“Hey now, Master Samwise, you’d best come quick!” Tom Goodbody huffed to a halt at the gate to Bag End, his chest heaving from the run up New Row. “It’s your Gaffer…”
“What’s happened?” Sam asked, dropping his hoe against the side of the wheelbarrow. “Where is he?”
“Mistress Lily down to the Green Dragon says he took sick real sudden – while he was sitting there on the front bench with some of the other regulars.” Tom’s face was grave. “Twere real grey he was, and all chill and damp. It don’t look good Sam.”
Sam was already pulling open the gate, his usually cheerful face dark with concern. “There’s a good lad, Tom, run in and tell Rosie where I’m off to. Tell her to head on down to Number 3…and let the Widow know. I’ll see if I can fetch him home.”
“Laddie Bracegirdle was up the road a piece with his cart,” Tom called to Sam’s back as he raced down the lane. “‘Spect you can get him to bring you back.”
“Thank ye kindly Tom, I’ll look for him on the way.”
Sam’s heart tightened in his chest, and not from the effort of running – though admittedly it had been quite a while since he’d done much of it. The Gaffer had passed a bad winter, with a dangerous fever nearly taking him just after Yule. When they’d gotten him to Spring, the Gamgee family had breathed a sigh of relief, hoping that the worst was passed and that the warmth of the coming summer would dispel some of the old hobbit’s lingering sickness. For awhile they’d even dared to hope.
But Hamfast had been moving slower as of late, struggling even to make it up the gentle rise of the hill from Number 3 to the gardens at Bag End. The healers had said it was age creeping up, and that his heart wasn’t as strong as it used to be. They’d warned Sam when summer was newly come to the Shire that it was unlikely the Gaffer would see the leaves fall. Sam knew in his own heart that they were right.
Sadness filled his belly with the flutter of anxious butterflies. When the Gaffer died, Sam knew that the last tie to the life he’d once known in the Shire – the life before the Ring – would be gone forever. That single thought terrified him with the clutch of a darkness he’d not known in many years. Tears wet his cheeks to mingle with the sweat of his exertion and he quickened his steps.
Sam heard the wagon before he saw it, and he paused on the side of the road to catch his breath. It was the Bracegirdle’s cart; he recognized the rig from the two red ponies that pulled it, and he raised a hand in greeting to the young hobbit who sat in the seat.
“I have him with me, Master Samwise,” the boy, Laddie Bracegirdle, assured pulling the ponies to a halt. Sam could see Laddie’s sister, Polly sitting in the back – her dark-curled head barely showing over the wagon’s side. “Mistress Lily’s gone to fetch the healer.”
The lad held out his hand to help Sam clamber onto the buckboard and when the older hobbit was settled, he flipped the reins to start the pony team back on its way.
Polly smiled as he eased to the floor beside her. She’d been holding the Gaffer’s hand in her own tiny palms and relinquished it when he was settled. Sam couldn’t help but think how frail his Da looked, with the rigors of long illness carving hollows out of his cheeks. He seemed so small – so unlike the imposing figure that used to command him with a look or the shouting of his name. His eyes were closed but they fluttered open at the press of a familiar hand against his cheek.
“Sam-lad…” the words were barely a whispered breath and Sam had to lean close to hear it.
“I’m here Da. Rest now, don’t try to talk. We’ll have you home soon.”
“W…what will Mister Frodo say,” the Gaffer wondered, his eyes hazy with pain, “you leaving your work so early in the day?”
“Mister Frodo’s gone, Da. Been gone for near seven years now…”
“Aye.” Sam choked on his words, trying to push the pain of that parting from his mind. Even after all these years, the memory still left his heart raw.
“Oh, yes…” the old hobbit sighed, smiling. “I remember…went off on some new adventure with Master Bilbo.”
“Uh huh…shhhh. Rest for now Da, we’re almost home.”
The elder Gamgee closed his eyes, his hand loosening in Sam’s grip. Watching his father’s grey face with a deep sense of dread, Sam caressed his dry hand and shook with silent tears. He knew then, without a doubt, that the Gaffer’s time was almost at an end.
“I’ve given him something for the pain. All that’s left to be done now is make him comfortable. I don’t ‘spect he’ll make it through the night.” The healer’s words were no surprise, but still they burned in Sam’s heart. Nearby, he could hear Marigold’s sobbing breaths and Tom’s quiet words as he tried to soothe her. “Still, I’ll drop by in the morning before my rounds…just in case he’d be needing more dosing.”
Nodding Sam clasped the fellow on the shoulder. “Thank ye kindly, Master Brandybuck sir. Can we offer you a spot of luncheon a for you go?”
“No, that’s quite all right. I’ve got to be off.” Taking his cloak, hat and stick from Rose, the healer bid the Gamgee family farewell and stepped out into the waning afternoon.
Closing the door, Rose turned to her husband and took him tenderly into her arms. She held him a long moment in comforting silence, feeling the shake of his shoulders under her caressing hands. And with his face buried in the sweet smelling ringlets that crowned her head and he wept.
“I’m here, Da.” Sam gave the frail hand he held a careful squeeze.
“Mari’s here, and Tom…” Sam explained. “I’ve sent word for the others. Mari’s just out side. Did you want me to fetch her?”
The Gaffer shook his head.
“Are you thirsty?”
Taking a filled cup from the bedside table, Sam lifted his father’s shoulders and held the container to his lips. Some of it trickled down the old hobbit’s chin, and Sam brushed the moisture away with the cuff of his shirtsleeve. “More?”
Hamfast shook his head again, his shoulders sinking back to the bed. He reached up a gnarled hand to touch his son’s cheek, eyes sparkling.
“Sam…” he whispered, his voice stronger for the sip of water. “My little lad…all growed up.” He smiled, his fingers falling to stroke at Sam’s waistcoat, touching the brass buttons one after the other. “Such a fine figure of a gentlehobbit…”
“Da…” Sam could feel sadness welling up in his throat.
“M…Mayor…Master of his own fine smial…husband…father…” the Gaffer gazed up at him with such a look of undisguised pride that Sam felt his heart would burst through his chest at the sight of it.
“Please Da…” the younger Gamgee interrupted.
“Shhh…let me finish,” the elder admonished, eyes stern. “You’re a good lad…Sam. A good lad. Always were. Your mam she’d be so proud.”
Sam was taken aback. His father hadn’t mentioned his mother in many years – since he was a very young child; he found it strange he would mention her now.
“Aye. She’d be so proud, to see you so well off. ‘Twere her wish you know?” Hamfast fixed him with a distant smile. “She only ever wanted a fine home for her family…a fine life…”
“What do you mean, Da? Y…you’ve not spoken of her,” Sam murmured, taking his father’s hand and holding it again, “not once, in all these years.”
“So bitter…” his father breathed in reply. “Sometimes the past is best left there.”
“Then why speak of her now?”
“Cause you’re growed now lad, and you’ve a right to know,” he admitted. “And tomorrow it’ll be too late. You’ve a right to know…”
He coughed, his chest rattling with the effort and Sam helped him to sit up until the spell passed. Settling extra pillows behind the old hobbit’s shoulders, Sam eased him back and pulled the coverlet over him.
“It’s all right, Da,” Sam assured. “I don’t need to know.”
“But I want you to know. You should.” The Gaffer sighed, plucking at his son’s hand. “Your little ones have a right to know about their Gammer. What do you remember, to tell them?”
Sam shook his head. “Not much. A few faded memories is all. A song she used to sing, the lavender smell of her, her hair like maple leaves in fall…”
“Aye. The song were a ditty she made up, ‘bout a mouse in the breadbox,” his father explained. “I’ve heard you singing it to Ela when you give her a bath. Even heard you sing it to your Master Frodo a time or two, to make him laugh when he were down.”
Smiling with difficulty, Sam nodded.
“And the lavender.” Hamfast sighed, closing his eyes. “It were her favorite flower, her favorite smell. I always kept it planted by the door and outside the bedroom window. Bought her a special lavender soap clear from Bree every year as a mathom.”
A tear trickled from the elder Gamgee’s closed eyes and Sam felt his heart ache for his father’s pain.
“Her hair, well, it were just like you said…pretty red like them fall leaves…and her eyes, a fiery green…”
Try as he may, Sam couldn’t remember her eyes – though from his child’s memory he could vaguely see the roundness of her face and the rosy hue of her cheeks. Not the eyes though. The only eyes indelibly etched in his memory were blue.
“She were a fine lass, sweet of face and nature,” Hamfast whispered, his own eyes still closed. “Kind and gentle as a lamb. You’re a lot like her lad, more’n any of your brothers and sisters. And she were a dreamer too, just like you lad. Always dreamin’…”
The Gaffer opened his eyes, gazing through his son as if the object of discussion were suddenly just behind him. Sam found he had to resist the urge to turn around.
“Not ‘bout elves, and treasures, and such things as that…” the Gaffer explained with a smile, “…you can owe that nonsense and all to Mister Bilbo and his tales. But about fancy things, china and silver, clothes of fine linen, a grand home...”
The old hobbit’s voice trailed off, his eyes distant, and he sighed softly to himself.
“Course while we was courtin’, I promised her all she dreamed of, and more. I vowed that one-day all the trappings of a gentlehobbit’s life would be hers…lads do that, you know, when they’re in love. Make promises they cain’t keep…
“‘I’m only a gardener now, Bell,’ I told her, ‘but one day…you’ll see…I’ll buy you as grand a smial as Bag End with room upon room to fill with whatever you’d be desirin’…’”
His gaffer’s voice drifted to silence and for a moment Sam suspected he’d fallen back to sleep. But the old hobbit’s eyes fluttered open, and he fixed his son with a steady gaze before continuing.
“Aye, we was filled with dreams when we first married – your mam and I both. But mind you, I learnt real quick that such dreaming don’t put no food on the table, nor clothes on the back. We was barely making ends meet with just the two of us, and it got even worse once Hamson come. Mister Bilbo were a kind master, and took me on regular-like to tend Bag End, but even though the wages were generous, ‘twere just barely enough to provide for a growing family.
“Year after year, it seemed, your mam drew away. Always a wishing and a sighing for a life I couldn’t hope no more to give her. I knew she weren’t happy…but I didn’t know what to do to change it.”
Again the old hobbit paused, reviewing the memories in his mind as if picking out what to tell and what to keep to himself. Sam waited, clasping his father’s withered hand protectively in his own, drawn in by the unfolding tale of a mother he’d never really known.
“After Mari were born, she changed somehow. Showed no interest in the wee lass at all much past weaning. She took to traveling to visit some kinfolk near Tuckborough – leaving us sometimes for a week or more at a time, with me trying to work a full day and help your sisters keep up the house and mind to you and the little one besides. I reckon that’s where she first met him…
Sam’s mouth dropped open in shocked surprise and he couldn’t help a gasping breath. “Him?”
“Aye,” Hamfast continued, swallowing hard, and closing his eyes against the memory of a pain from a time long past. “He were a Took, from Great Smials…a hobbit of modest means who had himself a fine merchant business in the Northfarthing. Had all them things your mam dreamed of – a grand home with all the trappings what come with it, and a shop besides. I’d heard whispers of it, hushed words behind mugs at the Green Dragon, for the better part of a year. But I let my lovin’ of her blind me to what I knew were true.
“Then one day, I come home early from Bag End to find her packing her satchel but this time it were different. I knew somehow, from the way she was acting that it weren’t for no visit this time. This time there was something final in it.”
Hamfast paused, lost in thought, reliving a day he’d long since pressed to the back of his mind and heart. Sam could see him drifting away into the memory…
“Where would you be off to, Bell?”
“Away…I have to get away from here.” Her words were sharper than the occasion demanded, and filled with bitterness. She faced the bed, stuffing the last of a pile of clothes into the satchel with an uncharacteristic recklessness.
“What’re you saying, love?”
“I’m saying goodbye,” she admitted, snapping shut the closure on her bag. “I don’t mean to be returning, Ham, not this time.”
Hamfast gripped her arm and forced her to face him. “Please Bell. No.” He gazed at her, his eyes stricken. “Tell me what to do and I’ll fix this.”
“Oh Ham,” she whispered, stroking his face with a tenderness she hadn’t shown him in many months. “You can’t. ‘Taint nothing you’ve done, love. You just can’t give me what I really want no more.”
“And what is that Bell?” The question was desperate.
“I want a fine home an’ garden,” she whispered, pulling from his grasp and stepping away, “and a gardener of my own.”
She turned away before he could see that tears wet her burning cheeks.
“And what am I?”
“You know what I mean, Hamfast,” she admonished, taking her shawl from the chair and wrapping it around her trembling shoulders. “I want a hobbit who’s his own master, not one at another master’s beck and call. I want to be a gentlehobbit’s wife…”
Hamfast sat heavily on the bed, clutching at the coverlet with shaking hands. She couldn’t have hurt him more had she struck him with fists rather than the sharpness of her unforgiving tongue. He squeezed shut his eyes as they burned with heartbroken tears.
“And what of our lads and lasses?” he asked when he could speak. “Do they mean so little that you would go and leave them? Or…” Fear crept into his wavering voice. “Or do you plan on taking them with you?”
“Ham is ‘prenticed already, and Hal won’t be far behind,” she admitted, glancing at his reflection in the mirror while smoothing the wild tangle of her ruddy curls. “Daisy and May would fight so at leaving the Row, I’ve not the heart to argue with them. As for the little ones, I leave them only because I wouldn’t have them parted from you. Little Samwise would be lost with out his Da…and Mari…”
Her nervous prattling trailed off and when he didn’t respond, she fell silent. They both could hear the clatter of unfamiliar wheels and the jangle of harness down the lane. Startling from her silence, she glanced anxiously out the window.
“Do you love him?”
His question was soft, barely audible, in the uncomfortable silence.
She glanced at him briefly but didn’t answer, then grabbed her satchel from the bed and turned to go.
“Does it matter?” she snapped, grabbing her hat and settling it carelessly on her head. “No matter what’s said it won’t change things. My mind’s made up.”
Ham knew then that she did not – yet surprisingly the thought didn’t comfort him.
“So you’ll have this fancy new house and a fine garden all your own,” he accused, anger suddenly pushing past the hurt, “a gardener all bought and paid and all the fine things you could wish for.”
“But what’s any of it worth, Bell without yer family to make it a home.”
Once more, she didn’t answer but walked to the door her back stiff.
“Mark my words, Bell, a greener garden ‘taint no treasure if there’s no love to make it bloom.”
Bell hesitated at the door, and for a moment he was filled with a surge of hope. Then taking a deep breath and without a backward glance, she’d opened the door, and still stinging from his words she walked out of his life…
“Dang fool that I was,” the Gaffer growled, gripping his son’s hand so hard it hurt, “I sat right there and let her go.”
Sam stared at his father with a mixture of pity and amazement. All these years, he’d known his father suffered over their mother’s absence, but he’d had no idea the pain his Gaffer had endured…or why.
“I should o’ gone out and flattened that dandy of a Took,” he spat, collapsing back into the softness of the pillows. “Should of knocked him right off that dray of his. I never should of let her go.”
“I had no idea Da,” Sam whispered, smoothing angry tears from his father’s cheek. “You’d never speak of her. I reckon I always thought she’d died. Hamson and the others they’d never say, an’ Mari…”
“Mari, she never knowed her mam at all.”
“Aye.” Sam was silent a moment, mulling a question in his mind – unsure if he should ask it.
“Go on lad,” the Gaffer encouraged, reading his son’s face and smiling. “You might as well ask…”
“Did you…” Sam swallowed not sure if he should ask it, in spite of the reassurance “Did you ever see her again?”
“I went once – years later – to find her,” he admitted with a sad smile. “Went all the way to where she’d done settled at Oatbarton in the Northfarthing. She’d started up fresh with that Took fellow, once all the papers was filed proper putting an end to what we’d promised on our wedding day.
“One look showed she’d managed to settle herself into a comfortable life. It were a nice smial she’d got, not near so grand as Bag End – of course – but finely cared for, with a lad hired to tend to the gardens and yard.”
“Did you speak with her?” Sam wondered aloud.
“It weren’t my intent to but she happened out ‘bout the time I was passing by on the road,” the Gaffer admitted. His eyes misted over with memory again and Sam waited patiently for him to continue…
“Ham? Hamfast Gamgee, is that you?” Bell called, stepping from the doorway and shading her eyes in the late morning sun. “As I live and breathe…it is you.”
She hurried down the lane but stopped just short of the gate, remembering at the last moment that indeed he was not her husband and embracing him would be unseemly – particularly on the front lawn where the neighbors could see.
“Hullo Bell…Mistress Took,” he answered, removing his hat respectfully and running rough fingers though his hair. The years had treated her well and Hamfast felt an aching he’d thought long gone, begin again in his heart.
She’s not changed much, he thought, gotten a bit older ‘bout the eyes and mouth perhaps, but still as fine as the day she’d gone. ‘specially dressed so pretty as she is.
“You’re looking well…Master Gamgee,” she replied softly, glancing at her hands suddenly shy and nervous. More than well… she admitted to herself, oh goodness, how after all this time, can I still feel so strongly for him?
“Thank ye,” he mumbled.
“And the children? How are they?”
“Good. Ham’s been done with his ‘prenticeship with Andson for near five years now, Daisy and May are fair lasses…and breaking the hearts of many a Hobbiton lad. Hal…”
He’d had a falling out with his second son, a terrible fight that had come so near to blows that their neighbors had been forced to drag the two of them apart. He’d figured the lad had gone to live with his mam after that, but Hamfast didn’t know for sure.
“…he’s well. Been working with…with Salidoc in the merchant trade,” she explained, confirming his suspicions at last. Hesitating, Bell licked her lips nervously. “What of the little ones, Sam and Mari?”
“Growing,” he answered, too quickly. “Though Sam’s not so little, no more…he’s near a tween now. He’s taken to gardening right well. Works near as much as I do at Bag End these days. Marigold…she’s quiet and shy, just like her brother.”
An uncomfortable silence fell between them. What, after all these years did either one have to say to the other.
Hamfast cleared his throat, crushing the hat in his hand. A question gnawed at him, one he’d wondered on for all the long years they’d been apart. It was the reason he’d finally come to Oatbarton after all this time. Before he left her this last time he had to know…
“So, Bell…did you…” he paused, the words sticking in his throat. “Did you…”
“Did I what Ham?”
“Did you find it? What you was looking for?”
She stared at him, lips parted in surprise. “What?”
“Did you find that perfect life you was wanting?” he asked at last, watching her face to know the real answer in spite of what her mouth might say. “With your fine home and gentlehobbit’s life. Did you find your happiness?”
Bell frowned, gripping the top of the gate until her knuckles whitened with the effort. “What a terrible thing to ask me.”
He could see it then, the glimmer of regret in her green eyes. He could hear a hint of sad longing in her sharp words.
“I just wanted to know if you were happy, Bell,” he explained. “It’s all I’ve ever wanted, you know. For you to be happy.”
“What does it matter now?” she whispered, brushing at her face to hide the evidence of an unbidden tear.
“It matters,” he assured, daring to lay his hand over hers on the gate. “As long as I’ve air to breathe, Bell, ‘twill matter to me.”
Squeezing her eyes shut, she shook her head, whether in denial of his words or admission of her discontent, Ham didn’t know. Slowly she turned her hand until their palms met, and she twined her fingers in his.
“I never deserved you, Ham,” she whispered, “never appreciated all you tried to do to make me happy. And now it’s too late.”
Hope flared briefly in the gardener hobbit’s heart. “It’s never too late, Bell. I still…”
“Shhhh…” she cautioned, shaking her head and stopping his profession of love. “No Hamfast. I’ve made my bed. I’d best lie in it. Besides, what kind of life would it be for our family…for Sam and Mari in particular? I’d be a stranger in their smial, an interloper pretendin’ at being a mother.”
“And I can certainly imagine what they think of me on the Row. No. Best that we leave it be.”
Shaking her head, she clutched his hand a long moment before pulling gently away. Glancing at him once more she smiled the gratitude mere words could not convey and favored him with a sassy wink. “But I thank you kindly, Master Gamgee, for the offer.”
Then in a flounce of bobbing auburn curls, she turned and walked away from him down the walk and through the smial’s open doorway. She closed the portal behind her, shutting herself quickly away before he could see the tears that wet her stricken face.
Hamfast stared after her in silence, feeling the heart in him breaking once more. He’d gotten his answer, though now he wasn’t so sure it was the one he’d wanted to hear after all. Standing there he knew she was right, there was nothing for her in Hobbiton any more, and no amount of love could change that now. Shoving his hat onto his head he turned away, vowing to put the past behind him once and for all.
With anger replacing the hurt in his heart he headed home again.
“I turned back only once, just in time to see her peering from behind the window shade,” he finished, with a sighing breath. “It were the last time I ever saw her. She died that year you was gone with Mister Frodo.”
The Gaffer fell silent, trapped in his own thoughts. He gazed beyond his youngest son, staring for a long time into the grey twilight that heralded the coming dawn.
“Yes Da?” Overwhelmed by grief, exhaustion and his father’s unfolding tale, Sam had been weeping silently into his hands.
“I can’t see you no more lad, it’s gone awful dark…”
“I’m here,” he reassured, taking his father’s hand and clasping the cold flesh between his own warm palms. “Taint yet dawn…soon though…it’ll be light soon.”
In his heart, Sam didn’t think his father would be there to see the sun rise.
After a long silence, the old hobbit spoke again, this time in a rasping whisper. “Sam lad…”
“That pretty Elf tree…I want to see it, one more time…”
“The Party Tree…the one what you planted that year when you come home…” he explained, gripping his son’s hand tightly. “Take me, Sam lad. I want…to see the sun shining…on them pretty gold leaves.”
“All right,” Sam agreed, “whatever you want, Da.”
Tucking the blankets around his gaffer, Sam lifted the old hobbit’s frail body in his arms, cradling him easily against a chest that ached with sorrow. Pushing open the door to the bedroom with his bare toes, he stepped though into the hallway. Quietly he padded down the corridor, past the rooms that had shaped his life. Rose started awake in the chair and the Widow Rumble looked up from her sewing as he passed the sitting room. He answered their questioning looks with a shaking of his head.
“We’re going to the Party Tree,” he whispered in explanation, as he paused at front door. “Best wake the others.”
He could hear Rosie calling to Mari where she slept on the settee, and the tap of the Widow’s cane, as he pushed open the entrance and stepped out into the warm summer morning.
The Shire was waking already. Cows bellowed down the lane, demanding milking and voices called quietly to one another in the creeping light of a new day. Sam passed like a shadow on the road, pressing his precious burden protectively against his chest. As he walked he could barely feel the shallow rise and fall of his father’s chest. He could hear the rattle of the old hobbit’s labored breathing and knew it wouldn’t be long.
Please, Sam thought, wishing with all his heart, please let him make it to the dawn.
Crossing a field he knew as well as he did the gardens of Bag End, Sam reached the spreading branches of the Mallorn and he ducked under the heavily laden boughs. The smell, a scent he could not describe but one that always made him think of the peacefulness of Lothlorien, surrounded him with a comforting touch. Breathing deeply, he let go of the grief that pressed at his heart.
Easing to the ground at the tree’s base, he held his father on his lap and stroked his lined face.
“We’re here,” he whispered, not sure if the Gaffer could still hear him or not. “Not long now. See, the leaves are already lightening.”
Indeed, the faint glow of morning was already sparkling through the boughs painting dancing patterns on the grass.
Eyes fluttered, then opened with some difficulty and stared at the canopy of leaves above them. Breath struggled through parted lips as the sun slipped over the horizon and illuminated the Mallorn with the fullness of her rays. “Oh…”
Hands raised, the Gaffer stroked the air catching gilded flecks of light in his gnarled fingers. Laughing almost childishly, he gripped the sparkles like a treasure in his hands and clutched them tightly to his chest.
“Oh Bell…” he sighed with a joyful smile, “look what I brung you.”
Trembling with a final desperate breath, the spark faded from Hamfast’s eyes and his body went limp in his son’s careful embrace. As the golden light of morning bathed the hobbit’s now tranquil face, Sam knew he was gone.
Planting a kiss on his father’s brow, Sam laid him down in the thick grass, tucking the blankets around him carefully. He struggled to his feet and pressed a hand briefly to the Mallorn’s bark as if he could gather strength from the burgeoning spirit of the young tree.
Then squaring his shoulders, Sam dashed away his tears and turned to face the new day and all that it would bring.