Nothing of Note

by Primula

3: Hugo's Bookcase

Once Bilbo was out of Hobbiton proper the going went smoothly enough. Passing through the town he had taken careful efforts to not make any direct eye contact with anyone, thus he didn't even know if those he had turned away earlier were among the low-voiced hobbits he passed. He stumped along with a "don't bother me, I'm busy" look on his face and none tried to get past it.  Now that the farmlands opened up on either side of him he felt as if he were a rabbit being released from a crate. A stuffy, fenced-in feeling that he hadn't even realized was constricting him fell away and he sniffed at the air with the appreciation of a fine connoisseur of the outdoors.

The road was wet and every depression held a bit of water in it, but the center and edges were dry enough and the gentle spring wind was rapidly taking the dew from the grasses.  He walked for some time with almost no thoughts at all, just a passerby for all of the beauty around him; soaking up each sight as it came and then releasing it for the next.

After a fair bit of time had passed in this sort of pleasant reverie he neared the place where the road forked and realized he needed to give the choice some thought.  Which Delving should he go to?  If he remembered right, it had seemed the towers he wanted to reach were somewhere between the two roads, yet he saw no reason to slog across country for several miles if he didn't have to.  As it often is at the beginning of a journey, a few miles out of the way later on did not seem like anything worth bothering about then.

He gave some consideration to Little Delving, but thought it would place him too far north. Besides, the other option was much better. Michel Delving had a real Inn while he had never heard of one in Little Delving.  If there was one there, it couldn't be anything to write to anyone about.  Michel Delving had the Mathom House also, and he had not been there for quite a long time.  Unlike many of the hobbits around him, he thoroughly enjoyed an afternoon examining the mathoms. Their histories and origins interested him, and brought out a thirst for knowing more of them, of their original owners, why and how they had ever come to such a place as the Shire.

Not that there were that many "Foreign" mathoms there. Most of the somewhat dusty collection consisted of odd items that had been a part of the Shire's own placid history. Items that no one really needed, but which were too good to throw out and no longer commonly used.

He remembered the last time he had been there he had spent over an hour attempting to sketch the designs carved into an ancient floor harp. No one knew its origins, and several of its strings were missing. Under the dark rime of years in some lamp-lit hall he could see the wood had once been a lovely deep red.  He hated to think of what it would have sounded like if it had been struck now, and mourned the imagined beautiful music it must have once produced.  His impatient relatives had finally persuaded him to leave for supper and he had never made it back again.  A pity.

Michel Delving then. He reached the fork in the road and swung without hesitation onto the more southern branch.  A handful of houses and a small grocer's shop had grown up around the split in the road, no doubt to provide lodging for those hobbits who proved less decisive in their natures, but he had no interest in stopping.  He purchased a small paper packet of dried apple slices from the grocer and continued on past. He stopped at the first quiet place with a suitably flat rock to serve as his late luncheon table, laying out his own simple picnic on one of his handkerchiefs.  His legs ached a bit, and he rubbed them as he chewed. Out of shape, old chap, he told himself.  A regular sluggard you've become. Need to do this more often. 

As he was finishing up his the last of his bread, cheese and apples, he gave some thought to where he would be having dinner than night. The Inn?  Possibly. But it occurred to him that with all the socializing and visiting he'd been putting up with it would only seem fair for him to have someone else put him up for a change.  He had an assortment of relatives and friends in just about every corner of the Shire who would be obligated to pretend delight and take him in for the night.  Who was in Michel Delving? 

It wasn't until about an hour later down the road that he suddenly realized which of them would be the perfect person to inflict himself upon that night. Hugo. Hugo Bracegirdle, who had certainly eaten his share of Bilbo's food on his monthly visits to Hobbiton.  Hugo was a great lover of books and seemed to always have one with him that he was reading. This was uncommon and Bilbo admired the trait. Too bad Hugo was also cursed with a terrible memory and recalled so little of the many things he read, otherwise he would have made a wonderful partner for long talks by the fire. As it was, he could only be expected to carry on about the book he was currently reading or had just read. All others seemed to fade into a fog in his mind, only stray bits and pieces snagging in his brain for later use.

Bilbo reached Michel Delving in the early evening, just as it began to drizzle. Inquiring of a passerby, he soon found the modest home of Mr. Bracegirdle; it was an actual house, though thatched to a pleasant curve, and the yard was neatly swept enough.  He entered the gate and gave a little tug on the unraveling bell rope that hung by the russet door.

He heard someone fumbling with the latch, then the door opened up and Hugo clad only in his breeches, shirt and braces peered out at his visitor without recognition. 

"Yes?"

Bilbo offered him a small smile and a nod. "You really ought to light your porch lamp, old fellow, so you don't leave your dearest relations standing out in the night. How's that book you borrowed from me?"

"Bilbo? Bilbo Baggins? Whatever are you doing out here?"

"Standing on your front step being cold and hungry, for one thing."

"Oh, I'm so sorry! Come in, come in.  Make yourself at home. Can I get you some tea? Just getting ready for a bit of supper here."

Bilbo entered the smial and looked around at the cluttered shelves and tables. Hugo worked as a bookkeeper for the various shops in the area and an assortment of ledgers, quills, ink-wells (both empty and full) and bits of nibs lay scattered about on both table and desk. Hugo stepped into his small kitchen and set another plate beside his own on the table after sweeping his arm across it to clear a space. He was a widower and the lack of feminine attention in the home showed.  He poured a cup of tea for Bilbo, then one for himself.

Bilbo set his pack and stick in the corner, pulled off his damp coat and hung it over the chair nearest the fire to dry.  The loaf, butter and hot soup that Hugo ladled out were very welcome after a day outdoors. The outdoors always made him hungrier, even if all he did was sit under a tree. He was never sure why.  Something about it... he tucked in with a will and felt no hesitation at all about asking for seconds.  Hugo refilled the bowl, then also his own.  They both ate in companionable silence until the last bits were being mopped up with the ends of the loaf.

The finest thing about Hugo's bad memory was that he was aware of it.  By the end of their supper,  Bilbo knew Hugo would no longer be sure if he had already asked something before and he was counting on it. Sure enough, as Hugo cleared away the plates he said "So... how long are you staying again?"

"Why only the night, as I said before. Just long enough to take care of that business that brought me here, you know."

Hugo covered his mild confusion, not wanting to seem rude by inquiring 'again' about what that business was.  Bilbo saw it and was pleased.

"Now, how about we have that pipe by the fire before we retire for the night?"

"Pipe? Oh, yes of course." said Hugo, reluctantly bringing out his own hoard of leaf. Bilbo slipped his own pipe out from his pack and generously filled it with Hugo's leaf. They settled by the fire and puffed. Hugo eyes stared into the fire. Bilbo's eyes slowly wandered around the room looking for something of interest to think about. They found it when he noticed the bookcase against the far wall.  The stout wooden bookcase top was littered with the same mixture of quills, pots and papers, plus a well-thumbed abacus. The inside was stuffed with books. All sorts of books. Tall, short, fat, thin, leather, cloth, wood.  Their spines called out to him to read them.  And some of them looked...familiar.  Very familiar.

Casually stretching, Bilbo got up from his seat and walked over to the bookcase. As he has suspected, several of his own missing volumes were clearly to be seen among Hugo's collection.  He was not too offended, as Hugo probably did not even remember that they were Bilbo's, nor his promising to return them when he had borrowed them long ago.  Before Bilbo had figured out that they never returned and ceased allowing him to borrow them at all.  He was not offended, but a bit saddened.

He gazed at them silently. Old friends, every one. He still had a long ways to go and couldn't be weighed down with them. And besides, they might get wet. Still, he thought he had room in his packet for one slim volume. That wouldn't be too much. He ran his thumb over each of the spines lovingly then slipped a slender brown leather-bound volume out, silently apologizing to the ones he had to leave behind.  It was about different kinds of birds in the Shire, with illustrations. He knew that without even opening it, remembering his own hours in the garden telling the Gaffer the names of each kind of bird as they came by Bag End. He weighed it in his hand and smoothed his hand over the soft leather binding.

"Nice collection of books you have here," he said to Hugo. Hugo grunted and looked up at him.

"Books? Yes. Taken me years to gather them all. I'm a great reader, you know."

"Yes, I know. You always were a very literate hobbit and I admire it! I was just telling the folks in Hobbiton the other day, you know old Hugo Bracegirdle? He's quite a literate hobbit, he is. Great collection of books he has."

Hugo smiled slightly at the praise and straightened up a bit from his former slouch. "You are welcome to look through them. I've always liked being a bookkeeper in more than one sense of the word, ha ha."

"Ha ha." replied Bilbo. Flattery was easy with Hugo. He poured a little more butter on. "I really have never seen such a fine set. This volume here, for instance -  quite exceptional." He showed Hugo the bird book.  "How I wish I had a volume like this one at Bag End." This was true.

Hugo soaked up the unaccustomed flattery and it made him feel generous. "Would you like to borrow one to read? I could pick it up next time I'm in Hobbiton. It would be no trouble at all."

Bilbo smiled to himself. "Oh no, I wouldn't dream of taking your books from you...well, perhaps just this one small one would be a nice companion on my trip?"

"Oh of course! Please, take it along! My compliments. From one lover of books to another. Think nothing of it."

I shall, thought Bilbo. Out loud, he thanked him and safely tucked it into the oiled packet in his pack. He trusted that by next month Hugo would have completely forgotten the incident and then the bird book would be safely back in it's place in Bilbo's own study.  In his imagination, the leather book thanked him for rescuing it and later as he settled onto the cushions by the fire to sleep he composed a short song about it, about a book lost and found, singing in the dark bookcase all alone.  The song didn't seem worth keeping, but it sufficed to sing himself to sleep.