It had been a long time since he had been to the Towers, but Fastred Fairbairn was curious to see his grandfather's new acquisition. The old hobbit had an impressive collection of paintings and drawings and sculptures and artifacts he had picked up here and yon. Fastred's father had been heard to mutter that the fellow had gone a trifle daft in his old age.
That's scarcely a nice thing to say about your own father, his mother had chided him.
'Tis true nevertheless. What sort of hobbit collects old pictures and odds and ends of junk?
A wealthy one with naught better to do, I suppose.
Well, at least he didn't go about like that old Baggins fellow, slaying dragons and such, or I could scarce look my friends in the eye. Dratted if my own son isn't starting to take after him. If only he'd choose a wife and settle down. He's thirty-eight years old, after all. It's high time the young rogue was getting married.
I thought he has his sights on Iris Mayhew?
I thought so too, once, but a friend told me he'd seen him with that Bridgewater lass a few days ago. He can't seem to make up his mind.
Just give him time, dear. He's young yet, and a very comely fellow, if he is my own son. You know how the maids flirt with him, and he's not rude enough to tell them to leave him be.
Ha! Of course he's not.
And Iris is not quite yet of age, you know, and they are not officially betrothed....
And so it went. Fastred got on much better with his grandfather than with his parents. At least the old chap wasn't constantly hounding him to marry and settle down.
He paused and looked up at the tower of Elostirion, where his grandfather dwelt and maintained both an impressive library and his art collection. He remembered the stories, how the palantir of Elendil was kept here so that one might look out and see the Blessed Realm from the top. But it had been taken there many years ago, when the last of the Elves left Middle-earth. He wished he had gotten a chance to see it, but he had been but a little lad when that happened, and had not even known such a thing existed.
The tower was white and lofty and very beautiful, and he had always enjoyed going up into it. His parents never would go with him. They much preferred to keep their feet on the ground, as they liked to say.
“Ah, there you are, my lad,” Andres Fairbairn said over the spiral staircase that led to the first level above the ground. “I saw you coming up the road from the gallery window. Would you like some refreshment?”
“I would indeed,” Fastred said as he ran lightly up the stairs as he used to do. He and the grey-haired hobbit embraced, laughing a little, and Andres went to his wine-cupboard to procure the much-desired brew.
“This is really why I come here, you know,” the younger hobbit said as he sampled the delicious white wine.
“Of course it is,” Andres chuckled. “Drink up, my lad. It will do you good. And prepare you for the masterpiece you are about to see.”
“And what might this masterpiece be?” Fastred asked as he took another sip. “I can scarcely remember the last one.”
Several of the pieces were of less than sterling quality, having been gifts, or works the old hobbit had purchased from friends or relatives who were a bit down and out. Fastred rather hoped the new one would be much better, having traveled several miles to see it.
“You will see soon,” his grandfather said. “It is most remarkable, I must say. And to think it was painted by a lass not out of her tweens yet.”
“Oho!” Fastred chuckled. “You still have an eye for a pretty lass. At least I come by it honestly. I certainly didn't get it from my father...not that my mother isn't comely, at that.”
Andres gave a little snort. “You'll think 'pretty lass', all right, when you see this painting. This way, young whippersnapper!”
They stood in the first of the round rooms that housed the library, where some of the artifacts stood...including a suit of armor reputed to have belonged to Elendil himself. And a sword, shield, and spear hanging over the fireplace.
“So who painted this remarkable work?” Fastred found himself asking as they mounted the next flight of stairs.
“The Mayor of Hobbiton's eldest daughter, Elanor Gamgee,” Andres replied. “You have met Samwise Gamgee, I know?”
“Aye, I have...although it's been about twelve years ago,” Fastred said. He was starting to get a little out of breath. His grandfather must have an amazing pair of lungs, living in a tower at his age. “But I met none of his family members.”
“Well that he doesn't take them everywhere he goes,” Andres said. He was starting to puff a bit, himself. “Next floor, my lad.”
“Thank the Powers for that,” Fastred said. “If it were any higher, we might have to make a day of it and climb the rest tomorrow.”
“Ha!” Andres snorted. “Here I am three times your age, and I can climb the entire tower without stopping for breath.”
“I was joking, Granddad. But I do think you need to slow down a bit. Perhaps I should come live with you here. I think you need someone to see to you more.”
“I've your grandmother, and several servants, even if one of them has sticky fingers.”
“I thought you got rid of her, Granddad.”
“I will, if I catch her going through my coat-pockets again.”
“You won't do it. You're too much of a softy.”
“Ha! You only think so.”
“All she has to do is make big puppy eyes at you, and you'll let her stay as long as she likes and steal you blind.”
“You don't know me as well as you think, m'lad.”
Fastred laughed again, wishing he might sit down for a moment and catch his breath.
But finally they were on the first floor housing the gallery.
There was scarcely a patch on the walls that did not have a picture hanging on it. Many were portraits, of important personages that Fastred had barely even heard of, and there were pictures of historical figures of whom he had read or heard stories, but he could scarcely keep straight who was whom. Mostly Elves, and some Men, and a few Hobbits, including one Bilbo Baggins, whom his grandfather had met long ago, and had long since gone over the sea.
He was the most interesting Hobbit I ever met, Andres had said of him. He could tell stories that would fair make your hair stand on end. I dare say he told a stretcher or two, but I didn't really mind. Told him he should write it all down, and he said he would. Samwise has the book in his keeping now. Wouldn't I love to have a copy for my very own! Perhaps I will, someday...who knows? Some of these sketches on this wall here were his. Look--that's Gollum, right there. Did you ever?
Fastred glanced about for the new artwork, his eyes scanning the walls, and then his grandfather took his arm and steered him over to the western wall, and pointed over the fireplace, where hung a portrait in oils, in a very large elaborately carved gold-painted frame.
Fastred's eyes widened. “Who is that?
“Can't you guess?” his grandfather said with an almost wistful smile.
Fastred put his fingertips to his lips. The face was that of a Hobbit, to be sure. Yet a face of uncommon beauty, with eyes that seemed to look pensively down into his. A face that housed wisdom, sorrow, knowledge of the sort most would not care to have, and also a firmness of purpose, a thread of invisible steel, a desire to know, to embrace, to uplift, to protect and enjoy and teach and minister, perhaps to those who did not even want it, were too small to look up and see one who stood too high above them even to notice. A face that even so, asked for friendship, for support and acceptance and love and guidance, did not shrink from asking for companionship or admitting to failure. The face of a poet, a lover, a seer, and a hero, all in one.
“Frodo Baggins,” Andres said softly, when Fastred did not speak. “He was but a lad when first I met him. How could I have guessed, then, that he would someday be the chosen one, who would go forth and take down the Dark Lord and fulfill the prophecy? You'd scarcely think it even now. And he went over the sea with Bilbo, they say. I wish I'd known they were going. I saw the folks leaving, from this same tower. But I never once supposed he and Bilbo were among them.”
“So that is Frodo Baggins,” Fastred said when he could find his voice once more. “And a young lass painted that?”
“Aye, she did. And she's not seen him since she was but an infant. She did it from a sketch someone gave to her when she went to Minas Tirith, a few years ago. Incredible, it is. She lived there for a year, you know, and was taught by the great Elven sculptor AlkhlokŽion. Ever hear of him? He it was who designed the Argonath.”
“That portrait is plainly the work of someone in love,” Fastred said, loath to tell his grandfather he did not know what the Argonath was. “So you've met her? What is she like?”
He had a pretty good idea of what she was like already. But he had to ask.
“Exactly as you think,” his grandfather said with a knowing look. “And don't get any of your big ideas, my fine boy. She's still a young thing, twenty-eight or twenty-nine, I should think, not nearly of age yet.”
“How does she look?” Fastred asked before he could stop himself. “I suppose she must be quite the beauty herself? Or not? Nay, likely she's plain as dirt. Couldn't pick her out of a crowd. And yet she has it in her to create such a thing as that.”
He looked at his grandfather with raised eyebrows, waiting for the old hobbit to fill him in. But Andres merely shrugged.
“Never you mind it, young fellow. You're a flirt and a trifler, and she's the treasure of her father's heart and the apple of his eye. You might come up missing a valuable part of your anatomy if you go sniffing around his daughter without--”
“'Sniffing around his daughter'!” Fastred exclaimed. “What am I, a dog? I intend no such thing. I merely asked what she was like. So you're not telling?”
“Nay, I'm not,” Andres said. “What of Miss Mayhew, anyway? I thought you were keeping company with her?”
“Well, she is not quite of age yet either,” Fastred sighed. “I don't know, I was fair smitten with her once. But that was a year ago...and now? I don't feel as if I know her. She's very pretty, not stupid, and reasonably well heeled. Even so, I'm just wondering if there's really anything to her or not. She talks a good deal, and yet...I could not tell you one thing she's ever actually said.”
To his dismay, as he spoke those words, those fragments of Iris Mayhew that yet remained in his heart suddenly fell away completely, like the last leaves on a tree in a sudden strong autumn wind. He looked up at the portrait, and he knew that he had to meet this Miss Gamgee...whom he had never seen, had no idea how she looked, and perhaps she had a sweetheart already....
“Perhaps you haven't really listened?” Andres said.
“Perhaps,” Fastred said, startled.. “Then again, maybe she's got naught to say. Well. I suppose I shall just tell her I'm not good enough for her. For that matter, I'm not.”
“You're not good enough for Miss Gamgee either.”
“I know. But perhaps I could make myself worthy.”
“And she isn't of age yet.”
“So much the better. Then I'll have time to make myself worthy.”
“And how will you manage that?”
“I've no idea. But I will, somehow. Or perhaps she will take me as I am, and I will grow like a plant in the sunlight of her virtue. I do know I must meet her, at least. If it's the last thing I ever do.”
“What are you painting, our Ellie?” her youngest brother Tommy asked her as he ran up to her and wiggled up into her lap.
“What does it look like?” Elanor asked as she laid down her brush and put an arm about the little boy, and a quick kiss atop his curly head.
Tommy looked at the oval-shaped piece of wood set up on her easel, which sat smack in the middle of a circular glade surrounded by young pine trees. There was a fairy-ring in the middle, and here she had set her easel; it was her painting place, at least when weather permitted.
Tommy screwed up his face and peered closely at the picture. His eyesight was not very good, and so he squinted and turned his head this way and that, and finally he leaned over very close to the painting.
“She looks like you,” he said at last. She laughed.
“It IS me,” she said. “I'm a paintin' me this time. Fancy that!”
“Why are you paintin' you?” he asked. “Why don't you paint me?”
“I did. Remember? I painted you last year.”
“Why don't you paint me this year? I'm bigger now, ain't I?”
“Maybe I will, after I finish this 'un. I'm makin' it for a birthday present for Mum and Dad, you know. But you mustn't tell, promise?”
“Promise,” he said drawing a large criss-cross on his midsection. “What are you goin' to give me for your birthday?”
“Even if I knew, I wouldn't tell, silly,” she said tugging at one of his light curls. “'Twould spoil the surprise.”
“You know what Toby Gawkroger said?” The little boy twisted around to look her in the face. “He said I'm too big to sit in your lap. Am I, Ellie?”
“You're sittin' in it now, ain't you?” she said frowning. “If you was too big, you wouldn't be a doin' it.”
“Is he goin' to marry you, Ellie?” Tommy asked. “He said as he was.”
“Well, he can keep right on dreamin',” Elanor said with a little sniff. “Tommy...sit still, please? If you keep wigglin', you'll make me mess up, and I need to get this finished soon.”
“I don't like Toby Gawkroger,” Tommy said watching her as she dipped her brush in a blob of golden-brown paint. “Here's what he does when he talks to me.”
And he slid off her lap, and took a very wide-legged stance with his arms folded in front of him, looking down quizzically at an imaginary small being before him with his head to one side and squinting one eye in an exaggerated manner.
“Ain't yer too big to be sittin' on yer sister's lap, young fella?” he said in the deepest tones he could muster. Elanor laughed aloud.
“Aye, that's just what he does,” she said.
“Do I now?” said a voice behind him, and there was Toby Gawkroger, in that identical stance, although completely unaware of it.
Iris Mayhew sat in her garden, her curly head bent over her work. She was a painter as well--although mostly she painted on dishes. She painted pretty flowers, and sometimes birds, butterflies, fruits, anything dainty and delicate. She did it well, and Fastred had once found it most endearing in her, a lovely accomplishment for a lovely girl. Now he felt only a great weariness for the delicate and sugary and sheltered world in which she lived, and mentally kicked himself for his own fatuous dreams of taking her to his grandfather's tower and setting her high above the sordid uses of the world below....
There were several dishes on the little work-table before her, some already bedizened with her work, others awaiting it. And later, most of those dainty dishes lay in shards on the paving-stones, his forehead sporting a nasty cut where one of them had bounced off it.
Half an hour later he was singing as he sprinted home, holding his handkerchief to the wound, his hood thrown back. He had never felt better.
The cut needed stitching, as it turned out. He bore the pain manfully, knowing he deserved it after all, and hoping hard that it would be the worst thing he would have to endure.
The next step was how to find Miss Gamgee, and then how to approach her.
I'll give her a commission, he thought as he coaxed out a particularly difficult tangle from his dark curls, looking at himself in the mirror. I'll have her paint my portrait, as a gift to Granddad. There now. That wasn't so hard, was it?
He laid down the comb and struck several poses, chuckling at some of them, then trying a pensive one, not unlike the one in the portrait of Frodo Baggins. But pensive was not really his style. Perhaps jaunty would be better, but it was hard to be jaunty in front of a mirror; he only looked ridiculous. What would Miss Gamgee think of him? He had carefully concealed the cut with a skillful arrangement of his hair, now if the breeze would just behave itself.... And what to wear? His mother said blue suited him best, bringing out the blue in his blue-green eyes, yet he looked well in red also, and it would be more dramatic.... Then again, if he dressed up too much, her parents might think he was some philandering pretty boy and would not let him near their darling daughter....
Then there was the matter of what to bring her. He had to find the right gift...but what? He had not even met her yet; he had no idea what she would like.
He had recently moved into the tower with his grandfather. It was high time he was leaving home, he reasoned...although perhaps moving in with his grandfather was not exactly striking out on his own. Still, the old fellow was delighted to have him, and there was plenty of room. And he could roam the tower at leisure, and perhaps actually read some of the books in the library. He had yet to read any all the way through, and some of them were in languages he did not understand...but a few were somewhat interesting.
And he could examine the art treasures more closely. And as he did so, thinking of Elanor, he had a sudden dark impulse. Surely there was something here that his grandfather would not miss. Miss Gamgee was a lass who loved beautiful things--objects of value, not just pretty knickknacks such as Iris Mayhew fancied. Ah, here was a most interesting little vase...pure white, with intricate gold-painted scrolls on it. Elven work without a doubt. Graceful and unusual, yet not too showy or too fragile--it was just the thing. Glancing guiltily about, he secreted it in an inside pocket, then moved several objects about on the shelf so that its loss would not be noted.
“Is Miss Gamgee really so fair as all that, Andres?” Oriana Fairbairn asked her husband after supper. Fastred had gone out that morning, saying he was going away for a few days. The elderly couple were in their sitting-room on the first level of the tower, he smoking his pipe, she mending a shirt. The sun was going down beautifully in the west.
“How's that?” Andres said absently, contemplating the beauty of the Evenstar from the large window facing the Harbor.
“I asked you if Elanor Gamgee is so comely a maid as she's made out to be?” Mrs. Fairbairn asked patiently. She was well used to his abstracted moods.
“Ai, well,” Andres said taking his pipe out and looking thoughtfully at it, “there's some as say she looks more like an Elf-maid than a Hobbitess, but I dare say they're the ones as have never seen any Elf-maids. At first sight of her, you think she's just a pretty lass, and wonder what all the fuss is about. Then you see her at her art, or listening to a story, or working the garden, and that's when a soft shine might come to her, and then she'll look up as though she's just had the loveliest thought imaginable...and that's when you know you've just seen beauty at its purest. It comes more from the inside of her than the outside. But I told Fastred none of that. I'll let him see her for himself. I also did not see fit to tell him she has a dozen younger siblings at least.”
“Ah, Andres, you've not changed a bit,” Mrs. Fairbairn said shaking her head and smiling. “So...he is so smitten with her as all that, and he's not even met her? Do you think aught will come of it?”
“This is to be our secret, Oriana,” Andres said, glancing about and lowering his voice, “but I've got Miss Elanor all picked out for him. I think she'd make him a splendid wife. Remember now—not a word to any other, not even your sister. At least, not until the betrothal.”
Mrs. Fairbairn laughed aloud. “You old rascal!” Then she sobered, saying, “Do you think he'll make her a good husband, though?”
“I dare say he will, when he outgrows some of his selfish notions,” Andres said. “There's more to him than just his dark good looks and spiffy clothes, you know. Far more. And I think Miss Elanor is just the one to coax it from him. She's not a gardener's daughter for naught, after all.”
“And what does Mayor Gamgee think about all this?” she said looking her husband in the eye.
“I'm writing him first thing tomorrow, to tell him of my plan,” Andres said. “He might take a bit of persuading...but I flatter myself I can do it.”
“I never cared much for Iris Mayhew,” Oriana said after a while. “She's a nice lass in her way, but there's something about her that never sat right with me. I just feel fidgety when I'm around her for long. I wish her well, and hope she'll find someone else soon. But still I'm relieved, on the whole, that it's not to be her after all.”
The next morning, she called out in alarm from the Gallery. “Andres! What has happened to that little white vase? It's gone! Do you suppose Corie has been at it again? Oh, I knew I should have let that girl go back when--”
“Corie didn't take it, my love,” Andres called up from the stair.
“I gave it to Fastred to give to Miss Gamgee,” he said with a look of utmost innocence.
It was a hundred miles to Hobbiton. Further questioning led him to Bag End. The denizens of Hobbiton were trusting souls.
He put on simple riding clothes for his final destination, deciding that the wisest course after all was not to call overmuch attention to himself. Finding Bag End took some doing, there were so many roads now. Yet in the afternoon he found himself on Bagshot Row at last, and it needed little deducing to figure which of the smials was the famous Bag End.
What he had not expected to find that it was literally overrun with children. Some playing in the yard, one swinging on the gate, others swarming over the hill on which stood a mighty oak tree. Dumbfounded, he tried counting them. It was hard to count so many in motion, but there were almost two dozen. Likely some were neighbor children; there couldn't possibly be so many...could there?
He was more than a little taken aback, being unused to children. I owe you one, Granddad, he thought, and then his hand touched the little vase he had stowed in his cloak pocket. He paused to take it out and look at it, and his conscience smote him then. Likely he'd have given it to me if I had asked him. Too late now....
Perhaps, now that the wind had been taken so abruptly out of his sails, it would be wisest to turn back for home. How would he ever wade through all these children? He had never seen so many in one place. Being an only child himself, with but four cousins, all older. He'd had three friends growing up, and that was all. His cousins had children, but he did not see them often. They made him a little nervous at times.
As he stood there, holding to his pony's reins and trying to work up his courage to go through the gate, he was startled by some rather heavy footsteps behind him. He turned to see a rather stout hobbit of his own age or thereabouts, storming down a path and into the road, scowling most fiercely. Fastred stood aside to let him through, then had a thought.
“I say, sir,” he said, “but...is this where the Gamgees live?”
It sounded rather stupid, since he knew perfectly well it was. But perhaps this fellow could supply him with some other useful information.
“Who wants to know?” the other chap snarled, stopping to glare up at Fastred, who was considerably taller.
“Well, I do,” Fastred said, thinking perhaps it would be better to find someone in a less surly humor to ask. “I need to see the Mayor on some important business.”
“Good luck to yer with that,” spat the other, and pushed well past him. Then he paused looking over his shoulder at the stranger. “If you're wantin' to court his eldest daughter, good luck with that too. She just handed me me walkin' papers, she did. I don't know what it takes to please that lass. And after all I done fer 'er.”
Fastred was going to ask what the fellow had done for her, but he was scuffling on down the road at a rather alarming pace.
Yet the fellow had not come out of Bag End, but rather from a path on the other side of the road.
“Hmm,” murmured Fastred, wondering what to do next. Going home without even trying was out of the question. He had a feeling that his grandfather actually wanted him to succeed with this venture. Nothing for it. He would have to at least try.
At last he approached the front gate, on which a couple of youngsters were wildly swinging.
“Pardon me, lads,” he said, and they paused to stare at him and the pony, “but might I speak with your dad? Is he at home now?”
“My dad don't live 'ere,” one of the boys said, and the other spoke up, “My dad ain't 'ome now. State yer business?”
“He's not home?” Fastred said, wondering whether to be dismayed or not.
“'E's out of town on business,” the boy said, and hopped down from the gate. “Robin's me name, sir. Robin Gamgee. This 'ere's me cousin Rollo Cotton. Wot's yers then?”
“Fastred...Fastred Fairbairn. I've come all the way from Greenholm on business. What of your mother? Is she in now?”
Several urchins had begun to crowd in to have a look at the stranger. One of them, who bore some resemblance to Robin, but was quite bigger, came up.
“Who might you be?” he asked. “I'm Bilbo—Bilbo Gamgee. At yer service. Ain't seen you round these parts.”
Fastred stated his name once more, and Bilbo whistled through a gap in his front teeth.
“Fancy!” he said.
Fastred laughed. “I met your dad once, a long time ago. My grandfather bought a painting from your sister recently. I was much impressed at her skill...and I would like to meet her. Is she about?”
“Aye, she is,” Bilbo said. “Be yer wantin' her to paint yer picture?”
“That's exactly what I'm wanting,” Fastred said, and he smiled a little. The lad was quick, rather engaging despite the grime on his face and clothing, and so was his little brother.
And then the big round door opened, and a stout adult Hobbitess appeared, along with a young girl who looked much as she must have as a lass.
So that was she, thought Fastred. She looked not at all as he had expected. She had a head of flaxen curls like her mother, and was rather pretty, but nothing special, he couldn't help but think. Still, perhaps he should give her a chance. He tried to keep from staring at her to see where the spirit resided that had painted that portrait...but for the life of him he could not see it.
Maybe that's her sister, he thought hopefully. She does look rather young, at that....
The mother came down the path. She looked a force to reckon with already, he thought. The daughter skipped along after her, eying him with frank interest. It was plain that she was not at all displeased by what she saw.
“How d'ye do,” Rose Gamgee said halting before him and rubbing her hands on her apron.
“This 'ere's...wot yer say yer name was?” Bilbo said.
“Fastred Fairbairn of Greenholm...at your service,” Fastred said. “You are Mrs. Gamgee, I take it?”
“Aye, that I be,” she said. “And this here is Rosie-lass, my second-eldest daughter. Are you wishin' to see Mr. Gamgee, for he's in Michel Delving at the moment on some serious business. I don't expect him home till tomorrow. If you're hungry, you might step in for a bite. Supper won't be ready for a bit now, but we've aught left in the larder.”
“I would like that,” he said modestly. “But--”
“He's a wantin' for our Ellie to paint his pitcher,” Bilbo put in. Several other children had gathered about, many whom were considerably older than the ones in the yard, come down from the hill.
“'Is face is all red,” a pretty little yellow-haired girl remarked. “Look at 'im.”
Fastred felt his face growing warm indeed. Rosie-lass smiled with open friendliness and a couple of others giggled.
“Don't make personal remarks, Goldy,” Mrs. Gamgee said to the small girl. “'Tain't polite. So our Ellie is makin' a name for herself, is she?”
“My grandfather bought the portrait she painted of...Frodo Baggins,” Fastred explained once more. “I was greatly impressed and...moved...by her talent. And I would like to have my own portrait painted as a gift for him. He's a renowned collector of fine artworks, and...well, I'm sure he would be delighted...”
Two more little girls had gathered up close. One of them sandy-haired and freckled like the others, the larger one, holding to her hand, had something amiss with her. One of her eyes was crossed, and her mouth hung open a little. He had seen her condition before, although not in a great long while.
“Ruby,” Mrs. Gamgee spoke, and the sandy-haired one turned to look at her mother, “take this chap and show him where our Ellie is, will yer now. Aye, Primmie, you can go too. Nay, the rest of y'uns stay away. He don't need the lot of yer to show 'im the way. Our Ellie is just one lass, not ten lasses.”
Fastred gave her his most engaging smile. Then looked down at the two little girls, one of whom, the defective one, had taken hold of his hand.
“This way,” Ruby said. “Don't mind Primrose now. She's a mite...” She tapped her own temple with the tip of her forefinger and looked up meaningly at him. “She won't hurt yer none, though.”
“I never supposed she would,” Fastred said smiling. And he pressed Primrose's hand very gently. “Lead the way.”
They walked down a narrow path that led through a wooded area. It was strangely peaceful.
“Ellie's paintin' place is out this-a-way,” Ruby said. “Did you see Toby Gawkroger? He just come this way.”
“If he's the fellow that brushed by me a while ago, yes,” Fastred said chuckling. “So he is a rejected suitor of your sister's?”
Ruby nodded, giggling. “Are you goin' to marry our Ellie?” she asked him. He did not know why that should have surprised him, but it did.
“I may,” he said with a smile once more, “if she'll have me.”
“I'd have yer if'n I was her,” Ruby said. “Just watch out for Goldilocks, though. Dad says she's too young to like lads, but that don't stop her. She likes ever' lad she sees.”
Fastred laughed. “I'm a bit old for her, I should say.”
“Watch out for our Merry-lad and Pippin-lad too,” Ruby said. “They throwed the Goatcloset lads right out the gate one day. But then, you're bigger'n they be. Primmie, don't scratch yerself there where a chap can see.”
“Goatcloset?” Fastred said with lifted eyebrows.
“Aye, they're a couple a' no-goods from Nobottle,” Ruby informed him most importantly. “Dad don't even let 'em through the gate, but they tried to come in while he's out once. He caught one of 'em cheatin' somebody at his daddy's store. The other 'un's kind of a Miss Nancy. That's what Merry-lad says.”
Fastred laughed again. “Well, I will try neither to cheat anyone or be a Miss Nancy,” he said, then remembered the vase.
He would return it to his grandfather. Or ask permission to give it to Elanor, and pay him for it.
“Rosie-lass might have yer if our Ellie won't,” Ruby said with a little jerk of her head. “We're almost here. There she be, over yander. See 'er?”
There was a circular glade surrounded by pines, and in the middle he could see a young lass from the back, sitting before an easel on which was set a painting on an oval-shaped piece of wood.
“Shh,” Ruby said. “She's makin' a pitcher for our mum and dad. Just wait a minute.”
Fastred moved a bit closer, his heart pounding. He could see she was wearing a little straw hat, beneath which fell amber curls to her shoulder-blades. She had a paint-stained apron wrapped about her, and seemed unaware that she was being watched.
And he looked at the portrait she was painting...a lass with hair the same color as her own, and a face of such sweetness and loveliness and aliveness that he recognized as the very spirit of the girl who had painted the portrait that hung in his grandfather's tower. His breath nearly stopped in his body. He could not have her paint his portrait now. She would see him clearly for what he was...and she would never have him. She was a painter of souls. How could he ever show her his own?
Shame flooded him like a spring torrent. He would never be worthy.
“C'mon, Primmie,” Ruby whispered to her sister, “less go on back now...”
“But I must be introduced,” he said, forgetting that he was presenting himself on business rather than as a suitor, and feeling that even if he could not have her paint his portrait, he must at least meet her, just once. Just to see if the reality of her in any way matched the image she was producing on the oval before her.
And then she turned around...very slowly, and looked his way. And she quickly stood up, and pushed back the hat, which blew off from her head unnoticed in the breeze. The sun set fire to her hair, which was held back from her face with a crimson bow.
Their eyes met in the afternoon sunlight.
All the birds of the forest and glade seemed to stop singing, and he scarcely noticed that several children had stolen up the path to watch. And he knew then that he could let her paint his portrait, after all. She would see him as he was, to be sure, yet she would make of him what he could be in the creation of the image. He would read her father's story, which he knew only in part now, and he would learn the names and faces of all her siblings, and eat in her home, and all that was waiting within him would spring like tender shoots in the light and grow to embrace the sky...
And she was walking slowly now toward him, removing her paint-stained apron, and he knew that all he had to give her was himself, and when she would come to paint his portrait, it was his soul in completeness that would appear upon the canvas before them, and someday the two portraits would hang side by side in the brightness of the western light and the evening star.