Nothing of Note

by Primula

31. A Medicinal Marriage

It was a mild morning when the Hamfast and Bell Gamgee along with their younger children set off in a pony-cart for a fortnight of visiting with their relatives on Bell's side of the family. Their family holiday had been the subject of every breath Sam had taken for the past couple of days and Bilbo had enjoyed watching his excitement when he was out in the yard. Now that all the seeds were safely in the ground and the trimming completed there was little that would need to be done on the grounds except what came naturally by sun and rain, so the timing was perfect and it was good for Bell to get to have some time away.

Halfred was not quite ready to take on the full responsibility in the Gaffer's eyes so their oldest lad, Hamson, had come from his home to stay in Number Three and watch over the gardens while they were away.  While he was not normally a gardener but rather a rope-maker, Hamson was a carbon copy of the Gaffer only younger and Bilbo remembered him from before he had gone to be apprenticed under his uncle Andy. He was content with the choice of a replacement.

Bilbo stood at his gate and waved to Sam and May who waved from the back of their cart with great energy until it turned the bend and he couldn't see them anymore. Hamson came up to him and doffed his cap politely. 

"Well, Mr. Baggins, there they go."

"Yes indeed. I am glad to see them getting a chance at a holiday. Fair traveling weather, too. Those bits of cloud are perfect for keeping the sun off your neck when you've a long ways to go, don't you think?"

Hamson cocked an eye upward. "I hadn't really given it thought, sir. My Gaffer left me some marketing instructions so I'll be headin' off to care for that first. If you need anything else, just let me know." 

"Very well. Thank you, Hamson."

He gave a nod of farewell and headed down the road toward town, leaving Bilbo to his own pursuits.

Bilbo knew what the instructions were about, as Hamfast had spoken with him on it a couple days before. Two of the three apple trees that were on the northern side of The Hill had both suffered from some sort of malady the previous year and he had finally taken them down early in the Spring.  Now that the stumps were chopped and tugged from the ground, he wanted to replace them with new apple saplings.

"Only bother being that spring t'aint the best time o' year for saplings, o' course. Should've been planted in the fall. But they'll be all right if we get 'em in before too much longer. I'll have Hamson buy a couple and pop 'em in the ground," he'd said, "One pie apple and one eatin' apple."

It was a Market Day again in Hobbiton and after enjoying some quiet time in his study, Bilbo thought it would be a pleasant diversion to take a walk into town to see whatever there was to see before it was all taken down again. The Market tended to be just as much socializing as buying and selling, perhaps more. Putting on a clean vest and tucking a fresh handkerchief into his pocket he set off down The Hill.

There was nothing quite like the sound of a townful of hobbits all talking at once. He paused where he was on the road as he was approaching, held perfectly still and just closed his eyes, to listen to it. He heard sheep, goats, a cow lowing, babies crying, children laughing or squabbling... a cheerful and familiar cacophony of noise. Someone was singing and others clapped along, another hawked their wares to passerby. 

He opened his eyes and realized the hobbits passing by him on the road were giving him odd looks and a very wide berth. He smiled disarmingly at them. "Such a nice noisy market, isn't it?" They glanced at one another, offered small polite smiles and continued on their way.

Walking down the gentle slope he soon passed the outermost market stalls with their bright bunting of ribbons flickering in the sun. He wandered up and down the aisles of stalls, sampling and admiring as seemed fit. He hadn't come with a mind to buy anything but a few coins jingled in his pockets just in case. Almost on a whim he found himself searching for anything made from cattails, and was mildly surprised to find a modest stall set up entirely with cattail items. There were balms, salves, cleverly woven mats, packages of cattail fluff...but it was the ducks that were the clincher for him. He turned to the hobbit who was presiding over the stall.

"Excuse me, you wouldn't by any chance know a Mr. Waterby?"

The hobbit smiled a broad, sunny smile. "Know him? I am him! Can I help you?"

"Mr. Waterby, so pleased to make your acquaintance. I met some of your children, I believe, while I was recently traveling near Needlehole. One young 'Brushtail' gifted me with a fine cattail duck, not unlike the ones you have here in your bin."

Mr. Waterby's eyebrows went up briefly. "So you are the Mr. Baggins they were speaking of. I was sure they had to be mistaken. I thank you sir, very sincerely, for if I understand right you were a great help to them."

"Anyone else would have done the same," said Bilbo with a small bow, brushing it off. "The reason I was seeking you out was because Brush told me that you produce medicinal items from cattails. Can you tell me something of them?"

"Why, yes we do! My wife is the one who makes up most of our medicines. Is there a particular ailment you're needing something for?"

"I can't really say...I have a neighbor whose wife is frail, and I suppose I was hoping there would be something new that might be of aid to their family."

"Hm. Well, most of what we have is for simple things like toothaches and rashes and such. We've a couple balms, and a very nice powder... Tell you what. Seein' as it's for womenfolk, how about I have Mrs.Waterby give your neighbor a visit?"

"A perfect idea. They are out of town for a fortnight. Would after that be a possibility?"

"Certainly, we can do that. What address should she call at?"

"Bagshot Row, Number Three. I will be sure they know of it so it isn't unexpected. If she does choose to purchase any items from you, you are to say they are already covered and to bill me. I will see to the cost."

"I understand." Mr. Waterby tipped his hat politely. "We'll be glad to help if we can."

"Now, I'd like to purchase some ducks."

"Ducks? Oh, of course! Choose any that you like. The children will be pleased to hear that you have enjoyed their effort."

Bilbo looked over the jumbled bin of ducks. They were in a variety of sizes and shapes and he realized the little one Brush had given him was quite small and simple in design compared to most of these here. Some of them had even been outfitted with carefully trimmed cattail 'feathers' on their wings and had shiny black seeds for eyes that made them surprisingly lifelike from a distance.  Being indecisive and knowing the profit was going to the children anyway, he finally bought eight of the best and cheerfully headed back toward home with his arms full of ducks. In his pocket he also carried a salve for insect-stings and a small green bottle of a sticky substance that was supposed to be good for toothaches, not because he had one but because it was a curiosity.

He was going past the last few stalls when Opal Grubb was suddenly at his side.

"Good day, Mr. Baggins. My, what a lotof er...ducks, you have there."

"Yes, I do. Aren't they clever? Some children made them from cattails."

"I see! Yes. I was just thinking you were looking very chipper for someone so recently recovered from such a severe illness. How are you feeling today? No sudden changes or anything, I hope?"

Bilbo's real smile faded to nothing, though he managed to keep a polite shadow of it in place.  Opal Grubb was known to be a full-fledged gossip if there ever was one. Anything he said would be broadcast throughout the town and possibly the Shire. He was weary of the topic of his health... he had to conclude she must have been spending time leaning over the fence of Lobelia's garden recently to bring it up so quickly. A severe illness indeed. Humph.

"I am just fine, if anything I am better and more healthy than I've ever been." he said firmly. Then a bit of madness took him. It must have been the reference to sudden changes that did it. That was the only explanation he had afterwards when he thought back on it. He didn't know why, but the next words out of his mouth were:

"In fact I was just thinking of getting married."

Opal Grubb's eyes bugged out of her head. Her mouth opened and shut and opened again but no words came out for a moment. "Oh...!" she finally managed. "Oh, well, that is...quite surprising news! And...who is this very lucky lass?"

"Oh, I don't know. Someone will come along, no doubt. Plenty of unmarried hobbits in the Shire you know. I haven't decided if I prefer thin or stout yet, and whether or not she ought to have accessories."

"You haven't? Accessories?"

"Yes, you know. Eyes, ears, feet. That sort of thing."

"I...uh..."

"But as I said, I'm sure I will find someone if I go looking. Now good day to you, Mrs. Grubb, I must get my ducks in a row."

He left her there and headed for home, struggling to not laugh out loud or to drop his ducks as he gasped with silent paroxysms of laughter. He reached Bag End all right but the effort of balancing ducks while opening the knob on the door meant he burst into his hallway with ducks flying in every direction. He leaned against the wall and laughed until tears ran down his cheeks, then gathered them up and set them along the shelf where they could survey his comings and goings for now.

He knew what would happen next. Opal would make a beeline for Lobelia. Might as well be ready. He headed back down the Hill.

Sure enough, no sooner had he reached the market and purchased a mug of warm cider to sip at than Lobelia came into view. She looked agitated, her head turning this way and that as she sought him out in the crowd. He deliberately wandered over to a bench where he knew she would see him. In moments she was at his elbow.

"What's this I hear?"

He looked up at her mildly and sipped his cider. "Hullo Lobelia. Fine day, isn't it?"

"Don't you 'fine day' me, Mr. Bilbo Baggins! What's this I hear about you taking a wife?"

"A wife? Oh, I don't know. Just a passing fancy. Don't you think it's a good idea? Perhaps it would improve my health."

"A good idea? No, no I don't think so."

"Why not? Are you afraid I can't afford one? It is very kind of you to be concerned, but I'm sure I'd manage somehow."

Her mouth puckered.

"Not to be unkind, Bilbo Baggins, of course not, but..." she seemed to be thinking very hard. "Are you sure any of the lasses would want you?"

He feigned an innocent blink at her over the rim of his mug. "Mmm? What do you mean?"

"I mean.. Well. It is a delicate matter, I suppose. You must be aware that you are... old, Bilbo. You are old, and in frail health. Why, anything could happen to you. You must realize that it would be most unfair of you to leave some poor wife without her husband so soon. It would be a drain on you, not a help. And you aren't exactly the most... well..."

"Yes? Go on." He was enjoying this.

"The most...appealing to the eyes. Your days of youth and health are long past." She gave an exaggerated sigh. "It is so sad, but it happens even to the best of us."

He gave the appearance of thinking deeply and furrowed his brows for her. After letting her shuffle her feet anxiously for a moment he gave out a dramatic sigh himself.

"Ah! Dear, kind Lobelia. I can always count on you to say it like it really is. You are right. I am old, and decrepit. It was just a passing fancy of long-forgotten youth. I guess I won't take a wife after all."  He lowered his head as if in sorrow, though it was really to hide the twitching grin he was attempting to quell on his face.

She stood there a moment longer. He was sure she knew he was up to something, but she couldn't figure out what. It was an old game of cat and mouse, but he hadn't played it in a while. "Well. I am so glad to hear that your good sense is returning! You can always trust me to tell you the truth. It's a good thing I found you before you did anything foolish."

"You are so right."

"So, you won't...be continuing with that folly?"

"No, no I won't. You have quite convinced me. I am better remaining a confirmed bachelor. Thank you for your fount of wisdom, Lobelia. I am the better for it." He figured he better stop soon. The sarcasm was coming through. He stood and gave her a nod, then headed for home. "Good day!"

He was nearly to his gate when he noticed the cart filled with burlap-sacked saplings standing nearby. Hamson smiled at him as he struggled to untangle the boughs of the topmost from the others to lift it out.

"Hullo Hamson. What have you there?"

"Apple saplings, Mr. Baggins! And they're fine, strong ones too."

"Good! Who are the other ones for?"

"Other ones?"

"There's a cart-full there. I understood the Gaffer wanted two, one for pies and one for eating apples."

There was a silence. Hamson stopped moving, then cleared his throat and asked. "Two?"

"Yes, two. To replace the two that had to be taken down. Is something wrong?"

"I, um. I bought...more than that."

"You bought all of those? Why so many?"

"I thought he needed two...dozen."

"Two dozen? You mean I now own two dozen apple trees?" Bilbo's eyebrows went up, but he also couldn't help but smile. He felt sorry for Hamson, who had no doubt thought he was doing right, and it was funny in a way.

"I thought maybe you were putting in a new orchard. Two dozen would make a nice small orchard. And they were a good price, but... I'm sorry..."

"Now, Hamson. Don't get too worked up. It was a simple misunderstanding and perhaps some good will come of it. What I'll do is have you go looking for folks to buy some of them from you, and we'll plant whatever is left over. How's that?"

"I will sir!"

"Be off then, before the day gets any later. Good luck!"

Bilbo walked up the steps into his home and threw himself down in a chair. What a day. He was enjoying himself.

It was late in the afternoon before Hamson returned and somewhat timidly knocked on Bilbo's door. Bilbo opened it and raised his eyebrows in a silent question.

"Good afternoon, sir. I found folk willin' to buy eight of the little trees from me. It's late in the season for plantin' them, sir, and most folks who would be lookin' for one have already got them."

"So we still have...how many?"

"Sixteen, sir."

"Sixteen apple trees."

"Yessir." Hamson shifted his weight from one foot to the other uncomfortably.

"Well then. I suppose you have a lot of digging to do. Put most of them over by the original set, then fill in whereever you believe a tree might fit along the back."

"Plant all sixteen?"

"That's the idea."

"But, in ten years or so this land will be awash in apples."

"Yes, I suppose it might. There's always uses for apples. I don't have to eat all of them myself. Go ahead now, your work is waiting."

"Yessir."

Bilbo gently closed the door and went into his kitchen to get an afternoon snack. He reflected on Lobelia's reaction earlier in the day. What would I want with a wife? Haha...too priceless, the expression that had been on her face. I suppose I shouldn't pull her chain that way, but it really was too funny.  Besides, if she's going to listen to gossip, it serves her right. A good dose of medicinal shock to make her reconsider some of the news she listens to maybe.

Taking his plate and tea with him, he went out the back and sat on the bench watching as Hamson struggled ineffectively with the stack of saplings. I suppose I should have let him just plant the two. He is a ropemaker, after all, not a gardener.

Sometimes it just has to be the right person or it doesn't work.

And being related isn't enough. It has to be the right relative too.

Setting his plate down, he reached into his pocket and drew out a piece of paper he had gotten at the market, the one with the other information he had been looking for that day.

The name of a lawyer.