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A/N: This incident was first mentioned in a story told by Eglantine to a trapped and injured Tolly in The Greening of the Year, as she encouraged him to hold on until help arrived.
Peregrin Took was a faunt no longer. As of this day, his fifth birthday, he left faunthood behind and joined the ranks of breeches-wearing hobbits, and sat up at table at eventides instead of being put to bed after teatime, and was given the serious responsibility of scattering the grain for the hens, morning and evening, whilst an older sister gathered the eggs.
As of this day, his fifth birthday, he slept in a bed, a proper bed, mind, and not a trundle that slipped beneath his parents’ bed (as he had before he was weaned) or a sister’s bed up until last night. Today his parents had moved him into his very own room, with a little ceremony and a great deal of bustle and excitement. He was a big lad, now!
There were two beds in the room, four if you counted the trundles that slipped beneath the two regular beds. One bed was Pippin’s, and three were for guests, such as Merry or Frodo or Ferdi (his cousins) or even all three! …though if Frodo were visiting, he might stay in Bilbo’s room, as Merry or Ferdi might stay with their parents. But there were provisions, at least, for all the lads to share the room if need be. Pippin gave a bounce, just to think this thought, and then he settled down again.
It rankled that at the ripe old age of five he must still take a morning as well as afternoon nap, while Merry need only lie himself down in the afternoon, between the late nooning and teatime. Though it was Pippin’s own room, and he’d had his share of the planning and the painting -- what an adventure that had been! – it was lonely to be here all by himself, without Merry or even a sister for company.
He was not sleepy, or even tired. The Sun was bright outside, and through the open window he could hear the cheerful voices of the hired hobbits setting up tables and benches in the yard, for the birthday celebration. All the Bankses would be coming, and a number of Tooks, and of course Frodo and Bilbo would arrive soon from Hobbiton, and Merry was here already with his parents, and he and Ferdi were out playing somewhere or other, chased away by an exasperated Pearl – Pippin had heard her scolding them that if they took any more sultanas they mayn’t have any of the cake!
And here Pippin was, stuck in his bed, as if he were still a faunt.
And not just that, but being stuck in his bed meant that he could not solve a big problem.
It was a very big problem, and the longer he lay (he would have sat up, but for the occasional sister peeping in on him to see if he was napping as he ought), the greater the problem grew in proportion.
You see, it was his birthday, and now that he was no longer a faunt, but a proper hobbit, he thought he ought to offer a much nicer present to his mum than the usual handful of wilting flowers that he remembered picking and carrying to her the last two or three – he thought he remembered as many as three years back – years. No, it ought to be something much nicer! He’d overheard conversation recently, that gave him to believe he’d caused his mother a great deal of work and bother in the process of bearing him, and – he snorted – a handful of flowers hardly seemed grand enough to recognise such an effort.
But what could he give her? He thought over his few possessions and gave a shrug. A few stones, of various colours and textures. He’d set aside one for each uncle and cousin, with a story attached. Flowers for his sisters and aunts, picked after breakfast and keeping fresh in a mug of water. A large beetle in a glass bottle – that was one he’d collected with Healer Woodruff in mind, for she seemed to share his fascination with creatures great and small. An interesting leaf he’d picked up in the copse, an old leaf, with all the flesh worn away and only the intricate tracery of veins remaining – that was for his Da.
But for his Mum? What could be grand enough, on this, his fifth birthday? And time was running out. All the guests would arrive in time for the noontide meal, and he must have his presents all in order by then.
At last, released from his imprisonment by a sympathetic Pearl, he ran from the smial with her warning echoing in his brain (Come back when I ring the bell, that you might wash before the nooning, and don’t get dirty!) …which didn’t make sense, in retrospect. Why wash, if one didn’t get dirty? And why not get dirty, if one were to wash anyhow?
He ran straight to the barn, or as straight as a young hobbit might run, what with distractions all about him. The tables and benches were set up in the yard, and the hired hobbits were about some other business. Vases of bright flowers graced the tables, and there were too many place settings for a five-year-old to count. Suffice it to say, there were a lot of guests expected!
In the barn, in the hayloft, Pippin had secreted his treasure store. He got out the cloth they were wrapped in – the stones, that is, for the flowers in their mug were on his chest of drawers, along with the beetle-containing bottle. He went through the stones one by one, reminding himself of the story behind each, either because of shape, texture, or colour, for a part of grand gift-giving was in the presentation, and Pippin intended to be as grand as any proper hobbit, now that he was no longer a faunt. He lingered over the dull red stone he’d selected for Bilbo – how he’d enjoy spinning a story of the dragon that the stone brought to mind! He was certain Uncle Bilbo, having his own store of dragon lore, would be appreciative.
But there was still no suitable gift for his Mum.
Until… his eye fell on the cat, sleeping peacefully in the hay after a long night of hunting for vermin. She would, of course, waken when it was time for the milking, for Pippin’s sisters delighted in directing a spray of milk in the cat’s direction, just to see her sit up to catch it in her mouth. Her calico colours shone, especially the clean white parts of her coat, a brightness in that shaded place. He’d never noticed how pretty she was!
He folded up the cloth with its treasure trove of stones and tucked it away once more. The cat opened one eye at the rustle in the hay, then stretched, curled into a ball with her tail over her nose, and closed her eyes again. No mouse this time, just a little Pip.
Pippin crept on hands and knees over to where the cat lay, slowly so as not to startle her, and reached a cautious hand, for he’d been scratched before over an incautious move. The cat was so soft! She was lovely and soft, and she even began to purr as he ran tentative fingers over her head and back. Such a wonderful sound! Why, it was soothing and relaxing to hear, and persisted for a few seconds after he took his hand away, and returned when he petted her again. It was a wonderful sound, and he continued stroking her, just to keep the sound going.
Suddenly it came to him. It was brilliant! He’d give his mother the cat’s purr as his birthday mathom! He was certain she’d never had such a gift before!
‘Steady, Whiskers,’ he said now, continuing to pet and soothe with one hand, and as the cat seemed to settle further into the hay, he eased his other hand under her. She continued to purr as he lifted her gently into his lap – his heart sang! – and slowly stood to his feet.
The ladder proved an insurmountable problem. Er, he’d climbed up without any trouble – he’d been climbing that ladder for months now, though it would have worried his mother no end to hear of it. Getting down was another matter.
…and then he had the bright idea of getting down, the way Merry and Ferdi had shown him, only yesterday!
There was a large pile of hay to one side of the barn, where the hired hobbits forked hay out of the hayloft early in the morning, a full day’s supply, preparatory to feeding the cows and ponies in the morning, and again in the evening. Ferdi and Merry liked to jump from the loft into the pile of hay, when it was still large enough – before the evening feed. Pippin could jump down, into the soft hay!
He walked confidently over to the wide door, but hesitated on the threshold. It looked so much higher, without either Merry or Ferdi (or both) to sustain him…! Still, they’d managed yesterday – he’d managed yesterday, with their guidance.
He went over their instructions in his head once more, for good measure.
Hold tight to our hands! Well, that wasn’t practical, what with them out and about on the farm somewhere. Without him. It would serve them right if he jumped without holding anyone’s hand or hands. He’d show them; he was big now. Yesterday he’d still been four. Today he was all of five.
Still, it seemed a good idea to hold tight to something. He determined he’d hold tight to the cat, still sleepily purring in his arms.
Aim for the middle – the exact middle, do you see? That was Merry’s voice. He was always so precise in his instructions, and usually if Pippin followed his words, things came out well. Merry was good at thinking things through. He looked closely now. He was old enough, he thought, to be able to discern the middle of the pile, and it wouldn’t be hard to aim for it, having yesterday’s experience – practice! – to draw upon.
‘Hold tight… Aim for the middle…’ he murmured into the cat’s fur, ducking his chin to speak directly to her.
She seemed to have no objection.
‘All right then,’ he said, and began the count that his cousins had used. (It was a count that would stand him in good stead one day in the future, as he teetered on the edge of a fearful chasm in a far away place called Moria, but that’s another story.) ‘One… two… three… Jump!’
He jumped from the open doorway, out into the air – he was flying! – aiming for the middle of the haypile, holding tight, and a good thing, too! The cat no longer slept in his arms, purring slightly, but no.
She came awake, suddenly and thoroughly, and became a snarling, spitting thing, rapidly progressing to biting and scratching, trying desperately to win free. They landed in the hay, Pippin still holding tight to his companion, though she punished him with her claws.
‘Stop!’ he shrieked desperately. ‘Stop! No! Stop!’ But she would not stop, and though he tried to cast her away, her claws hooked into his shirt, and so, desperate, he hugged her tight again, trying to foil the raking claws. ‘Stop!’
And then his cries changed, as he saw his mother emerge from the kitchen in response to his cries. ‘Help!’ he said. ‘Help! She won’t stop! Mum! Da! Merry! Help! Help!’
‘Pip!’ she screamed. ‘Let her go! Let her go, Pip!’
The pain seemed to grow, along with his fright as the cat continued to yowl and fight. He hugged her closer and began to run, trying to run away from the fear and pain, but they followed him no matter how he dodged and ran. His mother, now, was chasing him, dodging with him, trying to catch him, and all the while she was shouting… which added to his confusion and fright, though with the noise of the cat, and his own screams, he couldn’t hear her words.
All was fear and confusion, terror and pain, until suddenly, something grabbed him from behind – he had the feeling of being swallowed by a monster, taken by the goblins from Bilbo’s stories (the ones he wasn’t allowed to stay up and hear, but crept from his bed to listen anyhow), swallowed alive!
He shrieked and sobbed and fought, at least until he became aware that strong, loving arms prisoned him in their grip, and his mother was holding him close, as close as he’d held the fighting cat, and she was crying out words of love and comfort. As he quieted, so did her voice, until she was merely murmuring as she rocked him. As he came to himself once more, finally aware that the nightmare was over, he realised that his mum was sitting, in her best dress, on the dusty ground, holding him in her arms, and there was dirt and blood all over himself, and all over her. Her carefully pinned hair had come loose and was flying wild around her head, and her face was scratched, and one eye looked as if it might be blackening from the blow of a small, desperate fist, but she looked at him with eyes of love and concern and crooned sweet nonsense without stopping.
‘There, there, my love. There, there, Pip, I’m here. Mum’s here and all’s well. All’s safe and well.’
And it was.
Though he still shuddered with sobs, his horror and helplessness were fading, and he nestled into her embrace. ‘O Mum! O Mum!’
‘There, there, my Pip, my heart.’
Once he’d calmed, she looked him over, examining every scratch, wincing herself to see the damage done, and then she got to her feet, still cradling him. ‘We’ve got to wash those scratches,’ she said. ‘We’ve got to wash them right away! A bath would be the thing, but I think it would sting too much…’
And she carried him into the kitchen, ordering her startled daughters to clear the table of its preparations for the meal – and all was hastily cleared away – and she laid her little son down on the tabletop and soon was gently dabbing at the welling blood with a cloth dipped in cooling water. She eased his torn clothing away, ordering Pearl to fetch him a fresh change of clothes, and washed him all over, quite as if she were a mother cat and he was her bedraggled kitten, as Pervinca observed.
But this only made Pippin burst into fresh tears, and he would not be consoled, not even when his scratches were all washed and smeared with soothing, healing balm, and he was freshly clad. His mother soothed and petted to no avail, and at last she picked him up and carried him over to the rocking chair by the hearth, where once upon a time she’d nursed each of her babes in turn.
‘There, there, Pip,’ she soothed, and she held him close and rocked him, hoping he might weep himself into healing sleep. But poor miserable Pip refused to be comforted.
Merry and Ferdi returned from their adventures and were hustled away by their mothers, to be washed and dressed in fresh clothes (they were quite disgracefully dirty) for the noontide meal, and still Eglantine rocked and soothed. She was interrupted by Pearl’s voice. ‘All’s ready, Mum, and oughtn’t I to ring the bell, to call Da and the hired hobbits from the field? The first of the guests are beginning to arrive…’
Eglantine started up from the rocking chair, Pip still in her arms. She was filthy! Smeared with blood, and dirt, her hair wild and unbound, and her little son wounded and weeping. And guests arriving!
Thinking quickly, she ordered her daughters out of the kitchen to greet the guests, to ring the bell for the hobbits in the fields, to shoo everyone away from the kitchen with the excuse that Too many cooks could spoil the broth -- every hobbit knew the truth of that saying. She needed quiet and time to think, for Pippin was in no condition to greet his birthday guests, and neither was she.
‘I’m sorry, Mum…’ her little Pippin was saying. ‘I’m so sorry.’
‘It’s naught, little one,’ she said, forcing brightness in her tone, for her heart was breaking to behold his sorrow. ‘It’s naught! It’ll all wash out… What’s important is that the scratches will heal, and you’re clean and safe, and it’s your birthday today, and…’
But that was not at all the thing, for Pippin, though he’d wept long, burst into fresh tears at this pronouncement.
‘But lovie!’ Eglantine said in bewildered protest. ‘A birthday is a joyous occasion! No time for tears!’
‘But… but…’ her son said, albeit rather muffled as his face was buried in her apron. She stopped what she was saying, to listen hard, for he seemed to be explaining the trouble, for the first time, and it had something to do with the reason for the day’s celebration.
‘What is it, love?’ she said at last, gently. ‘What’s the matter with your birthday? Was there something we left off? Something that was wanting?’
He said something indistinguishable, but her mother’s heart was listening closely, and she said, ‘…a mathom? Something to do with a mathom? O lovie, birthdays aren’t about mathoms and gifts, not at all, they’re about love!’
‘But they are!’ Pippin said, more clearly than before, for he’d reared up and was no longer muffling his words but speaking them out. ‘And I wanted to give you the best mathom, ever!’ And he gulped and sniffled, his face wet with tears and eyes overflowing with more.
‘The best mathom, ever?’ his mother said, mystified.
‘I was going to give you the kitty’s purr!’ he said. ‘It was so lovely, and soft, and sweet…’
Eglantine closed her eyes at this, to imagine such a thing, and then she had to stifle a sudden impulse to laugh, for she’d not hurt her little lad’s feelings, not for all the world. Mastering herself, she opened her eyes again, to his look of worry and sorrow. Smiling gently, she stroked a wayward curl back from his forehead. ‘But lovie, didn’t you know?’ she said, very soft, and stopped until she was certain she had his full attention.
He gulped again, looked up, and was caught by her loving gaze. ‘Don’t I know what?’ he said, and hiccoughed a little.
She chuckled, low in her throat, and stroked his hair. ‘Aw, lovie,’ she said. ‘I already have the best birthday mathom anyone could ever give me!’
Pippin gulped again, his expression tragic. ‘You do?’ he said in dismay.
She hugged him close. ‘O don’t look like that, love,’ she said, and put him back from her again, smiling through tears of her own, that surprised her by their advent.
‘But…’ he said, and swallowed hard. He was trying so hard to be grown up, and a faunt no longer.
How quickly the years pass, Eglantine thought, wiping a tear from the corner of her eye. How quickly they’ve passed, and my littlest isn’t a faunt any more. And too soon, in the blink of an eye, he’ll be all grown, and gone out the door…
But she hadn’t finished what she’d meant to tell him.
‘I do,’ she said firmly, and hugged him close again, and whispered in his ear. ‘I do have the best birthday mathom anyone could ever give me. Can’t you guess?’
And she put him back again, to gaze into his wondering eyes, where she knew she would find curiosity beginning to replace the sorrow, for he was a child of many questions – ah, the joy and the exasperation intertwined!
She chucked him under the chin with her finger and said, ‘But of course! You see, dearest heart, my greatest mathom… is you!’
He stared at her a moment, before understanding bloomed, and then he hugged her tight, and she hugged him, and they shared a long, sweet moment before she eased him back again, wiped his face with a clean corner of her apron, and said, ‘Well! Our guests are arriving, and I must freshen myself before I’m fit to be seen. Do you think you might go out and greet them for me, and tell them I’ll be right there?’
And Eglantine's most precious Mathom smiled suddenly, and said, ‘I will!’
‘There’s my great lad,’ she said, and that was all that needed saying, for some time after.
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