Meaning No Harm: Chapter Four - Accusations and Revelations

The night air did not cool the Gaffer's temper. The long walk up The Hill only gave him time to brood. He puzzled over how to deal with Sam, and whether his son deserved a chance to confess before he confronted him.

The sound of Sam's singing and Marigold's laughter greeted their father as he came up the path to the door of Number Three. It did nothing to improve his mood. Through the kitchen window he saw Sam dancing his youngest sister around and around the table, gaily singing an old song about what a bonnie lass she was, and Marigold, flushed and giggling, trying to keep up with Sam's bounding steps and twirls.

The front door's slamming startled May and Daisy at their sewing in the parlour. May looked up from patching a pair of Sam's work breeches and saw her father's face. "Dad! What's wrong?"

He shook his head dismissively and stalked through the parlour into the kitchen, his brusque voice preceding him. "Enough of that, Sam! Off you go, Marigold. I want a word or two with this brother of yours."

Sam stopped twirling his sister about, sobering at the sight of his father's face that wore the look it always did when he wasn't pleased with his son. Quickly Sam sat at the table, wondering what he had done wrong and barely returning Marigold's fleeting smile as she slipped quietly out.

The Gaffer sat heavily down across from Sam and did not look at him. He took his pipe and tobacco pouch from his jacket pocket and methodically filled the pipe's bowl. Sam fetched the candle and a kindling match from the shelf then sat again, waiting while his father pensively lit his pipe. Finally Hamfast spoke. "How did things go up at Mr. Bilbo's today?"

Sam relaxed a bit; maybe this was just the usual worry about gardening. "Fine. I cut down them trees in the morning, like I told you at lunch, and then Mr. Merry and Master Pippin helped to pull the stumps in the afternoon. And I had one of Farmer Cotton's ponies to help with the pulling, too." Sam's ears grew warm as he remembered his father's lecture about not treating Pippin like some working lad from Bywater. Is that what this was all about?

His father puffed vigorously on his pipe and peered through the cloud of smoke with narrowed eyes. "Any problems with the pony?"

Sam shook his head and got up to make tea. Perhaps his dad just wanted some peace in the house and a quiet chat over a hot mug. "No," he said, working the pump to fill the kettle. "I never have no trouble with the Cotton's ponies, they're all good ponies and they mind me, don't they?" Sam knew he had a way with beasts and especially the ponies.

The Gaffer folded his arms and looked hard at Sam as he sat down at the table again. "I heard you had trouble with the one you had today," he said evenly.

Sam's eyes widened in surprise. "No, dad, I didn't! Who told you that?"

"Jarge Gawkroger."

That hobbit's name brought the heat to Sam's face again, and silently he regretted being disrespectful to the farmer. His father's eyes searched his face keenly. "Farmer Gawkroger," Sam said slowly. "Meaning no disrespect, but you can't believe a thing that old hobbit says. Why, Mr. Bilbo's said many a time that he's nowt but a mixer, spreading stories and half truths for his own amusements. Mr. Frodo, he says it, too. Gawkroger's always looking to make trouble. Biscuit was fine today." Sam flushed again; he had not meant to sound so defiant.

The Gaffer did not like being lectured by Sam on the judging of character, even when he knew what Sam said was mostly true. "Aye, so it was Biscuit then, just like Jarge said. He was at the Ivy Bush tonight and he told me he saw you with Biscuit today."

"He saw me, but not with Biscuit. I was coming down the Cotton's lane in the dark after taking back the pony and he was coming along. He didn't see me at first, and he didn't know me at first, neither. I startled him in the dark and he was none too happy about it."

The Gaffer leaned over the table. "That's not what Jarge told me. He says he saw you below his back fields down past Bywater way, chasing after Biscuit he says you were, late this afternoon."

Sam shook his head, startled and confused, "I never took her back that way. I went along Bywater Road like I always does, and it was dark by then."

"No! I'm talking about earlier, as you well know!" He raised his voice, frustrated with his son's persistence in feigning innocence. "You let her get away from you this afternoon, didn't you, and she got all the way to Bywater before you caught her up. You didn't tell Tom and now you won't tell me neither, though I've treated you fair enough and given you the chance."

Sam felt his face flush hot, and tried to quell the anger and the fear growing in the pit of his stomach. He was sure Old Gawkroger had it in for him because of his cheek on the Cotton's lane. He said as steadily as he could, "but I never went down Bywater way this afternoon; I was up at Bag End all day." He looked pleadingly at his father. "Don't you believe me, dad, over that old gossip?"

The Gaffer had had enough. To his mind he'd given Sam more chances than he deserved to tell the truth and still he hadn't. He took his pipe from his mouth and jabbed the air with it as he spoke. "Maybe he is a gossip, but he's not the only one I've got this news from. Tom Cotton, he told me enough to show Old Jarge ain't telling no tale." The Gaffer's voice rose angrily. "Tom told me Gawkroger knew you had that pony, Biscuit, without being told so by him. And he told me you was late with her, and you'd not tell him why. He said you turned bright red when he asked you. I don't need nothing more to convince me. You done wrong and you know you done wrong; I saw it in your own face tonight when we started talking about that pony." He thumped the table with his fist, making Sam jump. "I'll not tolerate you being careless with a pony, or deceitful to an honest farmer that never done nothing but kindness to you all your life." The Gaffer was shouting now. "And you've been sitting here lying to me now, haven't you, though I treated you fair enough!"

Sam sat shocked in his seat; blinking back the stinging tears, feeling the frantic beat of his heart in his chest. "No, dad" he mumbled, but he couldn't say more; he needed to make sense of what his father had just told him. Had Gawkroger seen Biscuit? He must have because he knew that she had been with Sam today - or most of the day at least. And why had Merry and Pippin been so late bringing her back? Was it them Gawkroger had seen? But if she'd gotten away from them Merry would have said so, he felt sure of that. Then Sam remembered what a hurry he'd been in to get the pony back to the Cottons', and too angry as well to listen to either Merry or Pippin. Even if they'd wanted to, he'd never stopped long enough for them to tell him anything.

His father glowered at him across the table and when no explanation followed the simple denial he demanded, "are you still telling me you and that pony never left Bag End all afternoon?"

Mutely, Sam shook his head. Tears fell hot from his cheeks. He rubbed them roughly away with the back of his sleeve and heard his breath start to come in gasps. He did not know what to do. Saying 'yes' would be lying, but saying Merry and Pippin had gone off with Biscuit would put the blame on them when he didn't know for sure they deserved it. Maybe Gawkroger was making the whole story up, or mistaken entirely about what hobbit and pony he'd seen. He wouldn't be like Gawkroger, and name them without knowing for certain. And anyway, he couldn't blame them now, not after never once admitting he'd lent them the pony; it would only sound like another lie, and the worst one yet, on top of all the other ones his father so sure he'd told. No, best to stay quiet and not accuse Mr. Frodo's two cousins and bring trouble, deserved or not, to Bag End.

The Gaffer let his temper go now. He hadn't hit Sam for many years and he wasn't going to hit him tonight. Long ago he'd learned that words stung this son far sharper than the slap of an angry hand, and so he weighed in with them. Roughly he pushed his chair away and paced back and forth in front of Sam, and he told his son what he thought of him.

Sam hung his head. He wouldn't look at his father - that only made things worse. Most of what his dad said Sam had heard before and that helped, but only a bit. He'd known for years and years his dad thought him stupid, a ninnyhammer and a numbskull. But tonight the Gaffer added "sneak" to the list and that was new and maybe earned, because he hadn't told about lending out the pony to either his dad or Farmer Cotton. His dad was more certain than ever now that Sam would never amount to anything and would come to a bad end as surely as a bruised apple goes rotten.

Part of him believed it and his heart ached. Part of him didn't believe it, and he told himself that others thought his dad was wrong, and one day he would prove it. He wasn't stupid, he could read; he was the first Gamgee ever to read. Mr. Bilbo had thought him worth teaching even if it had taken him almost forever to learn. Mr. Bilbo even thought Sam would teach his own children one day. Every morning he was still welcome at Bag End to read Mr. Bilbo's books, and Mr. Frodo was always willing to help with the bits he didn't understand, or to explain Mr. Bilbo's poetry when Sam was too shy to ask the old hobbit himself. There was never a sharp word and hardly ever a tease from Mr. Frodo when he got muddled, neither. And he could keep gardens, of course; Mr. Bilbo was that pleased with all his hard work this past winter. He lent a hand, too, at Bag End in other ways, in the kitchen when he was up visiting, or by keeping Merry and Pippin busy.

Sam squeezed his eyes shut against his dad's words and told himself there were things worthwhile in him and no mistake. And his dad knew it too, most times, but it went out of his head when he thought his son had done wrong. And that hurt the most, that the proof was never good enough and his dad was forever on the look out for any reason not to believe what his son was always trying so hard to prove.

So Sam sat with his head bowed, taking it silently. The tears running down his cheeks only fueled the Gaffer's anger. He wanted his son to cry, to give proof that he was shamed by his father's words. But the Gaffer was shamed himself to have a son getting so close to grown who was still brought to tears by mere words. Finally, he stopped and threw Sam the handkerchief from his own pocket. "That'll do, Sam, dry your eyes," he said roughly, standing still in front of him now. "But don't go thinking I'm done with you. This ain't over until I get the truth out of you. Now get yourself off to bed." Sam nodded and tried to stop the tears, but he couldn't, and he sat at the table still, unable to master himself.

The Gaffer glared at his son, but let him be. He took the kettle from the stove and quickly banked the fires in the stove and the hearth for the night. Then he stood before Sam again and saw him struggling still, and still unwilling to talk. "All right, son," he said more gently, "you know what you've got to do, and crying don't help you do it."

Sam breathed deeply and with a great effort managed to hold it all in, knowing if he didn't his dad's anger would return and the yelling would start again. His father turned to leave.

"Good night, dad," Sam whispered.

The Gaffer spoke sternly from the threshold. "All's I want to hear from you is one thing - the truth - and you'd best tell it in the morning because if you doesn't then you'll be sorry you ever got up, and no mistake."

His father walked slowly down the passageway to his room. The lone candle left on the table cast a dim light on the small, neat kitchen. In the hearth the fire murmured almost imperceptibly. The unpredictable catch of Sam's breathing sounded loud in his ears. He rested his head in his arms on the table and again tried to think it through. He needed to talk to Merry so he could know whether Gawkroger was really making it all up, or just mistaken in who the hobbit with Biscuit was.

A long time he sat, listening to the quiet noises of his father and sisters getting ready for bed. Finally their lamps went out, and the passageway went dark. Worried murmurings came from his sister's room for many minutes more and then the house was still. It was late; but they kept late hours at Bag End and his dad wanted an answer in the morning. Sam put on his coat and eased himself silently out the door.

* * *

As he rounded the last corner to Bag End, Sam saw the dim figures of Frodo and Gandalf going through the gate and seemingly just returning from a walk under the now cloudy skies. He paused. When Gandalf opened the front door and the amber light from the lamp in the entrance hall spilled onto them, Sam could see, even from far away, that Frodo's upturned face was pale and drawn. Frodo held back, speaking and shaking his head. Gandalf gave him an encouraging smile and Frodo went back down the steps to sit on the bench by the gate. The moon peeped out from behind the racing clouds and the scattered lights of Hobbiton lay spread before Frodo, but he neither raised his eyes to the skies nor rested them on the sleeping village. Sam watched Frodo lift his chin and close his eyes as if breathing in the perfume of the flowering cherry in the front garden.

Uncertainly, Sam went up and spoke softly. "Evening, Mr. Frodo."

Slowly Frodo opened his eyes and turned his head to look up at Sam. "Good evening to you, Sam Gamgee." A smile flickered across his wan face. "It's a bit late for gardening, isn't it?"

"Yes sir, of course it is, and begging your pardon, only I wondered if Mr. Merry was still up?" He hesitated. "There's summat I wanted to talk to him about, if you understand."

Frodo shook his head. "No, Sam, he was in bed before I took my walk. He and Pippin were worn out this evening. Is anything the matter?"

Sam's eyes lingered on Frodo's sad face. "No sir, nothing that you can help me with, meaning no disrespect, and I can speak to Mr. Merry some other time." But still Sam stood there.

'It's very late, Sam, are you sure there is nothing wrong?" Frodo shifted over on the bench and willingly Sam came through the gate to accept his unspoken invitation.

"It's nothing I need to be worrying you with, Mr. Frodo." He perched on the edge of the bench and peered intently at Frodo. "And begging you pardon, but I could be saying the same to you".

"And I could give you the same answer," said Frodo with a gentle laugh.

Sam blushed. "I meant no disrespect, Mr. Frodo."

"I know that, Sam, and I am glad of a little quiet company."

Sam grinned in spite of his worries. From the open parlour window Bilbo and Gandalf's laughter floated down, easy and mirthful. "Mr. Bilbo's having a good visit with Mr. Gandalf, then?" he ventured.

"A very good visit," said Frodo. "He has waited a long time for Gandalf to come and help him settle things for his eleventy-first birthday and he has finally made up his mind what to do."

"And your thirty-third birthday, Mr. Frodo, your coming of age, and all! He's not forgotten that, has he?"

"No, Sam, of course not. I would say his plans will give full recognition to my coming of age; you needn't worry about that." Abruptly Frodo stood to lean against the gatepost and gaze down upon Hobbiton. "Thank-you for letting Merry and Pippin help you today; they had an excellent time by all accounts. I hear you let them take the pony off for a while."

"I did, sir, only they were a bit late getting back with her, so I never heard if she gave them any grief." It wouldn't do to ask straight out, or tell his troubles to Mr. Frodo, when clear enough his master had other worries still weighing on him tonight, but maybe he had news to simply pass along.

Frodo shook his head. "No, they only reported great fun." What had Pippin said while they were making dinner? Thoughts and worries had distracted him and Pippin had prattled happily on, never minding whether Frodo or Bilbo or Gandalf actually listened.

"Well, that's all right, then," said Sam, and Frodo wondered at the trace of disappointment in his voice. Sam now leaned against the other gatepost. Bywater Pool, wind rippled and shimmering under the moon, drew his eyes and eased his heart. "There's a pretty sight, Mr. Frodo, moonlight on dark water. It makes you feel like the Shire must be the most blessed place in Middle Earth, leastways for a simple hobbit like me. I don't need to see palaces of marble or halls of gold. It's enough to hear tales of them from Mr. Bilbo, I think. Woods and meadows and little streams are what my eyes want every day."

Frodo spoke softly. "And mine, too, I think."

Sam chuckled. "Though elves! I'd dearly love to see elves one day, Mr. Frodo, and that's a fact. Mr. Bilbo says there's naught fairer than elves, with voices sweeter than a nightingale. I suppose I'd venture from the Shire for a peep at an elf or two, no matter what my old dad says."

Frodo looked curiously at Sam and asked mildly. "What does your old dad say, Sam?"

Sam's voice was suddenly husky and he stared fixedly down at Bywater Pool as he spoke. "That tales of elves and dragons aren't for the likes of me, and I'd best keep my mind on my work and my eyes to the ground because if I don't I'm heading for trouble and a bad end, he's got no doubt." Sam ended in a whisper. He had not meant to bring any of his trouble to Mr. Frodo, but there it was.

Frodo shook his head disbelievingly. "All these years I've known you, Sam Gamgee, I've watched you heading straight down the road you desire, and to the goal you were made for, and are earning every day. You're a gardener and meant to be one, that's plain enough for all to see, and I don't know any reason why one day you won't be Master Gardener of Bag End, as you've always wanted to be." Sam glanced at him, blushing and Frodo held Sam's eyes. "That's the road you've been heading down since before I came back to Hobbiton."

Fervently Sam nodded and wiped his eyes that had gone damp with Frodo's words. "That's what I think, too, and that's all I want - to keep the gardens at Bag End and to have you as my Master one day, when Mr. Bilbo's long years come to an end, begging your pardon, and perhaps that don't bear talking about."

Frodo smiled wistfully. "I know what you mean to say, Sam."

Then silently they gazed for a time at the quiet village and at the tattered clouds racing across the face of the moon. Suddenly Frodo spoke his thoughts aloud, almost as if he had forgotten his young gardener was there. "But what if I yearn for elves and adventure, what if the borders of the Shire are too close for me?" He lifted his eyes far beyond Hobbiton to the hills silhouetted against the starry backdrop and spoke longingly, hopefully. "Perhaps the mountains call to me."

For a moment Sam was struck dumb. Mr. Frodo had never talked this way. When he came back from long tramps across the Shire, sun burnt, or wind blown, or soaked through with rain or sleet, he was only eager to tell of what he had seen and smelled and heard, and where he would go next to see the eternal changes wrought by the seasons of the Shire. He had never seemed to want more.

Then Sam spoke before he could stop himself. "No, Mr. Frodo! They're not too close - the borders, that is. They're broad enough and no mistake. The Shire's got its own beauty, that's not matched in the rest of Middle Earth. Mr. Bilbo, he says so hisself. And you add to that all your kin and friends who'd be that sad if you left - Mr. Bilbo of course, but Merry and Pippin, too, and . . . and others that I don't know. You'll not find a better place than the Shire." He took a steadying breath and looked with determination at Frodo. His voice dropped to a regretful whisper. "The elves are a dream and nothing more, I know that well enough."

Frodo smiled sadly at Sam. "I am afraid you're right, Sam. You needn't worry yourself. I was speaking idly when I shouldn't have. The Shire is big enough for me and I could not leave it even if a part of me wanted to go, because the greater part does not, and never will, I fear. That is where Bilbo and I differ - too little of the Took blood in me, I'm afraid!" He cocked his head at Sam. "But you and I make a strange pair, Sam. You yearn for elves, though the earth of the Shire binds you, and here am I, content with my home, but with a guardian who would take me far and wide if I truly wished it."

Sam looked at Frodo. "I'm not really wanting to leave, Mr. Frodo," he said quietly, "of course not. Only my dad thinks its wrong for me to just wonder about the wide world, it seems."

"And what do you think, Sam?"

Guiltily, Sam remembered why he was at Bag End so late and realized how talk of elves and adventure had distracted him from his purpose. "I don't know, Mr. Frodo, do you think perhaps the likes of me shouldn't be filling my head with such things?"

Frodo laughed gently. "Well, Sam, just this evening Bilbo and Gandalf began telling Merry and Pippin of their great adventure. They have promised to tell the whole story right through to the end before Gandalf leaves. But I made them stop before they got to Rivendell." Frodo almost laughed again at the look of disappointment on Sam's face. "I made them stop because I did not want you to miss any more, because you especially should hear Gandalf tell of the elves of the Last Homely House of Elrond. So you shall join us tomorrow night, young Master Gamgee, and every night after until the long tale is told, right through to the day Bilbo returns to Bag End to find your own young father in the garden, keeping order." He slapped Sam affectionately on the back. "That's what I think."

"Thank you, Mr. Frodo." Sam ducked his head and rubbed his eyes. His heart ached thinking how he'd be lucky to ever be let out of the house the way things were going with his dad. "I'd best be getting myself home now, before I'm missed. Good night then, Mr. Frodo."

"Good night, Sam, I'll see you in the morning." Frodo leaned against the gatepost, watching his young gardener tread wearily down the lane, and wondering what secret worry had prompted his unprecedented late night visit, and hoping their talk had somehow eased Sam's heart, as it had eased his own.

* * *

But Sam did not come to Bag End the next day. When Frodo wandered outside to enjoy the warm midmorning air and to check on the whereabouts of his overdue young gardener he was surprised to find Hamfast Gamgee alone in the pea patch, tilling the soil for the next planting. Frodo greeted him and asked after Sam.

The Gaffer leaned on his hoe. There was no need to tell Mr. Frodo of Sam's misdeeds and invite comment from yet another on the discipline of his own son. "Truth to tell, Mr. Frodo, I've been too easy on that lad o' mine of late, letting him come up here to wear away half the morning in idle visiting, begging your pardon and no offense, when that's not his job. There's plenty of work to keep him busy at home for the next few weeks, and a spell of that should straighten him out, and no mistake." The Gaffer spat meditatively into the pea patch, remembering how he had caught Sam up before dawn, unwilling to confess and trying to sneak out. Sam wouldn't try that trick again, he'd made certain.

Frodo was confused. "Bilbo and I have no complaints about Sam's work, though we're both certainly pleased to see you're well enough to do a share of it," he hastened to add.

Hamfast returned to his hoeing. "Well, Mr. Frodo, all's I can say is he's wanted at home right now, and I've been away from Mr. Bilbo's garden too long."

Thoughtfully Frodo turned to go and then remembered. "Perhaps Sam could come up this evening, though? Gandalf and Bilbo are telling the story of Bilbo's great adventure."

The Gaffer glanced swiftly at Frodo and kept hoeing. "Begging your pardon, Mr. Frodo, but Sam's place is at home right now. He's not to be out visiting anywheres, not even Bag End, meaning no offense and I hope you don't take none."

* * *

Pippin woke in the early gray dawn of Thursday to the fitful drumming of rain on the window, and the rattling and groaning of wind through the trees and shrubs. He scowled and went back to sleep for another hour or so.

But the weather pleased Bilbo. "A warm south wind full of rain means spring has finally chased winter away," he told Pippin when the small hobbit finally trudged into the dining room and expressed his general annoyance with the elements. Fifteen minutes later the sky cleared, or rather the patch of it visible through the dining room window did. The sun dazzled off the puddles and wet flagstones, and turned to falling diamonds the drops shaken by the wind from branch and leaf.

"Look, Merry!" called Pippin to his cousin padding sleepily down the hall. "It's clearing up, we can go on our long tramp today, after all."

"Wait a half hour, and then tell me if you still think so, Pippin," Bilbo cautioned. "The weather today will be as fickle as the only lass in a roomful of lads."

Merry looked balefully at the rain already beginning to spatter against the window. Frodo came from the kitchen bearing plates of eggs and a stack of toast. "Oh, what's a little rain, Bilbo? You and the dwarves went on easily enough through such weather, didn't you?'

"Yes, indeed, my lad," said Bilbo, sitting eagerly down at the table and lading his plate. Thoughtfully, he chewed and swallowed. "But if there had been a leaky inn on the road to offer me a lumpy bed and a tepid mug of tea I would have stopped there until the sun was shining."

Gandalf seated before the fire looked at the old hobbit out of the corner of his eyes and chuckled to himself. He came to join them at the table. "You do not mean that, Bilbo, in fact you are proud that you endured those early wet days out of doors, even if you did not enjoy them."

Bilbo grinned and raised his mug of tea to Gandalf in acknowledgment of this truth.

* * *
When breakfast was over and cleared, Frodo sat Pippin with paper and quill at one end of the small table in the parlour and taught him a word game. Gandalf at the other end was studying Bilbo's translation of a long elvish song into the Common Tongue, and making critical notes in the margin. Between them sat Bilbo, considering the wizard's first page of comments, and re-examining his own work. Merry lounged on the couch before the fire, reading and at the same time lazily listening to the conversation at the table.

"I am done, Frodo!" Pippin announced and showed him the list of words he had made, each beginning with one of the letters from the word "kitchen" and each word something to be found in the kitchen.

"Well done, Pip!" and Frodo gave him another word.

"Did you make this game up just for me, Frodo?" Pippin asked as he took the letter 'r' from 'parlour' and wrote 'relative'.

"No, my father played this game with me when I was your age, and Sam Gamgee liked it well enough, too, not so many years ago when I showed it to him."

Pippin was done again, and Frodo gave him 'Peregrin' this time. "Write out the things that you like with the letters of your own name."

Then Frodo watched and talked quietly with Bilbo as he began a corrected draft of his translation: a line of Elvish followed by a line of the Common Tongue; but they had not been long at it before Pippin interrupted. "I'm finished, Frodo, and I would like a different game, if you please."

"I will teach you a few words of Elvish, if you like."

Pippin craned his neck to peer at the strange markings on Bilbo's paper and wrinkled his nose. "No, thank-you, I could never make sense of that!" Turning to his own piece of paper he wrote 'Bilbo'" and then with the 'l' spelled out 'languages'.

Frodo took up a scrap of paper, wrote an Elvish word in his neat script, and handed it to Pippin. "Do you know what that says?" Pippin did not. "That is 'Peregrin' in Elvish." Bilbo looked over Frodo's shoulder and snorted in amusement.

Pippin was astonished that the elves had a word in their strange language for his very own name. "Is it really?" He looked from Frodo to Bilbo, who was grinning at him across the table. "I don't believe you!" Pippin turned to Gandalf, but the wizard was smiling absently and so engrossed in Bilbo's translation he was quite oblivious to the goings-on in the parlour. "Gandalf, is this my - what is this word?" But Gandalf did not hear him so Pippin went to stand at his elbow. "Gandalf, what does this say, please?"

Gandalf peered at the paper, then looked knowingly at Pippin. "That is an Elvish word meaning 'traveller' or 'wanderer'."

"You see!" Pippin turned triumphantly back to Frodo. "That's not my name!"

"But that is what your name means, Peregrin Took," said Gandalf, greatly amused. "Peregrin means 'wanderer' or 'traveller', did you not know that?"

Pippin took back the paper, examining it now intently. "Does it really?" He recovered from his astonishment and tucked his name proudly away in his pocket. "Well, then my name is splendidly Tookish, isn't it, as so many of us Tooks go on travels. But I wonder if that means I will, too, someday?" He looked out the window at the rain, falling gently but steadily now, and bringing the pink and white petals down from the fruit trees. "No travels for me on this day at least; it is too wet!"

Merry rolled off the couch with a great thump of his feet on the polished wood floor. He stood and stretched. "Well, it's not too wet for me. What do you say, Frodo, an hour or two of walking wouldn't be too bad, would it? I don't think I can stand being cooped up another minute. And when we get back perhaps Bilbo will have a nice hot lunch waiting, and before we go I will fill the cauldron in the bath room, so we can both have a wallow after we eat."

"That's the best plan yet for today, Merry," Frodo agreed, and said to Pippin. "Are you certain you don't want to come?"

But Pippin did not. "I will keep Bilbo and Gandalf company. Since Sam hasn't come today, Bilbo can give me a lesson." Then he admitted slyly, "father forgot to tell you before he left, but I'm supposed to have a lesson everyday."

* * *

So Frodo and Merry set out. Through the woods they walked and the warm rain dripping from the trees soaked into their curly hair and trickled in meandering rivulets down their necks and under their collars. The scent of flowering trees sweetened the air, and more subtly came the rich smell of leaf mold, funguses and mushrooms. Now and then juncos hopped down the narrow path in front of them until finally flitting into the bushes as the hobbits inexorably advanced. From the branches magpies squawked the alarm of their approach.

"This is one of Bilbo's favorite walks," said Frodo, "or at least this is the start of it; if he had a long summer day before him he would take this path as far as Waymoot and come back by the East Road - after stopping at the Wayside pub of course. Sometimes I would go with him."

"And sometimes not!" exclaimed Merry, "you do keep to yourself at times, Frodo. Don't you get lonely?"

"No, Merry," and rather hesitantly he made a confession, "I have never told you this before, but you are old enough now to understand, I think. I was far lonelier at Brandy Hall than I ever have been at Bag End. I am seldom lonely here; but there I was lonely, almost always."

Merry looked hurt. "I don't understand. How could you have been lonely with all your relatives around you?"

Frodo inclined his head in acknowledgment of this opinion and walked slowly now with his hands plunged in his pockets, speaking seriously as Merry walked beside him. "Well, the first year or so you must allow, I had every right to be lonely, because I was grieving for my parents in a place that was not my home. But after that, when I was healed enough to be able to not be lonely, well, there was still no one to help fill the emptiness. You were just a baby then, Merry, and later a wonderful little lad." Gently, Frodo bumped his shoulder into Merry's and Merry affectionately bumped him back. "And if it hadn't been for you and your parents I think I could have disappeared altogether in Brandy Hall without anyone missing me. But still, you were very young - much younger when I left Buckland than Pippin is now, remember - and your parents of course were too busy raising you to be overly concerned with a half grown cousin, who was a bit odd and seemed to be managing well enough." He smiled ruefully up at the dripping trees and shrugged. "And I suppose they felt, as you do now, and understandably enough, that it was impossible for me to be lonely in Brandy Hall." Frodo looked somberly at his cousin. "But it takes more than a hole full of relatives to stop you from being lonely, Merry."

Merry struggled to comprehend what was so contrary to his own experience. "But I think I would be terribly lonely here, Frodo, in a small place like Bag End, with only Bilbo to keep me company."

"Perhaps you would, but this suits me; I could not ask for better. I was very fortunate that Bilbo chose me to live with him." Frodo spoke more cheerfully now. "There is the strangest thing of all about the whole arrangement - that after almost fifty years of living alone Bilbo decided to share his home with me. He still says he doesn't quite know what made him decide to take me in." Frodo shook his head, "he says the idea came to him, almost as if it wasn't his own, until he felt he should bring me here, for his sake and mine, of course, but that even beyond our own interests it felt right as well, though he couldn't say why." He raised his eyebrows at Merry. "I don't confess to understand what he meant. Bilbo can be a bit queer, at times, can't he? But I am terribly fond of the old hobbit." Now he gave a slow smile, "and perhaps some day I shall be odder even than he is. I am very content, Merry."

Merry smiled uncertainly back. "All right, cousin, you know yourself best, of course." He chose his words carefully. "But I know you better than my parents did or do; I probably know you better than anyone, except Bilbo, of course and to me you haven't seemed content these past few days, you have seemed to want to be lonely, but I don't know why."

Frodo's cheeks, damp and already rosy with the weather, now flushed a brighter pink, but he shook his head. "No, Merry, I am well content. I have you and Pippin here - my two best cousins and friends. And Bilbo has Gandalf visiting, not a moment too soon, and all his birthday preparations settled. I have no complaints to make." He gave Merry an unconvincing smile.

"You are very close, cousin!" Frodo silently avoided Merry's piercing look, until Merry finally said, more gently. "All right then, I will not argue with you, even if I do not accept what you say. But you cannot stop me from fretting, any more than I can stop you from being 'close'."

Frodo said nothing, but he bumped his shoulder into Merry's again, and was glad of the answering bump.

They came out onto a high meadow above Hobbiton. The rain had eased, the sun hung moon-like behind a veil of thinning clouds, the swallows dipped and wheeled in the steam rising with the heat from the meadow.

"Well, now" said Merry, looking about and feeling his heart lighten with what he saw, "take me as far as we can go in a morning, and see if I can't be a match at least for Bilbo as a hiking companion!"

"I have never doubted your quality there, Merry, and I never will. Come on then." Frodo said eagerly, pointing across the meadow to the stile on a fence, and then putting his arm around his cousin's shoulder. "Today we can only have a quick march if we want to be back by lunch. But we will have many splendid tramps together on other days, won't we, and I shall show you all the paths and trails that Bilbo has hiked in his long life."

* * *

Friday passed with still no sign of Sam. Market day dawned slow and warm beneath an overcast sky that burned away by midmorning, leaving high white clouds to race along with the wind. After breakfast Frodo went with Merry and Pippin down to Hobbiton to do the week's shopping. When lunch was over the three set out again: Frodo to visit his Aunt Dora alone, so Bilbo might have a few quiet hours with Gandalf to go over the final lists of items for the party before the old wizard left in the next day or two, and Merry and Pippin to spend the afternoon in the village visiting the various stalls, or playing at games with the local lads. Frodo would hunt them down for the return trip, after his visit with Dora.

Frodo's Aunt Dora was his father's older sister, a widow now, with two grown daughters gone off to Michel Delving and Hardbottle with their husbands to raise their children. Either one would have taken Dora in to their large home and family if she had wanted it, but she didn't. All her life she had lived in Hobbiton and she was determined to remain to the last of her days, dispensing advice and news with great good nature, and an unfortunate paucity of both forethought and wisdom.

Twenty years had passed since she'd grieved her brother's death and grieved as well that his only child was left stranded at Brandy Hall to be raised haphazardly by Old Gorbadoc and his multitudinous clan. But never once had she thought it within her power to alter that fate by offering Frodo her home. Many years later she applauded Bilbo's adoption of her nephew, and wondered only that it had not occurred to Bilbo to do it sooner. Getting things done was never her talent, though she looked for it in others. Her skill lay in observing events, gathering news, and imparting her opinion to all who would listen.

Soon she and Frodo were comfortably settled by the parlour fire, with the curtains open and windows thrown wide to let in the warm air and the music and clamour of the village square close by. Plates of white bread with butter, jam tarts and tiny cakes drizzled with honey and thick cream sat upon the tiny table between them. Dora might be old, but she took pleasure still in her baking and even greater pleasure in seeing it eaten.

"This is such a welcome surprise, nephew, to have you all to myself," Dora said as she poured the tea. "It's not often that happens, is it, and I hope you're just as pleased as I am."

Frodo smiled at her warmly. He knew she was delighted to have a private visit with him, and knew as well this was partly because he was so much better than Bilbo at inoffensively deflecting her well meant but sometimes officious advice and opinions.

She patted his hand. "I know Bilbo is jealous of your company, my dear, and does not like to share you around too much. You are a comfort to him in his old age, no doubt, and if he wants to keep that comfort near I'm certainly not one to blame him."

Frodo smiled gently. "Now Aunty, I don't think Bilbo has aged a day since I first met him, and he likes his solitude both in and out of Bag End still. He tramps across the Shire in fewer hours than hobbits half his age. But Gandalf is visiting him right now for just another day or two. . . " (at this news Dora pursed her lips somewhat disapprovingly), " . . .and they need Bag End to themselves to settle some plans they are making. So I asked if I could have our Saturday visit with you all to myself, and Bilbo saw the sense in that, though I know it was hard for him to let me come alone." Frodo did not add that Bilbo's regret wasn't his own missing of a visit with Dora, but that Frodo was enduring a solitary one.

"Well, it is nice to see Bilbo thinking of others, rather than himself for a change. Gandalf does keep a tight rein on him, doesn't he? I haven't seen either of you at the Ivy Bush this past week, but I suppose Gandalf prefers not to put in an appearance, and Bilbo knows the wisdom of keeping close to him. I wouldn't be surprised if the old wizard wasn't trying to whisk him away on another adventure." She tutted thoughtfully and peered at her nephew, "because what you say is very true, Frodo - Bilbo doesn't look a day older than the day he returned from his last escapade. Are you sure it is wise to let them do all this plotting in secret; aren't you worried that the old boy might one day disappear again, and for good this time?"

Frodo smiled wanly at her. "No, I don't worry about it, Aunty. And besides, it's not for me to tell Bilbo what to do, is it?"

She leaned forward to give his hand an affectionate squeeze. "You never change, Frodo dear, you never have wanted to give anyone your advice or your opinion, even if it might be of use to you or them to do so. Now, tell me how you have been managing with this houseful of guests you have."

"We have been having quiet evenings at home listening to Bilbo and Gandalf tell of their adventures to Merry and Pippin. I suppose we have both been more reclusive of late than is usual for even us."

Dora nodded knowingly, "and probably best that you have been, what with this news going about of the Gaffer's trouble with his Samwise. No doubt Bilbo wants to leave it to the Gaffer to sort that one out on his own."

Frodo took a slow sip of tea. He did not understand what his aunt was referring to, and needed to decide whether to ask her to explain, and perhaps learn more than he wanted to know about the pettiness of Hobbiton gossip, or let the matter go, and risk missing something of import about the Gamgees. He plunged in. "I don't know what you mean, Aunty. What are the rumours about Sam?"

"Do you mean to say you don't know!" she exclaimed, setting down her cup and eagerly straightening up in her chair. "Well, call them rumours if you like, but they're not. The whole of Bywater and Hobbiton has known these past several days - all except Bag End it seems," she tutted in disapproval of Bilbo and Frodo's solitariness, "and there's no one questioning it as far as I have heard, and of course I hear most everything. Why Sam himself hasn't denied it. What did he do?" She asked as if responding to that question from Frodo, though he had remained silent through his aunt's customary prattle. "He only borrowed Farmer Cotton's best pony, abused it so it ran away, chased it all the way to Bywater by the back fields before finally catching it up, and then tried to keep the whole thing secret from the Farmer and his own father."

She leaned forward and lowered her voice confidentially. "He would have gotten away with it, too, and no one would have been the wiser if old Jarge Gawkroger hadn't seen him with his own eyes chasing the pony about down by his fields." Dora couldn't suppress a 'tsk' as she shook her head. "It makes you wonder what other mischief he's been up to without being caught. This has certainly opened people's eyes. Sam was always thought to be a hardworking, honest lad before this. No great thinker, of course, but what Gamgee ever was?"

She sat up and selected another slice of bread and butter from the serving plate before continuing. "So it's a blow to the Gaffer that he's behaved so, of course, and what's worse they say he won't admit it - though he hasn't denied it, and the lad doesn't seem to understand that's proof enough of his wrongdoing. His father has told him his punishment won't end until he admits what he did, but still he won't. Foolish obstinacy is what I call it, and it will be hard for him to find work if Bilbo lets him go and there would be no blame to him if he does."

She looked at Frodo curiously. "But now it seems the only reason he hasn't is because he doesn't know. That Sam has certainly got himself and his family in a bind. Being obstinate and untrustworthy is no recommendation when you're looking for work."

Dora was done, and though she had enjoyed giving her news the doubt and worry clouding Frodo's face gave her some small regret that it concerned Bag End's young gardener, that everyone knew Bilbo was so fond of, and Frodo, too.

Frodo said nothing as he sorted out this information. He knew the story could not be true, not just because it came from Gawkroger, but because he was sure enough of Sam not to give it any credit. Sam made mistakes and did wrong at times, but he always admitted it when he did, and was usually too willing to take more blame than he deserved when things went awry.

Dora brought Frodo out of his reverie. "Now, Frodo, dear, you are letting your tea go cold. Let me warm it up, and have another tart to go with the one on your plate." She filled his cup, and held out the serving plate.

"When did this happen, Aunty?" Frodo asked, politely selecting a pastry and adding it to the uneaten ones already on his plate.

She tapped a meditative finger to her lips. "It was just this past Tuesday, if I'm not mistaken. Yes, that's right, because the next night I was over at the Ivy Bush and heard the news, and by then everyone knew it. If the Gaffer weren't such a character then folk likely wouldn't have taken the notice they did, but he's that proud of being old Bilbo's gardener, though of course it's not a misplaced pride; he does a good job by all accounts and folk give him credit for being loyal to Bilbo all these years. And he's proud that his last son, at least, is a gardener like him and by his own accounts will be a fine one, too, once he's finished with him. So it's natural folk are going to take notice when the horn he's been blowing goes off key." She shook her head thoughtfully. "I am surprised you don't know about this, but I suppose the Gaffer doesn't dare volunteer news that reflects so badly on him as a father and on his son as an apprentice, and perhaps he's convinced himself it's not Bilbo's concern since the injury was to Tom Cotton alone." She drew herself up self-importantly. "So I am not one to blame Hamfast for not bothering Bilbo with it. He's done a fine job with those youngest four since Bell's passing. It's not easy raising girls, let me tell you, and to have a lad like Sam in the middle of the mix is not a treat for any parent, I would guess."

Frodo only half listened, and did his best to ignore the unfair comments he would certainly have corrected if the matter wasn't so urgent. When his aunt paused to collect her thoughts he asked quickly, "you're sure it was Tuesday, Aunty?'

"Of course I am, my dear, I do know my days of the week, still, even if I am getting on in years. And as I say I was in the Ivy Bush on Wednesday, that's my usual night, and the whole inn was full of the news and it had only happened the day before." She smiled grimly at Frodo, "and they all knew, of course, because Jarge Gawkroger, who was never one to keep anything to himself if he could get a bit of attention from it, had told the Gaffer the whole story in front of everyone at the Ivy Bush the night before. Folk say Hamfast didn't take it very well, though he didn't doubt what Jarge told him, and was determined to deal with Sam himself. Hamfast left in such a state that everyone was feeling a bit sorry for Sam, despite his doing wrong."

Frodo thought back to Tuesday night: Sam leaving after dark with a pony Merry and Pippin had brought back late from their jaunt, and Sam coming up so late that night to Bag End to talk to Merry. There was more to this story than Hamfast Gamgee had ever been told, of that Frodo was certain, and he was certain as well that his aunt was blindly spreading a false tale. Frodo had tried to stay calm during Dora's overlong explanation, but now his indignation turned to anger at the injury being done to the 'honest, hardworking lad' even Dora should know for herself Sam to be. For a moment he considered defending Sam to her, but he didn't. Doing so might relieve his disgust for talk that was fed by a heedless desire for amusement with no regard for another's reputation, but his aunt would give little weight to an opinion - even from him - based not upon allegations of fact but merely upon Frodo's years of daily discourse with the innocent culprit himself. No - the answer to this puzzle was with Merry and Pippin, Frodo felt certain, and it needed to come out at once. He wondered why it had been hidden at all, and he would not delay finding out by continuing a fruitless discussion of the matter with his aunt.

So Frodo let Dora rattle on with other news as he held his temper and quickly finished his tea. He stood to go. "I am sorry, Aunty, but Merry and Pippin are amusing themselves in Hobbiton while I have had you all to myself, and I have left them alone too long."

Dora was sorry to see her nephew leave so early, but did not delay him any longer than it took to wrap up a basketful of cakes and tarts for him to take home to Bilbo. If she was confident it was her news of Sam that sped Frodo on his way, she was entirely mistaken about why it did, and who it was Frodo was so eager to speak to.

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