Cousins - Part II - In Which Merry Meets Sam

Hobbit children are endlessly inquisitive and chatty and Merry was the most inquisitive of them all. He sat between Frodo and Bilbo, his eyes huge with wonder as they drove the wooded lanes and orderly fields of Tookland. They stopped at the village of Tuckburrow so they could get a bite at the inn - it was a good five miles between the Smials and Tuckborrow and in those five miles, a hobbit could get peckish, as they say, and need a snack. Bilbo was well thought of in those parts, because his mother was a Took. And when the inn keeper found out that little Merry was half a Took as well, he gave him a piece of sugar candy. They resumed their journey in the sun dappled afternoon.
"Have I been to Hobbiton?" Merry wondered. "If I had I was small and don't remember. I've been to Tookbank lots. But it's a long drive. It's better than 50 miles, my dad says. I've got a pony at home, my very own pony. This is a nice pony. This isn't your pony is it, Mr. Bilbo?"
Bilbo laughed. Frodo rolled his eyes and smiled over the top of Merry's head at his benefactor.
"Merry is aptly named, isn't he, uncle?" Frodo said.
"He most certainly is. It's a pity he hasn't any brothers and sisters. Maybe one day, though. We can only hope. I hope Eglantine doesn't spoil that son of hers. The first boy. The youngest. He shook his head. "He'll be a caution, if I know the Tooks."
"Pippin," said Merry. "They're calling him Pippin. What's a pippin?"
"An apple," said Frodo. "Or something small, like a seed. He's a lot smaller than you were when you were born."
"Frodo, where do the babies come from?"
Bilbo and Frodo locked eyes.
"Feel free to answer the lad's question," Bilbo said. Frodo thought desperately. He recalled when he was eight and assaulted his mother with that question. She gave him a harmless enough answer.
"Where do you think they come from?" he asked Merry.
Merry puzzled this out. First there was talk of a baby for some months. Then there was a baby. Like a package or a letter.
"The mail carrier?"
Bilbo chuckled. "I'm sure in some cases that's closer to the truth than you know,' he said. Frodo laughed and Merry did too though he did not understand the joke.
"Think of a baby as a gift," said Frodo. "A present."
"So did the mail carrier bring Pippin?" Merry was pretty sure he was on to something now.
"Let's have a song," Bilbo said quickly, and he sailed into one of his own compositions. Bilbo was known throughout the Shire as a great maker of songs, even before his big adventure (with the dwarves, elves, dragon, wizard AND don't forget the gold). This was a little traveling song, with a nice supper in the last verse. It was a simple, repetitious song, and Merry knew all the words.
But he was only a little boy after all, and very excited. His puppy was on and off the pony cart, first riding in his lap, then dashing about the road chasing rabbits. Merry had to know the names of everything and if he already knew the names, he had to call them out. He was worn out by the time they reached Hobbiton, just as the sun was saying goodnight and the Hobbiton folk were lighting their lanterns. Frodo had taken over driving, and Merry was asleep in Bilbo's lap. He had decided that Bilbo was all right after all, even if he had taken Frodo away from Brandy Hall.
The pony knew its way home and tired though he was, picked up his pace a little for he knew there would be hay and oats and a nice grooming in his own little shed. They climbed the tree-lined lane that was Bagshot Row, and Bilbo said, "Whoa," right in front of #3 Bagshot Row.
"Hello, the hobbit hole!" Bilbo called out. The door opened and light spilled onto the twilit path. Ham Gamgee, his napkin tucked into his shirt collar, stepped out and greeted them cordially.
"Have you gone and picked up another Brandybuck, Mr. Bilbo?" he inquired and pointed his pipe at Merry. Merry awoke and rubbed his eyes
"Just borrowing this one, Master Hamfast. We're just borrowing him for a few days then we're giving him back."
"You should keep him as well," said Ham. Ham was fiercely devoted to Bilbo, but Buckland was a long way from Hobbiton and as was typical of Hobbiton folk, he was highly suspicious of Bucklanders, all the way over there in the back of beyond. A day didn't go by but what he said Mr. Bilbo had done Frodo a tremendous favor by rescuing him from the Brandybucks and bringing him to the normalcy of Bagshot Row and Bag End. "They'll never miss him."
"They would miss this one. His father is Saradoc."
"Well then, young sir, good evening to you and welcome to my home." Ham bowed a little by way of jest.
Bell Gamgee, the mistress of the house, emerged behind her husband. She was wiping her hands on her apron. There were two curious sandy haired children beside her, a boy a little older than Merry and a girl. In the kitchen, the older girls were clearing the table.
"Merry, this is Master Hamfast," said Bilbo. "Say hello. Introduce yourself."
He lifted Merry down. Merry stuck out his hand. "I'm Meriadoc," he said brightly. "But everyone calls me Merry."
"I am pleased to know you, Master Merry," said Ham, with a grin. "Sam, don't stand there gaping. Say, how do you do?"
Sam mumbled something and hung his head. Marigold, the girl was far bolder, for Merry had a lovely head of chestnut hair and a nice waistcoat.
Frodo climbed down and took the pony's bridle. "I'll put the pony up," he said. Ham wouldn't hear of it.
"Ye have had a long drive and ye'll be parched. Come inside for a glass of something. Bell has a bit of stew left over I think."
"My dad says a good horseman always sees about the comfort of the animal before he sees about his own!" Merry piped in.
"Well, your dad is a smart hobbit," said Ham. And the Brandybucks were raised a notch in his estimation, if they thought that well of their animals.
"I'll take Tuck." Sam had finally spoken up. He was 10 and felt himself perfectly able to unharness the pony and groom him and give him his dinner.
"I'll go with," Merry offered.
"Do you know anything about ponies?" Sam wondered and his tone was not cordial.
"I have my own pony at Brandy Hall," Merry replied curtly. "I know lots about ponies."
"Go on with ye, then," said Ham. So dog, pony and boys went round the back to the pony's shed.
"What's the matter with Sam?" Frodo wondered as they sat down to the Gamgee table for a bit of stew and a glass of small beer. "He's not usually this shy." There was, in Frodo's opinion, no such animal as a shy Gamgee. He was sitting between 14 year old May, and 18 year old Daisy, both of whom were vying for his attention by offering him brown bread and butter and apple sauce or this or that dainty. And he hadn't even had to diaper a baby to get this much attention.
"He's got a black eye - again," said Marigold. "He got into a fight with Ted Sandyman. Again. Trounced him good - again. Ted isn't very smart. Sam says if Ted insists on running into his fists, will it's not Sam's fault."
"What were they fighting about?" Frodo asked.
"He won't tell me," said Ham. "I'd have sorted him out good if I thought he started it. But the other lads say Ted started it."
Ted Sandyman, the miller's son, and a lad about Sam's age, was the neighborhood bully. Sam had no tolerance for bullies and as was the case with many bullies, Ted was no match for a boy his own age.
"I'll find out what they were fighting about," Frodo said. "Sam will tell me."
"Oh, you're as good, Mr. Frodo," said Mistress Gamgee and dished him an extra helping of her excellent lamb stew (with taters and carrots and turnips and boiled in beer). "He's been out of sorts all day over this and usually my Sam doesn't fret over these dust ups. I think Ted said something very bad to him, but he won't tell any of us what that was."
"I'll get to the bottom of this, when he comes up for his lessons," said Frodo. Frodo was teaching Sam to read, although it was in fits and starts since he often went to help his father when he went to work.
"Sam may have to come with me to Budgeford," said Ham. "The Bolgers' have some trees as need trimming."
"I was rather hoping he and Merry could play." Frodo understood work well enough, and that the Gamgees had to work. But why on earth a ten year old had to was beyond him.
Ham thought this out. Like himself, his son was doomed to labor for a living and it didn't do to get too comfortable, taking days off. But then Sam was a good boy when he wasn't pounding Ted Sandyman and he deserved his holiday.
"All right. As long as Master Merry is here, Sam can stay home. But he'll have to do some chores around the house."
Out in the shed, Merry acquitted himself well in Sam's opinion on his ability to handled the tackle, groom the pony and pick out his feet. But my stars, that Brandybuck boy could talk.
"I have a puppy. This is Dash. He'll be a great ratter one day. My dad keeps ratters. We have terrible rats over at Buckland. We think they come in from the Old Forest. That's a scary place, the Old Forest. They say the trees are alive and aren't very friendly. We're not allowed to go in there. But I'm going to go in there when I'm older. I'm not afraid of any old talking tree."
"Do you ever shut up?" Sam wondered. He didn't intend it to sound mean. He had had warmed to Frodo's guest. Merry didn't take any offense.
"So you do talk," said Merry. "I was beginning to wonder. You hadn't much to say for yourself back there. Say, that's a pretty good black eye you have.."
In the light of the lantern they had lit in the shed, Merry could see the purple swelling under Sam's left eye.
"Did you get into a fight?" Merry wondered. `I've been in a few fights, but my dad doesn't know about it. My cousin, Berilac, is two years older than I am, and I don't like him one bit. He picks on me. He won't pick on me any more. I got him sorted out good last week."
"If I tell you what I was fighting about, you can't tell anyone. Swear? "
Merry spat in his right hand and held it out. Sam spat in his own right hand and they shook hands.
"I swear."
"Right, so," said Sam. "Ted, the miller's son, said some awful things about Mr. Bilbo. He does that from time to time and so does his father and it makes me mad. Mr. Bilbo's very good to us and Mr. Frodo's my friend and I won't hear anyone say anything bad about them. If my gaffer knew I was fighting over something like that, I don't know what he'd do. He likes the Bagginses and all, but I don't know as he'd think that was a good enough reason to hit Ted Sandyman."
"Why would someone say something bad about Bilbo?" Merry wondered.
"Because he had that adventure and folk think that makes him peculiar."
"I think it's grand. I want to have an adventure."
"So do I."
They were in agreement as to the goodness of adventures and decided to be friends. Sam was forgiven his initial truculence and Merry was forgiven his high spirits and chattiness. They dowsed the lantern and went in for a bit to eat.
"Would you like to stay home and keep Master Merry company tomorrow?" Ham asked his youngest boy when they were at the table. Sam didn't want to appear too overjoyed to hear that news, for fear his father would take it that he didn't like to go to work with him. So he merely said, "Right. That's grand."
"Can I keep him company too?" Marigold wondered. Merry didn't see why not. There was a pile of boy and girl cousins at Brandy Hall, a veritable pack of children and he was used to a lot of company. Sam, of course, didn't want his little sister tagging along and his mother reminded Marigold, that they had washing to do tomorrow. And that Sam would have to do some work around the house and couldn't fool around all day. Merry offered to help. He had no idea what that meant, but it was new and different and he may as well experience all the sights and wonders of Hobbiton.
Bidding the Gamgee's good evening, Bilbo, Frodo, Merry and Dash (who was finally wearing out a little) strolled through the starry night to Bag End. It wasn't as grand as Brandy Hall, but it wasn't as noisy and crowded either. Bilbo, who never threw anything away, had a chest of clothes he had worn when he was Merry's age, and he found him a little nightshirt and some everyday clothes to wear for the next day. (Merry had come away in his best clothes to pay his respects to his new cousin). He was tucked into his bed in his own room with his dog and bidden a fond good night.
Frodo and Bilbo stepped outside to have a smoke. Bilbo could blow the finest smoke rings in the Shire and he was teaching Frodo this skill.
"Now that one has spirit," said Bilbo and inclined his head back towards the door.
"That he does," Frodo agreed.
"Never knew a Brandybuck who didn't have some sort of spirit," said Bilbo. "Although there's a good few Brandybucks who aren't much more than useless. That one will be useful some day."
But whether or not Merry sensed any purpose and usefulness in his own life remained a matter of mystery, for he and the puppy were fast asleep.
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