Nothing of Note

by Primula

40: Emptiness

The next two days were devoted to the comfortable routine of baking and roasting. Bilbo kept the grocer's lad busy with his little goat-cart starting early on in the day. Three chickens were soon stewing as he chopped vegetables and tossed them into the biggest stock-pot. The fire is his oven was hot and the first of what became a succession of pies was baking nicely inside it. By the end of the first evening, every flat surface anywhere near the kitchen displayed something cooling, something rising or something that needed washing up. Cakes were wrapped and put away, pies were carefully set in their places in the pie-cupboards and the stock was skimmed, then sealed into jars for later.  

The second day went much as the first, starting with an energetic punching down of all the rising bowls of dough and sloshing all the bowls and tins that had been left soaking overnight. With breaks for lunch, tea and supper he chopped, sliced, stirred, mixed, kneaded and rolled. The empty pantries began to have a properly full and agreeably restored feeling again, as did the grocer's wallet. It was very relaxing, all of the baking, and he found the day went by swiftly in a hum of contented hobbitness.

It was late on the morning of the following day as he bent to pull a breakfast nut-loaf from the oven that he heard the sound of farm wagon creaking up into the lane. He quickly wrapped a towel around the hot loaf and reached over to push aside a vase of flowers that blocked his view out the kitchen window. Yes - the Gamgees were back. He set the loaf on the sill to cool, brushing away the flour from his shirt to be more presentable. He could see they looked tired from the journey, but were probably happy to be home; a feeling he could relate to well. Hamson came to meet the wagon as it pulled around the Hill and Bilbo waited just inside his door, not wanting to interfere with the family's own greetings for one another.

It was only after the sounds changed from talk to the shuffle and thump of luggage being unloaded that he came out. The Gaffer straightened up from a trunk he had just lowered to the ground and touched his cap in greeting as Bilbo came down the hill.

"Hullo, Mr. Gamgee! You're back at last. I trust it was a pleasant trip?"

The familiar face folded up in its accustomed smile-wrinkles. "That it was, Mr. Baggins, sir. But it's right nice to be home again. My lad tells me there was a bit of a mixup about the apple trees..."

Bilbo waved it away. "Oh, nothing that won't soon be set right. He's a hard worker, and I shall be pleased to recommend him to anyone. I trust you to find a corner for each of those saplings, or a suitable buyer for them." He reached into his pocket and handed the Gaffer an envelope. "Here's Hamson's pay - I thought he might be wanting to go back soon, and didn't want to risk missing him..."

Hamfast took the envelope in his weathered hands. "Thank'ee Mr. Baggins. It's right good of you."  He carefully tucked it into his weskit pocket and buttoned it shut.

"Also, I wanted to let you know there will be one Mrs. Waterby coming by this next week to see Mrs. Gamgee, with your approval of course. She makes various mild medicines, and may be able to bring a bit of comfort to Mrs. Gamgee."

The Gaffer took off his cap and twisted it in his hands slightly, looking at his feet. "Thank you sir. We don' deserve it, your kindness and such I mean, but it is much appreciated, sir."

"You will pass the word to her? So she isn't surprised? I recall she likes to know when there might be visitors."

The Gaffer smiled at him. "That she does. Thank you, Mr. Baggins." He glanced back to where his family went back and forth carrying things into the smial.

"Now, off you go. I can see your family is waiting for your help, and I don't want to be delaying them. When you've finished with your unpacking, I would like to hear about your trip if any of you would like someone to listen."

Hamfast nodded, then turned back towards the wagon, glancing back. "I'm sure my Sam would love to tell you if you can spare him a moment. He's been naught but words the last two days!" Bilbo smiled a farewell, then turned and retraced his own steps upward.

What the Gaffer had said was true. It wasn't an hour later when young Samwise showed up on Bilbo's front step enthusiastically greeting him, and so full of words that he was still breathlessly talking about it when the Gaffer came to apologetically pull him away for lunch, the words still continually spilling out of him.

Bilbo felt a bit wistful as Sam was towed away and the quiet descended upon Bag End again.  He couldn't help but remember the enthusiastic greetings that Frodo had given him. It was pleasantly fulfilling to have his company so desired. He missed the lad, and the smial seemed empty. It was a strange feeling, the emptiness, as nothing had really changed. Strange.... yes, it was strange.

Over the next week Bilbo caught up on his social obligations and invited many visitors to tea, to supper, to after-supper talks by the fireside. The pegs in the hall had an ever-changing pattern of light coats and hats, but the empty space he was continually aware of never seemed to fill. He was distracted from it as long as the visitors were there, at least usually, but after they had gone and there was no one to compare notes with about the departed visitor he would sit gaze at the dying coals of the fire and feel a hollowness inside. He couldn't even tell himself why he should want someone 'rattling around underfoot' in his own home, but he did.

He tried writing down the moods that came after the social visits, to see if it was something else bothering him. His Engagement Tablet began to be littered with inscrutable abbreviations that to his eyes told him the various topics that had been covered, the overall pleasantness of the visit, what food had been served and then the mood that followed. He was very pleased with this system of marks, but frustrated anew when he realized he all he very much wanted was someone he could share it with and show it to. Besides, the moods were the same no matter what the topic. He was empty, and disaffected. It was very unaccustomed.

The day before his lawyer was to arrive, he was trying to distract himself with paperwork when the post brought him a most unusual letter. He thanked the delivery-lad and took it inside eagerly. There were three seals on it in three kinds of wax and he immediately recognized them as Dwarvish. Carefully cracking the packet open, he unfolded a very thick piece of parchment with an elaborate geometrical texturing pressed into it. Two soft tassels fell from the folds to decoratively dangle from the sides. Two more wax seals were pressed at the bottom of it by the signature.

Bilbo went over to his red lamp and settled next to it to scan over the letter. In the usual Dwarvish fashion it was full of unnecessary words, blathering on with titles, flattery and compliments for Bilbo, polite inquiry regarding his health and the overall state of the Shire. Near the center of it Bilbo found the true message in all the formality. He could expect some Dwarven company, but they would be on their way to the mountains and not staying long. They were coming from Erebor and would be bringing with them a very special gift of some sort for Bilbo, compliments of Balin. This was followed by another round of polite bowing and scraping, so to speak, that filled the remainder of the page. At the bottom was Balin's own seal and name.   

Bilbo turned it in the light. The handwriting was far too good for Balin's, so it must have been written up by a scribe, but the signature and seal at the bottom were certainly his. He wondered what his old companion could have possibly decided was worth sending all that way. Typical of formal dwarvish letters, it was a complicated filigree of polite phrases with little substance.

A gift from Balin. Well, that might provide a welcome bit of distraction, and he needed to get his papers in order for the morning also. He carefully folded the letter back up and placed it in the drawer of his desk that already held a small number of other dwarvish communiques. He ran his hands over the wax seals one last time before shutting it.

"Well, Balin. We'll see what you have in mind when it arrives, I suppose."

He thought about his friend, wealthy and surrounded by admiring followers. Balin was a dreamer too, in a dwarven way, always talking about other mountains that could be mined, deep places on maps that had been forgotten. Legendary treasures. Of all of the remaining companions from that long-ago adventure, Balin was the one that Bilbo loved best to sit and talk with, to share dreaming with. He had hoped the letter would bear news of a visit to the Shire by Balin himself, something that Bilbo had hinted he would welcome more than once.

He ran his fingers over the knob on the closed drawer, then turned towards back to his paperwork. "A gift is good and appreciated, old friend. But how I wish you were coming too..." He didn't finish the thought. He didn't like to admit that Bilbo Baggins, confirmed bachelor, popular and well-known hobbit and sole Master of Bag End was lonely. But he was.