It was an unfamiliar sound that drew me from deep reverie to glance sidelong at the halfling gardener. The fellow chuckled softly at some private jest as he scrubbed at the dinner pots and I couldn’t help but be curious as to what had drawn him from his quiet task and into gentle mirth.
He glanced up, remembering too late that he wasn’t alone, and rose colored his rounded cheeks. He looked away swiftly, avoiding my gaze.
“Beggin’ your pardon, Mister Strider,” he murmured, a hint of laughter still evident in his voice. “I didn’t mean to bother you.”
“No bother, Master Gamgee. Perhaps if you shared your secret jest, I too would find reason for laughter. It has been a long time since I’ve found just cause for mirth.” My request was gentle and he glanced up with soft brown eyes.
“Oh…’tis nothing. A memory brought to mind by Master Meriadoc’s comments on the supper earlier. Just silliness really.”
“Jests usually are.”
“I reckon you’re right…still, might not be seemly to share it…it having to do with Mister Frodo and all.” With grin renewed, he gazed at the cooking pot in his hands and chuckled again. I could see in his expressive face the reliving of some private memory.
Curiosity piqued I pressed on. “Frodo trusts me with a great secret Sam, certainly you could trust me with this? I assure you, I won’t tell a soul.”
Sam’s eyes widened in dismay. “Meaning no disrespect, it’s not that I didn’t trust you sir.”
“I know Sam. You guard Frodo’s privacy very carefully, and that is an admirable quality.”
“Aye. Still… ‘twouldn’t hurt none to tell a funny tale I s’pose. Would it?”
“I should think not. Laughter brings a great deal of healing to an aching heart.”
The stout fellow moved closer, his stance almost conspiratorial in its unaccustomed nearness. He glanced around, assuring himself that we were indeed out of earshot of the other companions, before continuing. “Now mind you, don’t take me wrong when I say this. But for all his book learning and smarts on such things as elves and histories, Mister Frodo he sometimes don’t understand the way of common things.”
“Well…” Sam hesitated, unsure…perhaps feeling a little disloyal. “Well…take plants for instance. Mister Frodo…well, he knows what pleases his eye and all, and what herbs to brew for a pot of tea or to put in a roast. And he sure can put fancy names to some of them too, mind you. But for actually knowing about them…how they grow, what they look like as seedlings and full growed, well….Mister Frodo, he’d be just as soon to pull what’s to be saved and save what’s to be pulled…if you catch my meaning.”
“He has no eye for plants, then?”
“He has an knack for knowing what pleases his eye, which most times is enough – but not always. I remember, when I was just a lad, him begging Mister Bilbo to make my gaffer leave a whole bed of weeds once, just because they had a fair look to the flower. Mister Bilbo did, of course cause he couldn’t deny Frodo nothing and it nigh near gave me da a fit to have them weeds messin’ up Bag End. He’s very protective of the gardens he tends.”
“He likes things just so?”
“You’ve no idea.” Sam’s eyes misted over a bit at the thought and I couldn’t miss the shadow of homesickness in his face. “He’s a great gardener, my da is…”
“From what I’ve heard, his son has some skill in that area as well.”
Blushing with a mix of pride and embarrassment, Sam glanced at his hands for a moment…avoiding my gaze.
“Thank ye kindly, Mister Strider. I do my best.” He cleared his throat and continued. “After Mister Bilbo went away, Frodo kept Bag End same as his cousin had done, always looking for new flowers and plants to show off. So it come as no surprise when he finds me one afternoon, all excited, saying he’d found a unusual new flower he’d not never seen before. Of course, he wanted me to have a look, to find out if we’d be able to bring some to the garden or not. And I was right curious, wondering where in the Shire he’d come by something so new that we’d not tried it at Bag End yet. So taking up me tools, I followed after him.”
Sam smiled, caught up for the moment in the memory of a time before the ring, a time before quests and the fear of darkness that haunted him now. I remained quiet, allowing him this rare moment of peace. Moments such as this would be very few indeed as the days progressed.
“It were a fair distance out, this new plant of his. Him being on one of his walks, he’d come across it by accident. Now mind you, when he first pointed it out, all breathless and delighted I thought he were pulling a prank on his Sam. Cause sure as I’m a Gamgee, there’d be nothing remarkable about what he was showing me…I’d seen them a hundred times if I’d seen them once. Though never quite so late in the fall as this, and all intact. But one look at my Master, face flushed and eyes a sparkling, and I knew it weren’t no jest and I stopped myself from saying what I ought not say just in time.
‘Aren’t they wonderful, Sam? Have you ever seen such large and beautiful blossoms…and the colors!’ he says to me, his eyes all wide with near childlike glee and his face…”
Sam sighed softly, clutching his hands together with nervous energy. In that moment, I could almost see the dark-haired Ring Bearer, flushed with joy, crouching to examine his find.
“His face was near like the morning sun, it was so bright.
‘Such a rich purple…’ he continues, near breathless, ‘…and this one, the color of fresh cream.’ Then he looks back and sees my face frowning where I’m sure he’d expected excitement or at least some bit a interest and his own face fell. He looked so unhappy and I felt down right terrible. ‘You don’t like them?’ he says all disappointed like. ‘Oh Sam, I thought you’d be excited!’
‘But Mister Frodo,’ I says, all serious, ‘don’t you know what they are?’
He shakes his head, biting his bottom lip like a lad caught in the sweet’s pantry. ‘Why? Are they poisonous? I’ve touched it…’
‘Oh no, no!’ I says to him, not wanting him to worry an’ all. ‘Taint poisonous…’
‘Then what is it Sam?’ he finally asks, getting a bit cross with me. ‘If you think its ugly and I’m a ninny just say so.’”
I couldn’t help but laugh, finding it so easy to picture Frodo losing patience with his gardener’s hesitant disapproval. Sam grinned.
“‘No, of course it ain’t ugly,’ I says right quick, ‘And I’d never think you’re a ninny. It’s just, well…’ and I stop cause I couldn’t think of no way to tell him what was needing to be said.
‘Come on Sam,’ he coaxes knowing now that he was missing something obvious. Frodo’s real good for figuring that out from folk. ‘Tell me, what is it?’
‘Don’t matter,’ I tell him, trying to make things right. ‘If you wants some for Bag End, your Sam’ll plant ‘em for you.’”
Sam chuckled again, softly more to himself than out loud.
“What was it? A weed?” I asked when the chuckling subsided.
“That’s just what Mister Frodo decides when I won’t answer him. ‘It’s a weed, isn’t it?’ he grumbles all irritated, his eyebrows drawing together serious like.
‘Well, not exactly,’ I tell him…cause rightly it weren’t a weed. Just not the kind of plant a gentlehobbit keeps in his flower beds.
‘Then what is it Sam? Do you hate it?’
‘No,’ I answers sheepishly, looking at me hands cause I can barely hold in a laugh, ‘leastwise, not with a bit of pork or carrots mixed with it.’
‘Pork?’ he asks and I can’t hold back the laughing no longer, cause his face is so serious and confused.
‘It’s kale, Mister Frodo,’ I’m able to get out, laughing all the while. ‘A cabbage plant, one that’s been let go and not harvested at its time. They’ll all go to flower if left to their own. Ain’t you never seen one gone to seed before?’”
Grinning ear to ear, Sam met my eyes, his own sparkling with mirth.
“Now, you have to know what a rare site it is, seeing Frodo caught so off his guard. He just stood there, his mouth near hanging open, trying to measure this ‘wonderful’ new flower he’d discovered against the supper he’d ate that previous night and he couldn’t seem to come up with the connection.
“‘Really now Sam, are you playing me for a fool?’ he questions all serious, crouching down to take a closer look at it.
“‘Oh no,’ I tell him, kneeling at his side. Then I shows him the look of it, and how it would be if harvested on time. I even get him to taste one of the leaves, gone bitter by then with age.
“‘A cabbage?’ he marvels, sighing and I can tell he’s still disappointed. ‘But it’s so…so…’
“‘Pretty?’ I finish for him and he nods. ‘Aye, ‘tis fair to look at, now you mention it.’ Frodo was always good for making me see beauty in things I’d not much noticed before.
“‘I don’t suppose it would be seemly to let any go at Bag End, would it?’ He whispers the words so soft I could hardly hear him. Then he sighs again, a sound all filled with sadness, and touches the blossom with such tenderness it makes me want to sigh too. Then he just gets up and with a forced smile he claps me on the shoulder. ‘Sorry to waste your time, Sam on such a pointless errand. C’mon, let’s get back. I’m sure we could both use a bit of tea.’
“As we walk off, side by side, I thinks to me self, ‘There ain’t no time spent with you that’s wasted, Mister Frodo. No matter what the end.’”
Sam fell into a wistful silence, the levity of the moment brushed away by the pressing reality of our journey.
“You planted them for him too, didn’t you?” I finally asked him, when the silence had grown uncomfortable for us both.
“Aye, I did,” he shyly admitted, meeting my gaze. “Every year after that. Just a small bed of ‘em, back out of sight of the road – so as not to lead to any embarrassment should one of the neighbors find ‘em less appealing than my Master did. They may have just been a common vegetable, but if the look of them were good enough for Mister Frodo then who am I to argue. Besides, sometimes common appearances can be quite deceiving.”
You have no idea, Sam, how true that may be, I thought, nodding in agreement before easing to my feet. “Yes, many things in life are not as they seem, Master Gamgee. All that is gold does not glitter…not all those who wander are lost.”
“Aye, like the poem in Gandalf’s letter, back in Bree,” he answered, looking up at me his own eyes curious. “So are you like that cabbage, Mister Strider? Is there more to you than meets the eye?”
I only smiled but did not answer. The safety of Rivendell was still too many days away and the time not yet ripe for such things to be revealed. “Perhaps. But it was only with time that the cabbage yielded its treasure. So it is with men sometimes.”
I turned then, and left him to ponder, my own mind a sea of thoughts. As I lit my pipe and took a comforting draw of the fragrant smoke, I found myself musing on how, in the midst of a dark and perilous journey, a simple hobbit gardener could make me wonder at the connection between cabbages and kings.