1. Not a Matter of Sulking
Not a Matter of Sulking
"How is he?" Frodo quietly asked Cousin Esme as he sat down on the sofa beside her.
Esmeralda sighed and laid a hand on Frodo's knee. He shifted uncomfortably, but she didn't take her hand away.
"Better," she said and looked over at her son who had fallen asleep on Bilbo's lap. "He still cried a lot during October—you probably were aware of that—but it got better soon. I believe Saradoc had a talk with him. It stopped quite abruptly, now that I think about it." She frowned. "He's been such a good lad ever since. He has helped us a great deal, around the house and the stables and the garden and everything, without even being asked for it."
Frodo watched Bilbo as he looked down on Merry and gently brushed the hair back from the lad's forehead, while listening to something that Uncle Sigismond said to him. Sigismond was holding little Everard, a lad of not quite ten years, who was awake but seemed to be very much on the verge of sleep. Frodo had a nice, warm feeling inside his chest as he watched the two men, the old white-haired Sig and the still so vigorous Bilbo, whose face was fascinating to Frodo even after knowing him all his life and almost five months of living with him. There were no lines in Bilbo's face when he didn't smile, but when something really made him laugh, tiny creases would appear all about his eyes and his mouth and would suddenly make a very different face. Frodo had seldom seen Bilbo angry, but he remembered one occasion a few years ago when Uncle Saradas had given a stable-boy a good hiding with his walking stick when the lad had accidentally sold the wrong pony at the market. Bilbo had never seemed to like Sari very much, but on this day he had managed to scare Frodo, just by the way his face suddenly clouded over and then distorted with rage—it was yet another kind of face that he had in store, completely different from his laughing face. Sari had let go of the poor lad in less than no time.
Now, as he looked on the sleeping Merry, Bilbo seemed calm and happy like Frodo had rarely ever seen him before. Despite his friendly nature, there was always an air of watchfulness and alertness about Bilbo, he was like a constantly tensed muscle; but it had vanished now, and the smile on his face was soft and gentle.
"He makes Bilbo happy," said Esme. "Do you see that smile, Frodo? He only smiles at young children that way. And at you."
Frodo looked at her.
She sighed and smiled. "Yes, he really dotes on you, Frodo. Good old Bilbo. Your going away may have been a loss for Brandy Hall, but I don't know what would have happened to him if he had remained alone up at that…that huge Bag End until the end of his days."
Frodo snorted. "You talk of Bag End as being huge, you who grew up at the Great Smials and from there moved straight on to Brandy Hall."
She rolled her eyes. "You know what I mean. Just look around. Even the Smials are so stuffed with people that there is barely enough space, not to speak of the Hall. But Bilbo's been living alone all his life." She turned her head to look at the two old men again. "I can't understand why he never married. He would have loved being a father…and would have been a loving father to his children, you know."
Frodo was silent. Truly, he had asked himself this question more than once, and never found a satisfying answer. Maybe he would ask Bilbo about it one day.
"And Merry isn't even a bright, pleasant child like his cousins," Esmeralda said more to herself than to Frodo. "He is so serious sometimes. He's always had that seriousness to him. Hasn't he, Frodo?" She pulled back her hand from his leg and leaned forward onto her knees, looking at him.
"Yes," said Frodo thoughtfully. "He is mature for his age."
"Mature." Esmeralda nodded. "He is going to make a fine Master one day." She looked at Frodo again with her notorious piercing look that he, like many others, found rather uncomfortable. "How does he behave towards you now?"
Frodo swallowed. "There is nothing to complain about his behaviour. He treats me perfectly friendly and polite."
She shook her head and smiled. "Oh, Frodo. You know what I mean."
He sighed. "It's not like everything is back to normal, I won't lie to you about that."
She patted his knee again. "He cannot be sulking for much longer," she said.
Frodo looked at his fingernails. Esmeralda could smell dishonesty from miles away, but she never seemed to show a lot of sensitivity about other people's feelings. She didn't understand this. It wasn't a matter of sulking. Merry didn't appear to be mad at him at all, the way he had been on the first occasions when they met after Frodo had moved to Hobbiton. When Frodo and Bilbo had arrived at the Smials the day before yesterday, Merry had given him his hand and said hello, even showing a smile that seemed genuine enough, then he'd walked away with his cousins Fredegar and Everard. As much as Frodo was trying to tell himself that it would all cool down in time, he couldn't get rid of a looming feeling that things, even if they cooled down, would never be the same again.
Bilbo stood up, careful not to wake Merry, lifting him up in his arms with surprising ease. Sigismond put the yawning Everard on his own feet, took his hand and led him across the room, past the numerous laughing and eating and drinking hobbits sprinkled all over the long table in the Great Dining Room of the Smials, or sitting on one of the dark green velvet sofas like Frodo and Esme. Bilbo followed Sigismond with Merry.
As he passed Frodo and Esmeralda, he said, "I'm taking your son to bed, Esme. Or do you want to take him, Frodo?"
"No," said Frodo. "I don't want him to wake up. He'll be fine with you."
All of a sudden, he had an idea.
"Esme," he said, when Bilbo had passed. "I'm just wondering…is there a chance, maybe, that Merry might get a little brother or sister some time?"
Esmeralda's face grew hard. Frodo almost regretted asking. He knew from experience that children were a touchy subject sometimes, especially around the wife of an important hobbit who was supposed to give birth to a lot of healthy offspring to continue and spread the line.
"No," she said. "I don't think so." She shot a very quick look at her husband, who was sitting on one of the small round tables with his brother-in-law Paladin and Ferumbras, the son of Lalia, the woman who currently ruled in the place of her late husband. Then she smiled at Frodo; or maybe it would be best described as flashing a row of beautiful white teeth at him.
"I'm sorry, I was just wondering," said Frodo. "Little children can help to…to get over a loss, you see."
"And nobody knows that better than you," said Esmeralda, not as a question, but as a statement. Frodo was glad that she did not sound pitying. He hated it when people pitied him for being an orphan, and Esme had never done that.
"Well," she said in a cheerful tone, "there's no need to worry about the lack of children with this bunch. I guess I am not supposed to tell you, as she means to announce it to the family tomorrow, but Eglantine is pregnant again."
"Really?" Frodo felt his stomach doing a bolt of joy. Bilbo wasn't the only one who loved children.
"She will be due in July. They're hoping it will be a boy this time. With, er, with things as they are—" She looked at Ferumbras, who was old, and a bachelor. "It looks like Pal needs to produce an heir to the Thain."
Frodo nodded. A child was good news. Merry would get a new cousin, a child he could play with and take care of. Like Frodo had done with Merry.
Frodo lay in his bed in the little guestroom of the Great Smials that he always used when here for a visit. He was in that peculiar stage in the process of falling asleep when the body is just an inch away from unconsciousness, and the brain produces uncontrolled, dream-like thoughts and images. Frodo's head was busy with the picture of Esmeralda holding a baby in her arms, while the words produce an heir incessantly circled around in his thoughts.
Suddenly the door to his room was opened and light streamed in from the hall. Frodo was wide awake in an instant. A small figure was standing in the doorframe.
"Merry?" said Frodo and sat up. He was quite startled for some reason, his heart was beating rapidly. "I thought you were in bed. What's the matter?"
Merry just stood there.
"Come on in," said Frodo. Merry was hesitating, something that hurt Frodo to realise. "Come over here, Merry-lad." He held out his arms, expectant and anxious.
Merry closed the door very quietly and came over towards Frodo's bed. Frodo heard him bumping against a chair in the dark.
"Careful," he said.
And then he felt the small, fragile body against his chest, he felt Merry's hair brushing his cheek and smelled the child's scent. He put his arms around Merry and held him firmly to himself. Merry was crying.
"What's wrong, Merry-lad, what's wrong? I'm here, it's all right."
Merry lifted his face from Frodo's chest. He sniffed. "I'm sorry, Frodo. I'm not crying anymore. I'll stop it, I promise."
"You don't have to stop it, Merry," said Frodo. "Crying is only healthy. It washes away some of the troubles."
"No it doesn't." Merry wiped his nose on his sleeve. "It only makes more trouble." He leaned against Frodo's shoulder. "Don't be sad, Frodo."
Frodo was confused. "I'm not sad—"
"Yes you are," said Merry stubbornly, "I know you are. You cry because I cry, so I'm not crying anymore. I'm not crying anymore."
"I never—who told you I was crying?" Frodo suddenly had a strange, empty feeling inside his stomach. He believed he knew what Merry's answer would be.
"Dad told me," said Merry.
Frodo felt his free hand clenching the blanket. "He—what did he say to you?"
Merry's voice was unsteady again as he answered. "He told me I shouldn't cry so much. He said if I cried, I was hurting you. He said I was making you feel guilty and sad, and then you cried."
"He didn't!" Frodo was on his feet in less than a second. His hands shaking with rage, he fumbled with the matches on the desk and finally managed to light the lamp. It was true, Saradoc had seen him cry when he had ridden away from Brandy Hall with Bilbo, but Frodo hadn't expected him jumping to the rightful conclusion that his goodbye from Merry was causing the tears.
Esme's words sounded in his ears. He has been such a good boy ever since… He pushed the lamp closer to the bed in a swift movement and squatted down in front of Merry and took his hand.
"He told you that? Your father told you that?" Merry nodded. "Oh, he hasn't got the faintest idea of how to deal with…" Frodo interrupted himself just in time. Better not make it worse now, he told himself.
"Don't be angry, Frodo," Merry pleaded. His face appeared even paler than it was in the light of the lamp.
Frodo sighed. "I'm not angry." He sat on the bed beside Merry again and pulled him close. "Listen, Merry, listen carefully to what I'm telling you now. If anybody is hurting anyone in this whole affair, then it's me hurting you." And your stupid ass of a father hurting you just as much, if not worse, he added in his thoughts.
"But you were crying, weren't you?" Merry asked.
"Well—yes, I suppose I was crying some time. It was just very hard for me to leave you all, you see."
There was a short silence.
Then Merry looked up at him with big round eyes. "Really?"
"Did you assume I just walked out of Brandy Hall thinking, thank goodness I'm rid of all those slobs, or something like that?"
Merry said nothing.
"Oh, Merry." Frodo pulled the little boy to his chest again, and now there were tears in his eyes. He tried to blink them away.
"You know what, Frodo?" Merry said against his chest in a muffled voice that sounded tired and exhausted. "Let's all not be sad anymore. Let's all be happy."
"Yes," Frodo said, planting a kiss on Merry's hair, although he knew Merry didn't like being kissed and cuddled. Tonight things were different. "You're right." He wiped his eyes with his arm.
Merry looked up at him again. "Can I sleep in your bed tonight?"
Frodo smiled. "You can sleep in my bed whenever you like," he said.
And he could have sworn that he needed it as much as Merry now.