Nothing of Note

by Primula

45: Summer Vigil

Bilbo's kitchen was filled with strawberries, or at least it felt like it. A few days after posting Frodo's letter he had been offered a very good price for a large amount of the sweet red berries and hadn't been able to resist it. With the warm sunny weather many of the berry fields had been brought to a sudden ripeness; everyone was enjoying that brief summer interlude where so many are ripening that even the poorest hobbit may eat his fill. Bilbo had certainly eaten his fill, repeatedly, with cream. 

He still had a great quantity left so the following day he had set out to make himself some strawberry jam.  It was a pity, he thought, that while a fairly good baker from his youth he never had found the knack for making good jam, but the activity helped to keep him from fretting - he had not heard a reply from Frodo yet.  He held up a jar of his second attempt and glumly watched it slosh around when he tipped it. Like the first, it had failed to set up as it was supposed to. He had poured a jar of the first batch over pancakes. It was beginning to look as if he wouldn't have much jam next winter, but plenty of syrup.  He frowned at the jar.

"Why aren't you thickening up?" he accused it. The soupy jam looked back at him without excuse. He shook it until it bubbled, which made no difference in its consistency but made him feel better.  He looked out the window where he noticed Mrs. Cotton and her children among those walking past from their early berrying. He had began to place the jar back among its fellows, but on impulse stuck it in the generous pocket of his berry-spattered apron instead.

He opened the door and trotted after her, wiping juice from his red-stained hands as he went. "Mrs. Cotton! If I might trouble you for a moment..."

She stopped, one hand automatically going out bring her children to a stop with her. They stood there with their hands full of berry buckets smiling as he came puffing up to them, his apron billowing. "Good afternoon, Mr. Baggins..." she offered, somewhat bemused.

"Mrs. Cotton. Forgive me for interrupting you this way, but I have a matter of some mild importance that I could use your assistance on."

'Why certainly, Mr. Baggins. Is it that paper of yours? I thought Mr. Cotton had already been over to your home..."

"No, no. I mean, well yes. Both. That is to say, that's important too. Yes, he did come over, no that isn't the matter I am referring to."

"What?"

"Let me try again." He took a breath. "First of all, thank you very much for sending your husband to my home so promptly upon receiving my note." He gave a little bow. "It was much appreciated. Secondly, my jam is giving me fits and I was wondering if you might render some assistance, or advice as to why it looks like this?" 

He held out the guilty jam jar for her inspection. Smiling, she set down Jolly, who sat and looked up at them sleepily, smeared with berries. She took the jar from him and tipped it, watching it slosh. "It's most unusual jam. All those bubbles look troublesome."

"Yes, well. I'm afraid I shook it up a bit. The trouble isn't the bubbles, but the way it's setting up, or rather the way it's not setting up."

Rosie, bored with the adult conversation, stood on tiptoes and reached for the bright jar. "Trouble-bubble!"

Bilbo smiled down at her. "Yes, trouble-bubbles indeed. Perhaps your mother will help me get it right, eh?"  Embarrassed at the attention, the lass hid her face in Mrs. Cotton's skirt.

Her mother smoothed her daughter's curls absently and smiled. "I'd be glad to do whatever I can, Mr. Baggins. I'm afraid this one is a lost cause for jam, but it might make a good syrup.  Oh! That reminds me, we were supposed to let you know - Mrs. Water...bye?"

"Waterby. Yes, was she here?"

"Waterby. Yes, thank you. She came to see Mrs. Gamgee yesterday afternoon and gave her some liniments of some kind and a syrup that greatly improved her comfort. My Cotton was talking with Gaffer Gamgee about it this morning. He said to let you know if we saw you - that you would want to know it."  Jolly looked up at them smiling as if in agreement, holding a fistful of his mother's skirt.

Bilbo smiled. "And I'm very glad to hear it. Capital news. Thank you!" He gave her another little bow. She handed him his jar.

"You've too much juice, and you may not be cooking it long enough. Try putting the berries in without chopping them up so much, just a little is plenty. Tom, stop swinging that bucket like that, you'll spill the berries. And maybe try lowering your fire a bit, so it simmers longer to thicken without overcooking. Apple peel helps it thicken too... Tom, I said stop. If you've put in much honey, it will take longer also... Rosie, hold still. We'll be on our way in just a minute."

"Thank you. I'll certainly give it a try. And thank you for the news also, it is well heard. I better be letting you go. Good day!" He smiled a farewell at them, then turned to head back up the Hill.  Behind him he heard a squall.

"Tom! Look at the mess you made...and Rosie, what are you crying about now?"

"Tom got st'awberry in my haaaaair!"

Bilbo gratefully left the care of the children to their capable mother, gloating slightly that he could do so. A few other hobbits were trailing along the way, lugging boxes and buckets of berries; he nodded greetings to them. It was evident that the path to the biggest berry-field went past his door: ripe berries were scattered about on the road in sticky red splotches where they had fallen and been trodden underfoot, powdered with dust and bits of grass as they lay hot and fragrant in the sun.  A bee hummed past him, settling on one of them to sip the sweet juice.  He reached to open his gate. Behind him there was a pattering of hurried feet.

"Mr. Baggins! Mr. Baggins?"

He turned, one hand still on the gate-latch. The lad who ran errands for the Post came panting up to him, a letter in his hand. "I was tol'... to bring this to you... right away." he gasped.

"Yes! Thank you, they seem to have taken my request for extra-quick service quite seriously. Here..." he pushed the apron aside and dug into his pocket. "A coin for your efforts. Much obliged."

The lad gave him the letter and gratefully took the coin, then trotted back down the Hill more slowly than he had come, holding his side. Bilbo turned the envelope over in his hand. It was stamped from Buckland.

Shutting the gate behind him, he walked up the steps and settled on the front bench. Setting the jam jar beside him, he licked a stray bit of jam off of his fingers, wiped them on his apron and opened up the letter.

My dear Bilbo,

I am writing to let you know that your letter arrived, and that I shall be most glad and grateful to accept your generous invitation. I apologize for any delay in my response, and ask forgiveness for any worry I may have caused by it. It seems your letter was given into the hands of one of the children here, and the lad in question was not inclined to be responsible about delivering it. I fear the traveling money that you make reference to was no longer to be found, and the letter itself was only discovered when it was being made into clothing for paper dolls. I've pieced it back together well enough, only missing a hat-shaped piece near the edge.

The Master threatened a sound thrashing if the money was not returned and it promptly turned up on the mantelpiece. Such a diversion gave all of us something to talk about for a time, at least, and all's well as ends well. Even with your letters you manage to make a stir, don't you?

I plan to be on my way to Hobbiton day after next, if all is well. I shall not be needed back until harvest, if you would like, but am willing to go back any time rather than overstay my welcome of course. I trust you to be honest with me about that. I look forward to seeing you again.

With affection,

Frodo Baggins

p.s. I will bring my map book!

Bilbo read it over a couple more times. At first reading he was indignant that the letter had gone astray. The second time he was annoyed, but by the third time he was beginning to see it as rather amusing. At least it had been recovered, and Frodo would be coming to see him. He made a mental note that next time he would have to use a plainer paper so it  would not be tempting for doll-clothes.  He folded it back up. Well, no time to lose then.  He wanted Bag End to look welcoming, and knowing the state it was currently in, his work was cut out for him.

Going inside, he took off the apron to straighten and sort papers in a flurry of energy, even though he knew it would be two days before his young cousin arrived. He looked over the Will that lay on the parlour table, weighed down with knickknacks at the corners: with Farmer Cotton's long-handed signature at the bottom, all of the witnesses were now gathered.  Two of them had been second choice ones, but at least it was done. The methodical Mr. Banks had already affixed the lawyer's seal to it and gone on his way back to Michel Delving, well-fattened from eating at the Inn on Bilbo's tab while he had waited. Bilbo shifted it a bit, looking over the pages and small, neat writing once more.  He rolled up the pages and tied them with their ribbon, then slipped it into the front of his desk.  He would have to find a safer place for it eventually, but at least there it was unlikely to have anything spilled on it.

The rest of the day passed in alternating cleaning and airing of the smial and finishing the berries which were already getting soft.  For the third batch of jam he reduced the honey, barely chopped the berries, added apple peel and cooked and cooked it. The result was certainly much thicker - so thick, in fact that he could barely scrape it from the pan into jars. He sighed, trying in vain to flick a gobbet of it off of his hand.  First syrup, now paste. He should have just bought some.

The following day was spent baking, sweeping, dusting and sorting; the old hole was quite a bit cluttered up and he wanted it to feel welcoming. He added fresh water to the fountain and cranked it, enjoying its small watery sound as he dusted the mantelpiece yet again. The earliest Frodo could possibly arrive would be that afternoon... As the sun began to slip over to the west, he realized he was spending all of his time peering out the window to see the road, so he finally gave Samwise a small coin and hired him to keep lookout.  Sam was glad enough to be excused from the raking to get to sit under a shady tree instead; he watched the road diligently and Bilbo tried to not think about it, though he still found himself checking again and again - except now he was checking on Sam.

The hot summer afternoon began to wane and there was no sign of any cart from Buckland. Sam sat under the tree, shifting now and then to stay in the shade. The few thin clouds floated by, leaving a clear blue sky. Occasionally someone would walk past the Hill on their way to or from the Square. The clock ticked in the parlour.  Fidgeting with his household, Bilbo dusted his mantelpiece for the sixth time that day then gave up and went outside to sit with Sam for a bit. 

Sam was very still, but moved and tried to look alert as Bilbo sat down beside him. There were the remains of a snack in the grass beside him and a neatly folded unused napkin. He wiped strawberry from his face with an already juice-stained sleeve and looked down the road with great earnestness.

"I've been watchin', Mr. Bilbo sir."

"Yes, I can see you have. It's getting late. I wondered if you had fallen asleep in this heat."

Sam shook his head adamantly. "Nossir. I wasn't sleepin', I was just watchin' the clouds."

"The clouds cleared away over an hour ago."

"Oh."

"It's all right. It's been a long day."

They sat in silence, watching the shadows lengthen. Sam stirred restlessly.

"Why don't you go ahead and go on home? I can watch now, Sam. Thank you for all your hard work."

Sam looked at him slightly surprised. "But I didn't do anythin' but sit, Mr. Baggins."

"Your eyes worked for me, Sam."

He nodded agreement with this. "They worked really hard too. Do you need more watchin' tomorrow, sir, seeing as Mr. Frodo hasn't come yet?"

"Perhaps. I think I'll be wanting to watch until he comes, so yes. How about you watch for me some more tomorrow? Now run along home, I'm sure they're wanting you for supper. Go on!"

Sam needed no more urging and was on his way. Left alone, Bilbo sat under the tree enjoying the peacefulness of the early evening after the bustle of the rest of the day. The leaves above moved slightly as the air stirred with the oncoming sunset, then it began to grow dark. Frodo had not come; he must have stayed in Frogmorton. Standing a bit stiffly, he stretched and went inside to light a lamp against the darkness. He lit a second one and lowering the wick, set it in the window as a small beacon then went to bed.


The evening was a restless one. When he opened his eyes it was still dark outside his window. It was very still, even the crickets were silent and the whole countryside seemed asleep. He stood in his nightshirt looking out at the stars that had not yet had their glory stolen away by the approaching sunrise. The heat of the day had gone up into the clear sky leaving a freshness in the light dew. He breathed of it deeply.

Figuring he wouldn't get any more sleep even if he lay back down, he lit a candle, dressed and went into the strawberry-scented kitchen to stir up the fire.  he swung the kettle over it to warm and looked out the window towards the dim blue road. Underneath the tree he and Sam had kept their vigil at, something moved.

Curious, he stood by the window watching. Something on the ground. It moved again.

Taking up his coat from the back of a chair, he went out the door. The dew-laden grass brushed its cool fingers over his feet as he approached the tree. There was only a slight lightening in the eastern sky, most of the world yet lay in silhouettes of blue and black, the road lay like a dim ribbon of tarnished silver. The tree lifted up above him, the thick column of the trunk black, the leaves a black lace cutwork above.
 
He approached very quietly, expecting some sort of animal perhaps. As he came near he could make out a small irregular lump. It sneezed.

"Hello?" he asked quietly. "Who's there?"

The lump spasmed with surprise, a sudden movement that made him realize it was a blanket-covered hobbit. A small blanket-covered hobbit.

"Mr. Baggins? Sir?" said a very small and timid voice.

"Sam? Is that you? Whatever are you doing out here at this hour?"

"Watchin' the road, sir. 'Cept I fell asleep."  He rubbed at his eyes and yawned.

Bilbo came around the tree and knelt down by the youngster. "You needn't watch in the night." he said gently, wondering if Sam had really thought it was required of him.

"Nossir. But no one else was watchin' and I didn't want to miss him, not after watchin' and watchin' all yesterday."

Bilbo settled himself next to the lad. "You look well supplied with blankets. Does your family know you're here?"

"Well, no. I didn't want to wake 'em up. But I'll tell once they're up, sir. I will."

"Hm."

"I'm a good watchman."

"You are, are you?" Bilbo smiled. "It looked to me like you fell asleep at your post."

There was an uncomfortable pause. "I didn't mean to, it just sort of snuck up on me."

"Sleep does that. But you must be vigilant, if you ever have to take a real watch, you know."

"Have you ever been a real watchman, sir?"

"Yes. Yes, I have. Many times. When you are traveling, if you ever travel that is, you always need to take turns and have someone watching at night, so nothing takes you by surprise. There are no Bounders in the wild."

"You don't sleep when it's your turn, at all?"

"No. You need to stay awake at your post, Sam. The others are depending on you for their safety. And you never know when you might miss out on something wonderful if you fall asleep."

"Like what? Elves?" Sam sensed there might be a story in the making, but waited patiently.

Bilbo knew what he wanted. "Like Elves. Elves passing by as quiet as a breath, except for their tiny bells and muted music." He rested his head against the tree and looked up at the sky. "You must watch and listen most carefully to hear them. Sweet bells all of silver and gold, and music like that of the stars themselves, singing in the night. Even their horses are quiet, and all hung with silken trappings and gems..."

The sky was lightening as he spoke, the stars fading away bit by bit. Bilbo and Sam watched the deep blue fading to lavender and grey in the east.

"I would never fall asleep if I was on watch." said Sam with conviction. "Not a real watch. 'Cause if I did, my friends might get hurt, and I might miss seeing Elves."  He watched the road slowly brightening. The birds had begun to sing and a wakefulness was arising in the fields and trees. "How far does the road go?"
.
"Far. Very, very far Sam. Far out of the Shire, beyond the Misty Mountains and the dark forest of Mirkwood."

"Does it go to Elves?"

"And Elves. Rivendell is on this very road, Sam. So is the Lonely Mountain that my Dwarven friends came from. But it's a very serious business, going out your door, that's why you must set a watch. You step onto the road and you never know where it might sweep you off to. There are always more places to find, small roads, secret gates."

"Tell me about it."

"What do you want to know?"

"Are there... other hobbits who are like Elves?"

"Like Elves? What do you mean?"

Sam blushed slightly. "You said the Elves have songs, n' poems, and talk with their own kind of pretty words. They dress dif'rent than us and have nice things with gold. You do all those things!"

Bilbo had to laugh at that one. "What a joke the Elves would think of that one! Oh my! To put myself forth as one of them!" he grinned at Sam. "Trust me, I am in no way an Elf, Sam. And if you ever met one of them, you would know it sure enough."

Sam smiled, but he had a stubborn set to his face as well. "Well, I think you'd make a good Elf, Mr. Baggins, sir."

Bilbo humored him. "I thank you for the compliment, it is higher than you know. No... Elves, they are... They have their own ways. They do not age as we do, Sam. They can remember things from very, very long ago. They have a grace, and a sadness that we do not."

"Why are they sad?"

"Ah, now that is a very long tale for another day...when you are older perhaps."

The first fingers of sunlight lanced up into the sky, the few clouds, all peach and lavender suddenly gloried in frames of gold and silver light.

"Your family will be waking. You'd better be going back home. I'll watch for now, Sam."

The lad stood and gathered up an armload of blanket, leaving one for Bilbo. "Are you on watch? Does it only happen at night?"

Bilbo smiled up at him. "Watch can be set anytime it's needed."

"Then...after I do my chores, I'll come take a watch. Set a watch. Take a turn, I mean."

"He's not likely to be in until afternoon."

"But I said I would watch for him."

Ah, earnest, faithful Samwise. He had much of his Gaffer in him - once a job was started nothing would stop him from finishing it.

"All right. You may watch."

"Thank you, sir! And I will too."

"I believe you. Mr. Frodo couldn't ask for a better watchman." Bilbo smiled. "Now go on, your family will worry."

Sam obediently trotted off to his smial trailing blanket behind him, and Bilbo sat back against the bole of the tree to watch.