Samwise Gamgee sat at the table in the kitchen of Number 3 Bagshot Row. It was a cold winter’s morning and the room, despite the cheerful fire on the hearth, was chilly. But Sam didn't appear to notice the cold; his attention was completely absorbed by an object he held in his work-roughened hands. At first glance, it appeared to be simply a card, similar to many others that would have been received at Number Three during the course of a year: an invitation to a birthday party, perhaps, or a Yuletide greeting. But in truth this was not just any card. Sam had made this card himself, pouring his heart and soul into its creation, and it was a gift for his beloved. He intended to bestow it on the object of his affections the very next day, the 14th day of Solmath, otherwise known in the Shire as Sweetheart’s Day.
He touched the front of the card almost reverently with a gentle finger; it was a beautiful thing, though he said it as shouldn’t. The thick, cream-coloured paper edged in gold had been purchased for a dear price at a shop in Bywater, the very same shop where his master purchased his ink, quills and writing paper. Sam had used the expensive paper well, folding it precisely in the middle and embossing the front with a beautifully arranged bouquet of dried flowers.
The flowers were ones that Sam had grown himself and nurtured in the garden at Bag End. He had picked them at the height of their beauty, then dried them and pressed them onto the paper with tender loving care. Forget-me-not, jonquil, lavender, salvia, blue violet, red rose: each blossom had been chosen for its beauty and meaning in the language of flowers.
Inside the card, Sam had transcribed with painstaking care a love poem in Sindarin, taken from one of Mr. Bilbo’s books. Sam liked to make up rhymes well enough, but they were mostly nonsense poems: harmless fun suited only for an evening's jollity at an inn. He'd tried his hand a time or two at writing a love poem, but the results had made him blush and hastily tear up the offending paper. The Elves, in Sam's opinion, were far more suited to penning such things than a mere hobbit.
There remained one stumbling block to Sam’s plan, however: he wasn’t at all certain that when the time came, he would have the courage to give this gift to the one he loved. A panicky, hot feeling seemed to swell up inside Sam as he played the scene out in his mind. It was a scene he had been imagining for weeks.
Tradition in the Shire held that on the morning of Sweetheart's Day, a courting lad would dress in his finest clothes, knock on the door of his beloved's smial and present the token of his affection. As he did so, he would ask, "Will you be my sweetheart?"
Oh, how Sam’s imagination would run riot at this point, imagining the response he might get, and most times in such a way as to leave him hot and bothered. But there were times, too, when his mind would picture a different response, wherein the word no was spoken, and he would call himself a fool for ever thinking to raise his eyes so high.
Lost in contemplation of what the morrow might bring, for good or ill, Sam nearly jumped out of his skin at the sound of his sister Marigold's voice.
“Sam, what are you doing, sitting here woolgathering? I thought you'd be up the Hill by now," Marigold Gamgee said in surprise as she entered the kitchen with a basket of clean linens held in her hands.
Jolted out of his reverie, Sam could only stammer, "I- I was about to leave for work, Mari. I just…" He lost the thread of his thought as he looked down at the card once more.
Marigold stared at her brother and set the linen basket down on the table. Such flustered behavior was unusual for him and she saw that he was blushing. Her eyebrows went up. Then she spied the card he held so tenderly in his hands and she grinned as understanding dawned. "Why our Sam! 'Tis a card for your sweetheart! Let me see." She swooped and snatched the card deftly from him before he could so much as exclaim, "Marigold, no!"
"Ooh, Sam. 'Tis lovely!" Marigold breathed in awe as she examined it closely, inside and out. "Did you make this all by yourself?"
"Aye that I did." Pride warred with anxiety in Sam's voice. "Be careful with it, Mari!"
"If only Tom would give me a gift half so fine, I'd be plannin' our wedding in a heartbeat." She sighed then smiled slyly at her brother. "Rosie Cotton is a lucky lass, Sam. Though you'll have to translate this poem for her, silly. All that studying Elvish with Mr. Bilbo and Mr. Frodo has gone to your head! She won’t be able to make head or tail of it."
Sam went pale. "R-Rosie?" he stammered again.
Marigold rolled her eyes. "Now Sam, did you think I wouldn't guess who 'tis for? I know right well you’re sweet on Rosie."
Sam's mouth opened and closed. "But- but..." he couldn't seem to form a coherent thought. Desperately he tried to pull himself together. He held out his hand to his sister. "Mari, lass, give me back the card. It ain’t no business of yours who it's for."
"No, no, Sam." Marigold pulled the card out of Sam's reach, eyes dancing with mischief. "I know you. You're that shy, you'll no doubt change your mind about giving the card to Rosie and she’ll never see it. Why, you can hardly bring yourself to say a word to her when you meet, and didn't Mr. Frodo his own self have to push you into her arms for a dance at Mr. Bilbo's party? No, you let me keep the card, Sam. I'll go with you to see Rosie tomorrow and make certain that you give it to her."
With a flourish, Marigold tucked the card away in the capacious front pocket of the white apron she wore. "Now don't you fret, Sam,” she reassured him, “I'll be that careful of your card. I won't let aught happen to it afore you give it to Rosie."
"But, Marigold, you don't understand. It ain’t-" Sam tried again, to no avail. His sister picked up the basket and headed for the door to the linen closet.
"You'd best get up the Hill, Sam," Marigold advised before disappearing from sight. "Mr. Frodo will be wondering what’s happened to you, you're that late."
Sam sat dazed, staring at Marigold's departing back. He put a hand to his head as if to still his whirling thoughts. Disaster. Sheer, utter disaster. What was he going to do? Out of the confusion in his brain came one clear thought: he must get the card back from Marigold before tomorrow came and she marched him over to the Cotton farm to hand it to Rosie. For fond as he was of the pretty lass, she was not the one he wanted for his sweetheart.
It was a dejected Sam Gamgee who dragged up the hill to Bag End that morning and let himself in through the back door of the smial. The feeling of breathless anticipation that had buoyed him up for days had been thoroughly punctured by Marigold’s impulsive action. As he took off his coat and scarf, however, Sam tried to cast off his gloom as well. It wouldn’t do for Mr. Frodo to see him looking so woebegone.
Sam squared his shoulders and stepped down the hall to the kitchen. There he made a discovery (or rather two discoveries) that completely drove his troubles from his mind. For standing at the stove, elbow-to-elbow, were Meriadoc Brandybuck and Peregrin Took, Frodo’s cousins, apparently arrived during the previous evening. They were in the process of preparing a breakfast feast, one that to Sam’s eyes appeared to involve the use of every pot, pan and utensil Frodo owned, as well as most of the food from the pantry.
Merry and Pippin didn’t notice Sam at first; Pippin was chattering like a magpie, waving a batter-covered spoon for emphasis, and Merry was scolding Pippin and attempting to prevent him from setting the sleeve of his dressing gown on fire. Yellow pancake batter went sailing through the air; Sam sighed and wiped a droplet off his weskit. He looked about him for his master, but Frodo appeared to have left his cousins to their own devices and was nowhere in sight.
‘Morning, Mr. Merry, Mr. Pippin,’ Sam said loudly without waiting for a pause in the action. He had long experience of dealing with Frodo’s cousins.
The two gentlehobbits left off their good-natured squabbling at once to greet Sam with genuine delight; they then immediately put him to work setting the table, and returned to their cooking. Sam sighed again as he set out plates and cups and cutlery. There wouldn't be much time for thinking on ways to recover his sweetheart's card, not with Mr. Merry and Mr. Pippin around. But perhaps they'd take themselves and their elder cousin off to town after breakfast, as they often did when visiting, and Sam would have the peace and quiet he craved.
Alas, such was not to be the case. Frodo, it seemed, had some mysterious business to attend to that day. He had banished his cousins from his study, and was keeping the door firmly shut. Pippin complained loudly about this neglect during breakfast, but if Frodo heard him, he paid no attention. Even Sam, when he carried a tray to the study for his master, was allowed only as far as the threshold.
Frodo, appearing disheveled and distracted, his dark curls more disordered than usual and his fingers more ink-stained, took the tray from Sam with a warm smile and thank you, but then quickly shut the door. Normally such peculiar behavior would have puzzled and worried Sam, but today it was a relief. Frodo Baggins was a very perceptive hobbit. He'd have seen at once that something was on Sam's mind and made it his business to find out all about it.
Merry and Pippin, denied Frodo's company and deciding that it was too cold to find amusement out-of-doors, remained in the kitchen for quite some time. As they were far better at creating messes than cleaning them up, Sam was kept busy well after the two had finally abandoned the kitchen for the parlour.
Sam concentrated on his chores for the remainder of the morning and on into the afternoon. He was occasionally disturbed by Merry and Pippin with requests for more wood for the fire or a pot of tea and some dainties to nibble on, but they appeared to be content enough with the books and games to be found in the cozy Bag End parlour. Sam turned his mind whenever possible to the puzzle of what to do about his sweetheart’s card, but every idea that occurred to him was either impractical or silly. He wished he had the nerve simply to tell Marigold that the card wasn’t for Rosie, but she’d surely want to know whom it was for and badger him into telling her. And that wouldn’t do at all.
Frodo only emerged from his study for supper- prepared by Sam who turned down the half-hearted offers of Merry and Pippin to help- then disappeared again, a discourtesy that resulted in much grumbling by his cousins. During the meal, he adamantly refused to answer any questions about his mysterious business, despite the best efforts of his cousins to winkle it out of him. He kept the conversation turned toward the doings of his cousins, and any news they had to report of their friends and relations in Tuckborough and Buckland. Not even a third glass of Old Winyards was enough to loosen his tongue. Frodo ate up the last of his apple pie with cream, wiped his mouth, then threw down his napkin and rose from the table.
“A wonderful meal,” he complimented Sam, who flushed with pleasure at this praise. “Thank you, Sam.” Frodo turned to his cousins and added, “Enjoy your evening, lads. Try not to get into too much trouble.” Then he hurried back to his study as if time was nipping at his heels.
“Well, if that doesn't beat all,” exclaimed Merry huffily as he threw down his own napkin and stood. “Try not to get into too much trouble, indeed. If Frodo can't be bothered to entertain us, then I say we go and find our own entertainment, Pip. Let's go down to the Green Dragon. At least we'll have company there!”
Pippin greeted this suggestion with enthusiasm and the two hobbits bundled up and left the smial after informing Frodo of their plans by the most direct of means: shouting it through the study door.
“Fine,” came their cousin's vague response. “Have a nice time.”
Alone at last, Sam cleared the table, washed the supper dishes and laid fires ready to be lit in the bedchambers. When he had finished, he knocked softly on the study door. He opened it slightly and said, “I'm off home, Mr. Frodo. Is there anything you need before I go?”
To Sam's surprise, Frodo replied, “Half a minute, Sam,” and soon stepped out into the hallway to join him.
“I've hardly set eyes on you today,” Frodo commented, taking Sam by the arm and walking with him through the quiet smial to the back door.
Sam wanted to make the obvious reply that that was hardly his fault, but bit his tongue.
Frodo, however, glanced over at him and smiled. “I know, Sam, I know. I'm the one who's been holed up all day long in my study.”
“Now Mr. Frodo, I didn't say...” Sam began.
Frodo squeezed his arm gently. “You didn't have to. Well, I had my reasons, Sam Gamgee. But I'm sorry you had to deal with Merry and Pippin all by yourself. I know what mischief they can get up to!”
Sam shook his head. “They weren't no bother, Mr. Frodo,” he lied stoutly.
Frodo snorted. They were at the back door now and Frodo released Sam's arm. “I know my cousins better than to believe that.” He watched as Sam retrieved his coat and scarf from the hook by the back door. Sam started to pull his coat on but stopped, startled, as Frodo took both coat and scarf from him. He held the coat for Sam to slide his arms into and then tied the scarf carefully and snuggly around Sam’s neck.
“There!” Frodo smiled in satisfaction. “That should do. Don't forget to put on your mittens. It's cold out this evening.”
Sam felt a flush mounting the back of his neck at these unexpected actions. He struggled to think of something to say, but the soft look in Frodo's eyes caused all rational thought to fly out of his brain. He dug his mittens out of his coat pockets, pulling them on as Frodo opened the door for him. He finally found voice enough to stammer, “Good night, sir. See you tomorrow then.”
“Good night, Sam.” Frodo's voice was as soft as his expression had been and there was just the slightest hint of amusement in it. “Oh, and Sam?”
Sam halted in the doorway.
“You do know what tomorrow is, don't you?”
Sam swallowed and briefly closed his eyes; his heart was suddenly pounding. “Aye, Mr. Frodo, I know. It’s Sweetheart's Day.”
“Yes. Sweetheart's Day.” There was a moment's silence then Frodo said, “Well, get along home, Sam. You’ll be late for your supper.”
“Aye, sir,” Sam whispered. “Good night.” And Sam slipped out the door into the night.
All the way down the Row, Sam optimistically told himself that Marigold might have had a change of heart and be ready to return the card to him when he got home. He was soon set straight, however.
“Now don't you fret, Sam,” she whispered to him as they sat side by side at the kitchen table during supper. “Your card is safe and I'll be up bright and early tomorrow morning, so we can go see Rosie first thing.”
Sam didn’t know whether to scream or cry.
When supper was over, Sam's father announced that he was going down to the Dragon for a beer and he'd appreciate Sam's company. “You spend too many evenings up at Bag End, lad, listening to that Elvish nonsense he's so fond of. 'Tis a mystery to me how you can abide it, Samwise.” He shook his grizzled curls in bewilderment.
Sam fetched his dad's coat and his own without a word. There was no going against the Gaffer when he spoke in that tone, and he'd long ago given up trying to explain to his father that listening to Frodo's 'Elvish nonsense' was something he enjoyed. More than enjoyed, if truth be told: it was like food and drink to his heart and soul. Though if he said that to his dad, he thought, he'd be in trouble and no mistake.
Walking slowly alongside the Gaffer through the clear, moonlit night, their breaths forming white clouds in the cold air, Sam turned his thoughts with difficulty from the image that had been conjured up by his father's words: Frodo's fair countenance in the firelight as he read to Sam from one of Mr. Bilbo's books of Elvish tales.
Evenings such as that would soon be only a memory, Sam realised, if he didn’t find a way to get back the card. His heart dropped to the soles of his hairy feet.
“You’re unnatural quiet tonight, Samwise,” commented the Gaffer. “Is there summat bothering you?”
“No, dad, everything’s fine. I’m just tired, is all,” lied Sam.
The Green Dragon was as hot, crowded and noisy as ever. The Gaffer made his way toward the table near the hearth where he usually held court of an evening; several of his cronies were already in evidence there, mugs in hand. Sam followed, intending to join them, when he heard his name being called.
He looked around and saw Merry Brandybuck waving at him. He and Pippin were seated at a table by themselves and by the look of things had enjoyed more than a few drinks since Sam had seen them last. Both were flushed and bright-eyed and Pippin's voice held a slightly unsteady note as he greeted Sam and pulled out a chair for him with a flourish. Sam glanced over at his Gaffer, but the old hobbit was seated and chatting with his friends. As he didn't appear to need Sam's company, Sam took the proffered seat and, hailing a passing barmaid, ordered a beer.
“So Sam, tell us what Frodo is up to,” Merry said at once. “Pip and I feel certain you must know. Whatever it is, it must be important indeed if he’s passed up a chance at the Dragon's fine brew to sit home alone and slave at his desk!”
“I have no idea, Mr. Merry,” replied Sam quietly. “And it wouldn't be my place to guess, neither.”
“Oh, don't be such a stick in the mud, Sam,” Pippin cried with his usual Tookish impatience. “You've got to admit it's odd. Aren't you even curious? I am!”
Sam privately thought it was odd, but he didn't voice the thought aloud. Instead, he answered in repressive tones, “Mr. Frodo pays me to keep his house and garden, not pry into his private business.”
Pippin opened his mouth to protest again, but Merry forestalled him. “Forget it, Pip. Sam can be as close as old Frodo when he wants to be. We'll just have to tease it out of Frodo ourselves when we get back to Bag End. Hoy there!” he called out to the barmaid, “another round and quick about it!”
Sam drank three beers in quick succession, sitting quietly as Merry and Pippin joked and laughed and exchanged greetings with other hobbits as they came and went. Sam ordered his fourth, and sat staring morosely into the tankard. There was no doubt about it: if he didn't come up with a plan right soon, he'd be wed to Rosie Cotton before he knew what happened. That card was as good as a marriage proposal; hadn't Marigold said so? He was so lost in his dejected thoughts that he started when Merry said his name, obviously not for the first time.
“Sam? What's on your mind, lad? You've been staring into that mug for ten minutes at least, looking like you've lost your best friend.”
“It's nothing,” Sam mumbled, lifting the tankard and taking a long swallow.
“Piffle.” Pippin said succinctly. “Merry's right… for once. Ouch!” he exclaimed as Merry punched him lightly in the upper arm. Pippin rubbed his arm and continued, “Come on, Sam, tell us what's wrong. A burden shared is a burdened lessened as your Gaffer would no doubt say.”
“Yes, come on, Sam,” Merry urged. “Spill the beans.”
It must have been the three beers, for Sam was certain that if he had been cold sober, he never would have 'spilled the beans' to two gentlehobbits, particularly not to Meriadoc Brandybuck and Peregrin Took, known far and wide for their troublemaking. But whatever the cause, Sam suddenly found himself pouring out his tale, telling the two rapt hobbits about his sweetheart's card, his sister's theft of it, and the absolute necessity of getting it back from her. The only piece of information he was sober enough to withhold was the identity of the one for whom the card had been made in the first place. He could just imagine their reaction to that revelation.
“And I've been thinking on it and thinking on it, but I can't rightly figure out how to get it back from Marigold,” Sam ended gloomily. “I'm doomed.”
“Now, now, Sam, faint heart never won fair hobbit,” Merry said bracingly. “I’m sure that if the three of us put our heads together, we can come up with a solution, right Pip?”
“Oh yes,” Pippin agreed, “Merry’s a great one for schemes, you know.”
Sam did know. “Begging your pardon, but it seems as though you two have a talent for getting yourselves into trouble, not for getting others out of it,” he said dubiously, not at all sure of the wisdom of involving Frodo’s cousins in his troubles.
“Not so,” Merry protested, “I’m always getting Pippin out of trouble, aren’t I, Pip.”
“That’s true; you’ve rescued me from many a tight spot. Of course, you were the reason I was in the tight spot to start with, but still…”
Merry gave Pippin an exasperated look and interrupted him. “Anyway, Sam, if we don’t help you, who will? You’ve just told us you haven’t been able to come up with an idea.”
Sam had to admit that Merry had a point. “Well, that’s true enough. What do you have in mind then, Mr. Merry?”
“Is your sister a light sleeper, Sam?”
“Aye, she is that, right enough. If you’re thinking I could sneak into her room and take the card while she’s asleep, you’d best forget that idea. She’d awake for certain.”
“No, I wasn’t thinking that.” Merry looked thoughtful and then said, in an apparent non sequitur, “Isn’t that Tom Cotton, over there by the fireplace?”
Sam looked round. Tom Cotton, Rosie’s brother and one of Sam’s closest friends, was indeed standing by the fireplace with his brother Jolly and several other hobbits. “Aye, that’s Tom,” he affirmed.
“I’ve heard that he’s your sister Marigold’s sweetheart,” Merry added.
Sam nodded. “They’ve been sweet on each other since they were fauntlings.”
“Right then.” Merry’s eyes were alight with determination. “I want you take me over there and introduce me to Tom.”
Sam and Pippin exchanged puzzled looks, but Sam did as requested and soon Merry had struck up an animated conversation with Tom Cotton. He steered him away into a corner where they remained for some time while Sam and Pippin waited and wondered what in Middle-earth Merry was up to. When he at last parted company from Tom and rejoined his friends, Merry looked very pleased with himself. “I’ve got what I need,” was all he would say.
It was past midnight and Sam shivered as he stood in the moonshadow beneath an oak tree on the opposite side of the Row from Number Three. He was expecting Merry and Pippin to arrive at any moment. The cold air had dispelled any lingering ale fumes and his mind was working better now. He must have been mad, to tell a Brandybuck and a Took about his troubles! But there was nothing for it, he'd gone and done it, and now he had to hope that this crazy scheme of Mr. Merry’s would work.
“Hsst, Sam!” a low voice called and he tensed. Two heavily swathed forms stole up beside him.
“Is she asleep?” One of the figures asked in a muffled whisper. It was Pippin.
“Aye, she is. Mr. Merry, are you sure about this plan?” Sam whispered back, unable to hide his doubt and anxiety.
“Sam, have some confidence in me. I know what I'm about,” Merry whispered. “Just stand ready to get in your sister's room and find that card once she's outside. I don't know how long I can keep her out here.”
“All right, Mr. Merry,” Sam said with resignation.
“Then let's get to it. It's freezing out, and I want my bed and a hot water bottle warming my feet!”
Sam nodded and hurried across the road to Number Three. Moving as quietly as only a hobbit could, he re-entered the hole and stationed himself by the kitchen window, which he opened a crack. Like Marigold’s bedroom, it overlooked the front yard, and would give him the best vantage point from which to watch events unfold.
The moon was high and at the full, casting an eerie light over the yard. Sam watched with bated breath as a shadowy form crept into view and halted before the window of Marigold's room. He heard the faint sound of a pebble tapping on glass: first once, then again, and yet again. He pressed his ear to the crack, listening intently. There was a faint squeaking noise as the window was pushed open; then he could hear his sister's voice saying sleepily, 'Is someone there?'
“Marigold? It's Tom, Tom Cotton.”
Sam's mouth fell open in astonishment. Merry had not exaggerated when he claimed he would be able to fool Marigold into believing her sweetheart was standing outside her window. Why, he sounded exactly like Tom!
Marigold evidently was fooled as well, for Sam heard her say in evident bewilderment, “Tom Cotton! Whatever are you doing outside my window at this hour! Is something amiss?”
“Nay, Mari, there’s naught amiss. But I want to speak with you. Can't you come out, just for a few minutes, lass?” the false Tom replied in a low, pleading voice.
“It's cold out, Tom Cotton, and I'm not dressed!” Marigold exclaimed, then seeming to realize what she'd said, amended hastily, “That is to say, I'm in my nightdress. 'Twouldn't be proper, Tom.”
“Put on your cloak, Mari,” Merry/Tom coaxed, “and all will be proper enough. I promise I won't keep you long, love. But ‘tis after midnight and that means Sweetheart's Day is here.”
Sam couldn't believe his ears. Mr. Merry ought to perform with the traveling actors’ show that visited Hobbiton each year, he thought. If Sam didn't know better, he'd swear that Tom Cotton himself stood outside his sister's window.
“Aye, and ‘twill be Sweetheart's Day still when the sun comes up, Tom.” Marigold's voice was meant to sound scolding, but there was a softness to it that gave Sam hope. Maybe this absurd scheme of Merry's would work!
“But I couldn't sleep for thinking on you, Marigold,” her false swain claimed in heartfelt tones, “and I don’t want to wait one minute longer to give you the sweetheart’s gift I have for you. Won’t you come out, dear lass?”
“Well...” Marigold, it was clear, was softening faster than butter left out in the noonday sun.
“Please? Just for a few minutes, love?” Merry/Tom turned up the heat and Marigold finished melting.
“Oh, all right, Tom. I'll come out, but just for a few minutes, mind. If my dad was to find out...”
“He won't, I swear. Now hurry, dearest Marigold.” Merry/Tom put a perfect note of longing impatience in his voice.
Sam heard the window to his sister's bedroom click shut. He waited tensely, ready to spring into action the moment she emerged from the house. The short wait seemed interminable but then there was Marigold, hurrying out into the yard, the moonlight illuminating her small, cloaked form.
He practically flew into his sister's bedchamber and began a frantic search for the card. It wasn't on top of her dresser or in any of its drawers, so he turned to the little table beside her bed. He yanked open the drawer and heaved a sigh of relief. There it was, the gilt edges glittering in the moonlight. Sam snatched up the card. Just as he was starting to close the drawer, however, a shriek rent the night air, a shriek loud enough to waken a sleeping dragon or, even worse, to Sam’s way of thinking, his Gaffer.
Sam’s heart jumped right into his throat and threatened to choke him. He slammed the drawer shut and dashed out of Marigold’s room, taking care first to stow the card safely in his coat pocket. He stumbled through the dark smial and out into the yard, his pulse racing, and then froze. The moonlight was bright enough to show quite clearly a dramatic tableau: Marigold's taut form confronting Merry Brandybuck, who held a hand to his reddening cheek.
Sam ran to his sister’s side. “Now what’s all this commotion?” he asked, trying his best to appear as if he had no idea. “Marigold, what are you doing out here with Mr. Merry at this time of night? Have you taken leave of your senses?”
Marigold turned to him, a look of total outrage on her face. “I’m not ‘out here with Mr. Merry’! He tricked me, Sam, coming to my window and pretending he was Tom, telling me he had a sweetheart’s gift for me! And then when he got me out here, he… he kissed me! Right on the lips.” She raised a hand and scrubbed at her lips with the back of it as if she could erase the offending kiss. “So I screamed, and then I hit him.”
Merry cleared his throat and spoke up, “Indeed she did, Sam. Packs quite a wallop your sister does, too. A most impressive right hook for a lass. She really should think about entering the next Free Fair. I’d say she’s a shoo-in to win the fisticuffs competition.” He moved his jaw experimentally, wincing as he did so. Pippin, who had materialized next to his cousin, stifled a giggle. Marigold shot him a look that warned him he might be the next one to feel her impressive right hook if he wasn’t careful. Pippin took a hasty step backward.
Truthfully, Sam was having trouble himself not bursting into hysterical laughter. He attempted a stern look at Merry and said in a slightly unsteady voice, “I think you’ve some explaining to do, Mr. Merry. And you, too, Mr. Pippin.”
It was Pippin who spoke up, playing his role in the charade. “It was all my idea, Sam,” he began, “I wagered Merry that he couldn’t fool your sister into believing he was Tom Cotton and steal a kiss from her.”
“That was very wrong of you, Mr. Pippin,” Sam said with false indignation, feeling like the worst liar in the world and wondering how anyone would believe his playacting, “and you owe my sister an apology for waking her in the middle of the night and giving her such a scare.”
“I am sorry, Miss Marigold,” Pippin sounded and looked the soul of contrition: his head drooped and he shuffled his feet a little. “I’m afraid Merry and I had a little too much beer at the Dragon this evening and I came up with this silly dare. Oh, do you think you can ever forgive us?” He cast up his eyes imploringly.
Now Marigold was a kind-hearted lass and she had a definite soft spot for Mr. Frodo’s young cousin. He had once seen her struggling up the Hill with a basket of the Master’s laundry and had, without hesitation, taken it from her and carried it the rest of the way. Besides which, when Pippin Took cast up his eyes that way, it took a sterner heart than Marigold Gamgee possessed to resist him. Her look of outrage faded. She began, “Well, I reckon I-" only to stop abruptly as a raised voice could be heard within the Gamgee hole.
“What’s this infernal racket? May? Do you know?” It was Gaffer Gamgee, and to say that he didn’t sound pleased was an understatement.
“I don’t know, dad,” came May Gamgee’s frightened voice. “I heard someone scream; it sounded like they were outside in the yard.”
“Outside in the yard? At this hour of the night?” the Gaffer cried. “I’ll have summat to say to them, you can be sure of that. Waking decent, hard working hobbits with their tomfoolery.”
The four hobbits in the front yard froze. They exchanged looks of mutual horror.
It was Sam who recovered his wits first.
“Hide!” he hissed to the other three, making shooing motions with his hands. “Quick!”
Sam didn’t need to repeat himself; Marigold, Merry and Pippin took off like hares being coursed by a brace of greyhounds. In seconds, they had vanished from sight behind the bushes that lined the yard, and Sam was alone in the moonlight.
He met his father and May on the front steps. The Gaffer, sporting a tasselled nightcap over his greying curls and with his skinny legs sticking out from beneath his striped nightshirt, looked hopping mad, while May, clutching a shawl about her, looked terrified, and shrank next to her father as if she expected to see a fire breathing dragon standing in the yard.
“Samwise!” the Gaffer demanded. “What’s going on? What’s the meaning of this racket?”
Sam’s brain was racing as fast as his heart. “I heard a queer noise, dad, same as you and May, and came outside to investigate.”
“Well? What is it then?” his father asked in a querulous voice, looking suspiciously around the empty moonlit yard; to judge by the pugnacious jut of his chin, he was spoiling for a fight.
“I don’t know,” Sam replied mendaciously. “There wasn’t nothing to be seen.” He shrugged his shoulders, trying his best to appear nonchalant. “Maybe it was a wild animal, or more likely two cats having a fight. You know what a terrible din they can make, dad. Any road, whatever it was, it seems to be gone now.”
“Hmph. Well, it had best stay gone; I’d like to get some rest this night,” the Gaffer grumbled, but appeared to be somewhat mollified by his son’s explanation. “Come along May, Samwise. Back to bed with you. The sun’ll be up afore we know it.”
“You and May go ahead, dad. I’ll, um, take one more quick look about the yard before I turn in, just in case.”
“Very well, lad, but don’t be long.”
“I won’t. Good night, dad, May.”
As they returned inside the hole, Sam could hear his father say to May, “Your sister Marigold is the only member of this family with a mort of sense. She’s still abed, where we all should be. Though how she slept through the racket is a mystery to me…”
Sam exhaled with relief and wiped his perspiring forehead on his coat sleeve as he hurried toward the side of the yard where Merry, Pippin and Marigold were hiding. Deception, he thought, was hard work and no mistake. He called in a low voice, “All’s clear, you can come out now.”
There were rustling sounds and his fellow miscreants crept out from their hiding places, brushing bits of dead leaves and twigs from their clothing.
Marigold ran to Sam and hugged him tightly. “Oh, Sam, you’re a wonder. I was that scared I couldn’t think what to do. If dad had found me out of bed at this hour, he’d have been madder than a wet hen. I daren’t think what he’d have done to me.”
“Aye, well, all’s well as ends better, as dad likes to say,” Sam replied, glad that the moon had gone behind the clouds and his sister couldn’t see his guilty blush. “You get along to bed now.”
“What about you?” Marigold asked.
“I’ll be along in a minute, lass. I need to have a few words with Mr. Merry.” He gave her a gentle push. “Go on, then.”
“All right. Good night, Sam. Good night, Mr. Merry, Mr. Pippin.” Marigold gave Frodo’s cousins a decidedly saucy look before hurrying away. Well, Sam thought with rueful amusement, it appeared that Marigold had decided to forgive the pranksters their prank. Say what you would about Merry Brandybuck and Pippin Took, there was no doubt that they could charm the birds from the trees, or the anger from a lass’s heart, come to that.
“Well, Sam? Did you get it?” demanded Merry the moment the door had closed behind Marigold.
Sam patted his coat pocket with satisfaction. “I did, Mr. Merry.”
Merry clapped Sam on the shoulder. “Excellent! You’re a stout fellow, Sam, and you have a decided flair for this type of thing. I’ll keep that in mind for the future.”
“Please don’t, Mr. Merry,” groaned Sam, thinking on the number of whoppers he’d told this night, surely more than every other night of his life put together.
Pippin said, green eyes dancing, “It was worth it all, Sam, just to see the look on your sister’s face when she realized that she wasn’t kissing her Tom. No offense, cousin, but she didn’t look very pleased to discover it was the future Master of Buckland.” He began to laugh helplessly, a fist pressed to his mouth to muffle the noise.
This was too much for Sam, who had been fighting a losing battle to hold back the hysterical laughter that had been building up inside him; the dam broke and his laughter spilled over, setting off Merry in turn. They tried their best to stifle their mirth: Merry buried his face in Pippin’s shoulder; Pippin stuffed the end of his scarf in his mouth; and Sam, bent at the waist with one arm wrapped round his middle, clamped a hand tightly over his mouth. Every time it appeared that they had got themselves under control, they’d make eye contact and be off again. It took some little time for their laughter to subside at last.
“Oh my,” gasped Sam, straightening. “What a night this has been.”
“Indeed it has: a night to remember,” Merry agreed, drying his streaming eyes with a handkerchief. “And so I shall: when I’m in a warm bed with that hot water bottle at my feet and a goose feather quilt spread over me! But before we leave, Pip and I would like to see the cause of all the mischief. Bring out the card, Sam, so we can take a look at it.”
A bit shyly, Sam did as Merry asked. These were gentlehobbits, used to the best of everything in their lives. What would they think of Sam’s labour of love? And if they found it disappointing, would that mean…?
“Oh, Sam.” It was Pippin who spoke, looking over Merry’s shoulder at the card. In the moonlight it appeared lovelier than ever, to Sam’s way of thinking: just like the one it was meant for. “Frodo is going to love it.”
It took Sam a moment to process these words. He went hot then cold then hot again; he stammered, “B-but I never said… how did you know?”
“Know that it is for Frodo?” Merry answered in a surprisingly gentle voice. “We’re not blind, Sam. We’ve always known that you and Frodo belong together.”
“Aye,” added Pippin, “It’s you and Frodo who have been the slow coaches. We began to wonder if you’d ever come to the point.”
“And you don’t mind?” Sam was flabbergasted.
“My dear Sam,” said Merry, handing him back the card, “first of all, it’s none of our business. Why should we mind? And second- well, Frodo’s happiness is as dear to us as our own. If you are the one who can make him happy, then we wish you all the best.”
Sam cleared his throat. He was almost too choked up to speak. “I can’t thank you enough, Mr. Merry, and you, too, Mr. Pippin,” he said thickly. “I’ll never forget your kindness to me this night. I’ll stand you both a beer, next time we’re at the Dragon.”
“You’re a stout fellow, Sam, as I said before,” Merry grinned. “Come on, Pip, let’s away: ‘and now to bed, and now to bed’ to misquote old Bilbo. Good-night, Sam.” He took hold of Pippin by the elbow and they began to walk- in the direction of Bywater. They’d taken but a few steps when Sam’s voice halted them.
“But ain’t you going up to Bag End?” Sam was confused.
Pippin shook his head. “We’re for the Green Dragon for what’s left of the night, Sam. We wouldn’t want to interfere with any– um- plans you and Frodo might have.”
Sam blushed scarlet and was still blushing as Merry and Pippin disappeared down the Hill lane, arm-in-arm and singing softly as they went.
Sam managed to snatch a few hours’ sleep after finally seeking his bed, but he rose in the grey light before dawn to wash and dress. After scrubbing every inch of his body with sweet-smelling soap, he donned his best clothes, carefully combed and arranged the hair on his head and feet, and then held up the piece of highly polished metal that served as his mirror to study his somewhat distorted reflection.
His spirits sank at the sight: if this was the best Sam Gamgee could look, it seemed a very poor best. He didn’t reckon it was near fine enough to tempt Frodo Baggins, who after all could have anyone he wanted, into accepting him as his sweetheart.
But in his mind he could hear again Merry’s quiet words: We’ve always known that you and Frodo belong together, and could see the softness in Frodo’s blue eyes as he tied the scarf around Sam’s neck by the back door…
With a determined expression on his face, Sam set down the mirror on the dresser and picked up the sweetheart’s card.
Sam managed to steal out of Number Three before any of his family, in particular Marigold, was even stirring. The disturbed night had made them all sleep more soundly than usual, thankfully. He began to walk up the Row with measured strides, taking deep breaths of the crisp air to calm the nervous anticipation welling up within him.
The sun was rising over Hobbiton, streaking the sky with bands of pink and lavender and gold. He could hear the first birdsong rising with the sun, and a rooster crowing in the distance. All about him was beauty, in the sky and the very air he breathed, but it was hard to appreciate that beauty when his heart was leaping about erratically in his chest like a startled frog.
Sam was nearly to the end of the Row when a very familiar figure came into view, heading in his direction. He stopped in his tracks and waited, for he was very much afraid that his suddenly shaky knees might not support him if he tried to take another step.
“Hello, Sam.” Frodo Baggins stood before him, his face radiant in the soft dawn light. “I hoped I might meet you in the lane this morning.” He wore his dark green cloak thrown back over his shoulders to reveal the rich brocades and velvets of his finest attire.
Sam was struck nearly dumb by Frodo’s beauty. Had this glorious creature, surely no hobbit but an Elf prince wandered accidentally into the Shire, come especially to meet him, Sam Gamgee? “G-good m-morning, M-Mr. Frodo,” he stuttered, afraid that he was still abed and dreaming.
But Frodo made no reply, only waited patiently with that same softness in his blue eyes that they’d held last night; and in an instant all Sam’s worries evaporated, as insubstantial as the morning mist rising in tendrils over the Water. Here was no Elf prince, but only Frodo: his master, his friend and his love. The moment he’d worried at for weeks like a dog with a bone became simple, the required words seemed to speak themselves:
“Will you be my sweetheart?” Sam asked, and with a steady hand and a sense of rightness, offered the card to his beloved.
Gravely, Frodo accepted the card; he held it as he might have held a fledgling bird fallen from its nest, or a costly rare manuscript. He studied the dried flowers, tracing each one with a forefinger with the lightest of touches, reading their meaning at once. “How very beautiful,” he murmured, and Sam felt almost lightheaded with relief. He thought the card was beautiful!
Then Frodo opened it and read the words writ within. A tiny smile flitted over his lips, so quickly there and gone that Sam might have missed it had he not been watching so closely. His heart clenched. Had he misspelled the words? Did Frodo find the sentiments expressed in the poem mawkish? He knew his writing wasn’t near so fine as a gentlehobbit’s, but he’d tried his best to pen the poem neatly and evenly.
But when Frodo looked up, his eyes were bright as stars. “Yes, Sam,” he said gladly, “I will be your sweetheart.”
For a moment Sam, giddy with joy, could have sworn he heard trumpets blowing and bells pealing and nightingales singing. He had said yes! Frodo had said yes! But what should he do now? Sam wondered in a panic. Declare his love? Take Frodo in his arms and kiss him?
Before Sam could gather his scattered wits enough to say or do anything, Frodo was reaching into the pocket of his cloak, and withdrawing a card of his own, which he in turn offered to Sam. “Will you be my sweetheart, Sam Gamgee?” he asked.
“Y-you have a card for me?” squeaked Sam, and blushed bright red.
“Just what do you think I was working on so hard yesterday, my dear Sam?” Frodo said, smiling. “I was terrified I wouldn’t finish it in time, especially after my cousins turned up so unexpectedly and threatened to ruin all my plans.”
“Oh, Mr. Frodo…” Overcome at the very idea that Frodo had spent so much time and effort on a sweetheart’s gift for him, Sam took the card, and a gasp of wonder escaped his lips. Frodo, too, had decorated his card with flowers, but these had been drawn in ink by his skillful hand; graceful curlicues and flourishes surrounded the petals and leaves that he had tinted with delicate colours.
“Oh, Mr. Frodo,” Sam whispered again. “Oh, sir. I’ve never seen aught lovelier in my life.”
Frodo shook his head deprecatingly. “It’s not nearly as lovely as the card you made for me, Sam. But you mustn’t forget to look on the inside, too,” he reminded him, and his voice held a distinctly odd note.
With a curious glance at Frodo, Sam opened the card, and an involuntary grin spread across his face. The mystery of Frodo’s little smile when he read Sam’s card was now explained, for inside he had written the very same love poem that Sam had used.
“It would appear, my d-dear S-sam, that we sh-share a similar t-taste in p-poetry.” Frodo’s voice was quavering slightly as he struggled valiantly not to laugh.
But Frodo wasn’t the only one struggling. Why the coincidence should seem so funny he wasn’t quite certain, but for the second time in a few short hours, Sam was overcome by an irresistible urge to laugh. He met Frodo’s mirth-filled eyes, and both hobbits dissolved into hysterical, helpless giggles.
“Oh S-sam,” Frodo spluttered, and then they were holding onto each other while they laughed until their sides ached.
It had not, however, been part of Sam’s dream to hold Frodo in his arms in precisely this sort of fashion, and apparently it had not been part of Frodo’s dream either, for suddenly, as their eyes met, laughter vanished and another emotion altogether took its place. In an instant, Frodo’s arms were tight around Sam’s neck, their bodies were straining close together, and Frodo’s lips, soft and sweet, were parting willingly beneath Sam’s in their very first kiss.
“Oh, I have wanted to do that for such a long time, Sam,” Frodo said when they finally broke apart.
“You ain’t the only one, Mr-" but Frodo quickly shook his head and stopped Sam with a forefinger placed over his lips. Sam swallowed hard. “Frodo.”
Smiling his approval, Frodo stepped back and grasped Sam’s hand. “Shall we go up to Bag End, Sam dear? According to tradition, we are supposed to break our fast together now that we’ve agreed to be sweethearts, and I have everything prepared. Although,” he added, with a mischievous look, as they began to walk toward the smial, hand in hand, “you never did answer my question, you know.”
“I didn’t?” Sam halted, aghast. “Oh, I’m a proper fool.”
Frodo laughed and squeezed his hand. “That’s all right, Sam. I expect you were a bit… distracted. It’s too late to back out now in any case. I’ve finally got you, and I’m not about to let you go.”
There was only one possible response to such a declaration, and as a result it was some little time before they finally continued on.
“We are in luck, my dear,” Frodo remarked as they walked up the path to the front door, “Merry and Pippin never returned last night; they must have decided to stay on at the Dragon.” He gave Sam a significant look. “We have Bag End entirely to ourselves.”
Sam couldn’t help the slight conscious blush that rose to his cheeks then, recalling Pippin's parting words as he and Merry set out for the inn.
Frodo paused with one hand on the shiny brass doorknob, his eyebrows raised in surprise. “I can see you know something about the reason for their absence, Sam.”
“Aye, I do," he confessed, "though it's a longish tale." And a wild one, and no mistake.
“Well, I look forward to hearing it, Sam. But not right now." He tugged Sam inside Bag End, and shut the door behind them. "Right now I'd rather we not talk." His arms began to steal around Sam's middle, but then Frodo paused, and reached past Sam to lock the door. "Just in case my cousins are so inconsiderate as to turn up again," he murmured, and promptly got back to the business at hand.
Sam could have reassured Frodo on that point- had his mouth not been otherwise occupied.