Nothing of Note

by Primula

4: The Mathom-House Harp

The next morning dawned drizzly and cold. Bilbo awoke beside the cold hearth with a stiff neck, having scattered his cushions in the night.  He slowly, creakingly clambered into an upright position and stood near the small window, twisting his head left and right and alternately shrugging his shoulders trying to get his neck to work properly again.  Hugo sleepily ambled in from the hall with a bucket of kindling and seeing Bilbo's contortions, simply stopped with the bucket swinging in his hand. When Bilbo turned and saw his expression  for a moment the notion crossed his mind that Hugo's memory had deteriorated to the point that he didn't even know who his visitor was.

Hugo nodded and grunted noncommittally at him as he shambled to the fireplace. "'Morning." he said, as if it were something you might scrape off of your foot. He knelt down by the fireplace to restart the fire.

Not being a sociable hobbit in the early hours, he offered no further comment on the strange movements of his guest.  Bilbo was glad of it as he was often not too sociable in the morning himself.  In unspoken agreement the two of them went through the morning routine and had their breakfast without any unnecessary talking, though by the time some hot toast, apple pie and cheese omelets had gone down the proper gullets they were feeling considerably more ready to face the day.

Hugo had to work on the accounts for a candlemaker at the other end of the town that day. He gathered up his papers and went on his way entrusting the care of his home to his houseguest simply because he had no other choice.  Bilbo looked out at the cold, wet weather and decided it was not a very good day for walking after all.  Having no reason to hurry and hoping it would be better tomorrow, he decided to spend the day in Michel Delving's shops and at the Mathom House. Afterwards he could return to Hugo's for one more night of hospitality before he let his relation off the hook. 

He helped himself to a generous after-meal snack, then headed out to investigate the shops. Michel Delving had a fair selection, really.  A small book shop especially intrigued him, but he remembered the lonely books back at Hugo's that he already could not carry.  He walked on, sampled several fruit preserves at a nearby stand and purchasing a jar for later. He tucked it into his pocket where it's weight made his coat sag.  The loaves at the bakers were so exceptional he had them wrap up a nice crusty one which went into his other pocket.

By the time he had worked his way over to the Mathom House he looked rather like some sort of walking flea market with things stuffed into every pocket and his hands full.  Having plenty of time left he turned and walked back to Hugo's where he unloaded his prizes onto the table, ate a few of them, picked up his packet with his notebook in it and retraced his steps.

The Mathom House was neatly kept and perhaps the largest structure in the town, except for the Hall. The Hall was more like a barn, really. Used for dances in the summer and dry storage in the winter months, always changing. The Mathom House never changed; that was one of its strange charms for him. It took his imagination far back in time but not in the way that his books did. Not in ways that were so far from his own people that he really had no true connection to them.  It was a different sort of feeling, his own history that he was a part of however distantly. It was here, where he could look at it and touch it. He could feel its weight in his hand and be a part of the old Shire.  Nevermind that the Shire had really changed very little over the years. He reveled in the feeling of antiquity.

It was built into a large chalky hillside. At the top grew older trees whose roots protected it and helped support the walls inside as well; it even had a downstairs of sorts - cellars where various items were kept when not on display. The smaller rooms were a touch dark and tended to run damp in the winter, but it did not stop them from sometimes being used for small meetings or simply rented for extra storage.  He had explored them briefly the last time he was there but had found them unpleasantly cramped for hobbit holes and had soon emerged back into the welcome light of the main floor. 

The first thing he went to see was his own mithril coat where it stood as it had for so many years now among items that were considered "foreign" curiosities. He briefly "visited" with it, promising it he would be back shortly, then began working his way around the other rooms.  Everything from old-styled butterchurns to the amazingly large saddle that was purportedly that of Bullroarer himself was given his attention, one at a time. Thoroughly steeped in his own history, he then stepped back into the "foreign" room as one who has saved the best dessert for last and anticipates that first bite.

He faced his mithril coat once more. See? he told it, I told you I'd come back again. Did you think I'd leave you here all alone after so long?  My how you sparkle.

He reached out his hand past the rope that defined its corner stand and ran his hand gently down it, listening to the small silver sound of its movement.  Thorin. Poor old Thorin.  The crystals of the corselet shone, but to his eyes it was the amazing beauty of the Arkenstone that shone.  He remembered its heaviness in his hands, bound in rags. The fear of being caught with it, Thorin's rage, and Thorin's dying apology...

"Can I help you?"

Bilbo startled out of his memories to see the mathom-curator looking at him curiously. As he turned to face him it was the curator's turn to jump a little.

"Oh! I'm so sorry, Mr. Baggins! I didn't recognize you at first...so good to see you again. It's been quite a long time, hasn't it? Are there any questions I can answer for you?"

Bilbo silently considered the plump curator.  A nice enough fellow, but he wanted for a little more appreciation of what had been entrusted to his care.  Oh, he took care of the items well enough, but he didn't care about them. He didn't know half of what was to be learned from them and didn't seem inclined to learn.   On another day, Bilbo might have been inclined to draw him out a little, teach him something, hoping it would spark some curiosity in him. Not today; he just wanted time alone, with his memories.

"No, no. No questions, thank you. Except one: how long will you be open today?"

"As long as you like, Mr. Baggins. It's been a slow week and I've other work to take care of. If it gets late, just stop by my writing-desk  and let me know when you are done and I'll lock up."

"Thank you. Most kind, most kind." said Bilbo as he turned his attention back to the corselet and belt. After a moment, the curator slipped away.

Gazing at it he found his thoughts being drawn back to his relatives. They would inherit this, he thought.  He inwardly cursed the inheritance laws of the Shire that would allow such a lovely thing to fall into the hands of someone who would not appreciate it...no, more than that.  A chill went through him. They would not only not appreciate it, they would probably waste no time at all in selling it to the highest bidder, to be taken apart, melted down.  Otho had no heart for beauty, and his son seemed to be taking after him. Money was all he really cared about. He fought down the sudden desire to take it off of its stand and hide it under his coat. He really needed to do something about that. About Otho. But what?  He couldn't just live forever after all.  He sighed.

He moved slowly past a handful of other odd pieces until he reached the one that had embraced his imagination so well the previous time. The floor harp.  It was a fairly massive piece, really.  Made for someone with a much longer reach than a hobbit to play.  As before, he noted the rich red wood under the aged finish. He ran his thumb gently over the intricate carvings.  Sitting on the bench across from it, he slipped the packet out to get his notebook. The bird book came out with it.  He paused and flipped through the vibrant illustrations in it, looking as if they might sing right on the page. He thought of Otho's hands turning its pages and suddenly slammed it shut. This would not do; he needed to think on something else.

He opened his notebook and went over to the harp to see if he could finally get a proper sketch of the carvings on it.  It was Elven in design, and the intricacy spoke of their long lives as well. He sketched the swirling fern, the leaves and flowers on the border then a ship that adorned the top right.  It was a graceful, fanciful ship with a swan-head at its prow. Tiny gems had once given the swan eyes, though they were long lost. He wondered what color they had been.  His hands continued sketching, taking what his eager eyes saw and putting it to paper. There were...waves, yes, water-waves along the edge with fluff like feathers on the tops of them.  Trees. The detail astounded him, that he could identify ash, beech and pear trees.  Rolling hills, a stream. It rather reminded him of home.  He wondered anew where it had come from.  The placard said its former history was unknown. You would think it had always been here.

In the branches of the pear tree there was a bird. He was partly through sketching it when he suddenly stopped.  He knew this bird, he was sure of it.  He jumped up from where he had been kneeling and retrieved the bird book from his packet.  Striding back to the harp, he thumbed through its pages. Sure enough, there it was.  He even held the book up to the harp as if introducing the two birds to one another. See? Alike. You are completely alike. The harp bird seemed almost alive, peering curiously at its flattened cousin.  His excitement grew as he read over the notes the book had about this particular songbird.  It was native to the Shire. Travelers from other areas did not know it, and prized its song, though its colors were somewhat drab. 

Native to the Shire.

Carved on this ancient floor harp. Why that meant...the floor harp was 'native to the Shire' also?  Could it be? That would solve the mystery of how such a large, unusual and heavy instrument ever came to be here. It was from here. Or very near to here. He looked at it with renewed interest.  The traces of fire damage; what fire, where? Had its previous owner perished in that flame? Or some earlier house it was kept in before the Mathom House was dug?  The scratches along one side, as if it had been dragged over something rough;  an accident in moving it here, or a desperate struggle to save it?  His imagination was quite aflame.  What or whom, in this placid Shire would have ever produced such a thing?  How long ago?  Not a hobbit, and the hobbits had been here for a very, very long time...

Elven design in the Shire. Now, there was something else in the Shire....well, not in it, but near to it,  that was Elven and that was where he was already bound. The Towers. Could this harp have come from them somehow? He supposed he would never truly know so he contented himself with deciding that yes, they had. Somehow they were related to the Elven-towers. He had no way of knowing the facts so he made some up instead. It would make a fine tale.  Maybe even a song. Maybe even an entire ballad. The Ballad of the Lost Elven Harp and the Forgotten Towers.  He didn't know how it would go yet but he rather liked the forlorn sound of the title. Hm hm a hm, the Elven harp of long-ago.. hm hm...In ages past when ruled the kings, a long-forgotten harpist played, the firelight shone upon the strings as cleverly his fingers strayed...

When he came back to himself, his back, legs and fingers were cramped and he had filled several pages of his notebook with verses and notes. If it hadn't been getting dark, he might have gone on writing for some time.  Where had the time gone?  He slowly got up, stamping some feeling back into his legs and reluctantly packing away his notebook. Picking up his coat and hat, he gave a polite farewell nod to the harp and the corselet and left them there in the fading light.