Pippin watched Sam trot away on the pony, and when the angry young hobbit was well and truly gone he began to chatter to Frodo. “We had marvelous fun, didn’t we, Merry? Sam let us take the pony off by ourselves; her name’s Biscuit and she’s a nice pony, better than Pearl’s pony if you want a romp, ’cause she’s younger I suppose, and maybe because she’s used to working hard so she likes to play when she has the chance. At least that’s what Sam says, and he’s known her since he was smaller than I am, that’s what he told me. So we went almost as far as Bywater by the fields and meadows, and across that stream. I hardly got wet at all, just my breeches when we trotted her through and it was deeper than we thought so it splashed and splashed. But that was all right because I was warm enough and the pony thought it was fun, didn’t she, Merry?”
Pippin paused for breath as they reached the front door. When Frodo opened it, and the light from the lamp in the hall fell upon them, he regarded Pippin with frank dismay. Pippin was filth personified. His coat, tunic and breeches were damp (despite his claim that he had barely gotten wet), and covered with a mixture of mud, dried grasses, spent seed pods, and pony hair. Muck caked his hands and feet. His face was smeared with sweat and grime. Snarled, damp hair fell across his forehead. He returned Frodo’s look of alarm with a grin and looked down at himself. “I have got a bit dirty. Perhaps I should have a bath after dinner?”
Frodo shook his head and laughed. “Before, more like! Lucky for you I thought you might need a good washing, so I’ve got you ready a cauldron of hot water in the bath room and plenty of towels.” He looked Merry up and down. He was only slightly less filthy. “You’ll want to be next, Merry. But for now supper’s not nearly ready and Bilbo could use all the help you can offer.” He placed his hands on Pippin’s shoulder and pointed him towards a passageway to the right. “I’ll get this imp into the hot water.”
Frodo marched Pippin down to the bath room. It was a small chamber, tiled and windowless, with a large fireplace for heating water and a massive, high sided copper tub that had been brought to Bag End by Bilbo’s father. Frodo dipped hot water into the tub and mixed it with cool while Pippin stripped off his clothes. Most of them he toed into a corner, but he held up his breeches as an offending example. They were grassed stained and caked with mud at the knees. “Mother’s not going to be very happy about these,” he said, giving Frodo a reproving look as if the sorry state of his garments was somehow his cousin’s fault.
Frodo raised an eyebrow at him. “From their appearance I would have guessed you rolled all the way from here to Bywater. But never mind, Old Mrs. Rumble does our laundry every week and we will just add these to the lot and pay her double, though I doubt even that will be proper compensation.”
Frodo tested the water. “All right young Peregrin, in you go!”
But Pippin was too short to negotiate the high-sided tub without doing himself an injury. “Get me a stool, Frodo and I’ll jump in!” he suggested mischievously.
“Oh, no! I have a better way to deal with the likes of you!” Frodo cried, lifting the wee hobbit up under the arms and dangling him over the bath. With a squeal Pippin drew his knees to his chest in mock fear of the water. Frodo plunged him in up to the shoulders and then lifted him up to suspend him over the bath. A moment’s pause, then down he went again, laughing and squealing, and then up high into the air. “A good sluicing is what you need to loosen all the filth! Are you really under there, Pippin?” Frodo laughed. On the fourth plunge Pippin hit the building waves just right, and water flowed over the side of the tub, streaming across the tiled floor. “Whoa!” cried Frodo. “That’s enough, I’m afraid. Bilbo will have my head if I carry on like this, and there won’t be any dry towels left for you!” Pippin begged for more but Frodo released him and watched his curly head disappear briefly under the now murky surface.
Up he came sputtering and laughing. “You dropped me on purpose!”
Frodo smiled wickedly and handed Pippin the soap and a washcloth. Quickly he mopped the floor, then left to change out of his own wet clothes, calling over his shoulder, “when you’ve finished washing every nook and cranny come along and help with dinner, so Merry can have a bath as well before we eat.”
* * *
Merry and Bilbo were working diligently in the kitchen. A roast sizzled in the oven. To a pot of chicken stew simmering on the back of the stove Merry was adding herbs under Bilbo’s direction, and Bilbo was chopping up bacon, onions and mushrooms for the frying pan heating on the stove. The room was rich with the fragrance of the cooking, and warm with the gentle chatter of the cooks. Gandalf sat at the table with a mug of tea and a pipe, enjoying the spectacle of the hobbits’ dinner preparations.
“It sounded like poor Pippin was being drowned in there, Frodo!” exclaimed Merry when his cousin came through the door, sniffing appreciatively.
“Oh, I just gave him a proper sluicing,” he laughed.
Bilbo raised his eyebrows at Frodo. “Are you sure that’s a good idea, my lad, encouraging him to be silly and to make a mess of the floor? He will grow up not knowing any better, you know.”
‘Well, Bilbo, that’s what my father did to me when I was about Pippin’s age,” Frodo paused and then laughed wryly, “so you must be right, as I have grown up not knowing any better, despite your fine example all these years.” His eyes twinkled. “Now I have ruined young Peregrin, just as my father ruined me.”
Bilbo let out a guffaw. “Now, now, my boy, I wouldn’t go that far. You have many admirable qualities, even if bath etiquette isn’t one of them. Don’t you agree, Gandalf?”
“Oh, yes, many admirable qualities, indeed, when not under the influence of silly young cousins.” He cocked his head at the distant sound of splashing mingled with Pippin’s young voice, enthusiastically singing one of the many washing up songs every hobbit mother sings to her little one to make sure not a single spot is missed.
” . . . and between the toes, with bubbles sweet, the washcloth goes, to clean the feet . . ..”
Frodo grinned shook his head. He took the handful of carrots Bilbo offered, sat at the table with Gandalf, and set about scraping them clean.
Merry put the stirring spoon down on its rest and leaned against the counter. “I don’t know, Bilbo,” he said, suddenly remembering the story Frodo had told him a few years before when Merry had been too dismissive of the risks of his own forays onto Farmer Maggot’s property. “Cousin Frodo wasn’t always as steady as you like to think him. Do you know he used to go on solitary raids to Farmer Maggot’s farm for mushrooms, and was nearly eaten by his dogs?” Frodo gave Merry a cautionary shake of the head, but said nothing – he had told that tale to no one but Merry.
Bilbo looked a bit smugly at Merry, “I did not know that, but it only proves my point, my boy. When Frodo was in Buckland, under the influence of the Brandybuck clan, who have many fine qualities, discretion not being among them, he perhaps did not behave as he should. But here in Hobbiton, living as a Baggins, and under my interested care,” here Bilbo bowed slightly in Frodo’s direction in feigned solemnity, though his eyes when they met Frodo’s were serious, “he has been able to cultivate those qualities that a young gentlehobbit of good upbringing should display.”
Merry snorted. “Oh, Bilbo! When have you ever worried about what Hobbiton or the rest of the Shire thinks of your behavior or Frodo’s!”
“You are right my lad, and thank-you for correcting me, I should have said ‘what a young gentlehobbit should ‘possess’. I don’t much care what others think of me, or of Frodo, but I do care that we deserve their approbation, whether they give it or not.”
Merry looked solemnly at Bilbo. “My mother says, and my father, too, that you stick to your kith and kin, no matter what, but still you must make up your own mind about the right thing to do, and do it, whether they agree or not.”
Bilbo nodded. “A very good lesson that is, too.” He eyed Merry thoughtfully. “Perhaps I don’t give you enough credit, Merry. You are right. In the end you must be your own judge of what is right and wrong, but you should never use your own personal advancement as the touchstone of that decision.”
Merry turned back to stir the stew. He felt his face grow warm from more than the rising steam as he remembered his reluctant promise to Pippin. After a thoughtful minute he looked around at the state of the dinner preparations. “Will there be time for me to have a bath before we eat, Bilbo?”
“Yes, of course! If you are finished with the stew then off you go, and hurry Pippin along. We will put him to work and keep him out of mischief.”
Merry slipped quickly out. A few moments later shouts and laugher reverberated down the hall, accompanied by the sound of water on tile, and spluttering and coughing. Neither of the Bagginses cared to investigate; the noise died down, and after considerable delay Pippin appeared at the threshold, in his nightclothes, no less, and with dripping hair. He was clean, rosy cheeked and starving. He looked in dismay at Bilbo just putting the frying pan on the stove to heat, and Frodo checking the carrots that had not quite come to a boil and put his hands on his hips. “Haven’t you managed to get dinner ready yet, Bilbo!” he exclaimed.
“I beg your pardon, Master Peregrin,” Bilbo replied with a sarcasm that was lost on the young hobbit, “I have been waiting for you to come and fry up this dish for me, and then I will get the table set.”
“All right, then,” said Pippin, well pleased and trotting over to the stove. “Now, where’s my stool? I can’t cook at the stove without my stool.” He stood as if waiting for someone to fetch it.
Gandalf took the pipe from his mouth and said dryly. “It is right behind you, if only you would use your eyes and your flexible neck to look for it.” Pippin laughed, dragged it to the front of the stove and accepted the chopping board of ingredients from Bilbo.
* * *
When Merry was finished his bath they had a splendid meal and talked of their day, at least as much as each was willing to reveal to the others. After the washing up was done they settled down in front of the large parlour fire. Merry and Frodo brought in the evening snack of tea, toast, buns and cakes. Pippin gave his attention for a time to piling his plate with a bit of everything he wanted and then, at the first pause in the conversation, boldly exclaimed, “I would like to hear a story, Gandalf, about your adventures with Bilbo.”
Gandalf smiled warmly. “I will tell you one if Bilbo will help me.” Bilbo nodded and Gandalf puffed thoughtfully on his pipe. “Where shall we begin, old friend?”
After much discussion they decided to begin at the beginning, with the events leading to the arrival of the thirteen dwarves at Bag End. “And we will tell Bilbo’s story right through to the end, so long as there are not so many interruptions that we run out of time before I leave,” Gandalf warned.
Pippin swallowed his mouthful of honeyed toast so fast his eyes bulged. Quickly he asked before they began, “and will you tell us the story of what you did, Gandalf, after you left Bilbo and the dwarves to make their way through Mirkwood without you? Where do you go then, and what did you do?”
Gandalf’s eyes narrowed under his bristling brows, but he spoke gently. “Not all adventures are stories to be told by the fireside, Peregrin Took. My business is no concern of hobbits, old or young. You must satisfy yourself with a hobbit’s tale, and leave the doings of wizards alone.”
Pippin did not much like this answer and as he opened his mouth to say so Frodo told him, “that chair you are sitting in is the very one that Thorin chose in the evening of the unexpected party, when he sat with his feet on the fender, isn’t that right Bilbo?’
“Yes, indeed!” Bilbo exclaimed, “and I sometimes think of it as my best company chair for that very reason.” So Pippin sat proudly back, patting the arms of the chair affectionately and content now to turn his mind to the story that would be told.
Bilbo looked to Gandalf, “You shall start the story tonight, Gandalf! I have told them many times before what it was like to first meet you. They should hear of your meeting me.” He sat contentedly back too, but his eyes were kindled with the light of adventure.
“Well, they must know, as you already do, old friend, that very quickly I found you to be an exceptional hobbit, worthy of being chosen the burglar for the dwarves.” Bilbo inclined his head to Gandalf in acknowledgment, and so Gandalf began. When he got to the making of the mark of the burglar on Bag End’s beautiful green front door, Pippin darted to the entrance hall and swung wide that very door. The night air swirled in and raised goose bumps on his arms but he did not care. When the others joined him he stretched his hand towards the spot Gandalf pointed out but was short of the mark. So Merry boosted him up high and he traced his fingertips lightly over the invisible spot and insisted he could feel the dents left by Gandalf’s staff.
So the tale was told until the adventurers were nearly to Rivendell, and Merry and Pippin nodded in their chairs. When Frodo called an end to the evening they sleepily protested, but he insisted, “no, no we must stop now. I have been thinking this last half hour while watching you two almost fall asleep that it is too bad Sam Gamgee is not here. He wouldn’t miss a single word Gandalf or Bilbo has to say, though I am sure he knows the story far better than either of you do.”
Bilbo clapped his hands in dismay. “You are right Frodo! Sam should have been here.”
“Then if we are doing this again tomorrow night, I will invite him, and we must save Rivendell and the elves for him.”
* * *
So Merry and Pippin went quietly off to bed and Bilbo sat before the parlour fire to read for a few hours more. A strange restlessness came over Frodo. He stood on the porch with his cloak wrapped about him, listening to the quiet night sounds: the rustling in the bushes of small nocturnal beasts, owls hooting in the woodlot down the other side of the Hill and the creak of branches in the waning breeze. Gandalf came out. Side by side they wandered silently down the Hill, and through the village, past the neat hobbit holes, their round windows aglow with firelight and lamplight. After a time they came to the bench under the great tree in the common field, though neither of them could have said who had led the other there.
Frodo sat with a sudden weariness of spirit. He tilted back his head to look up through the dark reaching branches knobbled with tight, unburst buds. He saw clouds racing between the glittering sky and the still branches and felt as if he and the tree were wheeling with the stars, while the clouds stood still between earth and firmament. He shut his eyes against the disorientation, felt the sting of tears, and heard his own distant words. “Bilbo plans to say good-bye under this tree.”
Gandalf’s voice spoke so close and resonant Frodo almost startled. “He is a most extraordinary hobbit, to be seeking after the mountains and rivers still, and to want to search out Dale for old friends after these long years.”
Frodo sat up. Hesitantly he looked at Gandalf, “I have been thinking I should go with him. I always fancied that one day he would take me on an adventure and suddenly this seems my only chance. And besides, he is too old to go tramping through the wide world all alone.” Frodo felt Gandalf’s piercing eyes on him and continued almost apologetically. “But I know that Bilbo is leaving for good – that this last journey will be ‘there’ but not ‘back again.'” He looked sadly at Gandalf. “I’m not ready, I don’t think, to never see the Shire again, but still, I will go with him – he should not go alone.”
Gandalf relaxed and smiled gently at him. “Bilbo was fifty years old when we left with the dwarves, and he meant to return, indeed, he hardly even meant to leave; we swept him away before he could think it through. He does not expect you to go with him, my dear young hobbit. He has told you so.” He spoke firmly now. “And you must believe him, Frodo. Trust me.”
Frodo stood and walked into the field. He felt the grass cool and soft under his feet and heard the distant songs of the frogs in the marshy end of Bywater Pool, ebbing and flowing on an uncertain breeze that carried as well the comforting smell of wood smoke. He gazed up at Bag End, far away on the Hill. Its parlour window was a small circle of gold. Bilbo was there within its warm light. Gandalf came up behind him and Frodo looked up at him with a sigh. “I don’t know why, but somehow I feel that I should go, too.” He turned to look at the Hill again. “I feel as if a part of Bilbo’s journey is mine as well, and if that it is so, then it must be this part, as I cannot think there will be any other.”
Gandalf followed Frodo’s gaze. “Bilbo made you his heir, Frodo, so that wherever he might wander he would know there was a Baggins at Bag End.” He paused and when Frodo did not answer he spoke again as sternly as if he was commanding Frodo. “This journey is not yours.” Frodo looked swiftly up at him with sad, startled eyes, and the wizard smiled, saying more gently. “And he will not go alone; there will be dwarves to travel with him, and I intend to meet up with him from time to time. Bilbo has many friends still in the wide world. He will be as safe as they can all keep him, and that is much more than you can do, my friend.”
“I know I should not question what you say, Gandalf, and I do trust you.” Frodo sighed. “Bilbo does want to go alone, and I don’t wish to be a burden, or seem ungrateful. I will stay, if you think I should.” He looked pleadingly at Gandalf, though he could not have said which answer he hoped for.
Gandalf bent down and gently put his hand on Frodo’s shoulder. He spoke earnestly, and with what seemed almost like regret, “I do think you should stay, Frodo.”
Frodo closed his eyes and nodded. He trembled in the freshening wind and drew his cloak tight. Silently they began the walk back to Bag End.
* * *
The farmyard was quiet when Sam rode up in the dark. Golden light from the farmhouse’s round front windows flowed over the front garden, faintly gilding the crocuses, snowdrops and daffodils. A light bobbed from the barn across the yard towards Sam – Farmer Cotton with an oil lamp. When he opened the gate Sam slid off the pony and walked her into the farmyard.
“So it’s you finally is it, Sam?” said Old Tom. “I’ve been looking out for you since before sundown. Is everything all right, then?”
“Yes, sir, I’m sorry to be keeping you waiting, and the pony’s not given me any trouble.” It was true as far as it went, but still Sam felt his cheeks flush as the farmer held up the lantern to light his face. There was no sense telling Farmer Cotton about Merry and Pippin; that would only make it sound like he wasn’t taking responsibility for being late. But also he didn’t want to admit he’d lent out the pony without permission and, worse still, had been mistaken in his judgment. Sam blushed deeper knowing his motives weren’t entirely pure, and that his narrow interpretation of honesty masked the truth. Awkwardly he said, “I’ll put her up for the night, sir. You were just going in for your dinner.”
Farmer Cotton still held the lantern aloft, peering curiously at Sam’s red face and he said slowly. “That’d be fine, Sam.”
* * *
Quickly Sam groomed, fed and watered Biscuit and then set off for home. He had no lantern. The lane from the Cotton’s farm to the Bywater Road was shadowed from the glow of the moon and stars by rows of elm and beech on either side. A figure, dark against shadow, approached. By his slow limp and failure to see Sam, even when they were almost abreast of each other, Sam guessed it was old Farmer Gawkroger, the Cotton’s neighbor to the east. When Sam was a little lad, and had spent more time at the Cotton’s farm, he had met Gawkroger often enough. Old Jarge was married but childless (an unusual – and awkward – circumstance for a hobbit, especially a farmer) and he had never enjoyed the noisy visits of youngsters. Back then the young Cottons and their Gamgee friends had generally left him alone. Farmer Cotton stayed on friendly enough terms with him as they had a common interest in the ways of their crops and their stock, and in the repair of their fences.
“Evening, Mr. Gawkroger,” Sam hazarded.
The old hobbit started. “Who’s that!” he cried, walking cautiously up. “Is that you, young Tom? You’re not off to the pub without your dad now, are you?”
“No, Mr. Gawkroger,” said Sam, “it’s Sam – Sam Gamgee. You remember me, I’m the Gaffer’s son and a friend of Tom’s.”
The hobbit peered at Sam in the dark. “Aye,” he said vaguely, “Sam the Gaffer’s son – you’re a roper now, ain’t you, in Tighfield? What’s your business here, then?”
“Me older brothers Halfred and Hamson are the ropers. I’m apprenticed to my dad, and I keep the gardens at Bag End for Mr. Bilbo Baggins,” Sam said proudly.
The hobbit snorted. “That old wanderer Baggins is your master now, is he? Well, I guess you takes after him then, wandering about in parts where you don’t belong.”
“I’m not wandering, Mr. Gawkroger, I’m heading home, is all and I had business at the Cotton’s and a reason to be on this lane,” Sam protested irritably.
Gawkroger did not like his tone. “Don’t you give me any cheek, my lad, or I’ll have a word or two with your Gaffer, I will.” Sam stared stonily back while Gawkroger looked him up and down. “Get on with you then, and mind you don’t startle any more folk, sneaking up on them in the dark like that.”
Quickly Sam did go on, shaking his head.
* * *
Old Gawkroger carried on to the Cottons’ farmhouse and was let in by Rosie. He had brought with him a basket of eggs to pay the Cottons for young Tom chopping wood for him the day before, but that was not the real purpose of his visit.
The Cottons were just finished their dinner and Tom invited him to the table for a mug of tea. Tom didn’t much like Gawkroger, having little patience for gossips who measured the worth of their news on the scale of scandal, but he knew the value of keeping on good terms with such a neighbor and was as polite as his own good manners and prudence demanded. The old hobbit’s talk was of little interest to the rest of the family. Soon Tom and he were the only ones left at the table.
Gawkroger pulled thoughtfully on his pipe. “There was a young hobbit lurking on the lane to your fine farmhouse when I was coming along.”
“Sam Gamgee on his way home, no doubt, though I’ve never known him to be much of a lurker, leastways not at night and not on deserted lanes.” Tom smiled to himself. Sam had taken to loitering around the farmhouse kitchen when he was over visiting, if Rosie was helping her mother with the baking, a habit Tom had noted with some amusement, but no want of approval.
“Aye, that’s who he said he was. Well, that’s all right then, isn’t it?” Gawkroger took a meditative drink of his tea and wiped his mouth with the back of his sleeve. “But I didn’t come by after dark just to bring you them eggs. I came to make sure everything’s all right with that pony of yours. The little brown mare you’ve had all these years, that your Tom calls Biscuit.”
Farmer Cotton looked puzzled. “There’s nowt amiss with her. What’s made you think there is?”
“Only that I saw her running loose in the meadow beyond my upper field, just past tea time this afternoon, when I was out with me dog. Loose, and being chased by a young hobbit that wasn’t any of your own lads or my eyes weren’t telling me true. She got out of her paddock today, did she?”
Tom frowned and ignored the question. “It can’t have been Biscuit. You’re mistaken. Come along, Jarge, you’ve complained often enough that your eyes ain’t what they used to be.”
Gawkroger shook his head, and said with a touch of smugness. “Still, I know that pony well enough, and the lad was calling her name, what’s more, and there’s nowt amiss with my ears, is there? I’ve got no doubt. But surely you know yourself whether your pony eloped or no?” Gawkroger watched the surprise in Tom’s eyes turn to concern and doubt. “Is something wrong, Tom?”
“No,” he said slowly, and turning from Gawkroger’s overeager gaze, he got up to fill the kettle and put it on the stove.
“Well, what’s happened to the pony today, then?” Gawkroger asked impatiently. But Tom just squatted silently and opened the stove’s firebox to methodically feed more wood to the fire. Gawkroger pressed him. “Don’t you know? Why is this news to you?”
Almost to himself Tom pensively replied, “that pony’s been with Sam Gamgee all day.” He stayed hunched before the stove, elbows resting on his knees, turning a stick of wood over in his hands, thinking how late Sam had been without explanation, and how he’d reddened when he’d said – or lied, so it now seemed – that the pony had given him no trouble. It wasn’t like Sam to be false, but perhaps that only explained why he had done it so poorly.
Gawkroger interrupted Tom’s thoughts – this was better than he’d expected. “Ah, so that Gamgee lad said nowt to you about it, did he? Expect he thought he could slip it by you, you being so trusting and always willing to believe everyone’s as honest and reliable as you are, and no blame to you.” He smirked and shook his head. “Well, I can’t say I’m surprised. Look who he works for after all: Bilbo Baggins! No one’s ever matched him for being irresponsible – leaving his home and his kin all those years ago, without a word or a note, with that old conjurer Gandalf, and coming back a year later telling tales taller than a Man, that he still says to this day are true.” Gawkroger snorted. “Dragons and trolls and treasure! The only true thing’s the treasure, and the tales he tells are just that – tales. Tales to cover up whatever foulness he did to get that treasure. No wonder the lad’s gone bad.”
Tom swung the firebox door shut loudly and stood suddenly up. He had had just about enough of this silly hobbit. “We’re talking about a pony that perhaps got loose for a spell, and came home fine. Sam’s a good lad.”
Again Gawkroger smirked and puffed vigorously on his pipe. “Good lads take good care of their beasts and they take even better care of the beasts they’ve borrowed. They doesn’t lie just because they think they can get away with it.”
There was enough truth in that to make Tom uneasy. He wanted to sort this out with Sam, and he wanted to get rid of his neighbor. “Yes, well, this is for me to deal with. Don’t you worry your head with it.” His eyes met Gawkroger’s and held them, “I’m sure you’re only meaning to help, Jarge, with this news you’ve troubled to bring so quick and late at night, and with the advice you’re giving so free.” He turned and took the kettle off the stove. “I can’t offer you any more tea, I’m afraid. I just remembered I promised to meet a few friends at the Ivy Bush tonight and I’m late as it is.”
Gawkroger stood stiffly up. “I’ll not delay you any longer then, Tom, but I’ll keep you company on the road. I’ve not tasted the ale at the Ivy Bush this past month, at least.”
There was nothing for it but to take the old hobbit along. Tom kept their conversation to crops and the weather for the most part, and ignored any suggestions Gawkroger made about dealing with Sam. He planned to look for the Gaffer at the Ivy Bush and if he wasn’t there to go on to Number Three. It would be better to speak to Sam alone first, but if Gawkroger was right about him losing the pony then the Gaffer would have to be told and he wouldn’t take kindly to Tom not going to him straightaway about the problem. Sam at just 21 was many years shy of his coming of age, was still apprenticed to his father and the supposed misdeed had happened while he was carrying out the duties of his apprenticeship. But Tom regretted this necessity. Hamfast had demonstrated through their long years of friendship that he was a strict father, and Tom knew he held a private fear that his youngest son would come to a bad end, and he had seen Hamfast too willing at times to believe his son was proving this prediction true. So as he walked along Tom thought carefully of how to present the problem without accusation, and to allow for the innocent explanation he hoped would resolve it.
* * *
The Ivy Bush on Bywater Road in Hobbiton was a small pub, boasting a cozy Main Room packed with long tables and benches, and an adjoining Games Room, added sometime after the original structure was built and originally to accommodate those who wanted to play at cards or dice. Over the years, though, the older set had by usage claimed this addition as their own – a refuge when they wanted it from the songs and rowdiness of the Main Room. A door at the back of it opened onto a flagstone courtyard: partially covered and dimly lit with a single hanging lamp. It was used in all but the coldest and wettest weather by anyone wanting fresh air, or a peep at the stars and the moon, or perhaps a private spot to spend an intimate moment with a favorite beau or belle.
Tom took his leave of Gawkroger at the door of the Ivy Bush. He scanned the Main Room but Hamfast wasn’t there. He poked his head through the connecting door into the Games Room, but nor was Hamfast there. So Tom got himself an ale and joined some friends in the Main Room, putting off for a little while his trip to Number Three and hoping the Gaffer would make a late appearance while he waited.
Shortly Hamfast came into the Games Room from the courtyard and rejoined his friends at his usual table by the small fire. Gawkroger slipped from his vantage point in the connecting doorway and found an empty seat at the Gaffer’s table. When Daddy Two Foot left his chair beside the Gaffer to visit with his son, Gawkroger slid quickly into the vacant spot.
Hamfast knew Gawkroger through his friendship with Tom Cotton, though he had not seen him for a year or two, and they talked of this and that pleasantly enough for a few minutes until Gawkroger said, “I saw your Sam tonight, Hamfast, walking home late in the dark from Tom Cotton’s farm.”
“Aye,” said the Gaffer easily. “Sam worked past nightfall up at Mr. Bilbo’s, though he never said what kept him, and then he had one of Tom’s ponies to take back, and all.”
“Ah, ponies,” said Gawkroger, shaking his head. “You and Mr. Baggins don’t keep your own, do you? They can be more trouble than you’d think, ponies can. How’s Sam with them?”
“I’ve no worries about him; he’s got a way with the beasts.” The Gaffer chuckled. “He talks to them like they understand him and he says he knows what they’re thinking, and, truth to tell, I give that some credit. Anyways, he’s always handled Tom’s ponies well enough, never a complaint that I’ve heard. I’d not tolerate it if there was and he knows that and no mistake. Ponies are valuable beasts. You can ruin one if you don’t handle it proper. My Sam knows that, too. He don’t work them too hard, neither. He’ll work himself harder than he’ll work any pony.”
Gawkroger waited patiently for the Gaffer to finish, then asked, “that one of Tom’s he had today, it was the old mare Biscuit, wasn’t it?”
“I don’t know, but most likely it was, she’s been his favorite since he was just a lad. Why I still remember the first time he tried to ride her and she threw him.” The Gaffer laughed again. “My Bell nearly had a fit, she did, the poor thing. Of course, she always coddled Sam too much to my way of thinking.” The Gaffer’s voice softened. “But that was Bell all over, wasn’t it, whenever one of ours got hurt she took it worse than if she’d hurt herself, she felt it that strong. But I’ll say this for Sam, he got back up on that pony, he did, and she never threw him again that day.” The Gaffer coughed and rubbed his eyes, looking away and taking a thoughtful pull on his ale.
Gawkroger waited while the Gaffer let the memory play out in his mind, and then he spoke earnestly. “I’ve a reason for asking about Sam and Biscuit, Hamfast.” He lowered his voice. “Tom Cotton’s in the other room, and he’s looking to talk to you. It’s about Sam and what happened with the pony today.”
The Gaffer’s head came up and he looked sharply at Gawkroger. “Why, what’s happened with the pony?”
“Sam didn’t tell you then?” Gawkroger eyed Hamfast appraisingly. “No, of course he didn’t; why would he, if he’s lied to Tom about it then he must be deceiving his own father, too. Well, I’m that sorry, Ham, that he’s behaved so, and I’m sorry for the role I’m playing in this – bringing the news to Tom and now to you about what your Sam’s been trying to hide, and all.”
All this talk that told him nothing irritated the Gaffer and he raised his voice. “Just what is it you say Sam’s been trying to hide?” His friends at the table all turned their attention to Gawkroger. What was going on that had the Gaffer upset?
Gawkroger hesitated, as if reconsidering. “Now then, maybe Tom should be telling you, it’s not my place, after all. This is between him and you. I expect he’s just having an ale or two so as he can settle himself down a bit first. He was that upset when I told him – wouldn’t talk about it and all of a sudden he remembered he had friends to meet here tonight. Of course he’s really come to have a word or two with you, private-like, I’ve no doubt.”
The Gaffer’s worn face tightened with worry and he made to get up. “Well, if you can’t tell me, Jarge, I’d best find Tom. I’ve stayed home too much this winter and trusted Sam to do all the work up at Bag End by hisself, so if he’s gone wrong it’s no surprise. That lad’s head’s full of fanciful tales; too full maybe for him to be minding his job proper.”
Gawkroger put a restraining hand on the Gaffer’s arm. “Sit down, Hamfast, and let me get you another ale.” Quickly he gave the order to the barmaid passing by. He looked around the table. Everyone was listening.
“Maybe I ought to tell you, after all I’m the one as saw it, and I best be leaving soon. I can’t wait around ’til Tom gets himself ready to find you.” He sighed as if what he had to say pained him. “It’s like this. I was out with my dog late this afternoon, like I always am, just afore nightfall, to check my fences and such and I was up past that highest hayfield of mine when I saw your Sam in the meadow beyond, chasing down a pony – Biscuit it was. She’d gotten away from him, who knows why; there ain’t a better natured pony than that Biscuit if you treat her proper. Anyways, she’d run all the way to Bywater by the back fields and there was Sam harrying her around the meadow, yelling – angry like – and doing no good, of course. Anyone with a lick of sense knows that’s no way to catch a pony; I was surprised at him – thought he had a better head than that, but perhaps not.” He stole a glance at the Gaffer and saw his flushed face going hard. “Then, after a good deal of noise he chased her into the woods beyond, trying to scare her back to Bag End near as I could tell. No doubt he didn’t want her finding her own way back to Tom’s. Then he’d have to own up to what it was he’d done, that made her run off like that, and all. I gave him a shout, meaning to lend him my help, and he needed it and no mistake, but he paid me no mind, so there was nowt more I could do. I was just glad to hear that Tom got her back safe in the end, though how Sam managed that is more’n I can say.”
Through this long explanation the Gaffer had sat silently staring at his mug, feeling the blood pulse in his temples and the heat rise in his face. He sensed the eyes of his friends and neighbors on him when Gawkroger was done, and heard them shift uncomfortably in their seats, but no one said a thing. Losing a pony was grossly negligent, trying to catch it by yelling and running it down was plain foolishness, and not telling the owner, well, there were many farmers who would never forgive that. Once word of this got about Sam would have a hard time for a long while borrowing a pony from anyone, or being trusted about much of anything for that matter, or so it seemed to the Gaffer.
Gawkroger sat back, displaying a carefully composed look of remorse. He puffed contentedly on his pipe. “I’m sorry to be telling you this, Hamfast.”
The Gaffer cleared his throat. “Aye.” He looked hard at Gawkroger, “you’re sure of this? That it was Sam and Tom’s pony you saw, and all?
Gawkroger gave the Gaffer a look of commiseration. “Now, Hamfast you don’t think I’d be a-telling you this if I wasn’t that sure, do you? I heard your lad calling to Biscuit at least a half dozen times.” He sighed again. “I hoped he’d have told you even if he was too scared to tell Tom. I thought he had enough sense to trust his own dad when he’d done wrong. But maybe not, and like as not he’s gotten away with things before without you knowing it and he’s learned to be sly.”
Hamfast stood up, suddenly determined. “Well, I’ll learn Sam a lesson tonight that he’ll not forget for a long while! He was raised better than that!” He looked around at all the hobbits regarding him seriously. “This is one mistake he won’t make again, you can be sure!” Hamfast turned and stalked from the Games Room.
He scanned the crowded Main Room until he spotted Tom at the bar in the Main Room, who had seen him as well and was beckoning him over. Quickly the Gaffer went up to Tom and the farmer came along to meet him. “Hamfast, I’m glad you’re here,” he said, putting a hand on his friend’s shoulder and leaning in to speak quietly in his ear. “I’ve heard something about Sam tonight that’s given me a bit of a worry, so I’d like a word with you, and then I’ll go along to Number Three and speak to him myself, with your leave.”
The Gaffer shook his head impatiently and took a step back. “Don’t trouble yourself, Tom! Old Jarge Gawkroger just now told me the whole tale, and he says he’s the one as told you, so I can deal with it myself from here on.”
Tom sighed. “Most times I don’t credit a thing Jarge says, ‘specially if there’s none to back him up. But there’s some truth in this, Hamfast, and no mistake. He knew that Biscuit had been away from the farm today without me telling him so. And Sam was late tonight with the pony, which ain’t like him. He didn’t offer why neither, only turned a pretty red when I asked him if he’d had any trouble with her.” Tom shrugged his coat onto his shoulders. “But it’s not like Sam to be false, is it, so I’ll just come along with you now and hear for myself what he’s got to say.”
“No, Tom! I said don’t bother. He’s my lad, and he’s my apprentice, too.” The Gaffer’s irritation grew as he watched Tom continue to button his coat. “I thank you for coming to tell me. If any harm’s come to your pony you can be sure I’ll do what I must to see she’s set to rights. But Sam’s not your worry now. I’ll deal with him proper, and no mistake.” Hamfast was speaking louder than he meant to, and was conscious now of the hush that had fallen in his corner of the pub and that the eyes of the patrons were on him. “He’ll not borrow a pony from you or anyone else for a long while. And he won’t never try a trick like this again, not when I’m done with him.” The Gaffer’s jaw was set.
Tom thought his friend was taking this news much harder than necessary, and said cajolingly. “I’ll not meddle, Hamfast, but I want to hear what he’s got to say, and maybe you should hear it too, before you decide he’s done wrong.”
The Gaffer’s eyes blazed. It was bad enough Sam had behaved so poorly, and worse still that the whole pub would know it by closing. He didn’t need someone else, not even Tom Cotton, telling him how to deal with his own son. All this talk about what to do when he knew well enough himself was just making him hotter. “Tom, I know you mean well, and no offense, but I don’t tell you how to raise yours and I’ll thank you not to tell me how to raise mine. Now, goodnight to you!” He turned and stalked from the pub.