late nights at the Green Dragon, that “you’ll need to have a good seat in the saddle if you’re riding a filly like Pearl!” He took such joking in good part, yet he sometimes asked himself if he could keep Pearl happy for the rest of her days. She could not be called greedy or selfish; and yet . . . she seemed to want so much. But he couldn’t imagine marrying anyone else; when he pictured sharing his bed and life with another, it was Pearl he saw, no other.
“Hey, Frodo, Pearl! Wait up!”
His reverie over, Frodo turned and saw Merry bounding across the lawn towards the three of them. Pippin yanked his hands away and ran to his favorite cousin, while Pearl shaded her eyes and looked at Merry in surprise.
“Weren’t you taking care of Aunt Lalia?” she called out.
Merry reached Frodo and Pearl with a grin, Pippin balanced on his shoulders. “I got lucky, Pearl darling—Aunt Lalia acquired a thumping headache and demanded I return her to her apartments. But the best part is, she declared she couldn’t possibly attend the party tonight, feeling that wretched. So we really will have fun, without the fat old bat huddling at the table, hurrah!”
“Careful, Merry,” said Frodo warningly. He pointed up at Pippin, currently busy picking apples off a branch. “Little ones have a nasty habit of repeating things they hear—especially this one.”
“Oh, come on, Frodo, we all know what Lalia’s like. I’m just thankful she isn’t our blood aunt, merely the elderly cousin we’re paying respect to, which is why Aunt Tina had to invite her to the party. She certainly has a bee in her bonnet about you and Pearl, coz—after I failed at the riddle game, I had to sit there while she complained endlessly over you two marrying. Also made it plain what a dust-up she’d had with you earlier, Pearl. Seems to think you’d behave better—since you are her favorite—if it wasn’t for the misbegotten Baggins boy.”
Pearl snorted in a most unladylike fashion. “If being Aunt Lalia’s favorite means taking the kind of treatment she inflicts on a daily basis, you’re welcome to the title, Merry.”
Frodo sighed wearily. “All of this may be true, but we need to stop talking about her . . .”
“Catch, Pearl, catch!” Pippin called, and threw two apples down to his sister. She caught them gracefully and gave one to Frodo. “Thank you, Pip—see, you can be good, when you try.”
Pippin grinned, and asked innocently, “How fat do most bats get, Pearl? As fat as Aunt Lalia?”
Pearl groaned, and Frodo said, “Merry, I think I see quite a lot of apples on that tree next to the brook. Don’t you?”
Merry was canny enough to take the hint and immediately went off, fighting to hang on to a bouncing Pippin. Frodo bit into his apple and waited until Merry and Pippin were out of earshot before speaking to a distressed Pearl. “Is what Merry said true? Did Lalia pick another fight with you over me today?” he quietly asked.
“Yes, I’m afraid she did. Blast Merry, anyway, I planned on keeping it to myself.” Pearl faced Frodo, her eyes misting up. “What ever are we going to do? Aunt Lalia will never give her consent to our marriage, and there’s no one who can force her to agree—not Mama, not Father, and certainly not poor old Cousin Ferumbras.” She and Frodo traded a knowing look, for their cousin Ferumbras Took, despite being Thain for many years, had still not inherited the family headship and was completely under his mother’s thumb. Worse yet, Ferumbras had never married, because no hobbit lass in the Shire would tolerate living with Lalia. While this ensured Paladin would someday be Thain, and Pippin after him, it also made the current Thain even more powerless than he already was.
Frodo brushed Pearl’s forehead with a soft kiss. “Let’s not panic yet. I come of age in two weeks, and Bilbo has been implying he’s going to give me some property. It might be enough for me to build my own nice hobbit hole, and then maybe we’ll contrive some way to be together, regardless of Aunt Lalia. Think about it—our own home, with Sam to take care of us.”
Pearl smiled and kissed Frodo, her lips lingering far longer than was proper for a cousinly greeting. “Or maybe we can persuade Gandalf to turn her into a toad when he arrives soon. What do you think?”
Frodo laughed. “I think you’re being your usual pert self, Pearl.” He slipped an arm around her waist. “Now stop talking about Lalia, and come enjoy yourself with Merry, Pippin, and me for a while before we have to get ready for the dinner. There’ll be fine presents for everybody, with not a mathom in sight.” Pearl nodded, and the two of them walked slowly down to the two boys, Pearl snuggled against Frodo’s side.
Beeswax candles burned brightly in the Blue Parlour, casting shadows on the walls and circles of light on the dusky lawn outside. The candlelight sparkled off silver dishes and glass goblets, creating glittering rainbow fragments on the laughing group gathered around the large circular table, all dressed in their finest clothes, the ones that hobbits saved for birthdays and weddings. The three young serving maids bustled about as they cleared away the main courses before the dessert trays were brought in.
Frodo sipped more of Pearl’s hazelnut liqueur, savoring the taste as the amber syrup slid down his throat, and let his eyes roam round to look at the faces of the relatives and friends he loved the most. All my nearest and dearest, he thought, except for Bilbo and Sam. Neither felt able to leave Bag End this year, with all the preparations for Bilbo’s massive party still to be completed. Of course, Frodo reflected, it was always a struggle to get Sam to attend. He insisted that it was wrong for Frodo’s gardener to be sitting at a birthday dinner with all his Took and Brandybuck kin. Last year it had taken the combined efforts of Bilbo, Frodo, and Esmeralda to make him say “yes” to her annual invitation, and he only agreed because the dinner was being atypically held at Bag End. Frodo suspected with some amusement that Sam had been secretly grateful to have the perfect excuse this year to stay home.
At his left, Paladin Took was engaged in an animated argument with his brother-in-law Saradoc Brandybuck over which type of South Farthing pipeweed was truly the finest, Old Toby or Longbottom Leaf? Eglantine leaned forward, her hand on Paladin’s arm as she laughingly egged him on as he grew increasingly vocal, frustrated at Sarry’s calm replies. Esmeralda watched both husband and brother with amused tolerance as she drank her wine; her heavy lashes drooped, giving her the look of a sleepy-lidded child who had missed her nap. Next to her, Merry was engaged in his usual battles of wits with Pimmie, the two of them mocking and belittling one another with vigor, accompanied by Pippin’s excited interjections and Pervinca’s acid comments. Frodo raised an eyebrow at this; Pervinca seemed rather young to already be suffering a bad case of jealousy where her two older sisters were concerned.
To his right, Lilac was deep in quiet conversation with Ferumbras, who had been invited more as a matter of courtesy to the current Thain than because of any closeness to Frodo. Frodo liked him a great deal, however, for Ferumbras was intelligent and thoughtful, with many good ideas to improve the harvest yield of the Took farms around Whitwell. It was a pity that Lalia’s stubbornness prevented him from managing the farms with a free hand, though Ferumbras now had Paladin’s help in pushing his mother, since Lalia had decided Paladin would keep the family accounts. Suddenly aware of Frodo’s scrutiny, Ferumbras glanced up and smiled at his young cousin. Frodo returned it, thinking, He’s probably as happy as I am that his harridan of a mother isn’t here to ruin the party. I can just imagine what’d she say if she saw whom it was Cousin Tina made sure was sitting beside me tonight . . .
As Frodo’s gaze settled on his dinner partner, Pearl deftly poured more liqueur into his glass with an inquiring look. “Have you enjoyed the food?” she asked in a low voice. “Mother and I badgered our cook to produce all your favorite dishes. She didn’t have any trouble with the grape-stuffed roast quails or the creamed beets, but the mushroom walnut soup rather flummoxed her.”
“I couldn’t tell—all the food was absolutely delicious, but it always is at the Great Smials. Your cordials and candies are splendid as ever too—and I think your dress is lovely, by the by,” Frodo said. Pearl smiled, and Frodo fell to studying her in detail again, still startled by how beautiful she was this evening.
Her dress was a pale mint shade, which accentuated her eyes and shifted their color to something like her brother’s clear green orbs. The style was simple but elegant, with a noticeably low cut neckline trimmed with a long strand of teardrop pearls. A strand of her name jewels adorned her throat, and matching bracelets dangled at her wrists. Her glossy brown curls were pulled back to tumble on her shoulders, except for a few wisps artfully arranged around her face. Frodo was tempted to ask Pearl how many hours she had spent in preparing herself, but decided not to. After all, it was more than a little flattering to have such a lovely girl make an effort to impress him—even if it was quite unnecessary.
Before Frodo could complement Pearl further, however, Paladin—who had finally conceded defeat to Sarry—fixed his would-be son-in-law with an intense stare. “So, Frodo,” he said, “what’s this I hear? The story’s going round that Gandalf is going to be putting in an appearance at Bilbo’s party. Any truth to it, or is it another piece of hair-brained gossip that fool Sandyman started after one too many at the Green Dragon?”
“Yes, Frodo, do tell us,” chimed in Eglantine. “Why, Rosamunda Bolger told me the other day that we’d be seeing a fireworks display far better than any since the Old Took’s death! She’d be here herself to ask if it wasn’t for those stupid colds that kept all the Bolgers home!”
Pippin’s face lit up and he began bouncing up and down eagerly. “Fireworks? Will they be like the ones Bilbo talks about, all shiny and bright and shaped like flowers and trees? Maybe there’ll be a dragon!”
“Come on, Frodo, you might as well spill,” Merry said with a grin at his disconcerted cousin as he put a restraining hand on Pippin. “I’ll have you know that Sam’s not exactly been a model of discretion most nights when he lifts a pint. The rumors are flying thick and fast.”
Frodo drew a deep breath and looked round again at all their expectant faces, taken aback at how quickly the whole table had fallen silent. “Well,” he said cautiously, “from what I can gather from Bilbo, yes, Gandalf is coming, and yes, he is bringing fireworks—but I can’t vouch for the size of the display, so you needn’t jump off your seat, Pippin.”
An excited Pippin subsided under his mother’s warning glare while Sarry cocked his head quizzically. “What you can gather? You make it sound as though Bilbo’s being as tight-lipped with you as he is with everybody else. Any particular reason why?”
“Why, to preserve the surprise for everybody—including Frodo. Isn’t that right, dear?” Esmeralda asked coolly, determined to end this line of questioning since Frodo’s discomfort was becoming more and more obvious.
Frodo’s mouth opened to confirm her statement, but he was spared any further discussion as the parlour doors swung open to reveal the maids, all carrying the heavily laden dessert trays. Everyone exclaimed happily over the piles of sweets; there was a profusion of pies, cakes, tarts, puddings, and cobblers, even a sweet blackberry wine soup that Eglantine was quick to point out as Pearl’s handiwork. Frodo smiled and took some, along with the raspberry buttermilk tarts and the glazed pear cake Esmeralda baked for him each year.
After the better part of a hour, all the dinner guests finally pushed themselves away from the table, crammed to bursting and feeling very satisfied. Esmeralda glanced over at Frodo. “Frodo dear, don’t you think it’s time you passed out the presents?” she asked.
Frodo nodded and walked over to the large basket he had earlier placed in an out-of-the-way corner. He began handing out the carefully wrapped boxes, beginning with Paladin and Eglantine as his host and hostess and proceeding round. He felt very pleased at the enthusiasm with which everyone greeted his gifts, because he had devoted a great deal of thought this year to what would suit.
Pearl’s gift he saved for the very last; he was all too aware of the substantial risk he was taking with it, since it could be construed as a betrothal pledge by the gossipy or the unfriendly. But he could think of nothing better, and had chosen to brazen matters out. He sat down as he proffered the small box to a blushing Pearl. “These were the only things I wanted to give you this year—I do hope you like them,” he said simply.
Pearl ripped the paper off and pulled up the lid. She gasped as she saw what lay within. “Look, Mama, look! Oh, Frodo, they’re exquisite—I can’t believe you’re giving me these!” She lifted out a pair of pearl earrings, teardrop shaped like the ones trimming her dress but considerably larger. They shone with a lustrous clarity in the candlelight as Pearl held them up, her expression utterly bedazzled. Amid the general exclamations, the three older women at the table exchanged sharp looks, and Eglantine asked eagerly, “Where did you find pearls like these, Frodo? Surely not here in the Shire!”
“I have my sources, Cousin Tina,” Frodo said modestly, too wise to disclose openly the existence of the small chest of jewels Bilbo kept in his study. It was hardly the hoard that Shire rumor claimed was buried at Bag End, but all the pieces were exceptionally fine. Bilbo had given it to him several months ago, telling him he was free to do with them what he wished—“particularly giving nice presents to that pretty cousin of ours,” added Bilbo with a wink. Seeing the joy on Pearl’s face as she put the earrings on, Frodo made a mental note to thank Bilbo profusely when he went home.
Pearl glanced over at his mother, who gave her a barely perceptible nod. Pearl immediately walked over to the end table against the west wall and picked up the flat bundle of cloth lying on it. She held it out to Frodo, her voice trembling a little. “It’s not the usual custom to give the birthday guest a present—but Aunt Esmie, Mother and I wanted to make sure you were well-dressed at your big party. All three of us worked on it. I hope now you like it as much as I loved your gift.” She bit her lip as Frodo started untying the ribbons and folding back the covering cloth.
He made a pleased sound as he lifted out the waistcoat. “This is beautiful—thank you so much!” He held it up, admiring the deep blue color of the silk and the intricate gold embroidery swirled on the pockets and around the edges. “This was quite a lot of work, even with three of you sewing it. You shouldn’t have, but it is marvelous—I’ll be the best-dressed hobbit in two weeks, no question.” Frodo kissed Pearl on the cheek, and then offered the same salute to Esmeralda and Eglantine.
“Put it on, Frodo, I want to see how it fits,” said Esmeralda, beaming with pride over the success of their little plan.
Frodo took off his vest and slipped the waistcoat on, to applause from the adults and girls, and a series of good-natured taunts from Merry and Pippin. Merry’s cry of “Hey, pretty boy” earned him a sharp clout on his ear from an annoyed Pearl and a chuckle from both his father and uncle.
“The women in my family are skilled with the needle, hey, Frodo?” Paladin said genially. “But now I think we menfolk should step outside to enjoy the balmy air, and to try these nice new pipes our young cousin has given us.”
“A good idea, Paladin,” agreed Sarry, his eyes glinting.
“And we womenfolk, in our turn, shall go into the Green Parlour for another cordial before retiring, while the children go to bed,” Eglantine said briskly. “This means you, Peregrin, and you too, Pervinca—no ifs, ands, or buts, miss!” Pervinca gave her mother a mutinous look but said nothing.
Lilac said gently, “Come along, dears, I’ll tell you some stories while I tuck you in—maybe one about Gandalf and the Old Took. Would you like that?”
“Oh yes, Cousin Lilac, please do,” Pippin demanded. He and Pervinca let themselves be steered out the doors, while Pimmie shot Pearl a quick speculative look.
“Wait a moment, Cousin Lilac, I’ll help you—I’m tired and want to go to sleep—” Pimmie hurried after her siblings as Paladin and Eglantine began leading the others to their various destinations. Frodo thought for a second, decided his new waistcoat was too fine to be made smoky already, and began to take it back off. As his hand brushed one of the pockets, he heard a crackle. Glancing around surreptitiously, he reached in and pulled out a small piece of paper. Unfolding it, he discovered a message in Pearl’s delicate handwriting:
Meet me in the library at half past eleven.
Frodo’s head whipped up, and he saw, in the corner of his eye, that Pearl was lingering near the parlour doors. He quickly shoved the note into his breeches pocket, grabbed his old vest, and headed towards the door. As he put on his vest, he bent over and hissed in Pearl’s ear, “Yes!”
Pearl said nothing, but rushed down the hallway to catch up with her mother and aunt, a creamy smile of satisfaction playing about her lips. Perfect! I finally get time alone with Frodo—and best of all, no one will know, especially old Aunt Lalia! Hurray!
Both Frodo and Pearl were quite confident that they had gone unobserved; but neither of them noticed an avid Merry twisting round as he walked down the hall, anxious to see their little exchange and letting his curiosity get the better of his judgment.
The clock on the library mantelpiece softly struck a quarter past eleven as Frodo carefully opened the door, worried about it creaking. He slid through it quietly, shut it silently, and drew a deep breath as he straightened his shoulders. He winced when the motion caused a muscle to spasm. I didn’t realize how tense I was over the past hour—between how Uncle Sarry and Cousin Pal were trying to pry more party news out of me, and being fussed at not meeting Pearl on time, I tied myself into knots! He willed his heartbeat to slow as he poked the banked coals in the fireplace to life and lit two candles from the flames, positioning them on either side of the clock.
Frodo sighed quietly as he settled into the well-stuffed chair near the fire. He had loved this room since he could first walk, for books were one of his greatest passions and the Tooks’ collection was equaled only by the equally large library the Brandybucks had accumulated at Brandy Hall. It had become a family joke that if Frodo disappeared, you could always find him where the books were. He remembered that the first to say that had been his mother; she used to help him build towers and forts from the sturdier volumes when she brought him on visits here. Later he read his way through most of the Brandy Hall library, but had never had enough access to the Great Smials to do the same to the Took stacks, since Lalia’s dislike of both Bilbo and Frodo curtailed their time in Tuckborough. Frodo idly wondered if Paladin and Eglantine would let him borrow a pile to take home with him.
He glanced at the table beside the chair, and noted the chess set sitting there; the pieces indicated that a game was still in progress. Frodo grinned, for Paladin’s zest to play whenever possible never flagged. I bet he dragged Aunt Esmie in here at some point over the past couple of days—she’s the only one who plays as well as he does, since they’ve been chess partners from the nursery. There was also a tray with a decanter set, so Frodo decided to further indulge and poured himself a glass. The taste of the dark purple-red liquid made him smile. Blackberry cordial—Lilac’s recipe, but Pearl’s brew, I’m sure of it.
Pearl. He was almost certain why it was she had summoned him here tonight, and he felt his blood stirring in anticipation. How far is she intending to take things? Not too far, I hope, because I’m having more and more trouble pulling away from the brink of disaster every time we’re alone together. He flinched at the memory of a rainy afternoon earlier in the summer, when the two of them had shared a bottle of raspberry wine while waiting out a rainstorm, and things had gotten interesting, to say the least. That’s all we’d need, a baby on the way and a pack of upset relatives breathing down our necks. Lalia would try to scalp me for a certainly, and maybe Cousin Paladin too—but Aunt Esmie and Cousin Tina would be in our corner along with Bilbo, which might help. Frodo finished his glass and poured another thoughtfully. I shouldn’t be speculating like this at all, anyway, because I refuse to compromise Pearl no matter what she wants—it just wouldn’t be right. Feeling more confident as his resolution to control matters hardened, he took a fresh sip of cordial and watched the clock hands reach the half-hour mark.
A soft scratch drew his attention. Pearl’s hand appeared through the slowly opening door, holding a candlestick, then her head, and finally the rest of her. She shut the door with a well-brushed heel and crossed over to stand before Frodo, a flirtatious smile lifting the corners of her mouth.
“Hello,” she said in a low voice.
Frodo gazed at her in stupefaction, unsure whether the cordial or Pearl’s appearance was muddling his mind more. She had changed into a nightdress and robe made of diaphanous cream-colored silk, embroidered with flowers and trimmed with lace around another notably bosom-displaying neckline. As she leaned towards the mantle to deposit her candle, the firelight outlined her figure with graphic clarity, thanks to the thinness of the silk. Frodo felt his mouth go dry, all too acutely aware he was seeing considerably more of Pearl’s physical charms than he ever had before, and drained his glass before he dared speak.
“Is this wise?” he asked, lifting an eyebrow. “While you indeed present a lovely vision, I hardly think anybody else would be happy to see you like that at this moment, with me.”
Pearl grinned, for despite Frodo’s flippant tone she could hear the ache of desire in his voice. She edged forward a little more, determined to shake his composure completely for once. “I pled a headache and fled company early, then changed into this and waited for everyone to go to bed. We’re quite safe, and if we’re interrupted, I’ll just tell them that I decided to go against custom again and give you another early birthday present.”
“You do enjoy defying custom, don’t you?” Frodo murmured, the scent of her rose perfume weakening his resolve again.
“Yes I do, but not as much as I enjoy spoiling you,” Pearl leaned towards an enraptured Frodo, delighted at the effect she was having on him. “You know, this isn’t all that different from when I was little, climbing into bed with you when you visited and making you tell me stories until we went to sleep.”
“Oh no, this is very different, my dear, and you know that perfectly well,” Frodo retorted, his hands gripping the chair arms a little too tightly. “So I think we should say our goodnights and go to our rooms now, since this is not a bedtime story for children.”
Pearl bent over Frodo, her lips only a few inches from his, aware he could see virtually all of her no matter where he looked. “No, this is a tale for grownups,” she whispered, “and aren’t you glad that you’re coming of age at last?” She kissed him and slid into his lap, forcing him to wrap his arms around her to keep her from falling.
As Pearl’s mouth began to explore his, Frodo let a deep-throated groan escape and tightened his grip on the warm and fleshy body sitting on top of him. So much for doing the right thing, he thought fleetingly, and then he was kissing her back with ardor. The minutes ticked by as the two of them continued to kiss intensely and Frodo’s hands caressed Pearl through the silken fabric. She responded by pressing herself against him, eager to finally get what she wanted and knowing it was within reach.
His blood pounding in his ears, Frodo decided the time had come to cross the line between the barely decent and the hopelessly indecent. He slipped the nightdress and robe off Pearl’s shoulder, bent his head and let his lips begin to trace the contours of one bared (and very ripe) breast. Just as he did, his sharp ears picked up another noise underneath Pearl’s moans. Was that a laugh? He stopped in mingled concern and anger, and Pearl, sensing something was amiss, fell silent.
A rustle, whispering, and then a fatal childish giggle—the noises were coming from the hallway, Frodo realized. “Someone’s out there,” he hissed in Pearl’s ear. “When I count to three, I want you to get up quickly—I can catch whomever it is if I move fast enough—” He paused, and whispered, “One—two—three—”
Pearl rolled off to the side, climbing to her feet nimbly as Frodo made a swooping, lunging dive for the doorknob and wrenched it open. Merry fell onto the carpet with a spectacular thump as Pippin landed squarely in the middle of Merry’s back with a squall. The little boy sat up, pinning his cousin to the floor, and fixed his sister with a wide-eyed gaze. He said plaintively, “Merry told me you and Frodo were playing a game when I found him, Pearl, but he won’t tell me the rules, so can you teach me? It sounded fun.”
Pearl faced the fireplace, her cheeks burning, while she struggled to tuck herself back into her nightdress. Once she became presentable, she swallowed and turned around to confront her little brother. “Now, Pippin sweetheart, it’s not a game for little ones, so you’ll just have to wait a while longer,” she said coaxingly. She scooped him up onto her hip, and Frodo seized his opportunity, stooping down and dragging Merry to his feet by one pointed ear.
“Yes, Pippin, it was a game for adults, which Master Meriadoc here is perfectly aware of,” Frodo spat out, his eyes glittering with a rage he rarely permitted himself. “How exactly did you two end up out of bed and eavesdropping on private matters?”
He was pleased to see the smirk on Merry’s face fade to a look of real fear. His cousin coughed slightly, and glanced at his irate elder. “Before we talk, maybe you need to turn around for a few minutes too, Frodo,” Merry said cheekily.
Frodo grabbed a handful of shirt and pulled Merry closer. “Very funny, you nosy brat. I’m still waiting for an explanation—and an apology, especially for involving Pippin in this stupid prank!”
Pippin said tearfully, “Please don’t be mad, Frodo, it’s not Merry’s fault, really! I couldn’t sleep and went to you and Merry’s room and he wasn’t there and neither were you, then I saw him creeping in the hall and followed him!”
Frodo, his temper dangerously close to the breaking point, released Merry’s shirt but glared at him again. “Well?” he drawled. “I’m waiting!”
Before Merry could muster a reply, a nearby call echoed in the corridor. “Children, where are you? You should be in bed!” The three older cousins stiffened in alarm as they recognized Eglantine’s voice, but Pippin perked up immediately, for he was frightened and cold and wanted his mother.
“I’m in the library, Mama!” he called back happily as Pearl gasped in dismay. Eglantine swept into the library a few moments later, candle held high, and stared at the frozen tableau in front of her with surprise. Esmeralda trailed right behind her, also clutching a candle and with a grave look on her face.
“What ever are you all doing? I can’t find any of you when I go to look in on you, and then I hear what sounds like an argument!” exclaimed Eglantine.
Frodo, thinking the fastest he ever had in his life, said quickly, “Pearl checked on Pippin too, and when she didn’t find him, she came and fetched Merry and I to help her look for him. We’re sorry we worried you—Pip just wanted a story before he fell asleep.” And may that little scamp know enough to play along, he added silently.
“Oh, I see,” Eglantine said, equal amounts of relief and disappointment tingeing her voice. She motioned Pearl through the door, Pippin nestled against her side with his legs dangling below his nightshirt; Merry followed closely, his head hanging down. Frodo stood like a statue as Esmeralda brushed by him. She blew the candles on the mantelpiece out, and then turned and touched his shoulder.
“Come along, Frodo,” she said softly. He risked a glance at her face, but her sardonic, hooded eyes gave nothing away. He hurried out after the others, while Esmeralda stepped over to the open door and joined a flustered Eglantine.
“What do you suppose really happened, Esmie?” she asked.
Esmeralda allowed herself a dry chuckle. “Oh, I think we both know, Tina, but let us speak no evil—the walls have ears.”
“Well, yes, but one can never be certain—but if you’re right, what a pity Merry and Pippin interrupted—after all, there’s no better way to insure a marriage—”
“No, Tina, don’t think that way,” said Esmeralda sharply. “Creating a scandal helps nobody, especially Frodo and Pearl. If I were you, I’d have a serious talk with Pearl tomorrow. That hot blood of hers will produce real trouble soon if you don’t get her reined back in promptly.” She took Eglantine’s arm and they began to walk back down the hallway to the stairs that led to Paladin’s apartments. Eglantine frowned as she digested her sister-in-law’s advice.
“I suppose you have the right of it, Esmie. I will have a word with Pearl.” She peered at Esmeralda, taken aback by her smoldering expression. “What about Frodo and Merry? Should we ask Sarry to talk to them?”
“No, because Frodo is an adult now to all intents and purposes and not our responsibility,” said Esmeralda tightly. “And as for Merry, I think since Frodo is an adult, I will leave it to him to deal with my errant son. I daresay he’ll do so better than I would.”
Even as Esmeralda uttered her prophetic words, Frodo stormed into the upstairs room he was sharing with Merry during their visit and glared at his younger cousin, his blue eyes pure ice. It was an act of sheer will on Frodo’s part not to slam the door shut behind him, thereby waking most of the family on the upstairs level. Merry was sitting on the edge of the bed, his braces down and his expression defiant.
“Just what were you thinking of, Merry? Were you trying to insure that Lalia woke up downstairs and that Pearl and I would be in the soup? Or are you bound and determined that Pippin will grow up to be as much of a rake as you seem destined to be?” Frodo kept his voice down, but rage dripped from his words.
Merry, stung, snapped, “And what is that suppose to mean? I’m not the one who was busy trying to deflower Pearl on the library carpet!”
“You know exactly what I mean! Your mother does talk to me, in case you’ve forgotten! She’s told me all about how precocious you’ve become over the past year, what with peering in keyholes when the girl cousins are in the bathing room, and making sure you’re the one helping the maids wash the laundry in the Brandywine! I suppose you decided this was your opportunity for a really detailed lesson on the art of love, didn’t you?” Frodo took a deep breath, fighting to leash in his temper, but there was still a dark, wild glitter in the depths of his eyes that gave Merry pause. The young Brandybuck heir stayed silent for a few seconds, marshalling his thoughts.
“Well,” Merry said carefully, “yes, I guess I was rather curious about what you two were planning on doing, after I saw that brief exchange at the parlour door. You do have to admit that cousin Pearl is very pretty, and the chance to see more of her made me more reckless than usual.” He swallowed, his nerves beginning to get the better of him. “If I say I’m sorry, and that I promise something like this will never, ever happen again, d’you think you can forgive me?” Merry gave Frodo a look of real appeal, fearful of losing his older cousin’s regard.
The look fell on stony ground, as Frodo continued to pin Merry down with a cold glare. “Even if I do decide to forgive you, Master Brandybuck, you still have other problems to address—namely, making amends to Pearl as well, and talking to little Master Peregrin so he doesn’t market the tale from one wing of Great Smials to the other. Are you even remotely capable of doing either, do you think?”
Merry gulped again; he couldn’t remember the last time Frodo had been this angry with him. He realized he would have no choice but to eat the full measure of humble pie. “Yes, I will apologize to Pearl tomorrow, on my knees if I have to, and I will keep Pip quiet. Now are we friends again?” Merry was barely audible.
Frodo stared into Merry’s hazel eyes, wide as saucers, and felt a sudden sharp stab of guilt. He thought, Yes, he did wrong, but so did I. I swore to myself I wouldn’t give in to Pearl, and then I very nearly did. Why should I take out all my anger on Merry? He would’ve had nothing to spy on if I hadn’t been a lusty fool one more time. Frodo flung himself onto his side of the bed and covered his face with both hands, absolute weariness replacing the temper in an instant.
“Yes, we’re friends again,” he said in a muffled voice. “I’m sorry to act so demented, I was in the wrong too, but I loathe having my private affairs made the stuff of fun, or worse yet, grist for the gossip mills that always grind away in the Shire.” Frodo lifted his hands and discovered Merry looking down at him with a puzzled expression.
“Sorry to be a bit stupid, Frodo, but what worries you about any gossip where you and Pearl are concerned? Everybody knows you’re going to marry her—at least as soon as Aunt Lalia departs this world—and you two wouldn’t be either the first or the last couple to anticipate their wedding night. What makes you so sure people will throw mud?”
“Because Pearl isn’t some buxom serving wench at the Green Dragon or the Golden Perch, Merry, she’s a gently-born hobbit lass—the eldest daughter of the heir presumptive to the titles of the Took and Thain, to be precise. You really think there’d not be talk if we slipped up? And I won’t mention Lalia’s possible reaction.” Frodo stared at the ceiling, lost in memories. “And maybe, just maybe, I’m sick to death of clattering tongues because I’ve been drowning in a whirlpool of gossip since I was twelve. It all gets to be very, very old.”
“You mean your parents?” Merry asked softly.
“Of course I do,” Frodo said in a tired voice. “Aunt Esmie’s done her best to shield me from the instant they died, but I’m not deaf and I’m all too aware of what the nasty-minded still say about the accident after all these years. And then there’s Bilbo—he adopts me, gives me a good home, treats me like a son, but people keep calling him Mad Baggins and claiming he’s somehow corrupting me, that he and Gandalf will send me off on some wild adventure without a by-your-leave. Finally, for your information, there’s already a fair amount of talk regarding Pearl and I, thanks to both Lalia disliking our inclination and my reputation for Baggins-style eccentricity. Do you have any inkling of how wearying it all is?” He rubbed his eyelids distractedly, as if the action would wipe away his inner hurts.
“No, I didn’t. If I had, I’d not have done what I did tonight, truly. I daresay the gossips don’t sound off in front of me because they’re afraid of a black eye,” said a completely chastised and sober Merry.
“You’re quite right about that,” Frodo said. He sat up and stretched. “But now I’m tired to the bone and want to go to bed.”
The two cousins wordlessly changed into nightshirts, and Frodo blew out the candles next to the bed. He curled up under the counterpane and willed sleep to come quickly. Merry’s hesitant voice floated out of the darkness after a few minutes.
“Frodo, do you think about your mother and father a lot? Do you miss them?”
“Yes to both, but not as much as you might suspect.”
“Because I’m not alone, not some poor lonely orphan with nobody. I’ve got Bilbo, Aunt Esmie and Uncle Sarry, you, Pippin, everybody.”
“And Pearl—you’ve got Pearl. You really love her, don’t you?”
“Yes, I love her. What made you think I didn’t?”
“You’re rather quiet about it and hard to read, that’s all.”
“Well, now you know why. Go to sleep, Merry-lad.”
“All right. G’night, Frodo.”
Frodo awoke the next morning with a thrumming headache, which seemed designed to be the perfect pairing for his guilty conscience. After forcing himself to eat far more at the family breakfast than he wanted to in order to conceal how he felt, he informed Eglantine that he needed to go lie back down.
“Are you quite sure that’s all you need, Frodo dear?” Eglantine asked in concern. Before Frodo could dodge away, she reached up and laid a hand on his forehead. “Maybe you’re running a fever. Perhaps you should drink some peppermint tea and take a dose of that willow bark concoction Lilac makes.”
Pearl saw her chance and snatched at it. “I’ll go fetch some from the stillroom, Mama,” she said, giving Frodo a look of open longing that left him blushing.
Eglantine shook her head; the measured glance she gave her eldest daughter took Pearl aback, for it was plain her mother would brook no disagreement. “No, I need to speak with you in my chamber. Pimmie, could you get everything for Frodo and take it to his room?”
“Yes, Mama,” Pimmie replied, with a neutral expression; Pearl had told her what had happened last night, with many a giggle, but now it appeared some kind of reckoning was due. Merry bit his lip in vexation; he had been counting on making his amends to Pearl immediately.
Frodo guessed his intentions and decided that Merry could deal with his other problem instead. “Merry-lad, why don’t you take Pip out to one of the garden pools to feed the fish?”
“That would be fun—come on, Merry, let’s go!” cried Pippin, with his usual irrepressible energy, and tugged Merry in the direction of the door. As they passed Frodo, he leaned towards Merry.
“Remember,” he hissed.
“I will,” Merry whispered. The departure of the two cousins signaled the general breakup of the meal, and everyone scattered. Pearl trailed after her mother, wondering if the interview with Eglantine would be as difficult as she feared. She smiled timidly at Esmeralda, and found her heart plummeting when her aunt would not return the greeting. She thought, Oh no, I am in trouble, aren’t I? Not fair, not fair—we didn’t do anything more than what lots of lads and lasses do all the time. I hate having to be respectable—
But almost as soon as they entered Eglantine’s chamber and she began speaking, it was clear to Pearl that she was hardly going to receive the severe dressing down she had anticipated. Such were Eglantine’s flutterings, qualifications, and hesitations that Pearl was left with the distinct impression that Eglantine was more concerned that her attempted seduction of her cousin had failed rather than the fact she had tried at all. Once Eglantine dismissed her, Pearl practically skipped to Lalia’s quarters as she plotted out the day’s schedule. See, I knew it, Mama won’t be that angry if I manage things right, I just have to find the perfect time again! The prospect of attacking Frodo’s virtue once more beguiled Pearl so much that she barely noticed Lalia’s acid tongue, which displayed itself over the quality of the food at elevenses. She raced through her quota of morning duties with a light heart, convinced she would be able to corner Frodo after lunch.
But luck was not with Pearl. Frodo announced at the lunch table that he would be leaving for Hobbiton promptly after he finished eating. Pearl, appalled, asked tremulously, “But I thought you planned to stay for another day or so—must you go?”
“Yes, Frodo, if you’re not feeling well, riding home will hardly help. Please do stay,” Eglantine said anxiously.
“It’s a very tempting offer, Cousin Tina, but I would feel better if I do go home. I’m beginning to worry about all the things we still need to do before the party—it’s only two more weeks. I hope you can forgive me, but responsibility calls.” Frodo smiled, ignoring the warring emotions written on Pearl’s rosy face. When he departed to pack his bags, he was startled to have Pearl trailing after him.
“Coming to help me pack up?” Frodo deliberately kept his tone light.
“Yes, and to talk, just a little.”
There was no polite way to shake her off, so he allowed her to follow him into the guest room. As soon as the door clicked shut, Pearl stood directly before Frodo and said, “You’re running away, you coward!” She sounded half amused and half exasperated, her eyes sparkling with challenge.
“Maybe I am,” he replied tersely. “But if you’re perfectly honest, I have cause. You are an impatient lass, my sweet.”
Pearl wrapped her arms around him and tipped her chin up, letting her mouth float near his once more. Frodo stayed passive within her embrace, but the tension in his body told her how much of an effort that passivity was costing him. She whispered, “You’re quite right, but I have cause too—have you looked in a mirror lately?”
“Blatant flattery again, my pearly queen, and it won’t work.” Frodo’s voice echoed harshly in his own ears as he fought down the impulse to yield to their mutual desire. He suspected flinging Pearl’s skirts up and pinning her against the wall, or tossing her onto the bed, was hardly the way to say farewell to his Took relatives.
She kissed him then, letting her tongue slide recklessly between his lips. “You win this time,” she whispered, her voice dripping with a sultriness that made the hair stand up on the back of Frodo’s neck. “But I give you fair warning—all bets are off in two weeks at Uncle Bilbo’s party. Are you ready for that?”
“Do have a choice?”
“No, not at all,” she said impudently.
“Very well, then—I will be ready, and I might surprise you,’ he said with a dry chuckle. Satisfied, Pearl released him and stepped back; he grabbed at the chance to guide matters into a safer harbour. “Please, come help me gather up my things, and I promise to share a fair amount of party gossip I haven’t told anyone else this visit—but you have to swear to keep it to yourself.”
“Yes, really—there are dwarves coming, not just Gandalf . . .”
The two of them kept themselves busy for the next ten minutes with talk and packing, though Frodo had a struggle at one point to convince Pearl that stuffing all of Merry’s clothes into Frodo’s bags was not the best way to vent her anger over the previous night. When they were done, Frodo looked around the room thoughtfully.
“You know, I forgot to bring up that small pile of books I sorted out this morning to borrow. Do you mind going downstairs to fetch them?”
“Of course not. I’ll meet you at the Great Door.”
She carried the smallest bag with her as she walked with him to the library entrance. As she went inside, he continued down the hall and out through the massive, round Great Door. There he discovered his pony, already saddled and tacked, standing at the foot of the stairs. The rest of the family, including the three Brandybucks, Paladin and Eglantine, and all of Pearl’s siblings, were gathered about the pony to say their goodbyes.
“Bye-bye, Frodo,” chirped Pippin as he hugged Frodo’s legs. “Will you save me some of the good crackers if we’re late to the party?”
Frodo knelt down and picked him up. “Pip, not only will I save you the very best crackers to pull, but I’ll make sure you get the very best of the toys—they’ve come clear from Dale, and are real dwarf-make. Is that good enough?”
“Thank you, Frodo!” Pippin hugged him again, this time around the neck; Frodo set him back on his feet and turned to embrace Merry. “Well?” he whispered.
“I talked to him—he won’t say anything, I’m sure of it,” Merry replied softly.
“Good—and talk to Pearl, you nearly lost your clothes a little while ago.”
Merry’s eyes widened at this murmured comment. Frodo kissed Eglantine and Esmeralda, tousled the curls of both Pimmie and Pervinca, and thought his ribs would crack as Paladin pounded his back while subjecting him to a bone-crushing embrace.
“Always wonderful to see you, Frodo-lad. Tell Bilbo we’ll all be coming to the party.”
Sarry, as ever more sedate, hugged Frodo gently, his expression unexpectedly wistful as he spoke to his former fosterling. “Take care, my boy. I know we will be seeing you again soon, but we still miss you at Brandy Hall, so it never is soon enough for us.”
“I know, Uncle Sarry, and I will take care, promise,” Frodo said with a smile. Just then, Eglantine glanced around in surprise.
“I’m right here, Mama—I’ve got the books Frodo wants to borrow . . .”
“Is that all right with you, Cousin Tina?” asked Frodo.
“Oh, that’s fine, dear, and don’t worry about rushing them back to us . . .”
“Goodbye, Frodo,” Pearl murmured. She kissed his forehead, deciding to be discreet in front of the rest of her family, but she could not resist a parting shot. “Remember what I told you!”
“And you as well,” he retorted as he crammed the bag of books into a saddlebag. He mounted his pony gracefully and urged it down the front drive, heading for the eastbound road to Tuckborough. He turned and waved; the rest waved back while calling out their farewells. When Frodo turned and faced the road, everyone left except for Pearl and Pimpernel. Pearl continued to watch Frodo as he and the pony became a distant blur, while Pimmie eyed her sister with curiosity. When Frodo disappeared below the horizon, Pimmie finally spoke.
“Sister dear, aren’t you being rather sentimental? You will see him again soon.”
“I know that, but it feels like forever already!”
“Don’t be silly,” said Pimmie, practical to a fault. “There’s lots to do between now and then, including finishing the sewing on our party outfits. You just wait, it won’t feel like two weeks, but two days. Now let’s go see if Cousin Lilac has made that new perfume she promised you.”
Pimmie’s prediction proved to be correct; the next two weeks passed in a whirl as all the residents of Great Smials busied themselves preparing for the party. Sarry, Esmie, and Merry continued to stay in Tuckborough, having already planned to meet Rory and the rest of the Brandybucks at Bilbo’s. Servants’ gossip had relayed the news that outsiders from far away would be at Bag End, not just the usual family and friends, making excitement mount even higher. New clothing was fitted, needles flew, and old jewelry was dug out and polished. Every single Took was determine to cut the finest of figures and to show every other guest, whether hobbit, dwarf, or wizard, that they were still the preeminent clan in the Shire.
The icing on the cake came when Lalia announced over supper, three days before the great day, that her health could not possibly support the strain of a trip to Hobbiton, and that therefore she would not be attending. All the older relatives in the dining hall made conventional noises of sympathy while keeping their eyes on their plates, since they knew “health” actually meant “weight”, but the younger set could not be so discreet. Pearl and Merry traded a look of such open delight that both Eglantine and Esmeralda clucked disapprovingly.
“Children, can you not make your joy so apparent?” murmured Esmeralda.
“Yes, because we still have to live with Lalia even if she’s absent from the party!” Eglantine hissed anxiously.
“Sorry, Mama,” said Pearl in false apology.
“And so am I,” said Merry defiantly, “but only if she saw us, since we all know how much more fun things are without her—” Esmeralda quelled her rebellious son with a sharp gesture.
“Enough, Meriadoc!” She gave Lalia a wary glance as the matriarch shuffled by their table with oliphaunt-like dignity. Merry froze, then spoke again as Lalia disappeared through the doors.
“Can I leave the table now, Mother?”
“Me too, Mama,” added Pearl.
“Yes, you can,” said their mothers in unison. Merry and Pearl bolted away, chattering happily about their good luck and all their previous tensions forgotten. As they fled, Esmeralda muttered, “It’s shameful to admit how right they are, isn’t it?” A tiny smile escaped her. “It will be a relief not to have Lalia there—she’s always like a black crow at any party.”
Eglantine made a face. “You needn’t tell me that—try living with her full time, since she has no sense of humor.” She giggled. “Maybe it’s true she was cursed by that long-ago fairy wife of the first Took when Fortinbras was mad enough to marry her!”
“Oh, really, Tina!” said Esmeralda with a laugh. “You’re as bad as the children sometimes! Let’s just hope Lalia doesn’t change her mind at the last minute, because then Pearl and Merry will misbehave for certain in order to needle her.”
Esmeralda got her wish when Lalia confirmed her absence the night before the party. The next morning, Pearl awoke to sunlight and birdsong, her eyes shining with eager anticipation as she listened to the thrush outside her window. Today is the day, and I’m seeing Frodo again. Could anything be more perfect? She lay there for a while longer, wishing it was Frodo beside her at this very moment instead of her snoring sister, who still was sharing Pearl’s room to allow the Brandybucks space on the upper floor. Her ears picked up the sounds of a waking household; she sat up, drawing her legs up and wrapping her arms around them. Time to get up if I want a nice long bath, or the hot water will be all gone.
She prodded Pimmie. “Come on, Pimpernel,” she said, deliberately using the full name Pimmie hated. “We need to head down to the bathing rooms if we’re going to beat everybody else.”
Pimmie groaned and buried her face into her pillow as she reluctantly awakened. “What time is it? You know, not everyone is as vain as you are. I’d rather sleep for a while if you don’t mind. Can’t think of anybody I want to impress that badly.”
“What, nobody?” said Pearl in mock disbelief.
“Oh, please—the only lad worth bothering with is Frodo, and he’s yours.”
“Not going to steal him?”
“Not likely! I know a lost cause when I see one. Now go away.” Pimmie attempted to pull Pearl’s pillow over her head, but Pearl snatched it and tossed it to the floor.
“Sam Gamgee will be there. You told me once you thought he was rather handsome and awfully sweet.”
“And so I did. But he’s too bashful for words, not to mention he’s too hopelessly lower-class for Mama’s tastes.”
“You’re not marrying him, dolt, but just wanting to have a bit of fun.”
“Does he want to have fun?”
“He will be if you make an effort for once—you’re as pretty as I am when you do try,” said Pearl coaxingly. “Come on, Pimmie.”
“Be honest—you need help with your hair, don’t you?”
“That too, but I’ll help you with yours.”
Pimmie emitted a deep sigh and turned over. “Oh, all right, you win.” Pearl bounded out of the bed, grabbed her robe and bag of bath things, and threw Pimmie’s robe and bag down beside her grumbling sister.
“Well, are you coming downstairs, or not?” asked Pearl impatiently.
“Yes—don’t push me!”
Pearl herded a yawning Pimmie down the back flight of steps near their bedroom and up the hallway that led to the baths. When they stepped into the women’s side, they discovered maids bustling about heating water, filling tubs and laying out fresh towels. A few other family members were already bathing, including Lilac, submerged to her neck in steaming bubbles. Pearl called out cheerfully, “So you’re up early to make yourself beautiful too, Cousin Lilac?”
“Wicked child! It takes more than a bath to pretty me up now. Be glad I didn’t make you help me into this tub.”
“Better you than Aunt Lalia,” said Pearl daringly.
“Away with you!” Lilac shook her head, laughing merrily. “There are two tubs in the corner for you and Pimmie.”
The girls quickly disrobed and climbed in, Pearl clutching a large bar of soap. As she began to wash, Pimmie sniffed at the air and looked at her sister in shock.
“That’s the special cinnamon milk soap Mama keeps locked away, isn’t it? How did you get that?”
“Shhh—lifted the key to her chest when she was playing cards last night. Don’t tell, will you?” Pearl glanced over at Lilac furtively.
“No, I won’t, but Mama will smell it, and take your head off when it’s all gone and she can’t get the cinnamon to make more. You know how hard it is to find.”
“It’ll be worth it—I want to look my best for Frodo.”
“As ever,” said Pimmie dryly. They both fell silent as they concentrated on washing up, scrubbing their hair with the rich soap until everything glistened and pouring pitchers of water over each other so all the suds were rinsed out. Dried and refreshed, they robed themselves again and headed back to their room, only to bump into their mother and aunt as they arrived.
“Oh, good, you girls did get up early!” exclaimed Eglantine. “I was afraid you were still asleep—your father wants to leave by ten if we’re to be in Hobbiton by lunchtime. I had Bluebell take some breakfast trays up.”
“Thank you, Mama, and we’ll be ready,” promised Pearl. She and Pimmie darted down the hall and up the stairs.
“Well, that was a close call, wasn’t it?” Pimmie said tartly.
“Hush up. Come on, let’s eat, and then we’ll work on our hair.”
They hastily ate their breakfast while sitting at the open window, letting the sun dry out their hair. They then began pinning up each other’s curls, with Pearl forcing Pimmie to redo her hairdo five times over before she professed herself satisfied. She then drew out a little pot she had hidden under the bed and dabbed pink cream on her lips.
“Lip salve? You really do want to flaunt your tail feathers today, don’t you?”
“I promised Frodo quite a garden of delights in that letter I put in his bag of books, which means I have to look perfect.”
“You sent him a love letter? Lovely. Better hope Merry doesn’t get hold of it, or the whole Shire will know what you plan on doing with him.”
“And if that happens, Merry knows he dies, so I’m not too concerned, sis. Now let’s get dressed.”
Pimmie’s dress was a dark gold with green trim, while Pearl’s was a shimmering sky blue. After they buttoned each other into their party finery, Pearl reached into the cupboard and whipped out a blue waistcoat that laced up in the front, the feminine match to the one she had helped make for Frodo. She pulled the ribbons ruthlessly, forcing her bosom further out of her plunging neckline. Pimmie whistled.
“What are you doing? Aiming to compete with Cousin Melilot, or that brat Angelica Baggins?”
“They can’t begin to compete with me, and you know that!” Pearl studied her reflection in the mirror with a critical eye. “Not quite perfect, but close. Now for the jewelry—” She put on the earrings Frodo had given her, with the pearl strand she had worn that night as well. Just as she turned to the mirror again, the clock in the hall struck the hour, and their father’s voice rang out from below.
“Pearl, Pimpernel, move! We are leaving!”
They scurried downstairs, rushing to the Great Door and arriving breathless. Paladin looked at his daughters in mingled pride and irritation.
“You both are lovely, which you should be after taking so much time to prepare. Now get in the carriage!”
Pimmie protested, “Really, Daddy, it’s only a little past seven. It’s not our fault you and Mama didn’t want to spend last night in Bywater, since we already are planning that tonight.”
“With the fast ponies and light carriages we and Sarry have, we can get to Bag End at a decent hour today—but only if you two hurry!”
Pearl and Pimmie scrambled in and sat down beside Eglantine. Lilac and Pervinca sat opposite. Pearl asked, “Where’s Pippin?”
“He’s riding with the Brandybucks,” said Eglantine. Pearl leaned out the window and waved at the carriage beside theirs.
Pippin grinned and waved back. “Hello, Pearl! See, I’m riding with Merry today!”
“Yes, I see.”
“And I see you took forever like you always do, Pearly-girl,” called Merry.
“Don’t start, Merry, or I swear you’ll pay—”
“You both will pay if you don’t behave at the party!” snapped Eglantine. Paladin climbed in then, slammed the carriage door shut, and rapped on the roof.
“Let’s go!” he shouted.
The carriage lurched forward with a crack of the coachman’s whip. Pearl and Pimmie exchanged smiles. “Here we go,” Pearl murmured, her eagerness surging up every time the wheels turned. And I hope you’re ready for me, Frodo, she thought, because if you’re not, you’ll be very, very sorry . . .
The lunch hour was fading as the Took and Brandybuck carriages rolled over the stone bridge next to Sandyman’s Mill, the galloping ponies slowing to a trot, and climbed the lane leading to Bag End. The Tooks packed up the baskets they had been eating from and stuffed them under their seats. An overeager Pearl, who had eaten little for fear of damaging her appearance, dropped the window and prepared to lean out to look for Frodo. Her mother immediately forced her to sit back down.
“Really, Pearl, do try to act like you have a modicum of upbringing!” said Eglantine.
Pearl’s chin tightened into a stubborn line. “Aunt Lalia’s not here, Mama, so what are you fussed about?”
Paladin said stiffly, “Because your mother and I do care what some guests here think, and that includes Gandalf. I would prefer he not believe that all of the Old Took’s descendants are completely unmannerly. So, please . . .?”
Pearl sighed and wrinkled her nose. “Then I will behave for you, Daddy.”
The two carriages stopped in front of Bag End’s front door. The coachmen hopped down and lowered the stairs, extending helping hands to their disembarking passengers. Pearl managed to control her eagerness enough that she trailed after her parents obediently as everyone crossed the lane to the Party Field’s entrance. There, Bilbo stood at the new white gate beaming happily, while Gandalf loomed behind him. The wizard’s equally friendly smile did not dispel his imposing quality.
“Welcome, my dears, welcome!” Bilbo shook hands with Paladin, who greeted him warmly and deeply bowed with high formality to Gandalf. “I was becoming worried none of you would arrive in time to enjoy tea, much less lunch!”
“Never fear—our coachman did the trick and made up for the time we lost with my lovely daughters preparing themselves,” Paladin said cheerfully. “But you can see it was worth the wait, Bilbo!” He motioned Eglantine and his children forward with a proud grin.
Eglantine hugged Bilbo tightly as he kissed her in greeting. She turned to Gandalf and dropped her very best curtsey to him as she peered up through her eyelashes. She still regarded Gandalf with awe after many years despite Paladin’s constant admonitions that the wizard was the best of friends to all hobbits. “You do us all great honour with your presence, sir,” she murmured, her voice quivering.
“And you honour me with your welcome, Mistress Eglantine,” said Gandalf as he bowed over the tiny hobbit hand in his, wishing he could convince Eglantine that she need not fear him.
Both Pimmie and Pervinca emulated their mother’s actions exactly after Bilbo hugged them, while Pippin stared at Gandalf, wonder writ large on his face as he ran up from where Merry lingered with his parents. But Pearl looked up boldly at Gandalf, refusing to show any fear. To her, he was just another male she could subject to the full battery of her charm, and she gave him her most winsome smile as Bilbo released her.
Pearl extended her hand to the wizard. “I see the passing years have not dulled you, my good Master Gandalf; you are as wise and as handsome as ever!”
Gandalf bowed and chuckled at Pearl’s obvious flattery. “And you, my dear child, are even bonnier and blither than when I saw you last.” He studied her for a moment, reflecting that the promise of beauty he had noted in the little girl had reached full fruition. He wondered if she still was as infatuated with Frodo as before, but before he could discreetly pursue the issue, Frodo sprinted up to the group at the gate.
“Pearl!” Frodo spun her around as he embraced her, and turned to Gandalf. “Forgive me, but Pearl is the one relative I’ve been waiting on all afternoon, so I must steal her away.”
“Go right ahead, my boy,” Bilbo said genially. “In fact, why don’t all of you sit down and eat some lunch before it’s all gone? I’ll pass out your presents later—I daresay Frodo and Gandalf will lend me a hand or two.”
“Of course we will, Bilbo. Come on, Pearl, there’s a good spot over here, with lots of shade, I know you like that—” Frodo and Pearl, chattering happily, wandered away with the rest of the Tooks in tow. Gandalf watched them thoughtfully, his brow furrowed. “Well, that rather answers my question,” he murmured. Bilbo looked at him in surprise, but the Brandybucks began to greet both host and wizard and prevented any inquiry.
“Hello, Bilbo,” Esmeralda said as she hugged him affectionately. “Here we all are, for better or for worse, including Lilac—you know no birthday party of yours would be complete without her.”
“No indeed! Glad to see you made it, Lilac darling. I do hope it wasn’t too bumpy a journey.” Lilac smiled at Bilbo’s solicitous question, for she was one of the few older relatives Bilbo cared about deeply.
“It was a pleasant trip, thanks to Sarry’s excellent carriage and driver, and also the fact that Lalia’s, hmm, illness kept her at Great Smials.”
Everyone laughed, even Gandalf, for he had suffered through enough confrontations with a disapproving Lalia to know both her sharp tongue and her expanding bulk. Bilbo grinned at Lilac. “You never lose your gift for the apt phrase, Lilac dear.”
“And you never lose yours for being generous, which is why I’m eager to sample the luxurious spread laid out on the tables.” Lilac peered at another elderly hobbit waving at her. “Is that Rory, Sarry? I can’t see well.”
“Yes, it is. Do you want to join him?”
“Please, if you don’t mind lending me your arm.” Lilac bowed her head regally to Bilbo and Gandalf. “We shall enjoy the party together later, I hope?”
“But of course,” said Bilbo. He kissed Lilac’s hand gently.
“Forgive me, Sarry, but I want to speak further to Bilbo and Gandalf,” Esmeralda said. “I’ll be by directly.”
“Take your time, Esmie—I’ll make sure to save some mushrooms for you.” Sarry kissed his wife before he and Merry aided Lilac in hobbling across the field to the table where Rory Brandybuck was holding court. Esmeralda ignored them, turning her gaze instead to where Frodo and Pearl were eating together, their laughter ringing out as they flirted with one another. She became aware that Gandalf was studying the young couple as well, his sardonic expression giving nothing obvious away. When she returned her attention to the wizard, he bowed deeply and straightened up with a twinkle in his eye, for he had long regarded Esmeralda one of the finest hobbits in the Shire.
“I am pleased to see you looking so well, Mistress Brandybuck. How are you faring at Brandy Hall?”
“Very good, thanks in large part to your protection, Master Gandalf,” replied Esmeralda. Unlike most of the Shire’s inhabitants, she had been aware from youth as to just how much they all owed to Gandalf’s faithful vigilance. She hesitated, and then nodded towards Frodo and Pearl. “They do make a pretty pair, don’t they?”
“Yes, they do.” Gandalf’s voice was studiously neutral.
“But sometimes I wonder if their hearts truly understand each other,” Esmeralda murmured. Bilbo overheard her and bristled up.
“Oh, come now, Esmie, you’ve been fussing for years about Pearl not really being the right girl for Frodo. I think they’ll do fine, especially now that Frodo’s come of age. I don’t see any other lass in the Shire who suits my heir better, and I hope they settle down quickly and ignore Lalia’s idiotic opposition.” He smiled at his cousin. “And you may get a nice surprise tonight when you see what I’ve done for our dear boy.”
“Oh? So you have been busy, haven’t you?” Esmeralda’s pensiveness disappeared, and she was her usual brisk self again. “Well, perhaps you are right.”
“Is that what you wanted to speak to me about?” Bilbo asked.
“Yes it was, but it can wait until later—privacy would be better upon reflection.” She gave Bilbo another hug and squeezed Gandalf’s hand. “And now I shall rejoin my ever-turbulent clan, for it looks like Merry and Pippin are up to something.” She hurried off as Bilbo watched her.
“You know, my dear Bilbo, Esmeralda may be correct. You might want to encourage Frodo to court a few others before settling on Pearl Took, lovely and charming though she may be,” Gandalf said softly above Bilbo’s head.
“You question my judgment?” Bilbo demanded as he glared up at his old friend.
“No, but you seem a bit anxious to see Frodo married. I have a great deal of respect for Esmeralda’s intelligence; you ought to listen to her more often.”
“It doesn’t matter what she thinks. Frodo’s quite in love with Pearl, and she with him, so it’s entirely too late to change their minds.” Bilbo sighed, his belligerence vanishing. “And surely you can understand why I want Frodo happy here in Bag End with a wife. He will need someone to cling to, after tonight.” His voice was barely audible.
Gandalf sighed as well. “Perhaps. But I still wish you had told Esmeralda what you intend. She would have been very helpful, and sure to keep Frodo safe while you are gone.”
Bilbo shook his head and glanced around furtively. “Too late for that, too, and we ought not to talk about it.” He scooped up an armful of presents. “Care to pick up that batch over there?”
Gandalf nodded, and followed Bilbo to where the most recent arrivals were sitting, his arms equally laden with gifts as he pondered the uncertain future of his two favorite hobbits.
A/N: A thousand apologies to all of my loyal readers for taking so long to update this story. I hope to keep a far steadier schedule of updating this autumn, real life permitting. Again, thank you for being patient.
All of the late arrivals’ gifts were warmly received, much to Bilbo’s pleasure, since he had given his usual thought to what might be wanted. There was a chest of rare spices for Eglantine, a recipe book in parchment for Esmeralda, an inlaid chess set for Paladin, and a small cask of the very best Longbottom Leaf for Saradoc. Pearl exclaimed with unfeigned delight over the pearl brooch that matched her earrings, while Pimmie could not stop admiring the delicately carved bow and arrows that Bilbo had commissioned from an elven fletcher in Mirkwood. Merry was thrilled to finally receive the elegantly calligraphied Shire history from Bilbo’s private library he had long coveted. The triumph, however, was Pippin’s new toy: a wooden machine shaped like a dolphin that produced streams of fragrant floral-scented bubbles when cranked.
As Gandalf demonstrated the toy’s proper operation to a wide-eyed Pippin, bubbles floated everywhere. A large one perfumed with violets drifted over Pearl’s head; Frodo leaned over and popped it with his finger, sending drops showering into Pearl’s hair. She laughed merrily and gave Frodo an openly flirtatious glance.
“Trying to make sure I smell nice?” she asked.
Frodo grinned. “Yes, I guess I am—not that you didn’t already!” The musicians Bilbo had gathered from every corner of the Shire began playing, and he caught at Pearl’s hand. “Come on, Pearl, dance with me!” He pulled her after him into the cleared area before the performers and they began to dance, their arms around each other. As Frodo drew Pearl into a closer embrace, she smiled and let herself yield to him. His response was gratifying, and her willfulness surged up full force once more.
“So did you find that letter I tucked into one of the books you borrowed?” she murmured.
“Yes I did, as a matter of fact.” Frodo cleared his throat. “Tell me, how does a nice girl like you learn about those sorts of things?”
“I read a lot, for one thing. The Old Took seems to have collected some very interesting books when he went adventuring with Gandalf.” Her smile widened into a grin of pure wickedness. “And I’m not blind—I can see perfectly well what the sheep are doing in the fields! Are you shocked now?”
“Not hardly, since I’ve known you entirely too long to be that.” He pulled her against him tightly. “But what even am I going to do with you, Pearl, my sweet?”
“You have to ask?” The music ceased and they stopped breathlessly, their arms around each other. “And it can be tonight, if you wish it,” Pearl whispered, throwing prudence to the winds.
“Tempting me again?” Frodo’s voice was light but his eyes were hot.
"Always . . .”
He began leaning towards her but a sudden thump on a drum made them jump and broke their concentration. Hamfast Gamgee, who was the main drummer, shouted, “Chose your partners for the leap dance! Let’s see who can last the longest! Come on, lads, which lass shall it be?”
Frodo grinned at Pearl. “Ready for a challenge?”
She laughed saucily. “Of course! Let the others try, but we’re the ones to win today!”
“Don’t be so sure of that, Pearl.” Pimmie stepped up to them as she tugged a blushing Sam by the hand. Frodo looked at him in disbelief.
“Sam? Are you actually going to dance? Impossible!”
“Well, Mister Frodo, Miss Pimmie’s awfully anxious to win—she thinks I can help her more than Mister Merry usually does.” He carefully put his hands on Pimmie’s waist as they took their place in the rapidly forming circle.
“Dream on, Pimmie,” said Merry airily, falling in beside his cousins. His partner was little Estella Bolger, Fatty’s sister, who was practically bouncing with joy; it was a family joke that Stella had developed quite a crush on Merry over the past few months. “Now you’ll see what I can really do with a lighter lass to lift!”
Pimmie snorted. “And you’ll see what a stronger lad does for me, you weakling!”
“You all are going to lose!” Frodo proclaimed grandly.
As the circle of dancers filled up, some of the older couples joined too, determined to prove they were still fit and hale. Among them were Paladin and Eglantine, much to their daughters’ surprise, and finally Sarry and Esmeralda took their place after a whispered conference. The drummers stepped into the middle of the circle, counted, and struck up the quick racing beat. The circle of dancers moved about as each girl was tossed up by her partner and then came down to whirl vigorously before being tossed again.
Pearl soon lost count of how many times she and Frodo had gone around. As he lifted her again, she flung her head back, dizzy with sun and dancing and desire. She caught glimpses of the cheering, clapping crowd, including a beaming Bilbo with an excited Pippin standing beside him. She even saw Gandalf clapping with the beat, laughing heartily. Who would have thought!
One by one, couples began to drop out, too tired to continue. Finally there were only four pairs left: Frodo and Pearl, Merry and Estella, Sam and Pimmie, and most surprisingly Paladin and Eglantine. But when Paladin tossed Eglantine again, he grunted and put his hand to his side as she landed.
“Too much for me! It’s up to you youngsters now!” They moved off to join Bilbo and Gandalf.
Around the three couples went, the cheering and clapping growing louder. Merry tossed Estella expertly, only to have her stumble and fall against him when she hit the ground. “My head’s spinning!” she cried. Merry swore and reluctantly stepped away from the circle. Frodo and Sam paid no attention as they focused on their partners. The cheering became even more raucous.
“Go, Sam-lad, go! Show ‘em what stuff you’ve got!” yelled Hamfast.
“Come on, Frodo!” called Merry. “One for the Brandybucks!”
“And the Tooks!” shouted Paladin.
Around and around they went once more, driven on by the drums and handclaps. Pimmie landed heavily and grabbed at Sam, who was gasping for breath. “Sorry, Miss Pimmie, but I’m a goner,” he wheezed. The two of them stopped dead as Frodo and Pearl kept dancing. Fresh cheers erupted as Frodo lifted Pearl up and twirled her wildly in a flurry of blue, her peals of laughter barely audible.
“We have a winner!” shouted Ham over the applauding guests. “Frodo Baggins and Pearl Took! Give the birthday lad and his lass their prize!”
Bilbo crossed to the keg of beer he had placed on a nearby table and filled a pewter tankard; it was the best ale from the Ivy Bush, rich and hoppy. He offered it to Frodo, who raised it high to loud cheers. He turned to Pearl and held the tankard as she drank from it, and then tipped it up to drain it dry. Bilbo led the cheers as he did so.
“That’s my boy!” Bilbo pounded Frodo on the back. “Nothing like a Baggins to show the rest of the Shire how it’s done!” He called out to the musicians, “More music, but a slower tune if you please!”
They began playing a stately pavane while Frodo and Pearl mopped themselves off. Pearl tucked her lace-trimmed handkerchief into her pocket and asked, “Will you dance with me again, Frodo?”
“Not this time, since I owe Aunt Esmie a turn.” He bowed to Esmeralda. “Will you give me this dance, Mistress Brandybuck?”
“Beyond question,” said Esmeralda. “Lead the way.”
Pearl, deprived of her partner, thought for a moment and then walked up to Gandalf, her expression pure imp. “Shall you dance with me, Master Gandalf? I may be much shorter than the elves you are used to, but you can see I dance very well indeed.”
Gandalf looked down at the pertly pretty hobbit, her head thrown back so she could see him. Stifling a smile, he gave Pearl his deepest and most dignified bow. “You do me great honour, to ask an old man like me to tread a measure with the fairest lass in the Shire. I only hope my dancing equals yours.”
“I’m sure it does—come along, now . . .”
They made an oddly touching sight, the tall grey wizard and the little hobbit maid, as they carefully traced the highly formal pattern of the dance. Esmie saw them as she danced nearby, and her heart unexpectedly crumpled up. Maybe Bilbo’s right and there’s nothing to worry about—she’ll do fine as Frodo’s wife, look at the poise she’s acquired . . . but I still wonder . . .
Pearl dipped into a curtsey as the music came to a halt. Gandalf took her by one small hand and escorted her back to the sidelines with the same ceremony he would have shown the Lady of the Golden Wood. No sooner had he done so than Pearl was besieged by a flock of hobbit lads anxious for a chance to dance with her. Frodo was similarly in demand once he finished partnering his older relations, for many lasses resented the hold Pearl had on him and were convinced they could lure him away from her. By the time they reunited, it was time for tea. They sat down with Merry, Pimmie, and Sam at a small table under a tree at the edge of the Party Field, eager for a bit of privacy in the large crowd. A well-behaved Pippin soon joined them, and they all spent an hour gorging on pear tartlets, berry bread, ham and egg sandwiches, small glasses of cherry and elderflower wine, and endless cups of sweet tea.
Once they were done, Merry asked, “Anyone else interested in a round of wickets? I still haven’t beaten Pimmie this summer.”
Frodo shook his head in amusement. “You two never stop competing, do you? All right then, wickets it is!”
They gathered up some other cousins, including the Bolgers and Pervinca, and played amid much laughter, witty barbs, and wine until Merry finally beat Fatty and Pimmie in the last round. Pimmie took her loss in good part but refused to play further, insisting she wanted to dance again. After Frodo and Merry led them through another fast tune, the two cousins began drinking more wine while the sisters wandered over to a clump of giggling girls. Merry polished off most of his goblet before he spoke.
“So what have you and Pearl been discussing this afternoon? Making plans for tonight?”
“Even if we were, I hardly am likely to tell you about it—you’re far too eager to watch,” Frodo said tartly.
“But it would further my amorous education. Don’t you want to help me down the path to adulthood?”
“Not in that area. You’ll have to teach yourself, I’m sorry to say. Go remind Pimmie she’s kissing kin and take her to a hayloft for practice.”
“That’s not Pim’s style, I’m afraid. She prefers shooting real arrows to sheathing the other kind.”
“Then you’ll have to wait for Stella to grow up more, or suffer in silence.” Frodo peered at Pearl and Pimmie through the falling twilight. Mentha Brandybuck and Angelica Baggins were whispering to them while pointing at two dwarven cooks resting underneath a nearby tree. The Tooks began marching purposefully towards the dwarves. “What are they doing?” exclaimed Frodo, suddenly panicking over a possible insult to Bilbo’s guests.
“They seem to be persuading them to dance,” replied Merry. He raised his goblet in salute. “Go to it now, coz!”
The two dwarves danced reluctantly with their petite partners, but by the end they appeared to be enjoying themselves. Afterwards, Pearl and Pimmie rejoined Merry and Frodo, their faces flushed with wine and laughter.
“That was certainly different,” Pimmie said. “It helped they’d taken their boots off—I’d have lost my toes if they hadn’t.”
“But they were sweet despite being clumsy,” Pearl said. “And we’re supposed to make guests feel at home, aren’t we, Frodo?”
“Yes, and thank you.”
“Enough of dancing, though. I’d like to play some cards until supper. What about you, Merry?” asked Pimmie.
“Sounds good to me—in fact, I see Aunt Asphodel and Cousin Peony putting together a hand of whist even as we speak.”
They departed, leaving Frodo and Pearl alone in a darkened corner of the Field. He studied her for a moment, noting her slightly tipsy state. He finally decided to crawl out onto a limb. “What would you like to do until supper?”
Pearl gave him a wide smile, leaned against him, and whispered into his ear, letting her tongue flick its pointed tip as she drew away. Frodo looked around furtively before he spoke. “Are you quite sure, Pearly-girl?”
“Yes.” She took his hand and led him to the fence. They climbed over and slipped down the lane leading from Bag End, heading to a copse of beeches wreathed in dark shadows.
As they wandered into the clump of trees, Frodo became aware of a reckless giddiness foaming up in him; he tried to decide whether or not it was merely an effect of the ale he had been drinking, but soon he recognized he no longer cared about its source. He laughed as he sprawled against a wide tree trunk and pulled Pearl into his arms, making sure that the tree screened them from any prying eyes that might indulge in gossip.
“Feeling a bit bolder than usual, are you?” Pearl’s bantering tone did not completely mask her uncertainty, for Frodo rarely took the lead with her, rather the opposite.
“I suppose I am—you don’t mind, do you?” He tightened his grip and caught her mouth with his, plundering the sweetness of her lips as he let his hands slide down her back and cup her softly rounded bottom. He finally released her and whispered again, “Do you?”
“N-no,” she murmured as she struggled to catch her breath. “I don’t believe I mind at all . . .”
Frodo kissed her deeply again, and then spun her around so her back was to him. He slid down the tree trunk, carrying Pearl with him, so that she was perched in his lap as he sat there. No sooner was she arranged than Frodo began kissing the nape of her neck, letting the tip of his tongue sketch delicate lines on her skin. His right hand cupped one of her quivering breasts while his left slipped under her skirt, finding her soft inner thigh.
Pearl gasped as Frodo’s hand edged upwards. “Is this my real present?” she said huskily.
“Yes, it is.” His fingers found their goal, and Pearl’s head lolled onto Frodo’s shoulder as he caressed the silken folds between her legs. She moaned openly, beyond speech as her fondest hopes were realized. He does want me as much as I want him, he does, he does—
But if Pearl had possessed the ability to read Frodo’s thoughts at that moment, she would have been sorely disappointed. There would have been desire, true, but also a level of turmoil and panic that had no relationship to his actions. Even as he crushed Pearl against him and sought to please her, the unwanted knowledge of how the evening would end kept boiling up into Frodo’s mind. Why? Why does Bilbo insist on leaving? And why won’t he let me go with him? All his ancient fears of being abandoned were resurfacing, as the long-buried memories of his parents’ deaths tormented him once more. Just last night, he had dreamed of his mother lying on the banks of the Brandywine, her chestnut-brown curls soaked with water as they fanned out around her pale, still face. He awakened and groped at the bed only to find it empty, the distant memory of a tiny Pearl tucked against him that first night he had moved to Brandy Hall drifting through his grief. He knew then that he would do anything not to be alone . . .
His index finger brushed the tiny bud of flesh he had been seeking; Pearl gave another cry, full of raw hunger. Her back arched as Frodo began slowly stroking it, teasing her into complete surrender. She gripped his thighs as he circled and rubbed, feeling her moist, hot juices spreading over his fingers. His own arousal was growing, but he sensed he needed emotional release more than anything physical. He was determined to stay in command this time; to yield the reins now, he was convinced, would mean losing them for the rest of his days.
Pearl bucked as Frodo drove her onward relentlessly, her hair tangled against Frodo’s mouth as the sweat ran between her breasts. Her moans were continuous now as she desperately reached for the fulfillment that lay just beyond. “Oh, please don’t stop, please, please . . .” As she uttered the words, Frodo flashed back to his conversation with Bilbo this morning, well out of Gandalf’s hearing.
“Please, let me go with you!”
That owl-like peering he knew so well, the shake of the grey head. “Now, Frodo-lad, you know why you can’t. I’m leaving you all my property, and I can’t stomach the idea that Lobelia would get her greedy claws into everything after I’ve made such an effort to make you the heir.” Bilbo’s hands trembled as he took off his spectacles. “Make an old hobbit truly happy, Frodo. Marry Pearl and raise a flock of bonny babes here, the way I should have. No matter how far afield I wander, it would comfort me to think a Baggins will always be at Bag End. That’s what I want, even more than your company, my darling boy.”
And as Bilbo’s words sunk in, a fierce gem-like flame of possessiveness kindled in Frodo’s heart, a passionate selfishness he had never dreamed was dormant in him and which mirrored Pearl’s own. Yes! I will stay and be master of Bag End, and master of Pearl too! The richest single hobbit in the Shire, with the queen of all hobbit lasses in my bed and heart—if she gives me the chance to make sure of her, to bind her to me for good, I’ll grab it with both hands and no mistake! He felt ashamed of his thoughts immediately, and hastened to lock them away; but they huddled underneath his usual caution, only waiting for an opportune moment to spring back to full life.
He twisted his fingers expertly; Pearl reacted with a groan. Her eyes closed as she felt herself tumbling into the unknown. “Oh, oh, Frodo—” Her body started to shiver uncontrollably. “Oh, Frodo, yes . . .”
He held her as her climax consumed her, pride flaring up that he could bring her such intense pleasure. As she finally grew still, Frodo could feel the bulge in his breeches and shifted a little. Pearl, recognizing what was causing his discomfort, squirmed onto the ground next to him and let her hands stray down, but Frodo caught her wrists with a lazy smile, holding her in a steely grip.
“Oh no, not this time. Isn’t it my birthday? That means I’m giving the presents, not you, and that’s one custom I intend to keep.”
“Are you sure?” The old jauntiness had returned to Pearl’s voice.
“Quite sure, you wicked wench. Now we need to make ourselves presentable again, so we can go back to the party—it’s nearly suppertime.” He climbed to his feet and pulled a reluctant Pearl onto hers. They spent the next few minutes tidying each other’s clothes and smoothing down mussed hair, trading light kisses all the while. At last, Frodo proclaimed they were ready and they started walking down to the Party Field. They had only taken a couple of steps when Pearl clutched at Frodo’s sleeve and pointed above his head.
“Look, Frodo! Gandalf’s fireworks!”
They stopped and craned their heads skywards, enchanted at the spectacle. A great flock of gleaming birds flew through the night sky, their songs caroling as they faded away. Smoke transformed itself into thick green trees that dripped with beautiful flowers shining with unearthly lights; the petals drifted down and winked out, leaving behind the same ravishing perfumes as Pippin’s soap bubbles. Multicolored butterflies sprang up in shimmering fountains to mingle with the trees’ leaves, leaving rainbows in their wake as they darted and danced. A gurgle of laughter escaped from Pearl suddenly.
“What is it?” Frodo asked in surprise.
“I was just thinking what a fabulous sense of timing Gandalf has! D’you suppose he knew what we were up to?” Her whole face was alight with mischief as they began walking again.
Frodo laughed merrily. “Considering what he usually knows, it’s more than likely. Maybe he’ll put on an equally fine show at our wedding.” As the words fell away from him, he wondered what had prompted them.
Pearl stopped dead. “Will there be a wedding?” She could not keep the wistful yearning out of her voice.
Frodo ached with the desire to tell Pearl everything, to finally unburden himself of the secret he had unwillingly carried these many months and to bring her the reassurance she needed. But prudence won out one last time. He said merely, “Of course there will be. Things can change quickly—just wait and see, I promise.” He kissed her gently.
“Yes, you’re right.” Her smile was almost as luminous as the sparks fluttering around her.
They kept their faces turned up as they walked, watching eagerly as rockets became eagles and swans, ships and spears; a great storm thundered and sent golden rain showering earthwards. As the Party Field came into sight, a huge smoky mountain took shape over them, and green and scarlet flames sprouted from its summit.
“Watch this,” Frodo whispered to the entranced Pearl.
A crimson dragon shot through with gold leapt out from the flames, his eyes glaring threateningly and his jaws spitting fire. He whizzed over the heads of the ducking hobbits, did three perfect somersaults, and exploded with a loud boom, leaving a ball of red jewels floating in the air. Above the noise, Frodo and Pearl could hear Bilbo call, “That is the signal for supper!" The entire crowd erupted into applause and cheering as they jumped to their feet, thoroughly impressed with Gandalf’s artistry and beyond anxious to rush to the supper tables..
“Now we will be late,” Frodo said. They took each other’s hand and dashed for the gate, flushed with laughter and contentment.
A/N: Well, here I am again, offering up another huge apology for the wait between updates. In my defense, I can only say that this chapter was a bear, since I haven’t treaded on JRRT’s toes so much before. Most of Bilbo’s dialogue is (obviously) from “A Long-Expected Party” in FotR. Many thanks and hugs for my faithful readers and reviewers (with particular bows to Shirebound, Ariel, and Aratlithiel)—hope you all enjoy!
* * * * *
Frodo led Pearl to the pavilion that had been built around the great tree in the midst of the Party Field. Within in it were gathered all of the guests who made up the special family dinner party, and Gandalf was one of only a few present who was not blood kin to Bilbo and Frodo to some degree. Bilbo had laboured long over the invitation list until he finally reached the magic number of a hundred and forty-four, the total of his age added to Frodo’s. When Bilbo cheerfully called the group “one Gross,” Frodo replied, “If you say that, you certainly will manage to make everyone feel less than special, don’t you think?”
“Oh, stuff! All our guests are special, for a certainty, and they surely know that by now!”
But even in such an exclusive group, further distinctions were made, and Frodo escorted Pearl to the long table closely flanking the right side of the high table he would occupy. All of the Brandybucks and most of the Tooks were gathered there, with Rory Brandybuck presiding over everyone benevolently. Pearl could hear various catty comments aimed in her direction as they wove their way through the crowd. A hissed “The flaming little hussy!” was unmistakably Lobelia at her most acid. Pearl’s back stiffened in anger and she only felt safe when they reached her family. Rory smiled at Frodo and Pearl as she slipped into the chair beside Pimmie; Frodo gave her a courtly bow before retreating to rejoin Bilbo. No sooner did he depart than Pimmie bent towards Pearl and whispered, “So?”
“Not now!” Pearl hissed back, shooting a cautious glance around the table. She wondered if her face was as hot and flushed as her body felt, and had her thoughts confirmed when a smirking Merry leaned across the table and said, “Oh, come on, Pearl, you never hide anything very well . . .”
But before he could continue, or Pearl make a crushing reply, a phalanx of hired help brought them the beginnings of supper and the conversation ended entirely. Like all hobbits, the three cousins loved their food, and they had been anticipating the final feast. Bilbo’s reputation for keeping a splendid table was legendary, and while lunch had been excellent and afternoon tea rather lavish, it was certain that supper would be the most luxurious meal of the party, and a quick appraisal of the food confirmed their expectations.
The soups came first, scores of them, ranging from creamy beef and lamb concoctions to delicate fruit ones enhanced with wine; the strawberry soup earned Pippin a box on the ear at the hand of his mother when he tried to steal a sip from Pearl’s bowl. Salads were next, great heaping piles of lettuce garnished with vegetables and accompanied by large baskets full of strange dwarven breads the hobbits ate eagerly as they exclaimed over their odd flavors.
And so the parade of food rolled on as plates were removed and the main courses were set before Bilbo’s admiring guests, who did not hesitate to proclaim this party the finest feast ever staged in the four Farthings of the Shire. Rory, after tasting the roast venison, lifted his glass and cried, “A toast to Bilbo Baggins, best host among hobbits!”
“Aye!” Everyone echoed him as glasses were raised high. As Merry set his wine down, he greedily eyed the plate in front of Pearl.
“Hey, Pearly-girl, pass me that duck and apple stew—unless you’re planning to eat it all yourself.” He grinned at her.
“I don’t think so! Here, go ahead and take it.” As Merry dug in, Pearl’s gaze strayed to Frodo. He was sitting beside Bilbo at the high table, twirling his wine glass restlessly as he listened to his cousin. He seemed happy enough, smiling and nodding at Bilbo’s talk, but the moment Bilbo spoke to someone else, a cloud descended over his face and he appeared to be dwelling in another world. How queer, thought Pearl. Our time together earlier was just lovely, yet now he looks like he’s sorry it happened—or is it something else? He keeps hinting about Uncle Bilbo making plans, but he won’t tell me what they are. Maybe things have changed—maybe Bilbo isn’t giving him any money right now . . . Her mother’s voice cut into her thoughts.
“Pearl dear, you really must have some of this excellent chicken. You’ve not eaten half of what you normally do. Are you feeling ill?”
“No, I’m quite fine, Mama, just thinking what a wonderful night this is,” Pearl said quickly. “Uncle Bilbo certainly knows how to treat his guests properly, doesn’t he?”
“Yes, he does,” Eglantine said warmly. Her face lit up then, quite as much as her children’s, when she spotted the last course emerging from the kitchens. “Just look at this! More sweets than anyone has seen before, bless him!”
The desserts were indeed a perfect finish to a magnificent meal; there seemed to be every kind a hobbit’s heart could possibly desire. Pies and puddings; cakes and jumbles; crumbles and cobblers; trifles and fools, flummeries and syllabubs; creams and ices flavored with flower waters and decorated with honeycombs—everything was the pinnacle of deliciousness and consumed to the very last crumb. The tweenagers and children wolfed their treats down with indecent speed, but no adults reproached them, for the older set was eating with equal enthusiasm.
Finally, all the dishes were cleared, leaving behind only the candies and little bites hobbits used to “fill up the corners,” as they were fond of saying. They sipped cordials and punches and tried not to fall asleep after such a rich repast. Pimmie nudged Pearl and pointed at Esmeralda; her eyes were closed and she was drifting off, while some oldsters were already snoring. Pearl noticed that Bilbo had stood up and began to speak, saying “My dear people,” but she still considered joining her aunt in a nap and let her eyelids droop. But as soon as she did, Adelard Took’s raucous groan jerked everyone to wakefulness again. He scowled as he stood behind Paladin and guzzled a tankard of cider.
“Oh mercy, I was right! Another one of Bilbo’s endless after-dinner speeches, full of elven poetry and moonshine!” He pointed at Bilbo, walking over to a chair underneath the Party Tree and preparing to climb onto it. “Can’t he leave us be tonight?” Adelard demanded crossly, ignoring the repeated cheers of “Hear! Hear!”
Esmeralda, irritated at being roused, snapped, “For pity’s sake, Adelard, where are your manners? The least any of us can do is listen after he’s fed us all like kings and queens!”
Ferumbras said mildly, “I rather agree with Esmie on this score.” He motioned towards a beaming Bilbo, and with considerable sighing, all the guests at the table turned their full attention to their host, prepared to cheer regardless of what Mad Baggins might choose to say.
The lantern light made his gold waistcoat buttons glitter like sparks. He stood on the chair and smiled as he waved at everyone; his other hand was jammed, as it so often was, into a trouser pocket, as though he could not bear to part with its contents. What does he keep in there? Pearl wondered irreverently; she had been puzzled by this habit ever since she was a tiny faunt.
“My dear Baggines and Boffins, and my dear Tooks and Brandybucks, and Grubbs, and Chubbs, and Burrowses, and Hornblowers, and Bolgers, Bracegirdles, Goodbodies, Brockhouses and Proudfoots—”
“ProudFEET!” shouted the eternally stubborn Odo Proudfoot. He wiggled his furry toes from atop the table where they were propped.
Bilbo ignored him. “Proudfoots,” he repeated pointedly. “Also my good Sackville-Bagginses that I welcome back at last to Bag End. Today is my one hundred and eleventh birthday. I am eleventy-one today!”
These were fine sentiments, and they were greeted with loud shouts of “Hurray! Hurray! Many happy returns!” and a great deal of hammering upon the trestle tables. Lilac leaned towards Dora Baggins and murmured, “Bilbo’s doing rather splendidly, isn’t he?”
Dora snorted. “Only because he’s keeping it short and obvious for once,” she said.
“I hope you are all enjoying yourselves as much as I am.” More cheers, accompanied by shouts of “yes” and “no.” Pearl clapped wildly, while Merry and Pimmie yelled lustily as they jumped up and down at their seats. A sudden burst of cacophonous music snapped their head around to look at a neighboring table.
There, they discovered that Everard Took, along with other young Took and Brandybuck cousins, had organized an impromptu dance band using the small dwarven instruments from the crackers they had pulled. All the horns, pipes and flutes were perfectly made and very sweet-toned. Everard slipped bells into his and Melilot Brandybuck’s hands, and then hoisted a laughing Melilot onto the table before scrambling up to join her.
“The Springle-ring!” he cried. “Come on, play!”
His cousins began playing the lively tune, and Everard and Melilot raised their arms above their heads, shaking the bells in time to the music while they stepped and twirled. The table boards rattled as they danced faster and faster; hand claps and laughter surrounded them, for it was clear that Bilbo must be finished. Hadn’t he said everything that needed saying?
But Bilbo was far from finished. He snatched away little Minto Baggins’ trumpet, causing an outburst of sobbing, and blew three sharp blasts on it. The confused hobbits grew quiet and turned to face their host again; Everard and Melilot stood on their table with open mouths and dangling bells, and looked quite foolish.
“I shall not keep you long,” he cried. “I have called you all together for a Purpose.” The way he said it, underlining his words with a gravity he rarely assumed, stilled the whispering. Pearl’s ears pricked up in anticipation. Why, he’s going to announce his gift to Frodo in front of everyone! How nice! But Esmeralda, Sarry and Paladin traded a worried glance before straining forward to catch the rest.
“Indeed, for three Purposes! First of all, to tell you that I am immensely fond of you all, and that eleventy-one years is too short a time to live among such excellent and admirable hobbits.” This was met with cries of “Bless you!” and “We love you!” Lilac wiped away a stray tear; Dora squeezed her hand sympathetically.
“I don’t know half of you as well as I should like, and I like less than half of you half as well as you deserve.” Frowns of bewilderment appeared. Was it an insult or a compliment? But Esmie applauded, chuckling softly.
“There’s one in Lobelia’s eye,” she muttered.
“Not to mention Lalia at long distance,” Paladin added wryly.
“Secondly, to celebrate my birthday,” Bilbo continued. Relieved cheers. “I should say: OUR birthday. For it is, of course, also the birthday of my heir and nephew, Frodo. He comes of age and into his inheritance today.” Pearl shrieked with disbelieving joy, while Merry and Pimmie whistled and pounded her on the back; more young hobbits shouted, “Frodo! Frodo! Jolly old Frodo!” Pippin and Pervinca spun in a circle, and for once Eglantine only smiled; she was incredulous her long-cherished hopes were finally coming to fruition.
But most of the elders clapped in a highly perfunctory manner, earning themselves angry stares from the rest of Pearl’s table, particularly Rory. “Those bloody-minded donkeys . . .” he growled.
“Together we score one hundred and forty-four. Your numbers were chosen to fit this remarkable total: One Gross, if I may use the expression.” No cheers at all now. Practically everyone bristled at such a vulgar and commonplace term; how dare he treat them like mathoms used to fill up a box! Frodo caught Pearl’s attention, and rolled his eyes to the sky. I warned him not to say that! he mouthed. Pearl giggled.
“It is also, if I may be allowed to refer to ancient history, the anniversary of my arrival by barrel at Esgaroth on the Long Lake; though the fact that it was my birthday slipped my memory . . .” As Bilbo went on, Pearl grew impatient. Do get on with it, Uncle Bilbo! I’ve always loved your tales, but we’ve all heard them before.
Her father, as if reading her mind, said, “Why can’t he stop talking now? Doesn’t he know we want to drink his health? You should tell him so, Esmie.” When his sister did not answer, Paladin looked at her closely. “Esmie?” he said in alarm.
For Esmeralda, alone among the crowd, did not look bored or exasperated—she looked genuinely frightened. Her fists gripped the edge of the table as the blood drained from her face. Fear and rage clenched at her heart as every old terror she’d kept locked in a corner of her mind came roaring out as Bilbo uttered the word “Esgaroth.” Oh no, you old hobbit, she thought frantically, don’t you dare leave again—you promised me when I let Frodo go to you that he’d never lose someone again—don’t you DARE—
“Thank you very much for coming to my little party.” Bilbo paused. “Thirdly and finally, I wish to make an ANNOUNCEMENT.” He was loud enough that a few guests jumped in their seats and spilled their ale. “I regret to announce that—though, as I said, eleventy-one years is far too shourt a time to spend among you—this is the END. I am going. I am leaving NOW. GOOD-BYE!”
He stepped off the chair, and seemed to melt into the air as a blinding flash of light engulfed him. Everyone gasped and blinked at the painful brilliance. When they rubbed their eyes and opened them again, Bilbo was gone—he had vanished completely, as though he had never been standing there. A stunned silence enveloped the Party Field, punctuated only by the stamping of Odo Proudfoot’s large feet, while everyone struggled to accept the evidence, the fact that was no Bilbo. The only sound was heavy, shocked breathing—and then a clamor of chattering erupted from every table as every single hobbit present made his or her opinion known.
“Disgraceful!” “How dare he be so rude?” “Mad Baggins indeed—told you he’d up and stroll again!” “And now Frodo is to get everything, not a penny to poor Otho or me—” “Be quiet, Lobelia!” “I tell you Gandalf must have something to do with this, that old wizard’s always been a disturber of the peace—”
But one hobbit was not saying anything at all. Lilac Took grabbed her chest with a loud gasp as the tears began pouring down her face. A panic-stricken Dora Baggins cried, “Paladin, Tina, Esmie! Come help Lilac!” Esmie broke away from Rory, despite his continued talking, and rushed down the table with her brother, while Eglantine tried to disentangle a screaming Pippin from her skirts.
“Here, Lilac, drink some water—Pal, help her lean back—now, now, Lilac, it’s not your heart, just a rather nasty shock—” Esmie kept up a flow of meaningless talk as she rocked Lilac gently.
“How could he do such a thing—leaving without a by your leave—I’ll never see him again, I’m sure of it,” choked out Lilac.
“Nonsense!” said Paladin heartily, but his tight lips gave the lie to his words. He put his arm around Lilac in his turn, freeing Esmeralda to stand up and look back at Pearl, who was frozen in her chair and ignoring Rory’s demands that she tell Frodo to pass the wine again. She was staring, and Esmeralda turned to see what was holding her attention. What Esmie saw made her heart twist up again in pain.
Frodo was standing next to Bilbo’s empty chair with an utterly lost expression; it reminded Esmie so much of how he’d looked that long-ago night in Brandy Hall that tears sprang to her eyes. As she watched, he called out something to Sam, who stood near him anxiously, and then with a flick of his wrist he drained the rest of his wine glass, pivoted on his heel, and disappeared into the darkness surrounding the pavilion.
Pearl jumped to her feet, ready to fly after him, but Rory caught at her hand, demanding, “More wine, child, didn’t you hear me the first time?”
Esmeralda hurried back to her niece’s side and nudged Pearl’s shoulder. “I’ll take care of this,” she whispered. “Go!”
Pearl needed no more encouragement. She rushed away in pursuit, quite certain now where she would find her heartsick love.
The trees loomed up, dark and sinister now instead of welcoming, as Pearl ran back to the little copse where she and Frodo had enjoyed their amorous encounter. A stabbing stitch in her side forced her to pause and catch her breath; she peered into the darkness, searching anxiously. He must be here, I’m sure of it, where else could he be?
Then she saw him, a barely visible outline standing under the biggest tree. His stillness was absolute, as though he were already taking root himself in the soil, a carved statue forever doomed to watch and wait. She stumbled a little on a root as she hurried to him; her hand brushed his sleeve with the lightest of touches.
“Frodo?” she asked softly.
The still figure came to life again as he turned his head and a sad smile appeared on his lips. “Pearly-girl,” he murmured. He opened his arms, Pearl buried her head in his chest, and he hugged her tightly. “So now you know, don’t you.” It was a statement, she realized, not a question.
“Yes.” She couldn’t look at him, sure she would burst into tears if she did. “This is what you’ve been hinting at, isn’t it? You knew Bilbo was leaving, and promised to say nothing.”
“Got it in one, as always, my pet.” She heard a flash of his old dry wit in his tone, but then he sighed deeply. She looked up at him then, and as dark as it was, she could see the longing in his face, the desire to depart coexisting with his love for her. She blurted, “You wish you going with him, don’t you?”
A tense silence, and then Frodo sighed. “Would it hurt you dreadfully if I say yes?”
“I don’t know,” Pearl whispered. “And I swear that’s the only honest answer I can give you.”
“That’s fair enough.” He stroked her hair and took a deep breath. “Yes, I wanted to go with Bilbo. I wanted to see the things and the places he’d seen, and make sure he was all right. And I suppose I keep dreaming about more treasure to be found, even though Bilbo’s left me with quite a lot.” He paused. “But I would have come back to you, I promise. I can’t imagine life without you, now. Is that enough for you to forgive me for considering leaving at all?”
“Yes—but what if you died out there?” Pearl couldn’t keep the blind panic out of her voice.
“Hush! Don’t talk that way.” Frodo tightened his grip around Pearl and let his mouth stray towards hers. “You’re being foolish, I’m not going anywhere, I’m here and I’m alive, and I’m going to stay that way . . .”
Their kiss was deep and more than a little desperate. As their lips slowly parted, Pearl laid her head on Frodo’s shoulder as she began weeping, much to her own surprise. “Oh, Frodo, why is he leaving? Doesn’t he know how much we love him? I wanted Bilbo to dance at our wedding, to bless our babies. Life won’t be the same without him!”
“I know,” Frodo sighed.
“Can’t we get him to stay?”
Pearl’s tears flowed even harder, and Frodo hugged her tightly. “You must stop, or I’ll start crying, too, I’m afraid.” His voice cracked.
Pearl gasped as she fought down her grief, the tears drying in the night breeze. The two of them stood intertwined as Frodo stroked Pearl’s hair. Neither of them knew how long they remained unmoving, but at last Frodo stirred and shook Pearl gently.
“Come on, ladylove, we’ve got to go back.”
“Must we?” Pearl turned her face up, and Frodo’s heart ached when he saw her red-rimmed eyes.
“Yes, we must—I’m the master of Bag End now, and I have to do it proper and bid guests goodbye.”
“Alright, then,” Pearl murmured, and slipped her hand into Frodo’s.
They set off across the field, both steps and hearts heavy. As they approached Bag End once more, they could hear the continued clamor of voices raised in varying degrees of disbelief and anger. Frodo winced as Pearl squeezed his hand in sympathy.
“Lovely,” Frodo muttered. He squared his shoulders and looked at Pearl. “Can you do me a favor?”
“Go down to your family while I slip into the house. I think Gandalf is still here, and I have to speak to him before he decides to leave, and before anyone else bends my ear.”
Pearl nodded, and watched as Frodo strode to the front door of Bag End without being noticed. She then hurried down to the tables where her extended clan was gathered.
Things had improved a little, she realized, for her father and aunt had finally calmed Cousin Lilac enough that she was breathing normally again. Her mother was wringing her hands but not crying, to Pearl’s surprise, and her sisters were sitting quietly, eyes wide with shock. Pippin, however, was squirming frantically in Merry’s arms as he demanded, “Where did Bilbo go? I want to go, too. Want to kill dragons!”
Pearl took Pippin from Merry as she tried to soothe the little boy. “We can’t, Pip,” she said sadly. “We’ve got to stay here to keep Frodo company.”
Esmeralda’s head came up sharply when she heard Pearl. “And how is Frodo, dear?” Despite her best efforts, Esmie’s worry was transparent.
“Alright for now,” Pearl said with a brave little smile, one that did not fool her aunt for an instant. But before Esmie could cross-question Pearl further, Frodo’s voice suddenly cut through the din.
“May I have everyone’s attention, please?” By some miracle, silence fell over the Party Field as all the guests turned towards the landing before Bag End’s front door. Frodo stood there with a tight smile that did not touch his eyes at all. “I’m terribly sorry about the commotion, but no doubt everything will be cleared up in the morning. Now, since it is nearly midnight, I’ve had the carriages summoned so everyone can go have a good night’s sleep, and recover from the excitement.”
There was a great deal of muttering among various guests that Frodo’s words, while gracefully offered, were hardly adequate given the level of insult Bilbo had flung at them. But even the most annoyed of hobbits ceased to complain as the carriages lined up for their passengers. As each one was loaded, Frodo shook hands and repeated, “No doubt everything will be cleared up in the morning.”
Paladin’s and Saradoc’s carriages were the last in line, on Frodo’s instructions. As the two families scrambled to arrange themselves, Esmeralda hugged her beloved fosterling. “Do you want any of us to stay with you, tonight?” she asked quietly.
“No thank you, Aunt Esmie, I’ll be fine. Gandalf will be here. But I could use your help tomorrow—I’ve got quite a lot of presents from Bilbo to pass out to assorted folks, and something tells me it’s going to be tricky.”
“We’ll all come, Frodo—won’t we?” Esmeralda asked Paladin as he came up to shake Frodo’s hand.
“Of course,” Paladin said warmly. “It’s the least we can do for you.”
Both of them climbed into their carriages, leaving only Pearl with Frodo. She peered at him in the darkness, praying she wouldn’t start crying again.
“Are you sure you don’t need more company tonight?” Pearl’s voice was unexpectedly timid.
“No, I don’t.” He kissed her cheek gently. “Now go—I’ll see you tomorrow.”
Pearl reluctantly climbed the carriage steps and settled down next to Pimmie. As it began rolling, Pearl leaned out the window and watched Frodo, little more than a dark shadow, walk back into Bag End with slumped shoulders, looking more weary than she had ever seen him.
He looks so alone, she thought. But not for long, if I can help it!
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