Nothing of Note

by Primula

Chapter 70:  Cake


Bilbo finally set aside his plate with a contented sigh, and sat back to idly watch Frodo nibbling at his most recent portion.  The frypan still had a small heap of fragrant sliced mushrooms, all temptingly browned in fresh butter but he simply could not eat another bite. At least not now.  He had no illusions that the remainder in either pan or the sadly depleted mushroom crate would last through the day.

Bilbo was amazed that there had been so many mushrooms in that crate they honestly couldn't finish them all.  It was an unusual occurrence, leftover mushrooms; he couldn't even recall the last time he had seen such a thing.  He had no idea how Frodo had managed to get ahold of so many, and such nice fat ones too. What a gift!  It had not only given them a fine early luncheon, there was easily enough left to enjoy some for tea and make a nice large mushroom pie for their birthday dinner as well.

"Thank you," he said (not for the first time.) "This has been one of the best birthday presents I've ever had."

Frodo looked up from his plate, his head tilted inquiringly. "Hardly compares to yours. All I brought was a little something to eat..."

"A little?"

"All right. A lot, but it's nothing like what this beautiful weskit must have cost..."

"No, no, none of that. I'll not have it. Get enough of that from other people."

Frodo didn't reply.  He went back to spearing mushroom slices on his fork.

Bilbo considered thoughtfully and tried again. "You know, I recently had a very wise lady tell me something. She said that it didn't matter what kind of things we got for one another, or if we got anything at all. She said I was a birthday gift to you, and you were one for me."

Frodo looked up again, this time with a half-smile. "I like the way you say that."

"I didn't say it. Or rather, I didn't think of it without someone else having to say it that plainly to me first."

Frodo chewed a bite of the thick-sliced mushrooms."Who was it? Anyone I've met?"

"As a matter of fact, yes. It was Mrs. Gamgee, right here by the Hill. I had gone down that way and she was..."

He was interrupted by the sound of someone or something outside the door, followed by a muffled, rhythmic thumping on the wood.

"Just a minute."  He rose to answer it.

Wondering why whomever it was didn't just ring the bell, he opened the door to find young Samwise Gamgee standing in the rain, swathed in a dripping oversized coat and hat with both arms filled by a large box he struggled to contain.  He had apparently been thumping on the door with his shoulder.

"Sorry, Mr. Baggins, sir," he said breathlessly. "I couldn't ring your bell, my hands are that full, sir."

"Sam! Come in out of the rain.  Here, let me help you with that. What have you brought?"

"Sam?" Frodo came up behind them.

"Mr. Frodo sir! You got here! Hooray!" Sam did a little puppy-wiggling jig as he handed off the box and began shedding the wet coat and hat.  Bilbo took it and carried it to the table. He could smell the lovely scent of spice cake wafting from it; and it was warm too; the heat seeping through the box.

Bilbo set the box on the table and returned to the entry where Frodo was kneeling, grinning at young Samwise who was chattrering on at a great rate. 

"...an' I got it all ready to go, but the wood was kind of wet and Daisy had t' help me with it 'cause she said it would be all burnt on the outside and still glooped in the middle, but it wasn't, or it wasn't too bad anyway, though Marigold kept wantin' to help and I had to sit on her. Then we had to find a box, but the only one that was the right size was already full, so I dumped it all out and then I got in trouble for makin' a mess, but the cake fit just right, or mostly did...."

"Mostly?" asked Frodo, sharing a brightly amused glance with Bilbo.

Sam finished pulling off the wet coat. "Yah. It kind of broke a little, but Daisy trimmed it up real nice.  Then my coat was still all muddy from this mornin' when I was out doin' my chores and the rain came down so hard! You should've seen it!"

"I think we did," commented Bilbo. He bent down and picked up the wet coat, shaking it out.

"It got me wet, so wet I was wet even all the way to my skin, and I hadda change, but my overclothes weren't dry yet. So I was s'posed to get my Gaffer's coat instead, and then he said I had to have a hat, but my hat got chewed by a goat last week..."

"Chewed by a goat?" asked Frodo, chuckling.

"It was straw," said Sam. "And he ate it. I didn't have 'nother one yet, 'cause I can't figure how to make 'em yet, and Ma didn't have time to teach me this mornin' she said, and they wouldn't let me go without one."

"So whose hat is this?" asked Frodo, indicating the dripping article in Sam's hand.

He looked at it. "Oh, this is my Gaffer's second-best garden hat. It goes with the coat, kinda. Oop. Sorry, I forgot!" He slapped it back on his head and looked around for his coat.

"Forgot what?" asked Bilbo, handing it to him.

"Well, that I'm not... home, sir." He blushed. "I took off my coat kinda without thinkin'. I jus' wanted to bring you your cake, and tell you Happy Birthday."

"Aren't you going to be staying?"

"Staying?"

"To have some cake with us.  You ought to at least have a piece of it, after baking it for us."

"Can I really, sir?" He turned toward Frodo, as if looking for reassurance that it wasn't a joke.

"Certainly," said Frodo, nodding for emphasis. "I completely agree. You should stay a bit. Your family won't miss you, will they?"

"Oh no. I told 'em that I would stay if you invited me."

"You did? Were you so sure of an invitation?" asked Bilbo.

Sam blushed again, right up to his ears. "Um."

Frodo laughed. "I used to do that too. Come on, Sam. Show us this cake you've made."

Still somewhat abashed, but willing, Sam led them to the kitchen table where the box sat. He passed the crate, looking at the generous remains of their birthday mushrooms with wide eyes.  "Those look mighty nice." he said transparently.

"And they taste mighty nice too," offered Frodo, with a questioning look at Bilbo.

Full as he was, Bilbo found he had to override a twinge of greed that made him reluctant to have to share yet more of 'his' mushrooms, but he knew it was the right thing to do.  Besides, what were birthdays for but to share?

"Why don't you choose a few nice big ones, Sam, to take along home with you. As a birthday present."

"Could I really, sir? Oh, thank you!"

"But first, let's see this cake."

"Oh," Sam said, and giggled. "I forgot the cake when I saw the mushrooms."  He turned back to the table and reached to pull the top off the box.

Bilbo took a hold of it to keep it from sliding and helped him get it off. The lid lifted away to reveal a large spice cake partly wrapped in a soft, clean cloth to keep it moist. It completely filled the box, right up to the edges.  He tried to lift it out, but only succeeded in breaking off small bits along the edge, which he then licked from his fingers.  It tasted buttery.

"Here," he said. "This should do it."  He took a large platter from a shelf and laid it over the box, then carefully flipped the whole thing upside down so the cake slid neatly out of the box onto the platter with a whispering flump.  He lifted the box up and aside, then unwrapped the cloth.

It was hot enough that it was still steaming from a crack that ran down the center of it, as well as from the end that had been trimmed to make it fit. Bilbo wondered just how much had been trimmed and who had eaten the trimmings.  Well, the cook certainly had every right to sample his own cooking. He pushed the cracked halves together then then let them fall apart again, a fresh wisp of steam wafting up in a translucent curl.

"It's cracked in two." said Sam with some dismay. 

"Why, I thought you had made it that way," suggested Bilbo. "Because there's two birthdays."

"It's perfect," added Frodo encouragingly. "It saves us having to cut it in half." He took up a butter knife and sliced a generous piece off the nearest end.  The browned edges were a little thick, but the spice-flecked inside came apart easily enough, the slice slowly leaning over as he worked his way down until it tipped right onto a waiting plate.  He handed it to Sam.

Comforted, the lad happily accepted the slice. Frodo sliced two more pieces, smaller ones for himself and Bilbo as they were still full of mushrooms.  They stood, mutually waiting for Sam to take the first bite.

Sam picked up a bite on his fork and opened his mouth, then stopped. "I really get to take some of those mushrooms home?"

"Yes." said Bilbo

"Yes, you do." said Frodo at the same time.

His fork moved upward again.  "Jus' for me, or for my Gaffer too?"

Frodo looked at Bilbo.  Bilbo replied "A couple for your Gaffer too."

Sam nodded and opened his mouth for his cake a third time. He stopped. "But what about Daisy?"

"Daisy also..." said Frodo.

"And all the rest of your family,"  finished Bilbo.  "Even Marigold. Now eat your cake!"

Sam obligingly shoveled in the bite, but spoke around it. "Ffank oo, fir!"

"You're welcome," said Bilbo, though he felt as if his great mound of treasure were being stolen away bit by bit right in front of his eyes. He took a bite of cake while mentally tallying how many mushrooms would be needed to outfit the Gamgee family with at least two apiece and how that compared to the remaining pile. His admittedly miserly computations were derailed by the sensation of the cake in his mouth.

Frodo had taken a bite at the same time as he had and had an odd expression on his face as he chewed...and chewed.  He met Bilbo's gaze and raised an eyebrow, looking amused.

Bilbo chewed his piece carefully. Actually it wasn't the taste that caught his attention: The taste was pleasant, spicy, sweet and good, if a bit salty, but there was an odd elasticity to it that made it turn to chewy lumps once it was in the mouth. The lumps wanted to keep rejoining into a large lump again instead of becoming smaller, as if it were a sort of unified cake-cud, defying his teeth to scatter it. Sam didn't seem to notice, and had already eaten half of his slice. Maybe the trick was inhaling it all at once like Sam was doing, with almost no chewing at all. This must have been what Sam had meant by 'glooped in the middle.'

Bilbo swallowed and took a smaller bite, so the resultant lump would be easier to manage.  He noticed Frodo was nibbling his away in very small bites and figured he had hit upon the same solution.  It was like trying to eat a cake-like taffy;sticking to his teeth, and the roof of his mouth.

Sam finished his piece without complaint and eyed the remaining cake.

"There's a lot of cake left." he hinted politely.

Bilbo nodded, though his reasons for agreeing were no doubt different than Sam's.  "So there is. I do believe it is far too much for just the two of us to do proper justice to. Would you help us, and have another piece? You made quite a lot!"

"Really? I mean, yessir!"

Bilbo sliced off a second portion for Sam, making it as generous as he thought he could reasonably get away with. The lad's eyes were round as saucers as he took it, but he didn't argue. Once Sam's fork was plying up and down, Bilbo went back to nibbling down his own small piece again. 

Sam noticed Frodo had finished his. "Want more?" he cheerfully inquired through his chewing.  "I made it m'self!" Frodo hesitated, then as the lad just kept expectantly watching he took another very small slice.  Sam smiled through his own crumbs and waved his fork to sketch a larger portion. "You can have more'n that!" he said, "I made lots!"

Bilbo searched for a polite escape route from the cake. Thinking ahead, he timed it so just as he laid his plate down he declared "Thank you, Sam - I'll go get a sack for those mushrooms of yours," and headed straight out of the kitchen.  Frodo gave him a pathetic 'rescue me too' look which he cheerfully ignored.  Let him rescue himself, or let Sam rescue him, he laughed inwardly.

He took up a clean sack in the pantry for the Gamgee's portion of the mushrooms and came back to slowly select them as Sam and Frodo finished their second round. Kneeling on the floor by the crate, he noticed a significant chunk of cake poking out from under a napkin on the unused chair next to Frodo.  He smiled to himself and placed a couple more mushrooms in the sack without comment. Spinning the top closed, he folded it over then on inspiration picked up a basket and dropped the sack into it. 

"Oh look," he said, dangling the basket by its handle for them to see. "There's plenty of room in this basket. How about we share some of this wonderful cake with your family too? It would be a shame for them to have smelled it baking all this morning and not gotten to have their fill.  Frodo, would you cut some nice, big pieces for the Gamgees? We can wrap them up in these napkins and they'll travel just fine."

"What a good idea!" said Frodo a shade too eagerly. He began quickly reducing the cake into fat segments while Sam finished chewing his second piece. The youngster just blinked at them.

"But it's your cake. It's for your birthday."

"Oh yes!" said Bilbo heartily, "And what's a birthday for but to share?"  He took the pieces that Frodo handed over and quickly wrapped them up, stacking them in the basket.

"That's what it's all about," agreed Frodo cheerfully handing over another one. "Sharing. Sharing is a fine thing, and more the better."

Sam opened his mouth in mild confusion but nothing came out. Bilbo decided to switch the topic before he dwelt on it too much - he was young but not a fool, after all.

"Speaking of sharing, how about a tale or two? Sam, do you have any good stories?" asked Bilbo.  He tucked the cloth that had originally wrapped the cake all around the edges of the basket, and looked at Sam expectantly.

Surprised at the sudden attention, Sam put down his emptied plate and rubbed the crumbs from his face with his sleeve. "Me?"

"Certainly, you." said Bilbo, lightly steering the lad away from the depleted cake with a friendly hand to his shoulder.  "Why, Frodo and I, we've heard all of each others' stories so many times we're quite tired of them, we'd love a new tale."

Frodo opened his mouth as if to give a puzzled protest then shut it as his expression cleared into unspoken understanding.  He joined in.

"Come into the parlour, Sam. I'm sure there's something you could tell us about." Frodo led the lad forward.  Sam obediently headed to the parlour as Frodo took the lead, joining him by the fire.

"I'll be there in just a moment. I'll put on a kettle for tea." excused Bilbo.

Once he was sure the lad's attention was elsewhere, Bilbo did a quick turn back to the kitchen to tamp down the compost bucket, carefully hiding Frodo's discarded bit of cake under apple peelings, tea-leaves and egg-shells.  No reason to chance Sam being upset.  That done, he filled the kettle and set it to heating then placed the well-filled basket in the cake box, all ready to send back to the Gamgees.  He set it by the front door and looked into the parlour.

Sam was busy admiring Frodo's new waistcoat.

"You look mighty fine, Mr. Frodo sir. I think it's the most beautifullest weskit I've ever seen."

Frodo smiled self-consciously, looking over at Bilbo where he stood in the doorway. "It would look even better on Bilbo, I think, but he wants me to wear it so I will."

Sam squinted at it critically. "No. I think it looks goodest on you."

"Goodest?"

"Gooder.  You look gooder in it than Mr. Bilbo would."

"I concur," offered Bilbo. "I think Sam's right. You do look gooder than me in that color."

Frodo rolled his eyes. "Is that good?"

"It's even gooder than I expected, considering I was having to guess when I picked the fabric. It's the goodest I could do."

Sam smiled and gave a little bounce on his seat. "See? It's good!"

"All right, all right." Frodo held up his hands in surrender. "I'm not arguing. It's good! Gooder. Whatever. Now, what tale do you want to tell us, Sam?" 

Sam considered for a moment, swinging his legs so his feet tapped together a few times. "I... um.  I don't know. I can't think of any good ones. Good enough, I mean. I don't know any tales for fancy birthdays like this."

"Is this so fancy?" asked Frodo, looking around the room.

"And why wouldn't whatever story you have be good enough?  Have you done anything interesting lately, or seen anything?" prodded Bilbo. He came into the room and took a seat alongside them. "Maybe something with your family?"

"Oh!" Sam exclaimed. "I could tell you about what happened with the applesauce cake."

Bilbo nodded. "Sounds good. What happened?"

"Applesauce cake. I always like that." commented Frodo.

"Well, I had a worm. Or, I mean, there was this worm. It was a big one too, it was longer than this!" He held out his two hands apart to illustrate, though it soon grew to tremendous proportions if one were to follow it.

"Really! That would be quite a worm." observed Bilbo.

"It was! I found it when I was weedin' the garden in the morning. Not this morning, another morning.  A diff'rent morning. I pulled it up, and it was so big I took it home to show it to my Gaffer.  Well, he was asleep or som'thin' I don't remember, and Daisy was cooking so I showed it to Marigold instead."

"Marigold? What did she think of it?" asked Frodo.

"Didn't eat it, I hope. She's quite young." observed Bilbo.

"No, no, she didn't eat it Mr. Bilbo. You're funny! But it was close, 'cause after I gave it to her she lost it."

"Lost it?"

"I kept askin' her what she did with it, and she wouldn't say. I looked in her apron pocket and everything. All she did was point to the kitchen.  I went in the kitchen and was kinda lookin' around, you know, because I didn't want Ma nor Daisy to yell at me for bringin' worms into the kitchen.  So I didn't tell 'em what I was lookin' for.  They jus' finished makin' a big ol' applesauce cake, and put it in the oven to bake.

Now, Marigold kept pointin' at the cake, the one in the oven, and I got to bein' real a-feared that she'd put that worm in the cake!"

"Did she?" asked Bilbo.

"Oh no, she didn't!" said Frodo mildly aghast.

"Well, I thought she did. She likes to play that she can cook, and sometimes Ma n' Daisy let her put in some of the 'gredients. So she coulda put it in. And as it was bakin' I just kept looking and looking but no worm, no worm anywhere.  I finally had to tell 'em."

"That the worm was in the cake?" said Frodo with widened eyes.

"I told 'em that Marigold had a worm, and put it in the cake batter. They thought I was teasin' 'em at first, then they got worried. Finally Ma said we'd have to toss out the whole cake, that none of us was to eat it, though I told her is was a clean worm, I pulled all the dirt off of it, and birds eat 'em all the time."

"That they do, you have to admit." nodded Bilbo.  "So they threw out the worm-cake?"

"Well, kinda.  I..." Here Sam hesitated and blushed slightly, then continued. "I found it."

Frodo's brows raised. "You found what? The worm?"

"I saw it under the table after a while. It wasn't movin' so good anymore, but I took it up and put it outside."

"So then they knew they could eat the cake after all."

"Um. I didn't tell 'em that I found it."

"You didn't? Sam!" said Frodo. "You let them throw out an entire cake?"

Sam smiled guiltily. "I sure did, Mr. Frodo. Then I went out back and I ate it all myself!"

Bilbo chuckled. "Now that was right clever, even if it wasn't too truthful."

"'Cept I couldn't finish it all.  And then my Gaffer found me. And then I got in big trouble!" He rubbed at the seat of his pants in memory.

"I'll bet you did," grinned Bilbo. "Just desserts. The worm in the cake; a fine story. Thank you, Sam!"

"See, you did have a tale you could tell," said Frodo. There was a rising whistle in the kitchen.

"Oh - tea!" said Bilbo. "Just a moment - no, stay where you are, I'll get it."  He went back into the kitchen and grabbed a towel to wrap around the handle so he could lift the heated kettle from the stove.  He popped open the lid and measured in a scoop of tea to steep.

Fetching a couple of mugs down from the shelf, he hooked a third one on his finger as an afterthought.  He wasn't sure if Sam would have some or not, but it would be impolite to not offer.  He was the only guest they had. 

Outside the kitchen window he could see the rain was letting up, now falling with such a silver softness it was difficult to believe it had been so fierce earlier that day. The sun brightly came and went as the high clouds ambled past,  though there was more sun than cloud now.  The clutter of candles, apples and odd whatnot near the windowsill shed shadows faint and dark.

In the parlour he could hear Frodo and Sam's voices talking, then just Frodo's as he began telling Sam a tale from Buckland.  It was a soothing, comfortable and homelike sound.  The scent of the tea, cake, mushrooms and woodsmoke  - it all wove together into a blanket of contentment that he pulled around him like a warm feather quilt.

He was 99 now.  Only one short of a hundred, now there was a thought.

He reflected on what it had been like to be 98.  Not that different from being 97, or 87, or even 67 now that he thought about it.  It really had not been all that different from any of his other years.

In his mind the years of his life spread out in his memory; a vast meadow of green-and-golden grasses with only the occasional tree or hedge standing out as a point of interest. Beyond that meadow lifted a range of mountains, great sweeping mountains with pine-trees and waterfalls, deep caverns and great heights.   Now those years... that year... He only faintly remembered the simpler times, on the other side of those mountains now. How had he ever lived in such an insufferable routine before that year?  It was as if he had been asleep underground all that time and had woken up one morning to find himself above the clouds. 

His eyes turned from the sky to his flowers. I wonder if that is what a tulip bulb feels like, he thought, sleeping through all those months under our feet, then suddenly springing up out of the ground all a-bloom. Well. And what a bloom it was.  I don't think the color has ever quite worn off since, even if my petals are a bit tattered.  I really ought to give thought to having another adventure someday. A real one, fresh, not just walking about the Shire. Maybe take Frodo with me after he's had a bit to settle in here. Frodo has never had a real adventure yet, nothing outside of the expected.

This year, aside from bringing in a nephew - an event which he counted as really belonging to the coming year much more than to this past one -  this year hadn't been all that different from that long straggling string of others.  A couple short trips, a few visits, an illness or inconvenience or two.  Why, when he came down to it, nothing of note had really happened.

Sam laughed at something Frodo had said, and Frodo laughed lightly with him. Bilbo shook out of his reverie and wrapped his hand once more about the smooth, warm handle of the kettle, as firmly as if it were a sword.

He carried it into the parlour.

"Well, I'm back." he said. "Here's some tea."

Finis