Nothing of Note

by Primula

30: Ducking

Spring was moving on apace in the Shire and everyone was busy.  Busy enough that Lobelia wasn't even able to gain a sympathetic ear when she tried to complain at the Market about poor, suffering Bilbo who was on death's very door so far gone he was turning her tender ministrations away. At least that was the news Bilbo heard from Daddy Two-foot the day after he had refused to open the door for her morning visit; he was greatly cheered to hear it.  He had just been sorting through three of Dora's letters that had come all at once from the Post.  Dora never stopped writing supposedly wise and good advice to him, though he almost never read through much less followed most of it. He had just scanned over one and read about 'turning away from wrath,' so Lobelia was on his mind anyway.

Dad was an honest fellow, and knew the relationship between the Master of Bag End and his erstwhile relations had always been a little strained at best so he accepted the smiling thanks of his neighbor with a good humored nod and strolled away to his home.

With everyone outside working, airing, cleaning and trimming, the gold-and-green land was alive with activity. Bilbo delighted in his late morning walks, seeing the last of the dead brown of winter being pulled away from the ground, heaped to the side like brown wool lifted from shorn sheep. Underneath that old growth the newly cleared ground and foliage was bright with green new leaves and red-tipped late buddings. The bulbs were all well up and nodding in clusters of white and yellow and purple along the waysides, the ground moist and fragrant with dew.

The fields were filled with toiling hobbits and sturdy ponies tilling, hoeing, raking and planting. Overhead the sky was a clear, freshly-washed blue unfaded by summer's heat. He lifted his walking stick cheerfully in greeting to them all, including the sky. One of the things he gained the most enjoyment from was the exuberance of the little children as he went.  The older ones were having to work, but even they were given times to play and rest, and they all romped in the sunshine like puppies out-of-doors at long last. Several of them were clustered down near The Water this morning, carefully watched to keep any from venturing too near but enjoying the soft low bank near the Market, away from the tramplings of the livestock who sometimes watered along it further north.

On a whim, he turned back to his home and fetched the cattail duck down from his mantle.  Back he went to the sunny bank where he chose a small calm inlet and carefully knelt down and set it in the water. The silt stirred up slightly as he withdrew his hand, leaving dancing golden motes in the water all around the little grass-waterbird. It bobbed slightly in the ripples of the water, its head tipping at him jauntily.

"What's that?" asked a voice.

He looked up to see three young hobbits squatting down just behind him to watch. He hadn't even realized they were there.

"It's a duck. A cattail duck. I got it from a friend who makes them."

"Can I try?"

"Certainly." Bilbo reached out and lifted the duck up, shaking off the drops of water. He handed it to the youngster and stood ready to catch him should he look like he would follow the bird into the water himself. He need not have worried as the child was very careful, almost exceedingly so. He set it in the water and it bobbed. Smiles broke out all around as if this had been a great accomplishment. Bilbo settled down on the grass to watch them taking turns lifting it out and floating it, pushing it around on the water. Others came who were curious and he soon found himself at the center of a small crowd of assorted children with a two or three older lasses hanging back, keeping the smallest ones away from the water.

"Tell us a 'tory, Mither Baggins."

He looked up from where he had been watching the mill-wheel slowly turning. A very young lass with curls the color of burnished brass in the sunshine sat beside him, her petticoat edges all dampened brown and green from playing near the water.

"I'm sorry. What did you say?"

"Tell us a 'tory? My bruvver tol' me you do."

"Does he, now?"

Another voice piped just behind his shoulder. "He does, too." Bilbo looked back over his shoulder.

"Hullo, young Tolman. Aren't you supposed to be helping out at home?"

Tom Cotton looked at him and grinned a gap-toothed smile. "I am! Ma asked me to watch Rosie. So I'm watchin' her. She's right there."

Bilbo looked back at the little lass. "Rosie! I'm sorry, Rosie, you've grown so big I didn't realize it was you." Besides, I can never keep track of all the children around me anyway, he added to himself.

Rosie smiled up at him. "I'm this many." She held up three muddy fingers.

"Yes, I can see you are. And what a great, big number of fingers that is. I am so many fingers I don't think I can count them anymore.  Here, why don't we move somewhere a little less damp and I'd be glad to tell you a story." He reclaimed his duck and walked back up toward the square.

Rosie took Tom's hand and they followed him up to the empty tables in the square. Others tagged along.  It had been a long time, he reflected. He was usually so involved in his own quiet pursuits that storytelling for noisy, wiggling children didn't often appeal. Besides, all too frequently it seemed the older hobbits didn't want him telling them anything "scary" or "outlandish" and he never seemed to be able to stay within those bounds to their satisfaction.

He settled down at a warm, sunny table and considered. What tale would work for such a young group? Something simple. "Once upon a time," he began, "in a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit hole, and that means comfort."  The children settled onto the warm hay that scattered out from a partially spilled stack and listened.

How it brought back memories, the retelling of his tale. His greatest adventure, though not his only one.  No one could say it hadn't happened either. "...Gandalf! If you had heard only a quarter of what I have heard about him, and I have only heard very little of all there is to hear, you would be prepared for any sort of remarkable tale. Tales and adventures sprouted up all over the place wherever he went...of course I didn't know that then though I do now for this tale is a true one."

The little ones listened, wide-eyed. Even the older lasses were starting to be pulled in a bit, though they seemed to think they shouldn't be.

"...I am so sorry to keep you waiting! I was going to say when I saw it was not Gandalf at all. It was a dwarf with a blue beard tucked into a golden belt, and very bright eyes under his dark-green hood..."

"A Dwarf?" said one of the lads. "I don't think there is such things as Dwarves."

"Is too." protested his neighbor.

Bilbo smiled slightly. "You would be surprised how many things there are that don't give a fig if you believe in them or not. They are there just the same."

"Whassa beerd?" asked one of the smallest, removing his thumb so he could talk.

"It's a lot of hair all over their face. Like Mr. Bump's dog." volunteered his cousin, very importantly.

"Be quiet!" said Tom. "He's tellin' a story!"

Bilbo waited for them to settle down, then continued. "Well, this dwarf pushed in just as if he had been expected..."

He hadn't meant to get so deeply into his story. He was only going to tell a little of it, mostly about running out the door without his hat and handkerchiefs because he thought they would find it amusing. But once it was started, it was hard to remember to keep it simple, and 'safe.'  The sun slowly shifted the shadows, but his audience stayed and listened with wide eyes.

"...Suddenly first one and then another began to sing as they played, deep-throated singing of the dwarves in the deep places...

Over the misty mountains cold
To dungeons deep and caverns old
We must away ere break of day
To seek the pale enchanted gold...*

"What sort of rubbish is that?" interrupted an irritated grown-up voice. Bilbo had been so deeply in the tale it was almost a physical shock to come out of it.  He looked up to find Mr. Sandyman the miller grasping his young son's arm and pulling him away from the group.

"Filling the children's heads with nonsense and poppycock again, Mr. Baggins? Fie on you! Come away, Ted, you've better things to be doing. And the rest of you too! Don't listen to him. He's cracked as an egg."

The older children looked slightly ashamed, as if they had been doing something wrong. The younger ones hunched slightly, away from his harsh words.

"Half-cooked rot, that's what it is..."

Mr. Sandyman headed back toward his mill, pulling his son along with him.

Bilbo saw no spark in young Ted's eyes as he went. If it had ever been there it had long been extinguished by his father. His mouth tightened but he didn't want the children to hear any ill from him. They had already heard enough for one day. He ducked away from the awkward pause.

"Well, it is getting late. I'm sure most of you are wanted home for luncheon soon..." he noticed a couple mothers coming to get their children on the path. One was Mrs. Cotton. "If any of you would like to hear more of my tale, I will be glad to tell it to you another time, but it is a long one. That's quite enough for one telling. Now run along, your mother's won't want your meals getting cold. Tom, Rosie, there's your mum right now."

The children began to scatter, younger ones recovering their spirits quickly as children were wont to do.  The older ones walked together talking in hushed voices, a couple of them glancing after the Sandymans, who were crossing the bridge to the mill. He stayed where he was. He felt like hanging his head, he was so disappointed. But he didn't want anyone watching to think he was ashamed of telling the children stories. No. That would not do. Nor would he duck under hurled insults.  He kept his back straight and his head up, but inside he was aching and angry, too. Cracked as an egg, was he? Well, how better to break out of a confining shell than to crack?

He stayed that way until everyone from his storytelling group was gone. Only then did he allow himself to get up and walk towards his home again, still being careful to keep his head high. As he came up the Hill, Hamfast ambled over to meet him.

"Mr. Baggins, sir! My Sam read this package for me this mornin', he did! He says it says "SEEDS" clear as a bell. And I know it must, it bein' a seed-packet and all." The Gaffer stopped in front of Bilbo wringing his cap and the seed-packet between his hands with emotion. "He can read letters, my Sam can!  And it's all thanks to you, sir. It means so much to 'im. Thank you, sir!"

Bilbo hadn't seen the Gaffer so excited since he'd won that keg of ale in the pumpkin-growing contest year-before-last. The weight of Sandyman's words lifted away into the air. There was no struggle to stand tall and straight, none at all.

"You're welcome, Gaffer. You are quite welcome."

*Much of Bilbo's tale is made up of excerpts from The Hobbit, by J.R.R. Tolkien.