Nothing of Note

by Primula
49: The Inn Crowd

It wasn't long until the news reached Bilbo that Otho and Lobelia had, in fact, heard about the changes made by his Will, and most predictably didn't like it. The gossip vines in Hobbiton were quick ones even by Shire standards and news of something 'big' like the change in the heir for old Baggins had brought it to a high hum day and night. Tongues wagged over fences and under washing lines, over ales in the afternoon and under tables late at night.

As he had warned Frodo, when either of them went out together or apart they very frequently were made aware of hastily broken conversations, whispers, suddenly changed topics and sidelong looks as they passed.  It was even moreso if they walked together through the market square; every eye seemed to be measuring them up, comparing them, every common greeting became loaded with unspoken questions and double meanings that neither of them could always guess at. 

Frodo was uncomfortable with this strange attention, but seemed to bear up under it all right as long as he had Bilbo somewhere nearby to encourage him. Bilbo would catch his eye, and straighten his shoulders. Frodo's shoulders likewise would come back up, mimicking Bilbo's proud and unconcerned stance and firmly pleasant expression.

You are a Baggins. You are mine. I chose you. You have no reason to be ashamed. Their opinions don't matter, it's just talk. You are above such things.

Some days, Bilbo had to bring the lad back up in this unspoken way several times, but he kept going out and kept making Frodo go with him. Hobbiton needed to get used to seeing them together, and only making it commonplace would do that.  His only regret was that it took a long time for Hobbits to see any change as commonplace.  A very long time.

As they walked up the Hill one mild morning the following week, yet another such meeting inflicted itself on them. The basket tucked under Frodo's arm was filled with small produce that they had purchased, though they really didn't need them considering Bilbo's overflowing garden. It was a bare excuse to make Frodo go out with him again, Bilbo readily admitted. The morning had gone fairly well until they came to the bend where a group of three farmers stood talking amongst themselves. When they saw Bilbo and Frodo, they suddenly stopped, shuffling awkwardly. They mumbled back a return to Bilbo's "Good morning" and wouldn't meet his eyes though he did note that they certainly eyed Frodo sharply enough as the two walked past. Wordless measuring up, and not the especially friendly kind.  More the way they might have compared stock animals on market-day. Frodo bore up under it, but it was as if the basket had suddenly become a great weight to him. It was well that they were almost home.

Sometimes Frodo took comfort in talking it out when he came back to the smial after such encounters. Bilbo was always ready to listen. For his part, Bilbo took great effort to be sure no matter what was going on it didn't appear to affect him. Water off a duck's back, serene and unruffled.  Inside he reacted rather more violently or sarcastically at times, but for Frodo's sake he hid it and curbed many a double-edged comment he might have said if he had been alone.  It was hard work being a good example.  He wasn't sure he was quite cut out for it, nor if he could sustain it long enough.

The town he could handle. It was the Sackville-Bagginses that gave him a headache.

One thing Bilbo hadn't decided yet was whether he would say anything to the S-Bs himself. If he had to, he thought, it would be better to wait until Frodo was gone again and out of range as a target for their sharp tongues. No reason for the lad to be unduly distressed.   The problem with this line of thought was that it served to remind him that the days were passing all too swiftly; Frodo would be going back to Buckland once more at the end of month. This always made his spirits sink. But still, he told himself, it would be for the best until the worst of their malice was past.  Time enough to invite him back again later.  Plenty of time.

The gossip lines working so well and so quickly had been double-edged: while he was glad that he was spared having to break the news to them himself, he was also concerned that the information the hobbits were getting was not going to be very accurate, thanks to the source.  He knew from the many tales he had heard about himself over the years that while the gossipers were quick, their clarity was confused at best, sometimes completely muddled into something unrecognizable.

As a good week and a half or so of heavy gossip had passed, he thought it was time to see what the tales were like.  The S-Bs had been seen pacing past his home only twice that he was aware of, and both times he managed for himself and Frodo to be safely hidden away indoors before they got there.  He felt cowardly hiding, but if he needed to face them he needed to know what was being said first. He was reluctant to have Frodo hear it, especially as it was very possible that it wouldn't be complimentary to either of them and he really didn't know how the lad would react. He was only a tween, after all.

The perfect opportunity arrived that very day. Frodo was invited to a birthday party for a Bucklander who had married a Hobbiton lass and come to live nearby and had gone cheerfully out that afternoon, glad to offer what news he could of Brandy Hall for them in exchange for a good supper and an evening of song. As soon as he was gone down the lane, Bilbo went out the back door and headed for Daddy Twofoot's place. If anyone had been in the tavern long enough to hear all the tales, it would be Dad, and Bilbo knew he could trust his good-natured neighbor to be truthful with him.  Especially if he brought along some good pipeweed to share.

His timing was good. Dad was just getting ready to go back to the Inn for his afternoon round, having recovered from his morning round to be sufficiently thirsty again. This meant the news was fresh in his head, but his head was still unmuddled by ale. Daddy was glad enough to accept the offer of a well-filled pipe that he didn't mind the delay at all. Bilbo's pipeweed was always the best, and well he knew it.  It wasn't the first time Bilbo had come to him for a bit of talk.  He and Bilbo made themselves comfortable on the split-log bench that lay on the shady side of Dad's smial and smoked companionably together for a while.

Bilbo tapped out his pipe on the side of the bench. "So, how's it been at the Inn lately?" he inquired casually.

Dad blew out a little stream of smoke. "Oh, 'bout the same as always. Mashed turnips on the menu again, too much salt in the cabbage soup. Uncommon good pie this past week. Holbang won hisself a sack of summer squash in a dart contest last night."

"Ah. Sounds very comfortable. Ale good?"

"Eyup. A mite too warm, but with the summer an' all it's to be 'spected."

Bilbo rubbed at the bowl of his pipe, polishing it with his thumbs. "Any interesting news lately?" he fished.

There was a long pause. He carefully looked up from the pipe to find Daddy still working on his, but he had a long smile around the pipestem he held in his stained teeth and a knowing sidelong glance for his companion.

"I know'd that's what you were up to, Mr. Baggins. I figured to m'self when I saw you comin', Dad, says I, Dad that there Mr. Baggins is a-comin' to hear the news. An' you know why I said that to m'self?"

Smiling, Bilbo went ahead with it and took the bait. "No, why did you say that?"

Daddy's smile widened. "'Cause it ain't been about nothin' but you... all week!" he said, pointing his pipe at Bilbo emphatically. "You and that lad of your'n." He cackled lightly, pleased with himself. "Eyup. I could see it comin' a mile off.  No dim lampstand here."

Bilbo nodded at him, trying to show great appreciation and admiration. "You're a clever one, you are.  Saw right through me."

"O' course I did." Dad leaned forward and furrowed his brow with thought. "Now, let me see.  First off, can you tell me the straight furrow?  Is this lad really goin' to be gettin' the Hill and all someday?"

"He is." said Bilbo. "And with my blessing."

Dad smiled and nodded with satisfaction. "I thought as much, but it's a good thing to hear it from the pony's mouth. He seems a good lad. Now... let me see. What have I heard? No offense, but some of it ain't too compliment'ry."

"I expected it might not be. Go right ahead, no offense will be taken."

"Walp...all right. I'd say it's been right mixed. Good an' bad. There's some as approve of it, think it was right clever of you. There's others that don't, and most fall somewheres in-between." He settled back against the wall, crossing his thickly shagged feet comfortably.

"I suppose that's to be expected. What do the in-between ones say?"

"Some say Ol' Baggins has gone completely mad, beggin' yer pardon and all, it was them as says it, not me..."

"As I said, no offense. I would rather hear it as it was said. Go on."

"Right." Dad's voice settled into the gentle sing-song, like that of a school-child reciting. "They say that madness has taken up again, and Ol' Baggins has up and given everything to some lad he'd never even seen before, a field worker, some say, who happened by right when the hot sun cooked the brainpan like an egg and made Baggins crack.  Lucky lad, no one real sure who he is, but they figure surely them Sackville-Bagginses will set is all straight soon and that unknown lad won't be allowed to be so unlawful and unfair, benefitin' like that from the madness."

Bilbo considered this one. Nothing unusual in it, but he could see it would help if he continued to introduce Frodo to more of the general folks about town. Much of the discomfort seemed to be in his being an unknown. He looked up from musing to find Dad watching him and waiting politely.

"Go right ahead. What else?"

"Hem. Let's see. Others been sayin' Ol' Bilbo has given away a real treasure map to where all his gold and jools are hidden, an' that he gave it to some unknown relative from far away, for safekeeping, y'see."  He paused to suck on his pipe and blew out a little stream of smoke. "Now, this relative and Ol' Bilbo are conspirin' to hide all his money so the S-Bs won't see a penny of it, burying it most likely.  Maybe stashing it in barrels. A few said they heard the relative went away with a cart-load of gold just last week in broad daylight, and Ol' Missus Lobelia's fit to be tied."

Bilbo had to smile at this one. "A cart-load of gold, and in broad daylight no less! That one might make a good jest in time. Go on."

Dad smiled, tapping his pipe on the end of the bench. "I never thought that one held any water. But y'know some folk will haul on a bucket that's naught but holes and still swear they've had somethin' to drink of it."

"I know just what you mean. What else?"

"Let me think here." He sat and squinted up at the thatch above him for a long moment. Bilbo waited patiently.

"Oh, here's another doozy. Some say Ol' Bilbo Baggin's up and sold everything he owns to the Master of Buckland for a cartload of gold, and the Master hisself is going to be setting up a summer home right here in Hobbiton, at the Hill, 'cause he can't stand being around his own queer folk any longer."

"That one really is a doozy. And there's that cartload again."

"I don't think too many could swaller that one."

Bilbo agreed. The patterns of legislation in the Shire were too ingrained in all of them for it to even be comprehensible that the Master would really cross that boundary, though they might believe the rest of Bilbo.

Dad sat silently for a couple moments, lips puckered with thought. "I can only think of one more. It ain't a happy one. This one says Old Otho is right unhappy and whomever this lad may be he better watch his steps, taking, as he had, y' might say, what was rightfully the Sackville-Bagginses and claiming it for his own.  They figured the lad must've hoodwinked old Bilbo, must have tricked him good. Can't be right, and no doubt no good will come of it."

"I see. And that's all?"

"That's all I can recollect. But I'll keep my ears open, and I got big ears."

"You're a good neighbor, Dad. Thank you."

"Any time, Mr. Baggins. Any time. But you be careful with that lad, now. Old Otho, he's jest a old hound with no teeth. All growl and no bite. That lad of his'n though, he's shapin' up to be a bad 'un, havin' such a sour crabapple for a mum an' all."

"I appreciate the warning. And the enjoyable visit. Many thanks."

Bilbo left him with a coin to put towards an extra ale, and walked back up the Hill. His late afternoon shadow stretched out on the ground, long and thin and insubstantial as some of those tales had been. He noted that all of them tended to mildly vilify the "unknown usurper," and little blame was being placed upon himself. 

In his experience, many of the hobbits would be somewhat sympathetic given time and a chance to see Frodo was a welcome addition. They didn't like change, but if he could bring in Frodo as a logical extension of his own relations, they should come to accept it. The ill-will between himself and the S-Bs was well known among them, so that would not be seen as anything unusual. They just needed to know him... needed him to be a part of their 'town.'

He remembered that there was the monthly town picnic coming up soon. Wanting to avoid the S-Bs and the gossip he hadn't intended to go, but now that he reconsidered it, it might be a good way to introduce Frodo to the Hobbiton families without it being some official occasion. He need not be 'unknown' anymore. Maybe Frodo might even meet some of the other tweens there.

He paused on his front step, absently rubbing fingerprints off of his brass doorknob with the edge of his shirt. Yes, that would be the way of it then. S-B's be hanged, he wasn't going to keep on hiding from them. He smiled down at his own oddly shaped reflection in the knob. They would go to the picnic.