It was Mr. Frodo who realized I wanted to learn to read. I’d finished with cleaning the herbaceous border one day and had nothing to do, and my nasturtiums didn’t need no more water or nothing, and I’d been sitting near Mr. Frodo as he read to me. I wanted to see the trick of it, how it was he could read, so I moved alongside of him. But I couldn’t see the whole book, so I sat up on the bench behind him where I could look at it over his shoulder. He was surprised when I moved behind him, but then he figured out just what I was looking at so he began to move his finger under the words as he read so I could see what it was he was reading. It were a story about a boy who tricked a fox into leaving his chickens alone. I’d heard it afore, of course--it was a common story to tell. I was amazed someone had written it down. But there it was, in a book, and there was other stories in that book, too, and I was dying to know which was ones I knew and which was new ones.
The next day Mr. Bilbo came out while the Gaffer was trimming the roses and suggested I be taught how to read and write and figure. The Gaffer weren’t too sure about that, but at the same time he couldn’t say no--he was agreeing with Mr. Bilbo that I was right smart, although he rarely told me so. So, he just said he’d think about it.
My mum was real pleased to hear Mr. Bilbo thought I was that smart, and she were all happy to have me start to learn, and finally the Gaffer told Mr. Bilbo to go ahead and teach me, as long as I wasn’t a bother and I had time to do my work in the garden.
Mr. Bilbo started off teaching me and all. He was teaching Frodo Elvish then, so he’d set him off doing some translation or practicing the letters, and then he’d start with me on the letters for our speech. In a week I was writing simple words on a slate with a piece of chalk, and soon I was reading and writing sentences. I finally was able to start working on the book of tales Mr. Frodo’d been reading me out of, and I was as pleased as all get out. Began copying parts of it out on bits of parchment once I got to learning how to use a quill and ink, and then I’d take those bits of parchment home and read the stories to my sister Marigold.
But then Mr. Bilbo got a new book of Elvish he was laboring on trying to read--I learned there was more than one Elvish language, and although they looked the same, they didn’t read or sound the same, and he was just really getting into this new language called Quenya, so he let Mr. Frodo take over teaching me. He would have me read and write, then he’d have me read some more and we’d talk about what I’d read, what it meant and all.
Figuring was harder at first, but I soon got into it. After a while I got real good at it, and could figure out easily how many plants I could put into a garden patch of such a size. When the Gaffer was making decisions on what kinds of bulbs he’d need for the fall planting I figured how many of each kind he’d need, and drew out a plan of the garden on the slate they’d given me to take home to practice on and showed him how I’d plan it out. He was right impressed. I don’t think he’d realized just how useful figuring could be, for once he told me how much the different bulbs would cost, I figured out how much he’d need to ask from Mr. Bilbo to get them all.
But it wasn’t just my letters I learned from Mr. Frodo. Mr. Bilbo was determined that his lad was going to exercise, so he sent him off on a walk each day, either in the morning or afore sunset, telling him he was to enjoy hisself in the woods and fields or exploring the villages.
Tweren’t many lads near his age in Hobbiton--a few more in Bywater, but none of the gentry like, who’d feel fine talking to such as Frodo Baggins. So Mr. Bilbo talked the Gaffer into letting me go with Frodo once all were clear he liked having me with him. He explained to me he was used to caring for the younger lads and lasses in Brandy Hall, and that he missed his little cousin Merry something fierce. He’d take me to the stables and explain about the ponies, and the hostelers let us stroke them and help curry them and all, those as were gentle, of course. We’d go down to the Water and he’d swim. We’d go out into the woods and poke around in the stream. He found a worm that builds itself a shell out of whatever it finds to protect itself, so we brought a few home and took them out of their shells and gave them colored sand and sticks and small beads to see what kinds of homes they’d fix for themselves. Mr. Bilbo let us put jars of water with these worms on the window sill of the dining room, and we saw all kinds of shells built, some of them right pretty. Then we’d watch them crawl up the stems Mr. Bilbo said we had to keep in the jars for them, and they’d turn into flying insects after making themselves a different kind of case around them.
One day we came home with caterpillars we’d found that were big and brown with a wide stripe, and we fixed up a box for them with dirt and grass and twigs and some leaves we’d change every day. And when they made cocoons we watched with delight till the cocoons opened, letting moths out.
As fall came, Mr. Frodo got more lonely for his cousin Merry, and finally Mr. Bilbo said he could invite him to come for a visit for their birthday, that they’d have a big party at Bag End, and they’d invite Aunt Esmerelda and Uncle Saradoc and little Merry and Uncle Paladin Took and his family, too. But both insisted Marigold, May, and me were to come for the party, too, as their guests. My folks was all in a dither, but there wasn’t no way of saying no without being rude, so we was allowed to go on the big day.
The company came three days ahead of time. My sisters May and Marigold came in to help, as did Mrs. Rumble--she weren’t a widow then, yet. They cleaned that hole from back to front, and the windows sparkled and so did the glasses and the bottles of wine and such. I helped some with the airing of the rooms, and my mum and me did arrangements of flowers for the guest chambers.
I’d not seen the Brandybucks afore, although the Tooks had come for a visit now and again in the last few years. The Tooks came in their carriage, and the Brandybucks rode over on ponies, and the Bolgers even came from Budgefield. Mr. Frodo was happy to see his family again, and their expressions when they saw him were a treat--were all surprised to see how much different he was than they’d been thinking. He was filling out some, and his eyes weren’t so hollow any more. The freedom he’d found to wander about on his own and with me had hardened his muscles, and his eyes had a sparkle to them now. I tried to see him as they did, membering how he’d looked when I first saw him. Mostly, there wasn’t the deep sense of sorrow I’d seen when first I saw him in the garden. His voice was calmer, getting deeper, more cheerful. His smile was less rare, and he didn’t always look over his shoulder as if to ask if it was all right for him to do this and that. He was happy now, and they could all see it.
Mr. Freddy was my age, and Mr. Merry was about two years less than me, but boy, was he a scamp. Mr. Frodo was that pleased to see him and all, but it was soon obvious this was a child who didn’t know the meaning of the word “No.” He was into everything, and Mr. Frodo was all in a dither trying to keep him from upsetting the drying sand on Mr. Bilbo’s desk or using all the blotting paper to make paper boats out of. He calmed down when we went outside and I showed him my bit of garden and all. He knew lots about plants, and explained with pride that he got to help in the glass houses at Brandy Hall now, and he was learning about herbs. Was right interested in the herb garden out around the Hill from the kitchen door, and could name most of the plants. Mr. Frodo and him and me spent some time collecting seeds from the poppy heads, and we took some up the Hill to plant there to grow a bit wild.
Mr. Frodo nipped back into the hole to get us some elevenses, and we ate up on the hill, looking one way into Hobbiton, then to the Water, then into Bywater and across to where the Cotton’s have their farm, then back towards the woods and fields where Mr. Frodo liked to ramble during his walks, then down toward Bagshot Row where I pointed out where I lived to Mr. Freddy and little Merry. And Frodo told us stories like Mr. Bilbo told him in the evenings of the lands out beyond the borders of the Shire, of Bree and Rivendell and the Misty Mountains where Bilbo and the dwarves were captured by goblins and he saw Gollum. That was the first time I ever heard tell of Gollum, and he sounded such a funny creature, hiding in the roots of the mountains on his rock in the middle of an underground pool. That one day I’d not only see him myself but learn to loathe and fear him--and pity him as well--I never dreamed.
On the birthday day, Mum made sure that May and Marigold and me were all special dressed up and our hair on our heads and feet all brushed neat, and she gave us a basket of bread to take up with some pots of jam she’d made, a bowl of mushrooms the Gaffer had ordered from Farmer Maggot’s and Mum had made into a warm stew, and a small basket of brambleberries she’d found Mr. Frodo especially liked. She said that even though we was guests, we should contribute to the feast.
It was funny to sit at a table with Mr. Frodo and the other guest children. Mr. Bilbo had toys from Dale for all of us little ones, and I got a lovely dragon carved all of a green stone. Its legs could move, and its tail swished from side to side when you moved it. Marigold got a wooden doll all dressed in lace, and for May there was a lovely work basket with a bird perched on top that made music when you tapped its head. Mr. Freddy got a dragon, too, only his was purple, and the younger Took girls got dolls while Miss Pearl, who was the eldest, got a bigger bird who also played music if you tapped its head, and its wings would flap. And little Mr. Merry got a wooden dog on wheels he could pull across the floor, and its head would go up and down.
Mr. Frodo had collected stones of various kinds and put them into a slotted box for Mr. Merry, and gave Mr. Freddy a bag of sweets. There was pincushions for May and Pearl, and a pinecone doll he’d made for Marigold, who seemed to love it as much as the fancier one she’d had from Mr. Bilbo, and bead necklaces for the other Took lasses. For the men he’d carved pipe rests, and for the ladies he’d copied poems from a book for each one and put them into a fancy cover he’d made. And for Mr. Bilbo he’d bought a book he’d found in a stall at the market, and it made him right pleased. But for me he set a package wrapped in cloth by me, and it turned out it was a story he’d written just for me, sewn into a book and with pictures he’d drawn hisself. I have it still, “The Story of a Garden” by Frodo Baggins. It’s one of my most treasured possessions. Wonder if he members making it?
The food Mum sent was part of the feast, and Mr. Frodo was tucking into the mushrooms like wild until May said our dad had got them from Farmer Maggot. Then he stopped eating them. But then Mr. Bilbo looked over at us and noticed something was amiss. When he said he was going to get a bottle of Old Winyards to have when the supper was over, he stopped by the lower table and spoke real soft to Mr. Frodo, who spoke real soft back to him. Then Mr. Bilbo laughed out loud, and said, only a little louder, “Don’t you dare leave those mushrooms, my dear lad. They came fair and square this time, and you deserve them--the best mushrooms in the Shire.” And suddenly Frodo laughed out loud and started eating again, and the other adults looked over at us to see what the laughing was about, then forgot about us when they couldn’t figure it out.
After dinner we younger ones went out onto the Hill to play, and Mr. Frodo did his best to make us all laugh and have fun. He didn’t let any of us lord it over the rest, and we played Statues and Tig and Hot-and-Cold, and we told stories, and then Mr. Frodo told us more stories till it was time for tea.
But when we went back in, he was holding Mr. Merry’s hand in his right hand, and mine with his left. And when I thanked him again for the story, he smiled like I’d just given him a jewel from a dragon hoard.
When the guests left the next day, I stood there by Frodo to wave goodbye. And he smiled at me and told me, “I was so glad to see Merry again, but it’s so good he’s off home and I don’t have to pull him out of Bilbo’s desk one more time! Now it’s the two of us again.” And the way he said it, I knew he meant it, that he was truly glad it was just the two of us again. And when he was sent off to the market in Hobbiton to get his uncle some pipeweed and some seeds for the Gaffer, I went with him to carry the basket. No one would ever doubt I was Frodo Baggins’s man.