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Title: Nothing So Mortifying
(Title taken from this quotation: “There is nothing so mortifying as to fall in love with someone who does not share one's sentiments.”
― Georgette Heyer )
Theme: Adolescent Angst
Elements: Unrequited love
Author's Notes: In this story, Frodo is about 40 and Merry is 26, which means that Frodo is about the equivalent of a Man a little over 25, and Merry is about the equivalent of a Man of 16 and a half.
This story is also an expansion of an anecdote mentioned briefly in my story "Between Childhood and Coming of Age"
Summary: On a visit to Buckland, Frodo finds that Merry is in need of advice and comfort.
Word Count: 3,918
Frodo knew at once something was wrong in Merry's world. There was a tightness in his face in spite of his welcoming smile, a smile which did not quite reach Merry's eyes. Clearly, something or someone had recently hurt his cousin, and Frodo determined at once that he would have the story out of the young tween before his visit to Buckland was over. This was his first visit since the funeral of Uncle Rory and Aunt Gilda the previous spring; perhaps Merry was still grieving for his grandparents.* But Frodo had a feeling it was more than that.
But there was no time now for probing. Uncle Saradoc and Aunt Esmeralda had come to give him their own greetings. He was enveloped in Aunt Esme's fond embrace.
"Frodo! It's so good to see you, dear! Did you have a nice journey? It's such a long walk from Hobbiton--we weren't expecting you for another day!"
He returned her hug. "I caught a ride part of the way with a farmer's waggon," he said.
"I'm so glad you arrived today!" said Esme. "We're about to dine in the Main Hall. I'll tell the kitchen to add a place for you at the high table," she said, and took herself off.
Any chance for Frodo to talk to Merry then was forestalled when Saradoc asked his son to go find out if the post had come. "I'm expecting a letter from Thain Ferumbras about the repairs at the Stonebow Bridge," he said.
With a look back at Frodo that said plain as day "We'll talk later", Merry hurried off to do his father's bidding. Frodo and Saradoc spoke for a while about the news in Hobbiton and Bywater, and then Frodo went up to his guest room to freshen up before dinner. He would have preferred a more intimate meal in private, but now that Saradoc was the Master of Buckland he and the Mistress dined more often than not in the big public dining hall. And of course, they no longer dwelt in the apartments belonging to the Son of the Hall, but in the larger quarters belonging to the Master. Frodo's new guest room adjoined those rooms; it was larger and more spacious than the one he had lived in as a teen after his parents' death, and it had a window. Frodo's old room had been windowless, to discourage his habit of wandering in the night.
But Aunt Esme had seen to it that many of his favourite things from the other room had made their way to this one, which was now set aside especially for his visits. The bed was new, but covered with the soft quilted coverlet in cream and blue which had been made by his mother before her death. The wardrobe was the old one, but the washstand was not, although the pale green pitcher and ewer were the same. His old desk stood by the bed, serving also as a nightstand.
One of the servants had brought his pack up and placed it on the bed. Frodo went over to the washstand beneath the window, and smiled to see the rosemary soap and fresh water. He cleaned himself up and changed into a fresh shirt and weskit. Through the window he could hear the large iron bell calling any of the household who were still outdoors to come in for the evening meal. He picked up his jacket and put it on, and headed down to the dining hall.
Merry was already at the high table, seated at his father's right hand. He had been watching the door, and he waved, and indicated the seat at his own right hand, where the place had been set for Frodo. His smile seemed genuinely glad to see Frodo, who began to think perhaps his cousin's earlier mood had been temporary. He made his way there, and took his place. It was not quite time for the meal yet, as various household members made their way to the dining hall. Merry looked up at him and grinned. "I'm glad you're here," he said. "I usually end up sitting next to Uncle Mac. Not that I'm not fond of him, but there really isn't anything to talk about with him that we both haven't heard before. I miss sitting with the other tweens."
Frodo sat down in his chair and chuckled. "I'm quite sure I can think of a few things to tell you that you haven't heard yet. Have you had a letter from Pippin lately?"
Merry laughed. "I know he paid you a short visit a couple of weeks ago. 'Dear Merry, I got to visit Frodo. We had a lot of fun. I wish you were there. Love, Pip'! But I've no idea of what happened."
Frodo grinned and shook his head. "Pip writes such long and informative letters, doesn't he? Paladin and Tina had a visit to pay to Clodio in Underhill, and they dropped Pippin off to stay with me. You know how it is with Clovis and Cado."
"I know they bully him dreadfully," Merry said with a scowl. "How Aunt Tina can be related to those two, I can't imagine."
Frodo shrugged. "Sometimes I can't imagine how I can be related to the S.-B.s. Thankfully I have plenty of adequate cousins to make up for them." His eyes twinkled and Merry let out with an inelegant snort.
"Why thank you very much, cousin! I can testify to your adequacy as well."
"Well, anyway, let me tell you what Pippin got up to while he was at Bag End this last time..."
Just then they were interrupted by the beginning of the meal. Platters of fried fish and sliced ham, and steaming bowls of roasted carrots, turnips and potatoes, and baskets of freshly baked breads were placed on the table and they were temporarily distracted as they filled their plates. But once they'd taken the edge off their hunger, Frodo once more began the tale of Pippin's visit.
"...and he scandalized the Gaffer and delighted the younger Gamgees when he went up the oak in front of Number Three to fetch down Marigold's kitten..." But Frodo became aware that he'd lost Merry's attention. His cousin was staring glumly at the tweens' table, where he no longer sat now that he was Son of the Hall.
Surely that could not account for the trouble he'd sensed earlier, Frodo thought. Merry had too much sense to pout over something that couldn't be helped. He gazed at the table himself. There sat Doderic and Merimas, Mentha and Melilot. There was Holly Boffin, a cousin of his friend Folco Boffin, but a Brandybuck on her mother's side. He also saw Ivy Proudfoot seated next to Berilac; and over at the children's table, he saw her brother Sancho. They must be visiting Uncle Merimac and Aunt Linda, who was a Proudfoot by birth.
Just then, Ivy turned and glanced up at the high table. The look she gave to Merry was at first haughty and cold, but then she smiled at him and gave a little wave of her hand. Merry's own smile was filled with both confusion and relief, and suddenly Frodo understood. Poor Merry! If he had an infatuation for Ivy Proudfoot, he was sure to be on for a wild ride down the river, as they said in Buckland. Frodo knew only too well that young as she was she had already left a long string of broken hearts.
He hoped that Merry would talk to him about it, although he wasn't sure what advice he could give his younger cousin. Frodo himself had been too shy during his tweens to speak to the lasses who caught his eye, and after he came of age, too many of them had a predatory gleam in their eyes (or in the eyes of their mothers). Lobelia was not the only hobbitess who wanted to be Mistress of Bag End, though that route was closed to her. Bilbo's only advice to him had always been "A gentlehobbit will never kiss and tell", and "follow your heart". Frodo had a kiss or three in his experience, and he'd always been a gentlehobbit about it, but it was not easy to follow his heart when he wasn't sure what his heart wanted. And truthfully, he liked being a bachelor and not having to answer to a wife. It was clear, though, that Merry was smitten.
Merry turned his attention back to Frodo, and now his expression was much lighter, though Frodo detected a blush. Frodo continued his account of Pippin's weekend at Bag End, and Merry reciprocated with an account of Iberic and Celandine, Cousin Seredic's two youngest, and the epic quarrel they'd had last week which had resulted in Celandine pulling a large chunk of Ilberic's hair out. Ilberic had known he could not retaliate against his sister the way he'd have liked to, so he settled for throwing dirt all over her new frock. Their screeching had scandalized the entire Hall, and now they both were confined to their rooms for the next two weeks.
The meal ended with a nice strawberry fool for afters, and a bowl of fruit and cheese for filling up the corners. Merry kept glancing at Ivy, and as she stood up for her own meal, she looked back at him and crooked a finger at him. Merry blushed to the tips of his ears, and said to Frodo, "Er, I hope we get a chance to talk this evening, but, um, I think I want to go out and get a bit of fresh air first."
"That's fine, Merry. I'm rather tired from my trip. If I go to sleep before you get back, we can talk in the morning."
Merry nodded, and rushed off to intercept Ivy. Frodo watched, amused, as they made their way out of the room.
"Well, she's got him wrapped around her little finger," said Saradoc, from the other side of Merry's empty chair.
Esmeralda gave a sniff. "That lass is a flirt, and all I have to say is, she had better watch out. I won't have the sort of nonsense here that she gets up to at home."
"Now, now," said Uncle Sara, "you never know. It might work out."
Esme responded with a "Hmmph!" and Sara turned and winked at Frodo, who grinned back at him.
As the dining hall emptied, Frodo followed the Master and Mistress back to their quarters. He and Sara enjoyed a pipe and a game of draughts, and then, Merry not having returned yet, he went to his room and his sleep.
Frodo awakened rather earlier than he usually did when in Buckland. Perhaps it was the window. It appeared from the angle of the Sun that he might even be in time for first breakfast. He could hear a murmur of voices outside his room, so he washed and dressed quickly; it was just as well, for there was a knock on his door.
"Frodo!" It was Aunt Esme's voice. She sounded upset.
He opened the door. "What is it, Aunt Esme?"
She glanced past him, and her shoulders slumped. "I had hoped that Merry might have come to you in the night," she said.
"He doesn't do that anymore, Aunt Esme, unless there is a good reason. He's too old for that sort of thing now." He stopped. "Why did you think he was here?"
"He wasn't in his room. And his bed was not slept in."
Now Frodo felt quite alarmed. Surely not! Merry certainly had more sense than that. And yet he was clearly smitten... "Aunt Esme, the last time any of us saw him was when he left after supper to walk with Ivy Proudfoot."
Aunt Esmeralda's face went white. Her eyes sparked. "We'll find out right now." She turned and stalked off, and Frodo followed meekly. He certainly hoped that Merry had not been foolish enough to stay out all night with a lass.
"Where's Uncle Sara?" Frodo asked. He would have expected Merry's father to be right at Esme's side.
"He left before sun-up," she said. "He had business in Haysend today. He doesn't even know Merry's missing."
Frodo followed his aunt as she stalked down the corridor to the quarters of her brother-in-law, Merimac. Then she rapped smartly on the door.
The door was opened by Berilac. "Aunt Esmeralda!" He sounded surprised, and no wonder; it was unusual for her to come visit this time of morning.
"Good morning, Beri. Is your cousin Ivy here?"
Berilac looked confused. "Yes. She's still at first breakfast."
Esmeralda moved past her nephew and headed for the small private dining room, where Linda sat with Sancho and Ivy. Merimac was not there, as he had accompanied Saradoc on his journey to Haysend.
Esme looked at her sister-in-law. "Linda, may I have a word with Ivy?"
"Certainly, Esmeralda!" She gave her niece a speculative look, wondering what in the world the child had been up to now?
"Ivy, when did you see Merry last?"
Ivy looked apprehensive at first, and then raised her chin haughtily though she was blushing furiously. "Last night after supper. We walked down by the River. Then he left." It was clear she was not telling the whole story.
Merry's mother stared at her until Ivy looked away. "Why did he leave you there? Why did he not escort you back here?"
Ivy was silent for a moment. Then she said, "He stole a kiss. I slapped him, and then we had words. He ran off."
Frodo felt Esmeralda relax somewhat. The worst was averted. Still, it did not explain Merry's absence. She turned to him. "Frodo, I believe Linda and I need to have a talk with Ivy. Would you go and look for Merry?"
"Of course, Aunte Esme."
Linda glanced at Ivy, who did not look happy, then turned to her son. "Berilac, would you and Sancho go with Frodo and help him search?"
Both lads nodded, and followed Frodo, leaving Ivy to the questions of her aunt and of the Mistress of the Hall.
"Frodo," said Berilac, "Ivy kept teasing Merry over being timid and not bold enough. You know what some lads in Buckland try to do to prove their bravery..."
"You mean the Old Forest?" But his heart sank. Most of the lads who tried it found no way in. But as Son of the Hall, Merry would have access to the key to the Gate in the High Hay. "Well, we can find out quickly enough. We'll go see if the key is missing."
They made their way to the Master's study. Sancho followed sullenly, muttering under his breath about his sister's tendency to get them in embarrassing trouble wherever they went. Frodo and Beri politely pretended not to hear him, but his litany of complaints was enlightening. Apparently this was not the first time something like this had happened.
Thankfully, the key was still on the hook in the cabinet by the door. Both Frodo and Berilac heaved a sigh of relief--sending a search party into the Old Forest after Merry would be the talk of Buckland.
Still, that left the matter of where Merry might be. "Beri," said Frodo, "you and Sancho go search outside. He may have gone to the stables or down to the Ferry, or perhaps to the cove. I'll check here in the Hall--I know most of the places he likes to go here."
Berilac and Sancho nodded and left. Frodo stood for a moment, thinking. Then he briefly went to check the library, but it was empty this early in the morning. So he headed to the lower levels. He and Merry had a special place they often went to hide in one of the old mathom rooms. But his cousin wasn't there; it was clear from the dust that no one had been there in a very long time.
Where else would Merry go to lick his wounds? He mentally checked off several places as being too likely to have someone wander in. He now went to the uppermost quarters, and tapped on Cousin Calla's door, recalling how their invalid cousin had said Merry could come see her sometimes at the time of Uncle Rory's funeral. But her maidservant Yarrow opened the door. "No, Mr. Frodo, no one's been by today. Miss Calla's asleep still, she had a bad night last night. Last time Master Merry was by was two weeks ago."
For a moment, Frodo was stymied. When he was upset, Merry would usually hole up in Frodo's old room--but of course! Frodo's room now was not the one he had before! Convinced he'd guessed aright, he turned and made his way down to the now-empty quarters of the Son of the Hall. He went in; even though most of the furniture was still there, the rooms still had a vacant feel to them. He quietly made his way to the door that had led to his old room, and tapped on the door.
There was no answer, and Frodo knocked once more.
"Frodo? Is that you?" came a subdued voice.
"Yes, Merry. I'm coming in." He suited action to words, leaving the door wide open, as he knew only too well that the room would be dark.
His cousin lay on the bare mattress of Frodo's old bed, his left arm flung over his head. Merry moved his arm, and then winced at the faint light coming in through the open door. Frodo strolled over to the bed and sat down next to him.
Merry pulled himself up on his elbows and looked at Frodo. "I should have known you'd find me here."
"It just seemed you might be here. If it makes you feel any better it wasn't the first place I looked."
Merry's mouth twisted into a brief wry smile. "That's something anyway." Then he sat up and flung himself at his cousin, "Frodo! I've disgraced myself and been a fool! I thought she wanted...she doesn't love me at all."
Frodo gave him a firm embrace, and then held him back by the shoulders, and looked into Merry's sad face. "No, I am sure she does not. Merry, Ivy is far too young to know her own mind. And I know that you kissed her."
Even in the dim light he could see the flush tinting Merry's cheeks. "How? I didn't tell anyone, I know better than that!"
"She told us herself," said Frodo.
Now his expression was one of indignant betrayal. " 'Us'?" he asked warily.
"Your mother, myself, your Aunt Linda, Berilac and Sancho, at breakfast. She said you stole a kiss, and that she slapped you."
"Frodo, I won't be able to look my mother in the eye! But really, I thought Ivy wanted me to kiss her. She stood really close and looked up at me, and that's what, well, someone else did last year when she wanted us to kiss, so I thought..."
"I think your mother knows you well enough to understand that you did not intend to offend. And sadly, she blames Ivy for leading you on."
Merry sighed. "Well, she did and she didn't. That is, sometimes I thought she liked me, and then she would act like she couldn't bear me to be around her. It was very confusing." He shook his head. "I hope she's not in too much trouble. I suppose it's not her fault I misunderstood."
Frodo smiled and gave Merry a squeeze of the shoulders. "It's never well-done to blame the lass when things like this happen." He was proud that Merry was willing to shoulder the blame.
Merry nodded. "I don't suppose I can stay in here for the rest of my life?"
"No, Merry, you cannot."
"I guess I should apologise to her. Do you think if I do she might change her mind about me?"
Frodo suppressed a chuckle. "Yes, an apology would be a good thing. But if I were you, I would not hope for her to change her mind. She might--and then change it again, and then where would you be?"
Merry gave Frodo a long look, and then nodded his head reluctantly. "I wonder if I will ever find a lass who won't change her mind about me?"
"I am quite sure that one day you will find the perfect lass for you."
Merry looked glumly skeptical at this optimistic prediction, but he seldom contradicted Frodo outright. Frodo shook his head. "Let's go to the pump in the kitchen, and you can wash, and then we shall go down and face the dragons."
"Your mother, your aunt, and Miss Ivy."
Esmeralda, Linda and Ivy were still at the breakfast table, although the dishes had been cleared away. They looked up as Frodo and Merry entered the room. Ivy, who was looking very subdued, flushed.
Frodo stood behind Merry with his hand on his cousin's shoulder. Merry took a deep breath. "Miss Ivy, I am very sorry that I presumed to give you unwanted attentions. I thought...well, anyway, I am sorry. I hope that you will forgive me." He looked down at his toes and his shoulders slumped in dejection.
Ivy stared at him for a long moment. Linda cleared her throat. "I do forgive you, Merry. And I am sorry as well, that I may have given you the impression I would allow you to kiss me."
Merry looked up then, and nodded. Just then, as if to complete his humiliation, his stomach chose that moment to rumble loudly. He turned redder than ever.
Frodo looked over at Esmeralda, and then said, "You've had no breakfast yet, nor have I, and it's nearly time for second breakfast. Why don't we go on down to the dining hall and be first to find our plates?"
Merry looked up at him gratefully and nodded.
As they sat down with their plates full: sausage, bacon, mushrooms, grilled tomatoes and toast, Merry set to his food with eagerness. He finally stopped briefly to take a sip of his tea. "Frodo?"
"I think I am going to swear off lasses at least until I come of age!"
Frodo nodded solemnly. "That might be a good idea, cousin," he said judiciously. He wondered how many times he would hear that from him before Merry turned thirty-three.
*The death of Rorimac Brandybuck canonically took place in S.R. 1408, when Merry was 26 and Frodo was 40. I described that event in my story "Cousin Calla". This story takes place in the autumn of that same year.
(Taken from this quotation: “There is nothing so mortifying as to fall in love with someone who does not share one's sentiments.”
― Georgette Heyer )
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