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Lords of the Ring: Chapter One.




When Mr. Matt Hasselbeck of Vee Mac announced that he would shortly be celebrating his Thirty-fifth birthday with a party of special magnificence, there was much talk and excitement in Seattle.

Matt was very rich and very peculiar, and had been the wonder of Seattle for many years, ever since his arrival from the faraway land of Green Bay. The riches he had brought to Seattle had now become a local legend, and it was popularly believed, that had he not been cheated by a band of crooks in black and white, that he would have brought back more than just silver from the fields of Detroit, but a ring of great power, a ring that was now kept in the fortress of the Steel men, far, far away.

But time wore on, but it seemed to have an ill effect on Mr. Hasselbeck. This was all well and good though. Matt had done much for Seattle and it would have been unfair that anyone should possess (apparently) perpetual youth as well as (reputedly) inexhaustible wealth.

But so far trouble had not come; and as Mr. Hasselbeck was generous with his money, most people were willing to forgive him his age.

He had many devoted admirers among the people of Seattle. But he had no one to take care of his in the event of his leaving, until some of his younger cousins began to grow up.

The eldest of these, and Matt's favorite, was young Russell Wilson, a young man of considerable shortness with large hands and a larger heart. Relatives scoffed at him, and favored another candidate to take over for the old Mr. Hasselbeck, a lad by the name of Flynn.

"You had better come and live here, Russell my lad," said Matt one day; "and then we can dash the hopes of that Flynn boy and his cronies." At that time Russell was still in his tweens, as was called the irresponsible twenties between childhood and coming of age at twenty-three.

Twelve more months passed. Matt had given very lively birthday-parties at Vee Mac; but now it was understood that something quite exceptional was being planned for that autumn. Matt was going to be thirty five, a rather curious number and a very respectable age for a quarterback (the Old Zorn himself had only reached 34); and Russell was going to be twenty-three, an important number: the date of his "coming of age".

Tongues began to wag in Seattle; and rumor of the coming event travelled all over the land. The history and character of Mr. Matt Hasselbeck became once again the chief topic of conversation; and the older folk suddenly found their reminiscences in welcome demand. No one had a more attentive audience than old Walt Jones. He spoke with some authority, for he had tended the garden at Vee Mac for eleven years. Now that he was himself growing old and stiff in the joints, the job was mainly carried on by Russell Okung, his illegitimate nephew and frequent accomplice in illegal activity. Both uncle and nephew were on very friendly terms with Matt and Russell. They acted as enforcers, to break the thumbs of anyone trying to steal old Matt’s treasures at Vee Mac.

"A very nice well-spoken gentleman is Mr. Matt, as I’ve always said," Walt declared.

With perfect truth: for Matt was very polite to him, calling him "Master Walter", and consulting him constantly upon the growing of vegetables – in the matter of "roots", especially potatoes, Walt was recognized as the leading authority by all in the neighborhood (by himself at least, and nobody dared argue with old Walter Jones on anything).

"But what about this Russell that lives with him?" asked old Mel of Kiper. He’s too short by far to be put in charge of Vee Mac, they say. It beats me why any Hasselbeck of Seattle should go looking for a Halfling like him, when we’ve already got Flynn to do the job. I reckon it was a nasty shock for that Flynn boy. He thought he was going to get Vee Mac, what with bein' from Green Bay and all too. I heard he slew a lion over there! And suddenly this Wilson boy arrives, and has all the papers made out proper. Flynn won’t never see the inside of Vee Mac now. There’s a tidy bit of money tucked away up there, I hear tell, all the top of your hill is full of tunnels packed with chests of gold and silver, and a ring, by what I’ve heard. "

"Then you’ve heard more than I can speak to," answered Walt. " I know nothing about rings. Mr. Matt is free with his money, and there seems no lack of it; but I know of no rings. I was with Mr. Matt when he came back, a matter of seven years ago. He had me up with him helping him to block folks from trampling and trespassing all over him while he did his business. There was a ring for the taking, sure, but those men in stripes cheated us right good and proper and we never caught sight of it."

"Ah, but he has likely enough been adding to what he brought at first," argued the miller, voicing common opinion. "He’s often away from home. And look at the outlandish folk that visit him: dwarves coming at night, and that old wandering conjuror, Pete Carroll, and all. You can say what you like, Walt, but Vee Mac's a queer place, and its folk are queerer."

That very month was September, and as fine as you could ask. A day or two later a rumor was spread about that there were going to be fireworks – fireworks, what is more, such as had not been seen in the Seattle for nigh on a century, not indeed since the Old Zorn died.

Days passed and The Day drew nearer. An odd-looking wagon laden with odd-looking packages rolled into Seattle one evening and toiled up the Hill to Vee Mac. The startled people peered out of lamp lit doors to gape at it. It was driven by outlandish folk, singing strange songs: dwarves with long beards and deep hoods. A few of them remained at Vee Mac. At the end of the second week in September a cart came in broad daylight. An old man was driving it all alone. He had a long zigzaggy nose a twinkling in his eye made him seem like a younger man than he was. Small children ran after the cart all through Seattle and right up the hill. It had a cargo of fireworks, as they rightly guessed. At Matt’s front door the old man began to unload: there were great bundles of fireworks of all sorts and shapes, each labelled with a large red C and the elf-rune, .

That was Pete Carroll’s mark, of course, whose fame in the Shire was due mainly to his skill with fires, smokes, and lights. His real business was far more difficult and dangerous, but the Seattle folk knew nothing about it. To them he was just one of the attractions at the Party. Hence the excitement of the children.

"C for Chutzpa!" they shouted, and the old man smiled. They knew him by sight, though he only appeared in Seattle occasionally and never stopped long; but neither they nor any but the oldest of their elders had seen one of his firework displays – they now belonged to the legendary past.

When the old man, helped by Matt and some dwarves, had finished unloading. Matt gave a few pennies away; but not a single squib or cracker was forthcoming, to the disappointment of the onlookers.

"Run away now!" said Carroll. "You will get plenty when the time comes." Then he disappeared inside with Matt, and the door was shut. The youngsters stared at the door in vain for a while, and then made off, feeling that the day of the party would never come.

Inside Vee Mac, Matt and Carroll were sitting at the open window of a small room looking out west on to the garden. The late afternoon was bright and peaceful. The flowers glowed red and golden: snap-dragons and sun-flowers, and nasturtiums trailing all over the turf walls and peeping in at the round windows.

"How bright your garden looks!" said Carroll.

"Yes," said Matt. I am very fond indeed of it, and of all dear old Seattle; but I think I need a holiday."

"You mean to go on with your plan then?"

"I do. I made up my mind months ago, and I haven’t changed it."

"Very well. It is no good saying any more. Stick to your plan – your whole plan, mind – and I hope it will turn out for the best, for you, and for all of us."

"I hope so. Anyway I mean to enjoy myself on Thursday, and have my little joke."

"Who will laugh, I wonder?" said Carroll, shaking his head.

"We shall see," said Matt.

The next day more carts rolled up the Hill, and still more carts. There might have been some grumbling about "dealing locally", but that very week orders began to pour out of Vee Mac for every kind of provision, commodity, or luxury that could be obtained.

People became enthusiastic; and they began to tick off the days on the calendar; and they watched eagerly for the postman, hoping for invitations. Before long the invitations began pouring out, and the Seattle post-office was blocked, and voluntary assistant postmen were called for. There was a constant stream of them going up the Hill, carrying hundreds of polite variations on "Thank you, I shall certainly come." A notice appeared on the gate at Vee Mac: NO ADMITTANCE EXCEPT ON PARTY BUSINESS. Even those who had, or pretended to have Party Business were seldom allowed inside.

Matt was busy: writing invitations, ticking off answers, packing up presents, and making some private preparations of his own. From the time of Pete Carroll’s arrival he remained hidden from view.

One morning the hobbits woke to find the large field, south of Matt’s front door, covered with ropes and poles for tents and pavilions. A special entrance was cut into the bank leading to the road, and wide steps and a large blue gate were built there.

The tents began to go up. There was a specially large pavilion, so big that the tree that grew in the field was right inside it, and stood proudly near one end, at the head of the chief table. Lanterns were hung on all its branches. More promising still, an enormous open-air kitchen was erected in the north corner of the field. A draught of cooks, from every inn and eating-house for miles around, arrived to supplement the dwarves and other odd folk that were quartered at Vee Mac. Excitement rose to its height.

Then the weather clouded over. That was on Wednesday the eve of the Party. Anxiety was intense. Then Thursday, September the 22nd, actually dawned. The sun got up, the clouds stayed, this being Seattle and all, but flags were unfurled and the fun began anyway.

Matt Hasselbeck called it a party, but it was really a variety of entertainments rolled into one. Practically everybody living near was invited. A very few were overlooked by accident, but as they turned up all the same, that did not matter. Many people from other parts of Seattle were also asked. Matt met the guests (and additions) at the new blue gate in person. He gave away presents to all and sundry – the latter were those who went out again by a back way and came in again by the gate. Hobbits give presents to other people on their own birthdays. Not very expensive ones, as a rule, and not so lavishly as on this occasion; but it was not a bad system. Actually in Seattle, every day in the year it was somebody’s birthday, so that every hobbit in those parts had a fair chance of at least one present at least once a week. But they never got tired of them.

On this occasion the presents were unusually good. The children were so excited that for a while they almost forgot about eating. There were toys the like of which they had never seen before, all beautiful and some obviously magical.

When every guest had been welcomed and was finally inside the gate, there were songs, dances, music, games, and, of course, food and drink. There were three official meals: lunch, tea, and dinner (or supper). But lunch and tea were marked chiefly by the fact that at those times all the guests were sitting down and eating together. At other times there were merely lots of people eating and drinking – continuously from elevenses until six-thirty, when the fireworks started.

The fireworks were by Carroll: they were not only brought by him, but designed and made by him; and the special effects, set pieces, and flights of rockets were let off by him. But there was also a generous distribution of squibs, crackers, backarappers, sparklers, torches, dwarf-candles, elf-fountains, goblin-barkers and thunder-claps. They were all superb. The art of Carroll improved with age.

There were rockets like a flight of scintillating birds singing with sweet voices. There were green trees with trunks of dark smoke: their leaves opened like a whole spring unfolding in a moment, and their shining branches dropped glowing flowers down upon the astonished people, disappearing with a sweet scent just before they touched their upturned faces. There were fountains of butterflies that flew glittering into the trees; there were pillars of colored fires that rose and turned into eagles, or sailing ships, or a phalanx of flying swans; there was a red thunderstorm and a shower of yellow rain; there was a forest of silver spears that sprang suddenly into the air with a yell like an embattled army, and came down again into the Water with a hiss like a hundred hot snakes. And there was also one last surprise, in honor of Matt, and it startled the people exceedingly, as Carroll intended. The lights went out. A great smoke went up. It shaped itself like a mountain seen in the distance, and began to glow at the summit. It spouted green and scarlet flames. Out flew a blue green osprey – not life-size, but terribly life-like: fire came from his jaws, his eyes glared down; there was a caw, and he whizzed three times over the heads of the crowd.

They all ducked, and many fell flat on their faces. The dragon passed like an express train, turned a somersault, and burst over the water with a deafening explosion.

"That is the signal for supper!" said Matt. The pain and alarm vanished at once, and the prostrate guests leaped to their feet. There was a splendid supper for everyone; for everyone, that is, except those invited to the special dinner-party. This was held in the great pavilion with the tree. The invitations were limited to twelve dozen.

Flynn was not forgotten. They disliked Matt and detested Russell, but so magnificent was the invitation card, written in neon green ink, that they had felt it was impossible to refuse.

All the one hundred and forty-four guests expected a pleasant feast; though they rather dreaded the after-dinner speech of their host (an inevitable item). He was liable to drag in bits of what he called poetry; and sometimes, after a glass or two, would allude to the absurd adventures of his journey to Detroit. The guests were not disappointed: they had a very pleasant feast, in fact an engrossing entertainment: rich, abundant, varied, and prolonged. The purchase of provisions fell almost to nothing throughout the district in the ensuing weeks; but as Matt’s catering had depleted the stocks of most stores, cellars and warehouses for miles around, that did not matter much.

After the feast (more or less) came the Speech. Most of the company were, however, now in a tolerant mood, at that delightful stage which they called "filling up the corners". They were sipping their favorite drinks, and nibbling at their favorite dainties, and their fears were forgotten. They were prepared to listen to anything, and to cheer at every full stop.

"My dear People," began Matt, rising in his place. "Hear! Hear! Hear!" they shouted, and kept on repeating it in chorus, seeming reluctant to follow their own advice. Matt left his place and went and stood on a chair under the illuminated tree. The light of the lanterns fell on his beaming face; the golden buttons shone on his embroidered silk jersey. They could all see him standing, waving one hand in the air, the other was in his trouser-pocket.

"Today is my thirty fifth birthday: I am thirty five today!"

"Hurray! Hurray! Many Happy Returns!" they shouted, and they hammered joyously on the tables. Matt was doing splendidly. This was the sort of stuff they liked: short and obvious.

"I hope you are all enjoying yourselves as much as I am." Deafening cheers. Cries of Yes (and No). Noises of trumpets and horns, pipes and flutes, and other musical instruments. Hundreds of musical crackers had been pulled. They contained instruments, small, but of perfect make and enchanting tones.

But Matt had not finished. Seizing a horn from a youngster nearby, he blew three loud hoots. The noise subsided.

"I shall not keep you long," he cried. Cheers from all the assembly. "I have called you all together for a Purpose." Something in the way that he said this made an impression. There was almost silence.

"Indeed, for Four Purposes! First of all, to tell you that I am immensely fond of you all, and that nine years is too short a time to live among such excellent and admirable fans." Tremendous outburst of approval. "I don’t know half of you half as well as I should like; and I like less than half of you half as well as you deserve." This was unexpected and rather difficult. There was some scattered clapping, but most of them were trying to work it out and see if it came to a compliment. "Secondly, to celebrate my birthday." Cheers again. "And to congratulate my heir, Russell. He comes of age and into his inheritance today." Some perfunctory clapping by the elders; and some loud shouts of "Russell! Russell! Jolly old

Russell," from the juniors. Flynn scowled, and wondered what was meant by "coming into his inheritance".

"Thank you very much for coming to my little party."

Obstinate silence. They all feared that a song or some poetry was now imminent; and they were getting bored. Why couldn’t he stop talking and let them drink his health? But Matt did not sing or recite. He paused for a moment.

"Fourth and finally," he said, "I wish to make an ANNOUNCEMENT". He spoke this last word so loudly and suddenly that everyone sat up who still could. "I regret to announce that – though, as I said, nine years is far too short a time to spend among you – this is the END. I am going. I am leaving NOW. GOOD-BYE!"

He behind them with a terrified look in his eyes. The assembled guests all turned to see what it was, but there was nothing behind them save for the drunken singing and fighting of the other guests. When they looked back, Matt had vanished. One hundred and forty-four flabbergasted people sat back speechless.

It was generally agreed that the joke was in very bad taste, and more food and drink were needed to cure the guests of shock and annoyance. "He’s mad. I always said so," was probably the most popular comment. For the moment most of them took it for granted that his disappearance was nothing more than a ridiculous prank.

Russell was the only one present who had said nothing. For some time he had sat silent beside Matt’s empty chair, and ignored all remarks and questions. He had enjoyed the joke, of course, even though he had been in the know. He had difficulty in keeping from laughter at the indignant surprise of the guests. But at the same time he felt deeply troubled: he realized suddenly that he loved the old man dearly. Most of the guests went on eating and drinking and discussing Matt Hasselbeck's oddities, past and present; but Flynn had already departed in wrath.

Russell did not want to have any more to do with the party. He gave orders for more wine to be served; then he got up and drained his own glass silently to the health of Matt, and slipped out of the pavilion.

As for Matt Hasselbeck, he was never seen by any man in Seattle again.

When Russell returned to Vee Mac, he found Pete Carroll sitting in the dark, deep in thought. "Has he gone?" he asked.

"Yes," answered Carroll, "he has gone at last."

" I wish – I mean, I hoped until this evening that it was only a joke," said Russell. "But I knew in my heart that he really meant to go. He always used to joke about serious things. I wish I had come back sooner, just to see him off."

"I think really he preferred slipping off quietly in the end," said Carroll. "Don’t be too troubled. He’ll be all right – now. He left a packet for you. There it is!"

Russell took the envelope from the mantelpiece, and glanced at it, but did not open it.

"You’ll find his will and all the other documents in there, I think," said the wizard. "You are the master of Vee Mac now. And also, I fancy, you’ll find a silver ring."

"The ring!" exclaimed Russell. "He actually has one? But I thought it was sealed away in the steel fortress of Pittsburgh!"

"That one is," said Carroll. "The one you hold now is merely a lesser ring, but still imbued with power nonetheless."

"What kind of power."

"That is the ring of Inefsee. It is said that nobody gives two craps about anyone who wears it. Thus he who puts the ring on will disappear from sight."

"Just like Matt did at the party!"

"I should keep it secret and safe if I were you. Now, I am off to bed."

As master of Vee Mac Russell felt it his painful duty to say good-bye to the guests. Rumors of strange events had by now spread all over the field, but Russell would only say "no doubt everything will be cleared up in the morning". About midnight carriages came for the important folk. One by one they rolled away, filled with full but very unsatisfied people. Gardeners came by arrangement, and removed in wheel-barrows those that had inadvertently remained behind. Night slowly passed. The sun rose. The hobbits rose rather later. Morning went on. People came and began (by orders) to clear away the pavilions and the tables and the chairs, and the spoons and knives and bottles and plates, and the lanterns, and the flowering shrubs in boxes, and the crumbs and cracker-paper, the forgotten bags and gloves and handkerchiefs, and the uneaten food (a very small item). Then a number of other people came (without orders). By mid-day, when even the best-fed were out and about again, there was a large crowd at Vee Mac, uninvited but not unexpected.

Russell was waiting on the step, smiling, but looking rather tired and worried. He welcomed all the callers, but he had not much more to say than before. His reply to all inquiries was simply this:

"Mr. Matt Hasselbeck has gone away; as far as I know, for good."

Russell had a very trying time that afternoon. A false rumor that the whole household was being distributed free spread like wildfire; and before long the place was packed with people who had no business there, but could not be kept out. Labels got torn off and mixed, and quarrels broke out. Some people tried to do swaps and deals in the hall; and others tried to make off with minor items not addressed to them, or with anything that seemed unwanted or unwatched. The road to the gate was blocked with barrows and handcarts.

In the middle of the commotion Flynn arrived. Russell had retired for a while and left his Beef Moe to keep an eye on things. When Flynn loudly demanded to see Russell, Merry bowed politely.

"BEEF MOE!" he said, and headbutted him out the door.

When at last the day was done, Russell collapsed on a chair in the hall. "It’s time to close the shop, Beef Moe," he said. "Lock the door, and don’t open it to anyone today, not even if they bring a battering ram." Then he went to revive himself with a belated cup of tea.

He had hardly sat down, when there came a soft knock at the front-door. "Flynn again most likely," he thought. "She must have thought of something really nasty, and have come back again to say it. It can wait."

He went on with his tea. The knock was repeated, much louder, but he took no notice. Suddenly the wizard’s head appeared at the window.

"If you don’t let me in, Russell, I shall blow your door right down your hole and out through the hill," he said.

"My dear Carroll! Half a minute!" cried Russell, running out of the room to the door. "Come in! Come in! I thought it was Flynn."

"Then I forgive you. But I saw him some time ago, driving a pony with a face that would have curdled new milk."

"He had already nearly curdled me. Honestly, I nearly tried on Matt’s ring. I longed to disappear."

"Don’t do that!" said Carroll, sitting down. "Do be careful of that ring, Russell! In fact, it is partly about that that I have come to say a last word."

"Well, what about it?"

"What do you know already?"

"Nothing. I didn’t even know it existed. I had no idea that Matt owned one."

"Neither did I. But odd things may happen to people that have such treasures – if they use them. Let it be a warning to you to be very careful with it. It may have other powers than just making you vanish when you wish to."

"I don’t understand," said Russell.

"Neither do I," answered the wizard. "I have merely begun to wonder about the ring, not that one, the golden one that Matt didn’t get, though I begin to wonder if the two of them are more related than I once thought. No need to worry. But if you take my advice you will use it very seldom, or not at all. At least I beg you not to use it in any way that will cause talk or rouse suspicion. I say again: keep it safe, and keep it secret!"

"You are very mysterious! What are you afraid of?"

"I am not certain, so I will say no more. I may be able to tell you something when I come back. I am going off at once: so this is good-bye for the present." He got up.

"At once!" cried Russell. "Why, I thought you were staying on for at least a week. I was looking forward to your help."

"I did mean to – but I have had to change my mind. I may be away for a good while; but I’ll come and see you again, as soon as I can. Expect me when you see me! I shall slip in quietly. I shan’t often be visiting Seattle openly again. I find that I have become rather unpopular. They say I am a nuisance and a disturber of the peace. Some people are actually accusing me of spiriting Matt away, or worse. If you want to know, there is supposed to be a plot between you and me to get hold of his wealth."

"Some people!" exclaimed Russell. "You mean Flynn. How abominable! I would give him Vee Mac and everything else, if I could get Matt back and go off tramping in the country with him. I love Seattle. But I begin to wish, somehow, that I had gone too. I wonder if I shall ever see him again."

"So do I," said Carroll. "And I wonder many other things. Good-bye now! Take care of yourself!

Look out for me, especially at unlikely times! Good-bye!"

Russell saw him to the door. He gave a final wave of his hand, and walked off at a surprising pace; but Russell thought the old wizard looked unusually bent, almost as if he was carrying a great weight. The evening was closing in, and his cloaked figure quickly vanished into the twilight.

Russell did not see him again for a long time.

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