In which Merry receives an omen and a new cousin
(Note: Set in the autumn of the year 1390 SR, so Merry is eight, Frodo is 22, Pearl is 15, Pimpernel is 11 and Pervinca is five. Frodo would have left Brandy Hall to live with Bilbo at Bag End the previous year.)
1390, The Great Smials, Tookland
I had never seen the Great Smials so busy, and it is always a busy place. As soon as we came in the door Adelard (being my second cousin once removed, from the Old Took's line) greeted my parents and then pulled them away into one of the studies to speak with them.
"Merry, go find your cousins and be good," Mum called before whisking away.
I didn't mind so much that she and Da went off to do something, probably to talk with Uncle Paddin and Aunt Lala. I have been at the Smials lots and know my way around, so the first place I went was the kitchen, to see if I could get a little snack. Hazel chased me out, but not before Florella sneaked a gingerbreadlad into my pocket.
I wandered around a bit to see what was what. The Great Smials is as good a place as Brandy Hall for wandering about, because passageways lead to rooms that lead to corridors that lead to places you didn't even know were there, no matter how many times you've been in the Smials. As there are always plenty of hobbits about, if you walk around for a bit, you usually can find something fun to do.
On this day, though, everyone seemed to either be very busy, bustling around like they were doing something important, or not doing anything at all except talking to one another in low voices and looking worried. I wondered what was the matter, and tried to hear what they were saying, but every time I got close enough, someone would shoo me off. I hate it when something is going on and I don't know what, so finally I hid behind a chaise in one of the parlors where a lot of grown-ups were. I know it is wrong to listen to grown-ups talking when they don't want you to, but I just couldn't stand to not know what was happening. Opal, one of Adelard's sisters, was there, and she said, "Paladin," that is Uncle Paddin's real name, "is so distraught that he can't eat a bite, and he has not laid down to rest." I didn't know what "distraught" meant, but the other ladies all nodded their heads and clucked their tongues and sighed sadly, so I thought it must be bad. Imagine, not wanting to eat!
Just then, Great-Aunt Tansy came in the room and grabbed me by my braces, saying, "Meriadoc, what are you about? You know better than to sneak around! Your cousins are in their playroom; why don't you go see them and be a good lad?" She sounded rather cross, but then she gave me a sweet as she guided me to the hall that leads to the playroom. I tucked the sweet into my cheek and decided that maybe I could learn more from some of the other children.
Usually, the playroom is loud. I mean, really loud -- you know you are coming near to it all the way down the corridor. But this day, there was no noise at all coming from it, and I thought Great-Aunt Tansy must have been wrong about my cousins being in there. But then there they were, just being very quiet. This is the lasses' playroom, but usually there are some other children there, except on this funny day only my cousins were there. Pimpernel was cross-legged on the rug with a big book in front of her, and Pearl was crouched in front of the sofa, peering underneath.
"Hullo!" I said. "What are you doing, Pearl?" I went to stand beside her and put my hands in my pockets. She looked up at me.
"Well, hullo, Merry," she said. "When did you arrive? I am trying to get Pervinca out from under the sofa," she continued without waiting for an answer, "but she won't come out."
"Maybe she likes it there," I answered, bending to look. Sure enough, I spotted Pervinca's bright curls and gleaming eyes hiding with the dust bunnies and other oddments that gather beneath furniture. "Hullo, Pervinca. What are you doing?"
"I want Mamma," she replied in a stubborn voice, scowling fiercely.
"I would pull her out," Pearl said with a sigh, "but, you know, not a good idea."
I did know -- Pervinca has very sharp teeth and no qualms about using them. I wasn't certain what she was doing under the sofa, but if she wanted to hide under there, I was all for letting her.
Pearl stood up and smoothed down her skirt, apparently reaching the same conclusion I had. Now I had to look up at her, instead of the other way around. "Pearl," I said, "why is it such a very strange day here?" It was strange even in the playroom -- there was no fire, making it seem rather cheerless, and Briony, my cousins' nurse, was not here (which was fine by me, as I have always been rather afraid of Briony). And there was Pervinca hiding under the old sofa and asking for Aunt Lala and no one was going to get her.
Pearl sighed and from across the room, Pimpernel gave me a strange look. Whatever was going on? I was starting to get nervous -- it must be something bad for everyone to act so odd.
"Where did you come from anyway?" Pearl said. "Are your parents here?"
She was not answering my question, only asking questions of her own (and very silly ones at that -- how could I be here if not with my parents?), and I did not care for it much. I walked away and sat down beside Pimpernel and attempted to look at the pictures in the book with her, but her sharp elbows seemed to be getting in my way. "Merry?" Pearl said behind me, sounding a little sharper. She sounded funny -- all worried and almost grown-up and not at all nice and collected, the way she usually is.
"We have been visiting Frodo and Cousin Bilbo at Bag End," I answered, knowing my mum would hear about it if I was rude to Pearl. I was still trying to peer over Pimpernel, but she kept turning her shoulders so I couldn't see. "Da wanted to talk to your father, so we came here instead of going straight back to the Hall." I had had an awfully nice visit with Frodo, and we had stayed for eight whole days. I missed Frodo terribly at Brandy Hall, for he would always play with me and read to me and tell me the best stories, and he taught me to climb trees and swim and never minded that I was littler than he. I had lots of other cousins at the Hall, and Frodo had a splendid new room at Bag End and said he loved living with Bilbo and tramping about on little trips, but I still missed him. I knew he missed me too, because Cousin Bilbo has started teaching him Elvish, and Frodo said one of the first things he wanted to learn was how to say my name in Elvish, which is "Alasseon." (That was nice, but I was glad he still just called me "Merry.")
Pearl came around to face us and sat down on a footstool, resting her forearms on her knees. "I am sorry, Merry," she said sincerely, so I looked at her this time. "It is strange here today, isn't it, and I suppose no one has told you why."
I shook my head and Pimpernel suddenly slammed the book shut as though she was angry. She flounced off to the window seat, taking the book with her and pulling the drapes around it so we could not see her. I stared after her in surprise. Everyone was hiding today! Pearl frowned deeply but didn't scold Pimpernel, and Briony sure would have.
"Merry, our new little brother was born early this morning." Pearl said this solemnly, but I was delighted.
"Oh, the new baby is a lad!" I cried. "I knew it would be!" Then I stopped and thought. The whole family was excited and happy when Aunt Lala had said she was having another baby, so why did everyone seem upset now that it was here? Everyone at the Hall is happy when a new baby comes, and no one whispers and scurries about. "But, then, why doesn't everyone seem happy?"
Pearl clenched her hands together so tightly her knuckles were white. I didn't like the way they looked, like they hurt her hands, so I reached out and patted them, but that made Pearl scrunch up her face like she might cry. She didn't though, and answered my question.
"Because he wasn't supposed to be born yet, not for weeks and weeks, and that means he is very small and sick," she said. "And Mamma is sick, too, and in bed and we aren't allowed to see her or the baby."
"Oh." I didn't know what to say to all this. I knew babies could get sick just like everyone else, of course, but I had never thought that perhaps my new cousin would arrive sick, or that Aunt Lala would be sick too. I wondered what kind of sick it was, and if the healer was making them drink nasty things. I had been sick before, and the healer had made me drink a horrid, burning brew, but she was sorry when it made me throw up on her.
"When will they be better?" I asked Pearl. I had plans for this new lad cousin, after all, and wanted very much to have a look at him before we had to leave for home.
"We don't know, Merry," she said sadly. "We don't know if they will be better yet. But everyone is trying to do everything they can to help Mamma and the baby, and we can help too by staying out of the way and not being any bother. I am sure your parents are with Father and Mamma, so you should probably stay in here, too."
Well, whatever did Pearl mean, 'IF they will be better?' Surely not that Aunt Lala and the baby would die! My stomach suddenly felt all funny, like I had eaten too many sweets. I knew about people dying, because older relatives died from time to time, which was very sad, and then last summer one of the farm hands, Nob, died when he fell off the roof of the livestock barn, and we did have a bunch of chickens get sick and die once, but I had never thought about hobbits getting sick and dying when they weren't old.
Pearl was looking at me expectantly, and I thought it must be rude to ask if her mother was going to die, so I just said, "I'll be very good, Pearl," and she smiled, pleased, and stroked my hair. I was glad I had made Pearl smile, but I still wondered about Aunt Lala and the baby being sick. It felt scary to just have to wait to see when they would be better.
Just then, Pervinca scuttled out from under the sofa and made a break for the door. "Pervinca!" Pearl was after her in a flash, but Pervinca is a quick little thing, and beat her to it. I could hear her little feet thumping down the hallway, and Pearl scurrying after her. Soon after, I heard Pearl cry, "Ouch! Pervinca, stop that!" and I was glad I had not followed to help her catch Vinca.
I cautiously poked my head around Pimpernel's drapes. She was looking at her book again, though I could see quite plainly that it was upside down, and pulled a terrible face at me. "Merry, go away!" she said and snapped the drapes back in place.
I sighed and looked around the playroom. Blocks, wooden toy animals, books with worn covers that were Mum and Uncle Paddin's when they were little: there are lots of fun things to do and look at in the playroom at the Smials, and usually I like it in here very much, but I did not like the thought of spending the rest of the day trying not to upset my cousins, who all seemed to be in quite a state, as Mum says. The sun peeked around Pimmie's drapes enticingly, and I decided to go outside and see if any of the other Smials children were about.
I put on my coat and buttoned it up tight, as the autumn day was rather blustery (which means just what it sounds like -- all crisp and blowy and just perfect for this time of year). Then I realized there were no grown-ups about to tell that I was going outside. I went 'round the hallways a bit, puzzling over where everyone who was hanging about before had gone and thinking maybe I would at least find Pearl, but on this strange day there was no one to be found, so I finally just went out.
Some older cousins had a game of roopie about, so I watched for a while. I'm not big enough to play yet, but I want to be ready when I am, so I can be as good as Frodo is. I know that Da used to be a splendid player, and sometimes he will take me out to play with a ball. I love when we do this, for Da is very busy, and even though he lets me come with him a lot while he works, it is nice when we can play, just him and me. Da says watching how something is done can help you learn how to do it, so I like to watch the lads at the Hall or other places play, hoping I will learn what works and what doesn't.
Some lads, just a few years older than me that I had played with before at the Smials, stopped to watch the game for a bit and showed me an enormous toad they had caught. They asked if I wanted to go back down to the stream with them to look for more, but I felt kind of funny and didn't want to, though I usually love to muck about in the water. It was like the strangeness of the day had gotten into me somehow, and I didn't feel much like playing. Not even the roopie game seemed like much fun, so finally I wandered away from the game and went off by myself and sprawled under a big sycamore tree, looking up at the brightly colored autumn leaves. There were red ones and yellow ones, and all the shades in between, and usually such pretty leaves would make me happy, especially when they were dancing in the wind, but this day was different and I couldn't feel happy at all. I lay and watched some of the leaves drifting down from the tree as the wind shook them loose, and for some reason this made me feel even sadder.
I thought very hard for a while about Aunt Lala and my new lad cousin. I very much wanted them to get better. Aunt Lala is not as much fun as my mum (naturally, but that is not her fault since she was a Banks and not a Took before she got married, and everyone knows the Banks are not as much fun as the Tooks and Brandybucks), but she is quite nice and once when I was just a little fellow I fell down and scraped up both arms, and she held me and made me laugh while the healer cleaned up the cuts with very stingy stuff. I knew that if she died, Pearl and Pimmie and Vinca would be very sad, and I did not want that. Everyone would be sad if Aunt Lala died -- my mum and da, and Uncle Paddin, and me too. It made my stomach feel like I had eaten too many sweets again to think about Aunt Lala dying.
Then I thought about our new baby and how I surely did not want him to die either. I had been waiting for him forever, it seemed, and now that he was here it would be too sad if he went away before we could be best friends, just like I knew we would be. Now that I finally had a little lad cousin, I would teach him so many things, like how to climb and swim, and where to find the best berries, and we would go wading in streams and running in fields and catch butterflies, just to let them go. Then when we were older, we could visit Frodo and Cousin Bilbo and go hiking with them, and maybe even sleep outside and stay up late looking at the stars and listening to Cousin Bilbo tell us stories about dragons and dwarves and wizards and men who turn into bears. Such adventures we could have together! I was getting quite sad to think that my new lad cousin might die, and I might have cried, but just a little.
So I lay there and thought about things and watched the sky, and then I ate my gingerbreadlad, for I was missing tea, but did not feel like going back inside. I wasn't sure that one had tea when one's aunt and baby cousin might be dying, anyway. It was nice under the tree, and the day smelled like autumn, all crisp leaves and juicy apples and far-off smoke. I watched the clouds moving across the sky for a bit, and that was when I noticed some type of bird against the pale blue. It was moving fast and getting closer, and sometimes it swooped downward before veering back up.
I sat up and looked hard at it, and when it got close enough, I saw that it was a falcon. I looked close to see what kind it was, and so that I would remember just what it looked like in case it was a kind I didn't know and I had to ask Da later. It circled once over the field, and then landed in a tree not too far away from me, and then I could see that it was a peregrine falcon. I knew because Da and I had seen one this past summer, and Da had told me that they were rare in the Shire. I wondered if this was the same one. It was very big -- almost as big as me! -- but I wasn't afraid of it.
It was very still for a long while, and so was I, and as I watched it, I thought about the story Cousin Bilbo had told me just the night before, about the Battle of the Five Armies and the great eagles who helped save them. I had heard this story many times before, but it is one of my favorites, and I love the way Cousin Bilbo tells it. He had talked a lot about birds and how smart they are and how they know things we do not. Then I thought about Frodo telling me a poem with a bird in it, and it was about something called an omen, way back last year, and how an omen is a hint about something that is going to happen in the future, good or bad. I had liked the way the word sounded, the big round "O" and the deep humming "M," and I said it quietly to myself as I watched the falcon. Could the falcon be an omen to me? Suddenly, I felt certain that it was, and I was scared and excited all at the same time. I knew that omens are not something that came to every lad, even if their father was to be Master of Buckland, and I did not want to get things wrong.
By then I was afraid to take my eyes off of it, lest I misunderstand the omen. The great bird was turning its head all about to survey all of Uncle Paddin's lands, and then, quite suddenly, it looked straight at me for a long time, and I didn't even dare to breathe for wonder that I had my very own omen in the form of such a great bird. I wondered what it was thinking about, looking at me that way, so solemn and intent. Then, as if it had made up its mind about something, it lifted off from the treetop and flew directly above me, where it circled three times and cried out before swooping off behind me. By the time I had scrambled up to my feet and turned around, it was already a small black speck in the distance, headed toward where Buckland lies.
I lay back down and puzzled over these things. I felt certain that the falcon must really have been an omen, but what did it mean? I thought very hard, so hard that I must have fallen asleep, because the next thing I knew Pearl's voice was saying, "Merry! Come on, now, I have been looking everywhere for you!"
I opened my eyes. The sky was all rosy with sunset and Pearl was standing over me, smiling. She held out her hand.
"You are going to miss supper, silly! And you've had no tea, you poor lad!" she said as I took her hand and she pulled me upright. Pearl is strong, for all that she is a lass.
"You look happy, Pearl," I said, and she did. She was smiling so that the smile went all the way into her eyes, the way Uncle Paddin smiles when he picks me or one of the lasses up and twirls us round and round and round so our feet don't even touch the ground. My stomach didn't hurt anymore when I saw how happy Pearl was.
"I am very happy," she said. "Mamma is much better, and Pimmie and Vinca and I got to go into her room just for a bit to see her and talk to her. The healers say that she is going to be all right." She was so happy that she spun us around in a circle, but only once, as she is already 15 years old and just last spring she told Uncle Paddin she was too old to be twirling around anymore.
This made me happy, too, but then I thought about my new lad cousin and all of the things I was afraid we would not be able to do together. "What about the baby?" I asked as Pearl and I started back toward the Smials, still hand-in-hand.
She squeezed her fingers around mine. She still looked happy, but not as happy as she had looked when she told me Aunt Lala was getting better. "They think that he will be all right, but he is very small and will need lots of care," she said. "But Father let us look at him, and I got to hold him for a moment. Merry, he is so small that he is like one of Pervinca's little dolls! And he has the most beautiful green eyes."
I was so happy to hear that my baby was going to be all right that I could feel it all the way down in my toes (though I really didn't mind what his eyes looked like). We went inside where it was snug and warm and smelled like baked apples and gingerbread and other good things to eat. Pearl went to find Pervinca and try to make her clean up for supper, and told me to do the same. I went to one of the bath rooms and washed my hands and face and shook all of the bits of leaves out of my hair. I couldn't find a hairbrush, so I just mushed my hair down a bit with my hands, and then brushed off my weskit and straightened my collar.
I decided I wanted to see my mum before I had my supper, just to make sure everything was better like Pearl said, so I crept quietly down to Uncle Paddin and Aunt Lala's apartments. The door to the sitting room was open just enough for me to press my face up and peer in.
Mum was sitting on the sofa holding a bunch of blankets in a way that let me know the baby must be inside. She was making all those soft, silly noises grown-up hobbits make at babies. Uncle Paddin was standing beside her, leaning over so he could look inside the blankets, and he was smiling very big. I squeezed forward just a bit more, to see if anyone else was in the room, but that made the door squeak, and Mum and Uncle Paddin looked up at me.
"Well, there's my lad!" Mum said, smiling, and Uncle Paddin smiled at me, too. "It's all right, Merry, come and meet your new cousin."
I felt strange again, this time like I was meeting an important grown-up hobbit for the first time. I went over to Mum and looked inside the blankets, but all I could see were two flailing hands and some tufts of brown curls that stuck up out of the blankets like little bird's feathers. I could tell that the baby was tinier than other babies I have seen, though. He was making a funny little sound kind of like baby lambs do. It worried me a bit, because I had never heard a baby make a noise like that, so I asked, "Why is he making that sound?"
"He isn't strong enough to cry like other babies do," Uncle Paddin said, "so this is his way of crying."
"Don't worry, Paladin," my mother said with a laugh, "I am certain he will be crying loud and long enough for you soon. Won't you?" she said to the baby. "You will be a great big lad before any of us know it."
"I know he will be, because I had an omen that he would be all right," I told Mum eagerly, proud that I had understood the falcon right.
"An omen?" Mum said, puzzled, while Uncle Paddin said, "Whatever do you mean, Merry?"
"I saw a peregrine falcon today, and first he watched me for a long time, and then he flew over me three times and cried out, and he was an omen, like in Frodo's poem, and I knew it must be a good one because all the great birds Cousin Bilbo knows about have been good, so I knew it meant that the baby would be all right, because him getting better so that we can do fun things together is what I was thinking about when the falcon came," I explained in a rush, because they looked so confused.
Mum was giving me her thinking-hard look. Once, I asked her what she was feeling when she made that face, and she said she was thinking hard about why she deserved such a good lad as her son, so now I call it her thinking-hard face. "Merry," she said, "would you like to hold the baby?"
I felt proud that Mum trusted me to hold such a new baby, but I knew I could be careful enough. I nodded, and sat down beside her when she said to. Then she carefully put the bundle of blankets in my arms and showed me how to hold it and put her arms around mine to help, and he fit just perfectly in my arms. Now I could look down at the little face, for he had stopped flopping his hands about the very minute Mum put him into my arms.
Big green eyes in a tiny face looked up at me. His brow was all furrowed with displeasure and his little mouth was scrunched up. He looked at me hard, as if to say, "Well, there you are; it's about time," and because he was so familiar, I said, "Oh, it is you!" in surprise and delight.
Uncle Paddin laughed and said, "You would think the lad had been expecting him, Esmie!" but Mum gave me her most serious thinking-hard face and kissed my forehead. I felt like a big bubble of happiness was stuck right in the middle of my chest, and the feeling was too big to put into words, so I didn't try to tell Uncle Paddin and Mum that I had been expecting just this very little lad baby.
"What's his name, Uncle Paddin?" I asked, still looking down at that crinkled-up face that was looking up at me just as if he knew who I was, too.
"Well, we had thought to name him Paladin III, but call him Pippin," Uncle Paddin said, "but maybe that is not his name after all, hmm, Merry?"
"Oh, no," I said, for I knew it was right as soon as Uncle Paddin said it, "his name is Pippin, definitely."
Uncle Paddin crouched down beside me so he could look at the baby's face too, and put a hand on my knee. "Oh, yes, that is still what we will call him," he said. "But I think that maybe his name is Peregrin. We'll have to drop the 'e,' of course, to make it a proper lad's name. But after all, he had his very own omen, and we should honor that, don't you think?"
"Peregrin Took," Mum said thoughtfully, looking down on the baby I held so carefully. "Yes, I believe it suits him."
I looked at Uncle Paddin and smiled real big, because I was so happy that I had been right about the omen, and now the baby had his name because of it. Then Peregrin kicked me right in the chest with one of his little feet, and when I looked back down, he seemed to be saying, "Hoy, you're supposed to look at me!" So I did, and gave him a special big smile that I had been keeping just for him.
"Hullo, then, Pippin," I said, "you're just in time for supper."
(Note: The name Peregrine is from the Latin "peregrinus," which means traveling or wandering. I have never read that Tolkien intended a connection between this species of falcon and Pippin, and the idea actually came to me from Marigold.)