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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.
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