In the field at the bottom of the hill someone struck up a fiddle. Within a couple of bars a tambour joined, followed by a tin whistle. It seemed that, even though both celebrants were now absent, the grandest birthday party the Shire had ever seen, was determined to go on.
Frodo closed the large, round door, knowing at once that he was too late. Bag End had always felt, "occupied" before, doubly so in the run up to the party. The absence of their dwarven guests was not unexpected but Frodo had hoped, against hope, that even after Bilbo's spectacularly public disappearance, he would have second thoughts once he stepped back into his beloved Bag End.
The enticing aroma of Old Toby wafted toward him from the parlour and his heart leapt for joy, but one step into the room revealed only Gandalf. Frodo paused a moment to reflect upon that thought. It was not as though finding a wizard sitting in your parlour was a common occurrence in the Shire. Gandalf sat, staring fixedly at the fire, a steady curl of pipe smoke only indication that he was other than some statue of the ancient kings of men dropped, incongruously, into Bag End's cosy parlour. Still, rather than stating, "He has gone", Frodo could not help asking, "Has he gone?"
Gandalf blinked and his expression was kindly as he replied, "Yes. He has gone at last."
"I wanted to see him off, but I couldn't get away." Frodo pointed a thumb over his shoulder. "He's caused quite a stir down there." Bright blue eyes narrowed. "That flash was a surprise. I've never heard of Bilbo's ring doing that before. It would have been little use to a burglar if it had."
The old wizard chuckled. "I decided it would be better for people to believe I had a hand in the disappearance. Magic rings should not be used for entertainment." He pointed to a large envelope on the mantle-piece. "He's left you his ring, by the way. It's with all the legal papers."
Frodo lifted down the thick envelope, but made no move to open it, instead tapping it against his palm. "I would have thought it more use to Bilbo, as he's the one setting out on another adventure." The image of Lobelia Sackville-Baggins potential reaction to Bilbo's parting mathom, on the morrow, popped into his head. "Still, I suppose I could find a use of it."
Gandalf shook his grey head, thoughtfully. "I would use it only sparingly, if you use it at all. One never quite knows how a magic ring will behave. Most magic comes at a cost." He drew himself up. "And now I shall go to my bed. I don't often get to sleep in a good feather bed and I intend to make the most of it."
Angry voices drifted up from the Party Field and Frodo grimaced, dropping the envelope on the parlour table as he hurried to the door. "I wish I could go to mine, but I had better sort out that lot."
"That lot" took several hours to "sort out", and it was a wee small hour of the morning before Frodo returned to Bag End. Too weary to even remove his party clothes, he fell onto his bed, and instantly into an exhausted sleep. Toward dawn, Gandalf slipped into his room. For some time he simply studied the new master of Bag End, then he draped a blanket over the sleeping form before collecting hat and staff and stepping out into the grey pre-dawn light.
Some hours later Frodo was rudely yanked from his sleep by a determined hammering upon the front door, followed by the creek of its opening and Old Rory's booming voice. "Frodo? Frodo Baggins! Are you not up and about yet? Being your own master does not mean that you can do just as you please. You have responsibilities."
Frodo disentangled himself from a blanket as he heard Aunt Esmeralda's gentle voice chiding, "Rory, dear. Bilbo has doubtless run the poor lad ragged for weeks with all the party preparations. Give him a little time."
Her nephew stumbled from his bedroom and into the hallway, pasting on what he hoped was a bright smile. Rorymac, Saradoc, Esmeralda and Merriadoc Brandybuck stood in the hallway, surveying the heaps of mathoms. Aunt Esme noted her nephew's appearance; his tangled hair and rumpled party clothes, and smiled kindly as she stepped forward to comb gentle fingers through Frodo's disordered locks, and whisper, "How are you, sweetheart?"
At the remembered gentle touch Frodo's smile became more genuine, if a little rueful. "I'll live … if I can make it through today at least." He noted that Esmeralda had donned her new scarf, a birthday present from Bilbo and Frodo, tying it fetchingly about her shoulders. It touched him that she would make a point of wearing it to say her goodbyes.
Saradoc and Rorymac were surveying the mathoms with some interest, although they would never be so impolite as to begin rummaging. Rory leaned upon his walking stick as he spoke again, his volume only slightly moderated, for he was going a little deaf. "We were on our way back to Buckland, when we decided to pop in and pay our respects to the new Mister Baggins of Bag End. Don't suppose there's a cup of tea going begging?"
Frodo was saved from replying by his aunt's kindness once more. "Nonsense, Rory. I suspect the kitchen range was not even banked last night. Poor Frodo would have been too exhausted after settling all that hullabaloo in the field. I bet he hasn't even had a cup of tea himself, and here you stand, with a stomach full of tea and no fewer than two breakfasts. Shame on you." Rorymac Brandybuck was the Master of Buckland, but his daughter in law ensured that the huge warren of Brandy Hall ran smoothly, and that responsibility brought a power of its own. "Now that we have paid our respects we will be off," she asserted. Rory subsided into a mutter that forced his nephew to hide a grin.
"Thank you for stopping by," Frodo offered, with undisguised relief, for he truly did not remember banking the kitchen fire, and suspected it would be some time before there would be any hot water for tea or bathing. It was as his relatives turned to leave that Frodo suddenly remembered a large wooden crate. "Oh! Master Rorymac … Bilbo has left an extra present for you."
He pointed to the crate, with it's carefully inscribed label of, "Old Rory Brandybuck, in return for much hospitality." Rory's wrinkled features rearranged themselves into a very broad grin as he perused the label on one of several bottles of ruby-red wine contained within. "Well done, Bilbo. Old Winyards. This was laid down by his father, Bungo. That hobbit always did have good taste in wine. Sara, lad, take this out to the cart and make sure it's packed carefully." He smacked thin lips. "We wouldn't want any breakages."
Saradoc Brandybuck was well beyond the age where anyone else would consider him a lad, but he followed his father's instruction with only a quick roll of the eyes toward his wife.
Merry had stood, unobtrusively beside his parents for some time, but now he spoke up. "There look to be a lot of packages here to hand out, and no doubt everyone will be descending upon Bag End soon, to see if Uncle Bilbo really has gone. Cousin Frodo will need some help."
Frodo had seen no sign of Gandalf yet, but suspected that he would be of little use handing out mathoms, if he even considered it proper work for a wizard. At least if Frodo had someone to answer the door he may find time for a wash and some breakfast. Too much ale the previous evening had left him with a rather delicate head so the gaze he turned upon his aunt had her chuckling, and she tapped her husband's shoulder. "I think that's a very good idea, Merry. Sara, dear, give our son some money, so that he can pay Tom Carter to fetch him home in a few days."
Saradoc knew better than to argue, handing Merry several silver coins, and adding some coppers. "For expenses," he stated with a wink.
So it was that an hour later Frodo was able to wash and change (even if it was with tepid water). He even managed to throw together some breakfast and a pot of tea, while Merry dealt with most of the casual callers and handed out the occasional mathom.
All worked well until the middle of the afternoon. Someone, and Frodo had his suspicions about who, let it be known that the new Mister Baggins was handing out mathoms to everyone who had attended the party, despite everyone already having received a present at the party itself. Within an hour of Ted Sandyman's call, ostensibly to wish Frodo well, Bag End was under siege. The lane, from the garden gate, all the way down the Hill to number one Bagshot Row, was crammed with a jostling crowd of ponies, carts, wheelbarrows, handcarts and people. Some had been to the party, others had not, but joined the line anyway, resulting in occasional raised voices. Poor Merry was soon overwhelmed but, knowing that Frodo was nursing a headache, attempted to soldier on.
He was just leading Adelard Took to the umbrella that Bilbo had so carefully labelled, "For Adelard Took, for his very own, from Bilbo," (Adelard had a habit of borrowing and not returning them) when the mathom was snatched from his hands. Lobelia Sackville-Baggins used it with great aplomb, to poke a startled Merry in the chest as she demanded, "Where is he?"
Merry dodged the next attack, which was now quite easy because everyone had stepped back to watch the fun. From the centre of an empty circle, he assayed a polite reply, although this was one of those rare occasions when he wished he had not been raised to respect his elders. "Who are you looking for, Mistress Lobelia?"
"Bilbo Baggins, of course. Don't try to tell me that old fool isn't hiding here somewhere." She spun about, as though expecting Bilbo to materialise from the woodwork.
Considering Bilbo's history, Merry decided such an expectation was not entirely unreasonable. Nonetheless, he drew himself up to his full height and squared his shoulders as he recited once more, the mantra he had been repeating all day. "Mister Bilbo Baggins no longer lives in Hobbiton. Mister Frodo Baggins is now the owner and sole resident of Bag End."
Lobelia's husband, Otho, stepped forward, green eyes narrowed. "Sole resident, is he? But is he the owner? I want to speak to this so-called owner."
Adelard Took perhaps had not Merry's training, for he made to grab his umbrella and an undignified tug of war ensued between Lobelia and himself. The sounds of a tussle and raised voices drew Frodo, who had watched, largely unobserved, from the study doorway.
He was weary but his voice was firm as he requested, "Lobelia, Otho, please come this way." Frodo hoped that nobody noticed the slight tremble in his hand as he ushered his relations from the hall.
With one final tug and a gleeful release, Lobelia relinquished her hold upon the umbrella, resulting in poor Adelard flying backward to lie in a heap among the crowd of laughing onlookers. With the quiet exhortation to Merry to, "Please clear the smial", Frodo followed Otho into the study and closed the door firmly, upon the many prying eyes.
Once within, Frodo took up position at the other side of the desk and waived his relatives to chairs. "How may I help you, Uncle Otho?"
Lobelia arranged the many and varied flounces of her skirts as she perched, straight-backed, upon the edge of a chair. She was the first to speak. "It seems to me, Frodo Baggins, that you have already helped yourself, and if you are indeed handing out the contents of Bag End, we would expect you to at least offer us first refusal…at a family discount of course."
Otho took the other seat, his tone quite smug. "Oh no, my dear. We need not purchase anything. As I read the law, Frodo here is the heir to Bilbo's fortune and possessions, upon his death. I see no body here. If, as Bilbo himself stated, he has only left the Shire, his property should revert to his closest relative until his return, or upon the declaration of his death."
Frodo swallowed, hiding his trembling hands beneath the desk. Bilbo had warned him to expect this but the warning made it no easier, and he hoped that Otho did not detect the quaver in his voice. "As the only surviving son of Bilbo's father's, second brother, that would usually be the case, yes," Frodo declared, displaying his full grasp of the intricacies of the family line.
"Precisely!" Lobelia announced, with a smirk, even as she began to look about the study. Frodo suspected that she was calculating the worth, upon the open market, of all the fixtures; perhaps even planning new colours for the decor.
Frodo tried to smile through clenched teeth. "As Otho has pointed out, Bilbo is not dead, but he took the time to make arrangements for this situation." He unfolded a thick legal document and spread it upon the desk, turning it for their perusal. Both leaned in, Otho perching a pair of glasses upon his nose.
Frodo found himself fingering the small gold ring in his pocket as he pointed out, "As you can see, Bilbo has bequeathed all his possessions, including Bag End, to me, upon my coming of age…not upon his death."
Lobelia's face grew thunderous. She even went to the length of counting every witness signature, and scowled when she discovered the requisite seven, their red ink still fresh. On the other hand, Otho's face was white as he straightened to exclaim, "This is an insult!"
The new owner of Bag End sighed, fear melting to annoyance; whether at Otho or Bilbo he was at present unsure. "Possibly. But it is not one perpetrated by me, and Bilbo is not here to confirm or deny his intentions. You will note that one of those signatures is that of the Mayor." He stood. "Now, if there is nothing else, I really must help Merry clear the smial." Knowing precisely what Bilbo had left for Lobelia, Frodo hesitated before adding, "I believe Bilbo has left you a gift, Lobelia. It is in the hall, if you will follow me."
The trio stepped into chaos. It seemed Merry had been unable to put Frodo's instructions into action, and Frodo could not find it in his heart to be cross, for he had, perhaps, been a little unfair in placing the task on such young shoulders. Some of the recipients of Bilbo's largess had begun to squabble over their mathoms, labels had been torn off in the resulting scuffles, and now it was no longer clear what had been left for whom. Frodo leapt atop Belladonna Took's glory box and waved his arms, almost hitting a fine chandelier, which was fortunately not lit at the time.
Frodo Baggins was known to be a good-natured chap so his shout had the element of surprise and brought instant stillness. He cleared his throat, lowering his voice in concession to his thundering headache. "My uncle has left the Shire and I am now the owner of Bag End. As his last act, Bilbo left mathoms ... for a select few. If you would all, please, retreat to the garden, Merriadoc and I will bring them to each of you in turn. Once that is done I really would appreciate some time alone. As you can imagine, I have been very busy since last night."
There was a little grumbling, for it was not considered polite to give presents in public, but most hobbits are reasonable folk. It was clear from his pale features, that the young gentlehobbit was worn out, so they filed out into the garden, to gather in family clumps. The Sackville-Baggins remained resolutely in place in the hallway so Frodo decided to deal with them first.
Jumping down, Frodo located and handed over a small, flat, leather-bound box. Lobelia's eyes lit up at once, no doubt imagining it some elven crafted, jewel-bedecked, demi-parure, brought back from Bilbo's travels. The miraculously still attached label read, "For Lobelia Sackville-Baggins, as a PRESENT."
Frodo was well aware of the circumstances that had prompted the gift. Upon returning from his last adventure Bilbo discovered the contents of his beautiful smial being sold off, and his mother's best silver spoons actually being stolen by Lobelia. Frodo stepped back warily as his aunt lifted the lid, only to discover that very same set of spoons, carefully nested in green velvet.
Purple was not a colour that suited Lobelia…particularly upon her face. For one moment Bilbo's heir thought that she would fling the box back at him, instead of which, Otho grabbed it, tucking it firmly under his arm before wordlessly gripping Lobelia's ample waist and whisking his wife from the premises. The poor lady's finely pedicured feet barely touched the floor, such was her husband's haste.
Frodo gusted out a sigh of relief. "Alright Merry. Hand me all the detached labels. I think I remember, or can at least guess, which one went with each present." As the youngster handed them over, a little sheepishly, Frodo clapped him on the back. "You've been doing well, cos. But I was wrong to leave it all to you, and Rorymac was quite right, it's time I stepped up to my new responsibilities. Once this is done, you and I will sit down for a well-earned cup of tea and a slice of birthday cake."
Merry's grin returned. "Birthday cake?"
Frodo clapped him on the back, his good nature returning, despite the ever present headache. "Yes, Mistress Gamgee managed to rescue some last night and she left it on our…my kitchen table." He glanced down at the first label. "Milo Burrows. Yes. This is a pen set. It's in a small green box."
Bell Gamgee, Sam's mother, was indeed kind, and practical. When she had found the time to do it, Frodo could not guess, but when he had stepped into his pantry for some eggs that morning it was to discover several covered plates. Not only was there a large piece of birthday cake, but a couple of pieces of pie and several ham sandwiches. It was clear that Bell understood that Frodo would be run off his feet today. There was even a large basin of pea and ham soup, with a note in Sam's hand that said, "For supper". Consequently, that evening, with the addition of some cheese and one or two other items, Merry and Frodo sat down to a tasty and very respectable meal.
"Phew." Merry added milk to his second cup of tea. "I hope we won't have to go through all that when Grandpapa dies. Not that I expect that to happen any time soon," he added quickly.
Frodo's reply was a little peevish as he paused to circle fingers at his temples. The encounter with Otho and Lobelia had done nothing to ease his headache. "Unless Uncle Rory disappears in the middle of his birthday party I think you'll be spared. Honestly, I did not for a moment believe Bilbo when he said he was going to do that. It was too mischievous of him. He really did create an awful mess. I…"
"Can you hear something?" The younger Merry suddenly lifted a hand for silence.
"Now what?" his cousin replied, with somewhat less than his usual grace.
Merry was mature for his years, possibly a result of his being in training to take up the reins of the Master of Buckland one day, mature enough to ignore Frodo's short temper. "It's a sort of thumping sound. Can't you hear it?"
"I'm sorry, Merry, but I can hardly hear anything above the thumping in my own head. I think a whole army of dwarves has taken up residence in here and is digging for the Arkenstone."
Merry offered a lopsided smile. "Well, I can hear something. And I think, 'digging' is a good description. Come on. It's coming from below us I think."
Whilst the hill was big enough to allow all the main living accommodation upon one level, Bungo Baggins had arranged for the digging of a few cellars. Some held a strange miscellany of mathoms, others comestibles, and one housed his extensive wine collection. Bilbo's added at least one keg each of cider and beer to that particular cellar. Now Frodo and Merry burst through the door, frying pan and broom in their respective hands. To one side they found three tween's, rolling on the floor in a giggling heap, surrounded by pick axes and shovels, beside a sizeable hole in the cellar wall. It was clear that the delving was now somewhat desultory, their having apparently consumed a large quantity of beer or cider.
The giggling grew wilder when they took in Frodo and Merry's makeshift weapons. Frodo glowered as he lowered his frying pan. "Brinley and Whit Boffin, just what do you think you are doing? And Rabbit Bolger, whatever it is, as the eldest I would expect you to know better."
"Lookin', lookin' fer treeshire…tree…stuff," Rab announced in a very studied way.
Despite his headache Frodo discovered some humour in the situation. "And I see you found my cider keg instead. I suppose, to some, that would be considered a treasure. Well, I hope you enjoyed it because, after Merry and I escort you from the premises, I shall expect to see you return on the morrow, hangover or not, to make good this wall. If you are not, I shall be making a visit to your parents."
That stopped the giggling rather quickly. "Yes, Frodo." Whit looked about him rather owlishly as he climbed to his feet. "But where's Sancho?"
"It's Mister Baggins to you from now on. Come on. You can leave. Take the pick-axe away with you but you'll need the shovels tomorrow. Merry will show you out while I search for Sancho."
As it happened, he did not have to search far. Sancho was in the large pantry upstairs. How Frodo and Merry had not heard him earlier, Frodo would never know. Perhaps Sancho had done most of the noisy work of removing the wooden panelling whilst the hall was full of arguing visitors. It seemed he had detected what he thought was a hollow wall, perhaps hiding a treasure room, and grew somewhat argumentative when Frodo calmly pointed out that the hollow space he was detecting was actually a linen cupboard, in the bedroom next door. He, too, was evicted with instructions to make good his destruction on the morrow.
By the time Frodo and Merry had checked every corner of every room in Bag End they were both exhausted, and had to make a fresh pot of tea. They had just sat down at the kitchen table when there was a soft knocking at the front door. Frodo groaned, dropping his head into his folded arms.
Merry made to get up. "Shall I get it?"
"Leave it. Maybe Lobelia will give up and go away." Frodo was convinced it was she. Earlier, despite being swept away by her husband once, Frodo had stepped into the parlour to discover Lobelia, about to drop a silver nut dish into the folds of a furled umbrella. When he confiscated said umbrella, which he recognised as having come from the hall stand, Frodo discovered it to be stuffed with other small, but not inconsequential, items. Frodo and Merry ejected Lobelia, rather firmly, minus both nicknack's and umbrella. Otho, waving a fist from the garden gate, shouting something about waiting sixty years and spoons, was the last thing Frodo saw as he slammed the door.
Now the knocking grew louder and Frodo straightened, taking a deliberate swallow of his tea, while Merry shuffled uncomfortably. Then there was a loud voice. "If you don't let me in, Frodo, I shall blow your door right through your smial and out through the hill!"
"Gandalf!" Frodo's face lit up for the first time in two days. "Stay here and finish your tea, Merry. In fact, find the big mug and pour some for our guest." Frodo ran off down the hall to admit the wizard. "You didn't need to knock. I thought you had deserted me when you weren't in your room this morning." He led Gandalf into the parlour, where Bilbo always kept a large chair available for his 'outsider' visitors.
Gandalf swept off his hat, leaned his gnarled staff against the chimney breast, and made himself comfortable. "I just popped out to check on a few things. I saw Lobelia and Otho earlier, driving a pony and trap toward Bywater at quite a clip. Lobelia bore an expression that would have curdled new milk."
Merry arrived at that moment, handing over mugs of tea to both Frodo and Gandalf. The wizard offered him a broad smile. "Thank you, Merriadoc." At a smile and a nod from Frodo, Merry retreated and Frodo settled opposite. "Lobelia came close to curdling me earlier. Honestly, for a moment I longed to slip on Bilbo's ring and disappear too."
"Don't do that! Do be careful of that ring, Frodo. In fact, it would be best if you did not use it at all. I take it Bilbo has told you how he acquired it?"
"He did. Not that silly tale about it being a present. He told me how he found it and tricked that nasty Gollum creature, and how he used it afterwards."
Gandalf nodded approval. "Good. I was always uneasy about the birthday present story. It is not like Bilbo to lie. He has been known to evade the truth, but I have never known him to lie before. I think there's more to that ring than the ability to make its wearer invisible. If you take my advice, I shall tell you to avoid using it, at least in any way as to draw undue attention."
Frodo grimaced. "You mean, as Bilbo did last evening?"
The ancient wizard shook his head. "I warned Bilbo not to do that. It is the reason I arranged that little distraction. I thought it better folk assumed the wild wizard had spirited him away."
"You are being very mysterious, Gandalf. What are you afraid of?"
Frodo had half expected him to protest that nothing was capable of engendering fear in Gandalf the Grey. Instead, the old man replied, "I am not certain, so I will say no more. I may be able to tell you upon my return. I am going off at once, so this is goodbye for the present." He drained the last of his tea and arose, collecting hat and staff.
"At once!" Frodo cried, leaping out of his chair. "I thought you would be staying for at least a week." He dropped his head, meekly. "I was looking forward to your help."
"You've a good head on your shoulders Mr Baggins. Your uncle Bilbo may have his faults, but he taught you well enough. You will cope. I shall return upon occasion, although it would be best I did not do so openly. Someone, and I was unable to establish who, has been spreading the rumour that you and I have conspired to spirit Bilbo away, so that you can get hold of his wealth."
"I fancy I could narrow those someone's down to two or three," Frodo replied darkly. "I am beginning to wish I had gone with Bilbo after all. I wonder if I shall ever see him again."
Gandalf laid a gentle hand upon his shoulder. "And I wonder a great many things. Take care of yourself, Frodo. Look out for me, especially at unexpected times. Goodbye."
Frodo saw him to the door. Gandalf's horse waited patiently at the gate and Frodo stood, watching his cart roll up the lane and disappear over the brow of the hill, into the fading dusk.