Nothing of Note

by Primula

Chapter 55: Fare Thee Well

Inevitably, the morning of Frodo's departure had come.

Bilbo hefted the heavy basket of food from the kitchen table, picked up the slumping, overstuffed satchel from where it lay on the floor of the entry and after a bit of joggling the knob with his overfull hands, went out the door. Below, the cart and pony stood ready.

He set himself to meet the cart with resignation, reminding himself to lift his chin and not be glum about it.  After all, the remainder of the week had gone by pleasantly and quickly, what with walking and visiting and working together on the last of the maps in the mapbook... Yet there were still so many things he wanted to show him, teach him about, take him along on.  It was a comfort that September would be along, yes it was, but this morning it seemed a cold comfort. He swung the basket further up his arm and reached to open the gate.

Their early breakfast had been quiet, the small amount of packing having been finished the night before.  Frodo had been so restless; stirring and stirring the sugar in his hot tea until Bilbo wanted to snatch the spoon away from him and pitch it in the sink rather than listen to it clinking anymore.  He had almost done it, too... he smiled to himself.  Not that he was any less restless himself.  He had burned the toast, spilled the cream and almost lost an entire plate of eggs over the edge of the table if not for Frodo's quick hand.

By the time they had reached the lukewarm tea-sipping stage they had both voiced their agreement that his leaving was for the best, though neither of them had much heart in it. It couldn't put it off any longer without worrying those watching for him back at Brandy Hall, and his promise to help with the haying meant sending a letter instead of himself was certainly out of the question. It wouldn't be right, to rob them of a strong back when the work was so heavy.  Besides, Bilbo knew his young cousin really was wanting to 'go home' for a while, at least to say goodbye. Yes, it was for the good, that he could say a proper farewell to his old haunts and to get used to the idea of leaving them.  It was for the good.

He repeated this to himself as he closed the gate and stood by it, looking up at Frodo where he was settling into place on the seat of the light cart. The dust-colored pony they had leased from the stables dribbled bits of his flowers from her mouth and snuffled at Bilbo's coat-pockets curiously, smelling for apples. Her breath was warm and it tickled.

The pony was restless; feeling someone in the seat of the cart she immediately tried to step forward only to be pulled back by Frodo's hand on the loosely looped reins.  Bilbo put one hand to the cheekstrap, stilling both her and himself, and waited.  He ran his fingers through a tangle in the cream-and-black mane.  Above him, Frodo bent his head down to settle the canteen of tea that he had brewed (and Bilbo had diluted) that morning; up beyond the curve of his shoulders the sky was already taking on a soft blue; no doubt it would be a bright and warm traveling day. 

Bilbo cleared his throat and blinked a few times to clear his eyes. He didn't like long drawn-out goodbyes. In fact, he often didn't like goodbyes at all, preferring to simply go his way when he wanted to go, and to meet others again whenever they met. He was grateful that Frodo seemed share a bit of that trait, or at least to understand it. 

He handed up the satchel of clothing he had slung over his shoulder, then the basket of food for the journey. They had both packed it generously, so that the wicker practically bulged with sweet fare. As he had told Frodo, you never know when you might need a little extra on the road, and as he wasn't having to carry it himself, why stint?

"Well." he said, patting the side of the pony's neck. "Good-bye then. I'll be watching for you in time for our birthday, you know. Don't you disappoint me."

"Good-bye." said Frodo simply. He took up the reins, and gave his elder cousin a small smile. "I'll be looking forward to it."

For a moment, their eyes met with the silent and heartfelt farewell behind the brevity, then Bilbo let go of the bridle and stepped back. Frodo gave a gentle slap to the reins and the pony eagerly started forward with a small jolt;  they were off,  the cart rattling and creaking slightly as it rounded the bend and headed for the East road.

Bilbo stood, one hand on the gate listening to the sound of the cart slowly making its way onto the main road, then picking up the pace. The pony's quick step on the well-packed earth had scarcely faded in the morning when it was replaced with the sound of smaller hurried footsteps in the grass. Young Samwise came running up, red-cheeked, tousled and completely out of breath. Realizing he had missed Frodo's morning departure he looked heartbroken, clutching something wrapped in a clean white dishcloth to his heaving chest.

"He's gone?.... Mr. Baggins... what will... I do?.... I have this cake.... for Mr. Frodo.....and it took too long..... to come out of th' oven.... and now.... he won't have it!" Sam sounded so forlorn about this that Bilbo, in spite of his preoccupation with his own unhappiness, knelt down to try to offer what comfort he could.

"I'm sure he'll be all right Sam. He has a whole basket of things to eat - I made sure of it. He even has tea! Though I'm sure this cake here would have been the best of it all."

Sam sniffled slightly and wiped at his eyes with one sleeve. He glanced down at the slightly mashed bundle at his breast. "I baked it m'self. It's spice cake. I...wanted him to have it. He likes it. He said he liked it last time I made some." He looked up hopefully.  "If I run,  run real fast I could follow him maybe?"

Bilbo put a lightly restraining hand to the lad's shoulder. "No, Sam. You can't follow him. He's going too far away for you to follow this time."

Sam was silent, looking down the empty road, still catching his breath. He looked at the cake in his hands again. "Mr. Baggins?"

"Yes, Sam?"

The lad pressed the cloth-wrapped cake, softly crumbly and still warm into his hands. "I want you to have it. But... if he comes back, will you share it with him?"

Bilbo accepted it, heavy, warm and soft. "Yes. If he comes back sooner than I expect, I'll share it with him. And I want you to make a promise for me."

"Yessir." Sam looked down at his feet resolutely, a child expecting a grown-up to say something he wouldn't like to obey, though he was ready to do so anyway.

"I want you to promise me that you will bake him another one, just like this one, when he comes back in September."

"He's coming back?" The hazel eyes looked up at him.

"Yes. It will be his birthday then. I expect it would make a very fine birthday cake."  Bilbo hoped this was true. He hadn't tasted the one in his hands, after all. But it smelled very good.

The lad gave him a smile, and even if it was still slightly tremulous it lit all the way up to his eyes. "Yessir! I can do that sir. I would like that. I like to bake things."

"Thank you, Sam. You're a good lad. With you around, Mr. Frodo will never have to worry about going hungry, eh?"

Samwise grinned. "Nossir."

"Now, run along home. Oh, and Sam - please tell the Gaffer I'll be wanting to speak with him about some flowers for my windowboxes."

"Yessir, Mr. Baggins, sir!" Sam said and half-ran, half-skipped back the way he had come.  Bilbo tentatively unfolded a corner of the cloth from the cake in his hands. It was mashed and crumbling, but looked edible enough. He picked up a broken corner and sniffed it, then popped it in his mouth as he walked back up his steps.  It was unusually dense, and needed salt, plus the lad must have put in half a jar of spices it was so strong; but it was otherwise good.  Very buttery.  Perhaps the birthday cake wouldn't be a disaster after all.

Carrying it inside, he put the rest on a plate for later, scooped the dishes from the kitchen table into a pile in the sink, then wandered into the parlour to half-heartedly tidy up.  He dusted the mantelpiece, straightened the various piles of papers and books and flipped the rumpled end of the rug back where it belonged.  Taking up a pen, he started to update his engagement book but after crossing out two mistakes and then staring blankly at the same line for several minutes, he found he couldn't concentrate on what he was doing. 

Getting back up, he went over to the window and chose a seat by the stone thrush, gazing out at a bit of bright morning sky. It was a warm day, and he thought of Frodo traveling along under it somewhere. The longing to have gone with him welled up, if only to be out on the Road again in that small way, to be riding or walking along through sun and shade. He looked at the fountain, and traced the carven edges of the Lake with one finger. He trailed a couple fingers through the water in the basin and the Lake shore rippled slightly. Perhaps someday he would go there again. But not yet.

"So," he told the thrush. "What do I do now?  Moon about like some old dog that's lost its master? Enough sitting."

He shifted restlessly, stood, then sat down again. "Just as well he's gone, isn't it? Too much distraction and too much time with those lessons. I haven't had nearly enough time to just... Well.... No more worries about whether I'm quiet enough in the morning, and no more having his papers all over my table... After all, my visits and correspondence are both behind..."  He trailed off.  The thrush regarded him, seeming to see right through his very thin veneer of attempted justification. He spattered it with the water from his wet fingertips and got up to do the dishes.

He had no sooner finished them than he had to answer the door to get his morning mail.  He thanked the lad from the Post, and stood in the doorway, leafing through the letters. Outside a farm cart was pulling past, heaped with hay, a slowly moving mountain of gold.  The time had gone by so quickly with Frodo visiting, it was hard to believe harvesting times were almost upon them again... The rich smell of the warm dry grasses wafted inside as he swung the door shut.  He turned over the small stack of mail that had come and sorted it out  Two bills to pay, an engagement announcement, a request for money, an invitation to a tea, two thank you notes and a letter from Dora.  Carrying them back to the parlour, he set the bills aside, wrote out an acceptance for the tea, smiled over the thank-yous and then picked up Dora's envelope with a sigh.

He looked at the stone thrush, still standing at attention with its snail-shell in its beak. He showed it the letter. "A letter from Dora again. What sort of advice do you think she will have for us this time, eh?"  He reached for his silver letter opener and carefully slit the end open, shaking the folded paper out into his hand. "Not that it affects you, of course, or your snails..."

He read the first page over quickly. She was well, and hoped he was also...various pleasantries... some family gossip, a report on the preserves she was putting up and how her hand ached from weeding the flowerbed in her yard. She pointed out that it was an exercise in her Duty to him that she was writing to him at all. She expected him to appreciate it, as Blood was Thicker than Water and the Best Things in Life are Free.

He snorted at that. Thinking of things that truly were freely given, not by obligation, he got up and put a piece of Sam's cake on a napkin. Returning to his seat he nibbled at it and turned to the second page.

"This cake really isn't bad fare," he mumbled to the thrush around a rather chewy bite he had taken. It had lumps, but they were good-tasting ones. "Certainly helps dry correspondence go by pleasantly. Hm. Ah, here we go. Now we get to the real reason for writing."

It seemed a second cousin of hers had visited Hobbiton a while back, and had given her news about the town and also about him: especially that he was giving lessons to some of the children there, teaching them tales that did them no good. Filling their impressionable heads with tomfoolery.  Better Untaught than Ill-taught, she said, and the Road to Trouble is paved with Good Intentions. He snorted again.

 "I wonder where she gets all this," he commented to the thrush."Sometimes I think she just makes it up... look here," he pointed with one finger. "She says I'm getting old and foolish, or at least I think so.  Pot calling the kettle black, if that's it. Huh. No Fool like an Old Fool, it says. Or is she saying I'm better at being a fool now that I'm older and have had more practice?"

He ate more of the cake and considered the idea of foolishness aging in a bottle, like wine. Getting richer and deeper with time. What color would it be, what would its flavour be like?  Come to think of it, there were possibilities for a light verse or even a song in that. A drinking song.  Inspired, he got up and poured himself a small glass of the berry wine that still stood on the table from the previous night. There wasn't much left - he and Frodo had seen to that.

He held up his glass in a silent toast to the thrush and sipped at it. "Mm. You don't know what you are missing.  This beats snails all to pieces. Ha. Beats them to pieces. Nearly done here.... ends with a postscript this time, see? Guess she had to have the last word, even on herself. Trouble Shared is Trouble Halved." he read this out loud and paused for another sip of his wine. "and Joy shared is Joy Doubled. All right then."

He set his glass aside, folded the letter over, tore it in half and tossed it in the wastebasket then happily ate the rest of his piece of cake in two big bites, and finished off the wine in two big swigs.

You know, he thought, for once she was right.

The morning dragged into afternoon. Try as he might to relax, he remained restless all that day, unable to concentrate on his reading. He tried going on a visit but everything that his host had to say seemed so meaningless and shallow he didn't stay long. He paced from room to room fidgeting with small tasks, then after luncheon went out to putter in his garden. Trimming the flowers was simply not enough to do, try as he might to be lost in them as he often was.  He finally dusted the earth from his hands and knees, went back inside. He took up a hat and a walking stick.  A long walk was in order, brisk and purposeless, perhaps, but long.

The Road seemed to welcome his feet. "I'm only visiting," he told it. "but I would be much obliged if you would bob me along your edges for a bit."  He strode along for a time, looking straight ahead, as if he had some important destination awaiting him someplace in the distance, only giving the barest of nods to anyone who greeted him. He strode firmly and steadily, his restless mind finally finding some peace in the cadence of his walking.

The sun was warm enough that his brisk pace soon had him wishing he had brought his canteen with him, and after another mile or so, his own surge of wanderlust finally began to flag.  He slowed down a bit, taking more notice of the fields and orchards around him, as if he were coming awake.

His marching circuit had taken him a good part around Hobbiton. If he kept going the way he was, he would eventually circle back to the market.  Not feeling like socializing, but not wanting to take his thirst that much further from home he turned off of the road and began quietly cutting across some of the adjoining fields at an angle. He knew from long association with back ways where all of the gates and stiles were to be had.  He met no one but a small handful of goats who lifted their heads and stared at him, but didn't even bother to move from their orchard grass and timothy.  

He was over halfway back to the Hill and coming along the side of the hedge that lined the road, looking for a good place to go through it to regain the main path when he heard voices conversing on the other side. They were just up ahead. He froze and listened, for one of the voices was one he knew.

It was Lotho.