Meaning No Harm: Chapter Five - None Taken

A musical troupe was entertaining the mid-afternoon crowd in Hobbiton's square and the town's youth danced to the lively tunes of whistles, horns and drums. Frodo found his cousins there as he knew he would. When the song was over he cut them from the crowd of dancers and told them it was time they headed home.

Flushed and breathless, Merry followed Frodo to the edge of the square. "That was a short visit, Frodo, we didn't expect you back for at least another hour!" he exclaimed.

Pippin straggled along behind them, looking most put out. "I haven't had time to spend the money you gave me, Frodo! I was going to buy some cakes when the dancing was over, and some apple cider. Isn't there time to do that before we go?"

"You can save your money for next time, Pippin." Frodo said quietly, "I have cakes and pastries here from Aunt Dora for you, and Bilbo will give you all the apple cider you want, if you ask him politely enough."

"All right, then!" said Pippin, suddenly restored to good humour, and he pranced along in time to the dwindling music, giving an excited description of all they had done during Frodo's absence, while Frodo and Merry hiked more steadily toward Bag End. At the bottom of The Hill Frodo handed the basket to Pippin and asked, "do you think you can run these up to Bilbo, put the kettle on, and have the tea steeping before Merry and I get there?"

"Of course I can!" He took the basket and raced off.

"That's one way of getting rid of him," Merry laughed as he watched the small figure disappear around the first corner. He looked expectantly at Frodo. "Now that you've got me alone, what did you want to talk to me about?"

"Am I that obvious?" Frodo asked in amazement, then reconsidered. "No, you are too perceptive, Merry." He sobered, gathering his thoughts, then said calmly, "Aunt Dora explained to me why we have not seen Sam for so long. It seems there was a report by a hobbit named Gawkroger of his losing Biscuit last Tuesday afternoon down by Bywater, and then not telling Farmer Cotton, or his father. He hasn't denied it and he is being punished for it. But nor has he admitted it and his father won't let the matter rest until he does."

Merry slowed his steps. "Last Tuesday?" He frowned. "That was when he had the pony to pull the tree stumps, wasn't it?"

"It was," Frodo answered

"This Gawkroger chap told the Gaffer he saw Sam with Biscuit down Bywater way?" Merry asked haltingly; he remembered there had been a hobbit shouting behind him as he chased the pony into the woods.

"And the Gaffer believes it," Frodo replied, as patiently as he could.

Merry struggled with his promise to Pippin. "But Sam was at Bag End all that day."

"That's what I thought, too." Still Frodo waited.

Merry nodded and made up his mind. Quickly he gave his confession, keeping his eyes on the stretch of road in front of his feet as he did it. "Sam didn't lose the pony, Pippin and I did. I let him ride her alone, and of course he galloped her, though he knew better, and he fell off her down by Bywater. It was me Gawkroger must have seen. There was a hobbit shouting in one of the fields just before we caught Biscuit. Pippin made me promise not to tell you or Bilbo we lost her, because he thought Uncle Paladin wouldn't get him his pony if he found out. And I agreed, because we caught Biscuit just fine, no harm done, she was only having a romp."

Frodo shook his head and when he spoke he tried to keep the anger from his voice, but he knew Merry heard it. "Keeping that from Paladin - and from Bilbo and me - is one thing, Merry, but what about the person who trusted you with the pony? What about Sam? Surely, Sam did not deserve your dishonesty?"

Merry grimaced and whispered, `dishonesty', then said weakly, "we thought it wouldn't matter". When Frodo did not respond Merry glanced up and saw his cousin looking hard at him. He faltered under this scrutiny. "No, that's not right, I let Pippin convince me that telling Sam would only worry him. So we didn't." Merry rubbed his eyes furiously against the welling tears, and blew his nose in his handkerchief. He could feel Frodo waiting for more. He tried to think the matter through, feeling muddle-headed with anxiety, and finally asked in a shaking voice. "What am I to do, Frodo?"

Frodo spoke sharply. "You are old enough to know that yourself, Merry. You do not need me to advise you on how to correct a lie."

Merry winced and exclaimed, "Oh, of course Pippin and I must say what happened. I didn't mean that!" He paused to steady himself, and to recover from the experience of Frodo thinking him dishonest, and doubting he would at least now do the right thing. "Somehow I shall have to convince Pippin of that, and I will. But I meant, should we go to the Gaffer first, or to Tom Cotton, or to this Gawkroger chap? And we must apologize to Sam." He took a deep, trembling breath, "if he will accept our apology. Pippin and I got him in a terrible mess didn't we, though it was unintentional."

"I know it was, Merry, but not unforeseeable." Frodo's tone drew Merry's eyes. "You are old enough now not to look for the easy way out of your own tight fixes." Merry nodded and now he met Frodo's gaze steadily, not in defiance, but in acknowledgment, rather, of his full responsibility. Frodo gave him a grim smile and prompted, "well, what do you think you should do first?"

"Go to the Gamgees and sort it out with Sam's Gaffer," he said firmly. "But Frodo, why didn't Sam come to me when this happened, or tell his father that it must have been me and Pippin who lost the pony?'

"As part of his punishment his father is keeping him at home, so he hasn't been able to come up and talk to you. He tried to see you late Tuesday night - remember I told you he came by when you were already asleep. But he didn't say why he had come or that it was anything important, though if I hadn't been thinking of so many other things I would have realized that it was." Frodo sighed at his own unwitting complicity in the misunderstanding. "And I would guess after that he never had another chance." He looked at Merry keenly. "Why do you think he hasn't put the blame on you?"

"Because he wants to talk to me first and make sure it was my fault." Merry said resignedly.

"That would be my guess. He has been blamed for something he didn't do and he doesn't want to blame you if you didn't do it either." With rather grim satisfaction Frodo watched Merry rub his eyes again as he pondered this.

The junction of The Hill Road and Bag Shot Row was before them. They could see down the curving lane to the sturdy picket fence marking the Gamgee's yard. Merry felt strangely anxious. "Will you come with me, cousin?" Two summers earlier he had experienced Sam's temper and he wondered if the Gaffer's might be even worse.

"No, Merry, this is something you must sort out yourself. And here comes Pippin so you can take him along, if you like."

Pippin trotted up, grinning broadly. "Didn't I do well, Frodo? I put the kettle on and gave Bilbo the basket. He said he would tend to everything else, so I've come back to see what's keeping you. You have been an age, you know!"

"We shall be a little longer still, Pippin." Merry said seriously. He explained about the pony and Sam taking the blame, feeling himself grow more resolute with the telling. "Pippin, I had no choice but to break my promise not to tell when I heard about Sam. I didn't expect that promise would lead to such mischief and I should never have made it in the first place. We will have to tell others besides Frodo; the Gamgees need to know, don't they, and Farmer Cotton, and this Gawkroger chap. So you must release me entirely from my promise, Pippin."

Pippin had gone quite pale. He looked anxiously from Frodo to Merry. "All right, Merry." He put a tentative hand on Frodo's arm. "I didn't mean to make so much trouble, Frodo, I only wanted to gallop the pony."

Frodo kept his face stern as he looked down at his young cousin. "I know you did, but you meant also to save yourself from blame so you might still get a pony of your own, did you not?" Pippin nodded silently and when he did not offer any further excuse for his behavior Frodo gave him a small smile. "Pippin, sometimes our actions have consequences we never intend or foresee. But when they do we still must to try to make things right."

Pippin bowed his head and whispered, "I know." After a moment he turned to Merry. "Am I to go with you, then, to see the Gaffer?" he quavered.

"Yes, Pippin." Merry's voice was firm, but he had gone quite pale as well.

Pippin gazed solemnly back. "What if he calls us names, Merry, like Bilbo says he does?"

"Then he will call us names. But I don't really think he will." Merry's voice went suddenly hoarse, "I imagine he saves words like that for Sam."

Frodo gave Pippin's shoulder a reassuring squeeze. "Remember, Pippin, you needn't believe any of the names the Gaffer gives you," he said, "though I think Merry is right, and you are safe from that."

Now Pippin stood bravely next to Merry; he slipped his hand into his cousin's as silent tears suddenly flowed down his pale cheeks. "I didn't mean for Sam to get into trouble. We were just having fun with the pony."

Frodo ruffled his hair and said more lightly. "So you have already said. But telling that to me does no good. Off you go and make things right by telling the people who need to hear it. Bilbo and I will have a splendid tea ready when you return."

* * *

Late Saturday afternoon found Sam in the bit of garden at Number Three that his father had given him for his own many years before when he'd had special need of such a refuge, and so it had served him ever since. The past autumn he'd sown it with winter rye to keep down weeds, and had spent these last tiresome few days digging up the coarse grass in preparation for spring plantings. Now he turned the great clods of earth, heavy with the rains of March, and broke them up with sharp thrusts of his spade, glad to have this physical relief of his worries. Sam had long since discarded his coat. A faint mist rose from the shirt that clung dark to his back. His face was set.

Sam reckoned this as the fourth day of his confinement to Number Three. He knew he could have given the confession his Gaffer wanted, and so had these days of being kept home counted towards the punishment his dad would have set him for the wrong he had not done. But he wouldn't lie. He chose instead to spend his days gloomily hoping that Merry would hear of his troubles, and bring news to either confirm in some fashion Biscuit's misadventures, or to prove her and her companions blameless. Through all this he never doubted Merry's ignorance of his troubles (he felt he knew Mr. Frodo's young cousin well enough to trust him in that) and he only wondered at its continuing so long.

He had made a second attempt to see Merry and failed wretchedly. On Wednesday morning before the sun was even up his Gaffer had caught him trying to slip out of Number Three. The ensuing row had brought his sisters hurrying from their bedroom to bear silent witness to their father's anger and Sam's unresponsive tears. And it had reduced Daisy and Marigold to tears as well and made all three sisters miserable for their brother's sake for the rest of the day. So Sam had not tried again.

Now, the clack of the gate latch startled him. He squinted into the westering sun and with stunned hope watched Merry and Pippin come up the garden path. Pippin held Merry's hand.

"Hullo, Sam," Merry said quietly, with an apologetic smile. "Is your father about? I have something to explain to him."

Sam stood mute, breathing deeply with exertion and relief, so Merry went on, speaking earnestly and meeting Sam's gaze. "I'm sorry about Tuesday, Sam. I only just heard about the trouble we got you into. It was Pippin and me who lost the pony. It was all our fault." Beside him Pippin nodded anxiously.

"Me dad's in the parlour, I think," Sam said hoarsely. "Like as not he's having a nap before dinner. He's wore himself out these past few days in Mr. Bilbo's garden." He ducked his head to rub his sweat stained face on his sleeve, and catch an unseen tear or two as he did it. Merry stood patiently while Sam retrieved his coat and blew his nose.

Then quickly Sam took them inside. He left them standing awkwardly in the small entranceway while he gently roused his father from his sleep in the worn chair by the fire. The he ushered the cousins in. Merry sat tentatively in the chair the Gaffer gestured him into, while Pippin stood half-hidden behind him. Sam hung back.

Merry didn't wait on formality. After brief words of greeting he started in and didn't stop until he was done. It was easier that way. "I've come to explain about the pony, Master Gamgee. I hear a farmer named Gawkroger is saying Sam lost Farmer Cotton's Biscuit on Tuesday. But it wasn't Sam, it was Pippin and me that she got away from. We'd borrowed her from Sam for the afternoon and Pippin galloped her and fell off."

At this news the Gaffer shifted in his chair as if meaning to speak but Merry didn't pause and the Gaffer contented himself with a piercing look at Sam, who was avoiding his father's eyes.

"It took a while to catch her and it must have been me Farmer Gawkroger saw in the fields by Bywater. So Sam did nothing wrong. He didn't know we'd lost her because we didn't tell him." He glanced back at Sam. "We should have, of course, but we didn't. So he couldn't tell you it was us instead of him. Frodo just found about Sam's trouble from his Aunt Dora this afternoon, and he told me. That's why it's taken us so long to come." Sam raised his eyes to look at Merry, and Merry met them steadily, saying softly. "I would have been here sooner if I'd known sooner." Sam nodded and ducked his head.

Slowly Hamfast turned this news over in his mind, "Gawkroger told me he was that sure it was Sam he saw."

"He was wrong," Merry said simply, "it was Pippin and me." Behind him Pippin nodded again.

Now the Gaffer demonstrated to Merry and Pippin that Sam came honestly by his propensity to blush. He went redder than a beetroot. "I thank you for telling me this, Master Merry." He turned on Sam. "Is this true?"

"Yes, dad," Sam said quietly.

"Then why the devil did you never tell me it weren't you?" His voice rose angrily. "Why did you sit at that table and not tell me the truth, you great ninny?"

Merry opened his mouth but checked his answer as Sam glanced at him, then looked with veiled defiance at his father. "Because I didn't know, dad, did I? I didn't know for sure that it was Master Merry and Pippin that Gawkroger saw, and I wasn't saying it was them `lessen I was sure of it. I'll not be like Gawkroger."

Hamfast was undaunted. "Well, you could at least have told me that pony had been with these lads and not with you that afternoon; you as good as lied to me when you didn't. Why did you not tell me that!"

Sam knew he could not tell his father all the reasons - could not say that his father would still have believed Gawkroger and think he was lying to put the blame on others, and could not say he did not want to trouble Bag End when Mr. Frodo already had unknown cares weighing him down. So, shifting uneasily on his feet, he gave the one truth he could. "I lent them the pony without Farmer Cotton's leave, and I didn't want to be in trouble for doing that."

"You did, did you?" The Gaffer paused to consider if his former treatment of Sam could be justified by this newly revealed misdeed. "Well then, this news don't do you much good, do it? You still done wrong to my way of thinking and you still lied about it." He looked at Merry. "I thank you for taking the trouble to bring me the truth, Master Merry, so now at least I know what Sam did wrong, by lending out a pony he'd got no right to lend out, and then lying about it."

Merry was dumbfounded. How could Sam still be in trouble? He had to say it now even if Sam wouldn't thank him. "Sam probably felt he didn't have much choice, though, Master Gamgee, when we wanted the pony because Frodo had asked him, I think, to keep us busy for the day."

Merry returned Sam's small exclamation of surprise with an apologetic grin. "That's right, isn't it Sam? He asked you, and then you couldn't refuse when Pippin wanted to take Biscuit off."

Sam blushed from collar to brow but still he nodded reluctantly to his father.

Merry stood. "Now, I must explain all this to Farmer Cotton, and with your leave I'll bring Sam with me so the whole story can be told."

"Aye," the Gaffer was suddenly subdued, pondering this strange turn of events, and uncertain now how to judge Sam's conduct. He sunk back into his chair and waved his hand wearily, "all right, son, off you go, then, off you go."

* * *

Farmer Cotton was in his yard when the three young hobbits arrived. He treated an explanation that absolved Sam of wrongdoing as welcome news: "I should never have told Gawkroger you'd had that pony all day. When he heard that he was dead certain it was you he'd seen, and he told your Gaffer that, Sam." Readily, he forgave Sam his supposed sin of lending the pony without permission: "If you'd asked me, Sam, I would have said yes, and no mistake. These two knew what they were doing when they put the pony up the other night. No doubt you did what you did because you knew what my answer would've been, if I'd'a been asked." Tom was less forgiving of Old Gawkroger, "I'll have a word or two with him, and no mistake. I knew better than to listen to his talk the other night, and I'll not listen to him again. But don't you trouble yourself, Master Merry, I can deal with Jarge, and make him sorry for his mischief, you can rest easy about that."

They took their leave of the Farmer. Pippin wanted Sam to see how far down to Bywater they had come with Biscuit, so they hiked across Farmer Cotton's hayfields to the common meadow beyond. In the distance a dog ran along the fence bordering Gawkroger's land, and the old hobbit himself followed slowly behind. Sam pointed him out and had no objection when Merry resolved to talk to him. The dog left the fence and trotted up to them barking and tail-wagging. Finally, Gawkroger noticed them. He squinted quizzically as they came up.

"Ah, it's you again, Sam Gamgee, is it? Out looking for another lost pony, no doubt?" He chuckled at his own joke.

"I never was looking for no lost pony, Mr. Gawkroger," Sam said evenly.

"Still denying it, are you? What's your father doing then, letting you go traipsing across the Shire?" He looked Merry and Pippin up and down with open distrust. "And who are these two - these two fine, young gentlehobbits? Strangers to our parts, and no mistake."

Merry took a step closer to Gawkroger. "I am Meriadoc Brandybuck of Bucklebury, and this," here he guided Pippin with a hand on his shoulder to stand in front of him, "this is Peregrin Took of Tuckborough." Pippin looked steadily up at Gawkroger, though Merry could feel him trembling under his hand.

"Ah," said Gawkroger knowingly, "you're Frodo Baggins' company, or so I've been told. What business does a Gamgee have with the likes of you, then, tramping across the fields of Bywater?" Gawkroger had a sudden thought. "Not your new Masters, are they, Sam? Old Bilbo's not let you go for losing that pony?"

Sam felt his brewing anger flow over him in a sudden flush, and he took a quick step towards Gawkroger. "He's not let me go and I never lost no pony!"

Gawkroger stepped back. At his whistle his dog came to sit obediently at his feet. "That's your story now, is it? Well, no one believes you, do they?"

"Sam is not my servant, Farmer Gawkroger, don't be absurd!" Merry exclaimed. "But tell me, now that you've had a better look at me, surely you recognize me?"

Gawkroger eyed him suspiciously. "Why should I, when I never seen you afore in my life?"

"Of course, you have! I am the hobbit you saw chasing Biscuit in this very field last Tuesday; the one you were so quick to report to Farmer Cotton. Does that help?"

Gawkroger looked from Merry to Sam and grudgingly matched his memory of the hobbit with Biscuit to the clothes and figure of Merry. "Well, what if you are?" he asked uneasily, "what do you want from me?"

"I want nothing from you, since you've done me no harm. Sam here is the one you need to make amends to."

"I only said what I saw," said Gawkroger petulantly, "it was Tom as said it was Samwise."

""No, Farmer Gawkroger, Tom Cotton only suggested a name, you chose to use it without any proof. And you told his own father it was Sam you saw, and that you were sure of it."

"Well, if I did it was an honest mistake and no blame to me!" The old hobbit's voice rose indignantly.

"That's your story, is it?" Merry spoke grimly. "Then I'm sure you won't waste any time informing Hobbiton and Bywater of your `honest mistake'. You had best start by spreading the word at the Ivy Bush tonight."

"I'll not be told how to behave by some half-grown hobbit, and especially not by a Brandybuck, no matter how fine he looks and talks." Gawkroger's face was a mottled red, he glared at Merry furiously, "go back to Buckland and mind your own business!" At his feet the dog growled softly.

"Sam might justly say the same to you about whose business you should be minding." There was a restrained fierceness in Merry's voice now. "Have it your way, Farmer Gawkroger. But when the truth comes out, as it quickly will - Frodo and I will make sure of that - then folk will see that you didn't try to correct the mistake you made when you had the chance to, and they'll judge your motives by that failure." Merry's voice rose unsteadily. "Then they'll know it wasn't an honest mistake, and they'll know your word isn't worth a thing!" Gawkroger glared at him, and Merry said, quietly now, though his voice was shaking. "Good day to you. Come along, Pippin." He turned and walked away, guiding his mute, stunned cousin with the hand that was still on his shoulder.

Gawkroger stood breathing heavily, glaring first at the retreating figures of the cousins and then at Sam, still standing there, somewhat nonplussed. He turned on him and hissed. "You just go on keeping company with the likes of them and those Bagginses of yours. See where that leads you!"

Now Sam could not suppress his grin at witnessing Merry put Gawkroger in his place for his sake. "Like as not that's the best advice you've ever given, Mr. Gawkroger!"

He hurried off to catch up with Merry who waited for him at the path leading into the woods. "All right, Sam?" Merry asked as they fell into step together. Pippin had raced ahead, full of exuberance now that the trials of confessions and of unrealized punishment were over. Merry and Sam went along more slowly.

Sam chuckled, and gave Merry a sideways grin, "you gave old Gawkroger a thing or two to think about, and no mistake. But he won't take your advice. He'll not pay a visit to the Ivy Bush for many months, I'd wager. It's no matter though, not now that Farmer Cotton and me dad know what happened."

"But it didn't seem to make much difference to your father," said Merry with some frustration, "now he is angry with you for not telling the truth about lending the pony to Pippin and me."

Sam shrugged. "That's me Gaffer all over, isn't it? He don't let nothing get by him, leastways not if it concerns me, and that's a fact. But I thank you for setting things straight."

"Well, if I'd told you what had happened to Biscuit this would never have happened." Merry's voice dropped. "I am sorry, Sam, truly."

"I know you are, Merry." Sam shrugged again. "It's my fault, maybe, as much as yours. I never gave you a chance when you got back, did I, being so angry about you being late with the pony and all. I know you tried to tell me. My dad says I'm too hasty with my temper, and perhaps he's right. If I wasn't so hotheaded, it'd never've happened, maybe."

Now Merry realized that the full extent of his and Pippin's complicity still escaped Sam, and for a moment the thought of leaving Sam unenlightened tempted him. Why not let Sam think that Merry's only fault lay in not controlling a heedless Pippin? But there had been enough twisting of the truth these past few days to no good end, and unwittingly he had been a part of it, he could not knowingly continue to be so.

"But I never intended to tell you, Sam." Merry blushed furiously, and his words came in a rush. "I promised Pippin I wouldn't, you see, to make sure his father didn't hear, and so he'd still get his pony. I thought there'd be no harm in keeping it from you. It was dishonest, and I've learned my lesson. So if you want to think me untrustworthy, I can't complain, especially since for your part you refused to lay the blame on Pippin and me."

Sam walked on in silence so long Merry wondered if he had decided never to speak to him again. Slowly Sam puzzled through this new information, trying to make it fit with his previous understanding of Merry. Finally he said, "I do trust you though, Merry." He glanced at him self-consciously. "I did before and I do now, more than before maybe, because you've told me this when you didn't have to, about not meaning to tell, if you understand. You could have let me keep thinking it was me own temper that made the trouble, and all, and I'd've been none the wiser. So I do trust you, Merry."

Merry looked at him quizzically, stunned and relieved.

Sam grinned at him, and then sobered. "I'm that sorry Mr. Frodo got caught up in this, though, when it seems he's got more than enough to worry him already, or did have the last time I saw him."

"You noticed that, too, did you?" Merry watched Sam blush and nod, and then confided, "I tried talking to Frodo, but he wouldn't even acknowledge there was anything troubling him, never mind admit what it was." He sighed. "Cousin Frodo can be very close at times."

"Aye," Sam agreed solemnly, "he can at that."

"Do you have any idea what it is, Sam?"

"No, I don't. It's queer though," Sam gazed up through the trees at the deep blue sky darkening to black, and began to think out loud, "he was his normal self until Mr. Gandalf came, and Mr. Bilbo, he'd not been his usual self for months and months, not since, well, not since Mr. Gandalf left the last time, just before the Yule." Sam suddenly recognized the truth of this as he said it. "And then Mr. Gandalf comes back, Mr. Bilbo seems right as rain, as the saying goes, and he's full of plans for his birthday, and all. But Mr. Frodo, it seems maybe he inherited whatever Mr. Bilbo's worries were, or something else just as bad. It's a puzzle, and no mistake."

Merry looked at Sam with new respect for this surprising discernment. Now Sam was suddenly conscious of discussing the goings on of Bag End with his Masters' cousin. He blushed. "Begging your pardon, and meaning no disrespect to Mr. Frodo and Mr. Bilbo."

"Of course not, Sam," Merry said seriously. "Frodo has not been his usual self for these past few days either, though he does hide it well." Merry looked appraisingly at Sam, and saw that his brow was puckered with worry and that all thought of Sam's own troubles had been driven from his mind by this talk of Frodo. "I would like you to do me a favour, Sam, though it may be impertinent of me to ask, and you need not agree." Sam looked warily at Merry as he continued. "If you do find out what has been bothering Frodo - after I've gone back to Buckland, I mean - will you write to me, and let me know? I'm not asking you to spy!" he added hastily, "just, well, if the information comes your way then, if you can, send it my way."

Sam considered this request with trepidation. If Mr. Frodo did not want Merry to know his troubles, who was Sam Gamgee to go against that wish, and tell him? Merry understood the hesitation. "How would this be, Sam - if you think Frodo needs my help, but he won't ask, will you tell me then?"

Sam nodded fervently, "Yes, I will," he said hoarsely, "and I would do anyways, without you asking, and all."

They were almost to Bag End. Merry looked around. The night had closed in during their long walk back and now he could see only shadows by the light of the rising moon. "Where has Pippin got to, I wonder? I completely forgot about him; he had better not have gotten himself lost."

There was a muffled noise from the shrub behind them and Pippin jumped out. "I'm not lost! You two walked right past me ages ago, when I was hiding in those bushes away back there, waiting to pounce on you. But then you both looked so serious I let you go on. What have you been talking about?"

Merry was rather annoyed at being spied upon. "Don't you worry your little head about matters that are too big for you, Pippin Took! There are some things between Sam and me you have no business knowing." And with that he nodded conspiratorially to Sam, and turned off the main path for the narrower one leading to Bag End. Sam hurried on towards his own home.

* * *

Frodo had watched the two cousins as they walked hand in hand down Bag Shot Row until he saw them go through the gate without hesitating. Then he made his own way thoughtfully up the Hill and back to Bag End. As he hung his coat on the peg in the entrance hall he heard Bilbo in the kitchen preparing their late tea and chatting with Gandalf.

The old hobbit murmured contentedly to himself as he set Dora's ample donation of cakes and pastries onto the serving plate. Gandalf sat at the small kitchen table reading over a list written in Bilbo's spidery hand. A smile twitched at the corners of his mouth. "Are you sure you need this many musical toys, Bilbo? Imagine the cacophony if they are played at once by every lad and lass at the party?"

Bilbo lifted his chin and cocked his head as if the sound was already in his ears. "Won't it be marvelous! What a party it will be, Gandalf!"

Frodo came silently up to lean with folded arms against the threshold to the kitchen. "We can only honour my uncle's turning one-hundred-and-eleven once, Gandalf. There is no hobbit more deserving of such a celebration of his life, and nor will there ever be such a one again!"

Bilbo turned to his nephew, laughing delightedly, and the smile he gave Frodo pierced his soul. His dad used to smile at him like that, a smile without thought or pretence, an undistorted reflection of his heart's affection. "Frodo, my lad, you do warm an old hobbit's heart with praise far beyond his due!" Again, the smile, gone too soon, and a sigh. "Well, come along now, here you are and the tea is ready."

Frodo took the tray of plates and mugs from Bilbo to carry into the dining room. "Merry and Pippin aren't with me, though, they have gone to the Gamgees. There's been a bit of trouble."

So they sat in the parlour and left their tea waiting while Frodo told them all he had learned from Dora and Merry and Pippin. Bilbo snorted derisively when he heard Gawkroger's name and grew slowly more irritated as the story unfolded. "What an insufferable old busybody that hobbit is! Idle gossip is bad enough but that one concocts trouble with all the half-truths and speculations that come his way."

"He does, and he did," Frodo agreed simply, "but he wouldn't have been able to concoct half the trouble he did if a certain young Brandybuck hadn't listened to an even younger Took, and contributed his own share of deceitfulness. They both know that now, and I have no doubt Merry will do all that he can to set matters straight with the Gaffer, and more importantly with Sam. So Sam should be released from his house arrest." He sighed. "Nothing can make up for his missing your story these past few nights though, Bilbo, I am sorry for that." And silently Frodo recalled Sam's visit of Tuesday night and regretted the cares about his dad he had brought with him.

Gandalf paused in lighting his pipe. "If Merry and Pippin bring him back with them tonight, he can at least hear the end of the story, and we are not done with the elves yet."

Frodo was suddenly concerned. "I didn't think to ask them to fetch Sam back." He looked at the window, now mirrored by darkness and reflecting the light of the fire. "I wonder what's keeping them?"

Bilbo chuckled. "Perhaps the Gaffer is imposing the same punishment on them as he did on his own son. We may not see those cousins again for a week."

"That does not seem to concern you, Bilbo," said Gandalf. His eyes twinkled in the firelight.

Bilbo snorted. "Well, it might not be a bad thing to see them treated strictly for once, and once would likely be all they need. Saradoc and Paladin are far too lenient with them. Merry behaves just like Pippin when the two of them are together. He should raise Pippin up to his own standard of conduct, not lower himself to Pippin's."

Frodo stared thoughtfully into the fire. "Still, once he managed to get the truth out, Merry knew exactly what he had to do this afternoon without my telling him, and he didn't hesitate. We don't need to worry about him, and Pippin knew as well, or at least was willing to trust his cousin's judgment." Frodo stood and went to peer out the window. "But I wonder where they have got to? Perhaps I should go down to the Gamgees and see if they have gone off to Farmer Cotton's; Merry said he was going to speak to him next though I thought he would leave it until the morning. And I can invite Sam back if they haven't thought of it."

"You're sure you are not going just to rescue them, Frodo?" Bilbo asked.

"No," said Frodo firmly, "I'd like to know what's going on, and if I can clear up any confusion I will, but it's up to Merry and Pippin to sort this out for themselves and take the consequences that come to them."

* * *

The Gaffer was in the parlour having his mug before dinner when May answered Frodo's knock at the door. With a shy smile she let him in, and explained that Merry and Pippin had gone off with her brother to Farmer Cotton's. When Hamfast made to get up to greet him Frodo gestured him into his chair and took the one next to it, in front of a fire that was humming and popping in the hearth. May came quickly back with a mug of her father's home brew for Frodo and rewarded his polite thanks with a pretty blush. After an appreciative sip Frodo said lightly, "I have come to see what happened to my two rascally cousins, Master Hamfast, and May tells me they have gone with Sam to straighten it all out with Farmer Cotton."

"Aye," the Gaffer scowled as he took a sip of his own ale, "though no doubt it'll not go much better for Sam when he's done finally telling the truth, that he's kept to hisself all this time, seeing as how he lent that pony out without Tom's leave, and said nowt about it through all this trouble."

"I heard about that," said Frodo slowly, "and Merry wondered whether Sam decided not to tell about him and Pippin having the pony until he'd been able to find out if they really had lost her. Most likely Sam didn't want to cause Gawkroger's type of mischief by jumping to a conclusion and accusing someone who might be blameless."

Hamfast gazed at the fire and puffed thoughtfully on his pipe. "That's the excuse Sam gave me, and sure enough that's one way of looking at what he's done, and saving him from blame, I suppose."

"But then Sam ended up protecting the ones who caused all the trouble and who made it worse for him by not telling him about it." Frodo gave a small laugh. "I don't think they will ever do anything like that again though. Once Merry heard that old Gawkroger had put the blame on Sam he determined to set things right immediately and Pippin was in tears. It's been a good lesson in honesty for them - and loyalty - and I'm not sorry they've had it. And of course it's up to Tom to set them a greater punishment if he sees fit."

"Aye," said the Gaffer, "and it had better be a lesson for Sam to stop deciding for hisself what ain't his to decide. Tom trusted him with that pony, and if summat goes wrong with her while she's his look out well, then the blame's still his, and no mistake."

"True enough," Frodo agreed. "There are hard lessons to be learned in growing up. One of the hardest, perhaps, is being responsible for what you've done or caused to be done. Sam didn't shirk that responsibility." Frodo looked at Hamfast Gamgee and said sincerely, "you must be proud of the way he's turning out."

"Aye," the Gaffer replied, somewhat taken aback, and he turned that point of view over in his mind, "you do look at things different, Mr. Frodo, that you do."

The front door opened and in came Sam, breathless and red cheeked with the cold. "It's me, dad," he called as he hung his coat up. "Sorry, I'm so long getting back. You've not kept dinner waiting again, have you?" He hurried into the parlour and stopped in astonishment to see Frodo there.

Frodo stood. "No Sam, I think I am the one who has been keeping your father from his dinner. Did Tom Cotton skin Merry and Pippin alive?"

"No, sir, of course not! He knows what Biscuit's like; she's a little joker and she plays games when she gets loose, of course she does. He said he would have lent them the pony hisself if they'd asked him, so no blame to me, he said." Sam blushed and glanced at his father, who was studiously knocking his pipe against the fender.

Frodo nodded. "Well, that's more than fair of Old Tom. I'll say good night, then, Master Hamfast." He turned to go, saw Sam's hopeful face, and suddenly remembering what he had told Bilbo was the purpose of his visit, turned back to the elder Gamgee. "Do you think I might borrow Sam for the evening? Gandalf and Bilbo have been telling of Bilbo's great adventure these past few nights, and I am sure they would appreciate some fresh ears. Merry and Pippin are growing a bit restive." It was not quite true, but this was a sensitive issue.

The Gaffer regarded his son thoughtfully. Sam said nothing, knowing his case would not be helped by seeming too eager. He would abide by his father's decision. "All right, son," said the Gaffer, "You might as well go along after dinner."

"I'll take him now, if that's all right," suggested Frodo, "and it will save us having to wait for him."

* * *

Dinner was over and the washing up done. Hobbits and wizard gathered again in front of the fire in the parlour. The small sofa was claimed by Merry and Pippin, who collected all the unclaimed pillows for lounging upon when the evening grew old. Bilbo and Frodo drew their own armchairs close and Gandalf sat in the largest armchair next to Bilbo. Sam placed his seat near to Frodo. And then the tale was taken up, and told from the trapping of Bilbo and the dwarves in Smaug's den in the Lonely Mountain right through to the end, until Bilbo was saying, "and I was back again, in my nice little hobbit hole - well it would be nice again once I got back most of the things my friends and neighbors had helped themselves to - but still I had my comfortable chair in front of the fire, this one in fact!" and here Bilbo patted the arms of his chair, "and the kettle singing on the hearth whenever I wanted it," he cocked his head at the kettle murmuring on the hob, "and the Shire and kith and kin all about me." With a nod and a smile he sat contentedly back.

So the long tale ended. In the hearth the fire was dying down to embers, shadows pooled in the corners of the room; they all sat still and thoughtful, feeling the pleasure to be had in a snug home, with good company, in a peaceful land. And then, growing from imperceptibility came the tune of the elf song Bilbo had heard in Rivendell on his journey home. Sam sat deep in the old armchair, with his eyes closed, humming unawares to himself. In a whisper he sang:

Sing we now softly, and dreams let us weave him!
Wind him in slumber and there let us leave him!
The wanderer sleepeth. Now soft be his pillow1!

Sam finished and sat up, blinking and then blushing furiously. But his attention was drawn like the others to the low rhythmic accompaniment that Sam had unconsciously paced the song to and which was now inexplicably continuing on its own. Pippin, slumped against Merry on the sofa, snored softly. Merry's elbow in the ribs roused him and up he sat, blearily looking around at them all. "Did I miss anything?"

"You missed whatever happened while you were asleep, Peregrin Took. We have not been sitting here waiting for you to wake up before going on. The story is over." But Gandalf smiled as he said it.

Pippin looked sheepish, "but I heard the elf song - you haven't got Bilbo out of Rivendell yet."

Quickly Sam stood to gather the tea things. "That was only me, singing it again, and all, begging your pardon," he said, and he blushed again, too.

"And very nice it was," said Bilbo, "and would have been nicer still without a small hobbit's snoring." Pippin pretended to scowl.

"Well, sir," said Sam, balancing the last mug carefully on the tray and straightening up, "I reckon if an elf sang that song to me I'd follow him to Rivendell, and no mistake, and I'd stop there as long as he sang it or any other song."

"Then you would likely never leave, Sam!" exclaimed Bilbo delightedly, "for there are always elves singing in Rivendell, it as natural as breathing for them." Frodo watched his uncle's eyes glow with remembrance and anticipation, saw him set his jaw and nod his head in confirmation of his unspoken birthday plans. Then his uncle's gaze met his, and Frodo knew the next words were meant for him, "but the Shire is not an easy home for a hobbit to leave, it has its own comforts and beauty that not even the fairest house of the elves or the loveliest waterfall of their valley can match." Thoughtfully - and almost imperceptibly - Bilbo shook his head at Frodo, and Frodo looked away, unwilling yet to give the answer his uncle sought. Gandalf watched them both with bright eyes hidden under his heavy brows, but seemed content.

* * *

Now Merry dragged Pippin into the kitchen to help with the washing up, and the three young hobbits took their stations as before, though Bilbo and Gandalf tonight joined Frodo in the supervising.

The teapot belonged on the shelf above the stove. Pippin stood tiptoes on his stool to replace it, then leaped onto Merry's back without warning, calling for a piggy back ride. The sudden weight staggered Merry, but he regained his balance and obligingly trotted his unexpected passenger around the table.

"You are much too impetuous, Pippin! You may regret it one day!" cried Bilbo.

Pippin slid from Merry's back and thought about that for a moment, as if trying to sort something out. He laughed. "Bilbo, how can you say that when you ran out your own front door" - here he began to tick points off on his fingers as he plodded slowly around the kitchen table, thinking hard - "without finishing your second breakfast, or doing the washing up, and without your walking stick. . . .," Pippin looked at the ceiling and silently moved his lips, then ". . . and with no hat, or money or even a pocket handkerchief!" He smiled triumphantly. "And you went off with the dwarves on an adventure when you hadn't any idea what you were getting into, and did not come back for a year!"

Gandalf looked from Pippin to Bilbo with twinkling eyes. Bilbo chuckled appreciatively. "Well done! Now I shall add `cheeky' to the list of your faults as well." He looked down affectionately at the young Took. "But I don't know if you are right, Pippin. I have always felt there was more at work than my own impetuous thoughts and desires when I chose to go on my adventure. Somehow it didn't seem a `choice' at all, but more as though the tide of fate had caught me up." He turned to the wizard. "Do you remember what you said to me, Gandalf, when it was all over?" Now Bilbo tested his own memory and slowly recited, "You don't really suppose, do you, that all your adventures and escapes were managed by mere luck, just for your sole benefit? You are a fine person, Mr. Baggins, and I am very fond of you; but you are only quite a little fellow in a wide world after all."2

Gandalf nodded solemnly. Pippin cocked his head. "Then perhaps it was `fate' then that made me kick Biscuit into a gallop so I fell off?"

"I don't think fate worries about small matters like a wee hobbit digging his heels into a fat pony's ribs, Pip! I'd wager that job was entirely yours!" Merry teased.

Gandalf lips twitched. "I think you are right about Pippin's heels and the pony's ribs, Merry, but fate plays out in small deeds as well as large. Never forget that."

Sam scowled. "If fate made you fall off Biscuit then it must've wanted to get me in trouble, Master Pippin, because that's the main thing your little heels did, begging your pardon, and no blame to them."

"Oh, I don't know, Sam," said Frodo, "Pippin's heels at least led to Old Gawkroger being given a lesson, whether he learns from it or not."

"'Or not' being the more likely, no doubt," said Sam. He dried his hands and looked about the now tidy kitchen. There was nothing left to do. It was very late. The marvelous evening was over. Sam sighed wistfully. "Well, I'll be getting myself home now. I thank you for telling me your tale Mr. Bilbo, and Mr. Gandalf."

The old wizard looked with veiled approval at the young servant's face, glowing still with delight at having heard only the tail end of the long story. "I will say good-bye to you, Samwise Gamgee. I am leaving early tomorrow, so I will not see you again before I go."

"Good-bye, then, Mr. Gandalf, sir," said Sam with regret, "but you'll be back for Mr. Bilbo's eleventy-first birthday party, and all, won't you?"

"Indeed, yes, I have no intention of missing that."

Sam reddened, steeling himself to ask the question, a bit shamefaced at having caught a peep at one of Mr. Bilbo's early lists left carelessly on the counter within sight of his curious eyes. "And fireworks, Mr. Gandalf, will you really be bringing them?"

Gandalf glanced quickly at Pippin, who looked ready to burst at the thought. "We shall see, Sam, we shall see." But he gave Sam a wink that was shielded from Pippin by the turn of his head.

* * *

When Sam was gone Merry and Pippin went down to their room and were so noisy in getting ready for bed that they kept the others, now settling down in the parlour, well apprised of the precise advancement of their preparations. A sudden silence for a moment or two, somehow suspenseful, raised the listeners' curiosity; then Pippin called with suppressed laughter, "Frodo! Cousin Frodo! Won't you come and bid me good night?"

Frodo exchanged glances with the other two. Merry shouted, "Come along, Frodo, we are both very tired, and would like to go to sleep!"

"I wouldn't wager any money on the truth of that statement," Frodo whispered, and padded with feigned trepidation down the hallway. Without warning he swung wide the bedroom door, but it was no help. Feather pillows attacked him from both sides. A furious battle was joined; Merry wrestled Frodo onto the bed and Pippin lent assistance by wielding a pillow almost as big as himself.

Frodo bellowed for help. "Bilbo! Your heir is in danger of predeceasing you! I am outnumbered!"

So down the hallway trotted Bilbo, laughing good-naturedly. He peered cautiously around the door at Frodo on the bed, and on his back, struggling, but well and truly pinned by Merry straddling his chest and holding his arms down beside his head. Pippin stilled wielded the pillow, rather oblivious to whether he struck Baggins or Brandybuck with his wild swings.

"Nonsense, Frodo!" cried Bilbo, "you seem to have matters well in hand! I'll just leave you to it, shall I! Goodnight everyone." With exaggerated care he quietly closed the door on the melee.

"You see!" cried Pippin, "you're on your own, cousin Frodo! Do you give up?" and swinging the pillow with renewed vigour he connected squarely with the back of Merry's head.

"Pippin!" he bellowed, and then Frodo, looking up at him inquiringly, caught his eye. Merry gave a slight nod in agreement. Silently they counted down together, then simultaneously leaped on Pippin, grasping the small hobbit by his wrists and ankles and swinging him wildly between them until they thought he would choke on his laughter. A final (gentler) swing and release sent him soaring onto the bed, where he lay gasping and sweating, sated with fun. Merry and Frodo collapsed beside him, and so they all lay for the next half hour or so, chatting easily and idly teasing each other.

* * *

Bilbo and Gandalf sat quietly together before the parlour fire. "I will miss this," said Bilbo, gesturing down the now silent hallway. "I never thought when I took Frodo as my heir that it would become a sometime inheritance of a young Brandybuck and later a rather smallish Took."

"Three brotherless cousins," said Gandalf, "and rather exceptional ones at that. You should not be surprised."

"I am not. Indeed, I am very content. Until Frodo began growing up I never had the companionship he now has. I am glad he has not waited as long as I did. Whether he realizes it or not, he is ready to be Master of Bag End. And whatever else he decides to do with his life, he will get along splendidly without me, I daresay." Bilbo leaned contentedly back in his chair. "I did well in choosing him, Gandalf."

"You could not have done better, old friend."

FINIS

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