Sam straightened up and rubbed the sweat out of his eyes with his sleeve. He tilted the battered straw hat he always wore when working in the sun and looked down the garden; one more cut should do it, he was nearly finished. Whistling he took a whetstone out of his pocket and began to run it almost lovingly along the curve of the scythe. The sun, fierce now in early afternoon, glinted on the bright blade and Sam found himself dreaming that it was a sword, a great cleaver of foemen in some far-off kingdom, and he not a humble gardener but a great warrior.
‘Samwise the great, slayer of nasty horrible monsters …’
‘Hello, Sam!’ a cheerful young voice cut through Sam’s daydreams and he looked up, startled. He smiled and waved back at Frodo, making his way down the garden path, book in hand. As Sam watched Bilbo’s nephew carefully closed the little gate and strolled off down the lane, humming a song. Sam’s heart ached; how pleasant it would be to go off for the afternoon to read in the cool shade of some great oak….
‘Don’t be a ninny, Sam Gamgee!’ he muttered to himself, returning to his mowing. ‘You can’t read….’
As Sam cut the last sward in even strokes he came up to the window of Bilbo’s study. He caught a glimpse of the old hobbit's curly head, streaked now with silver. Although not as much silver as one would think for a hobbit of his great age…
‘T’ain’t nateral, that is what I say…’ said Ted Sandyman.
The smoke-filled Common Room of the Green Dragon fell silent, always eager to hear gossip.
‘’im lookin so young, and ‘im being so old…’
‘Better than looking so old and being so young…’ quipped a young hobbit sitting in the window nook.
There was a roar of laughter, but not from Ted.
‘You’re too smart for your own good, young Master Peregrine. I warrant someone will clip your wings some day soon….’
The pun on the hawk-named youngster did not go unmarked by the taproom and there was another gale of laughter.
‘Oh go fiddle…’ muttered Pippin and subsided into his jug of ale.
‘Better get started on the hedge…’ thought Sam, glancing again at the cloudless sky.
But just then Bilbo put his head out of the study window.
‘Sam! It’s too hot for that, come in and have something cold to drink…’
The head disappeared again and Sam thought to himself;
‘That’s just like Mr Bilbo, a right kind gentlehobbit…’
Sam went round to the back of the yard and washed his hands in the water butt, splashing his burning face. He watched the clear, cold water swirling away; what a blessing fresh water was! He took off his battered straw hat and smoothed his curls and brushed the grass cuttings from his waistcoat. Then he stepped inside the open door.
The long hall was dark and empty. A cool breeze suddenly swept along the floor, lifting the mats. Sam called out; ‘Mr.Bilbo?’
There was no answer, so Sam walked on down the hall to the study. He looked in the door; ‘Mr Bilbo, sir?’
The room was empty. Sam gazed round it with curiosity. He had been in Bilbo’s study many times before, of course, but never ceased to be fascinated by it. Books, so many books! All those words…Sam felt a pang of sadness; he could not understand any of them. There would be stories about Elves in those books, but he could not read them. Forgetting for a moment where he was he walked forward to the table, strewn with maps and scrolls, and peered down at a book lying open. There was text, not just words but strange symbols written in red.
‘Them’s runes, I warrant….’ Sam said to himself. Above the runes was a picture, drawn in a lively hand, of a dragon hovering over a mountain. Sam raised his calloused weatherbeaten hand and traced the outline of Smaug on the yellow parchment.
‘Better than the Green Dragon any day’ he smiled to himself. Then he looked past the figure of the mountain to other, unknown realms, their names written in Bilbo’s careful hand.
‘All those places you will never see, Sam Gamgee’ he said, and was torn between a terrible longing to behold wonders and a comfortable feeling of safety in the familiar Shire. But when he looked for the Shire on the map it was hidden away up in the left-hand corner, tiny and unimportant. And if he carried on across the map he saw a drawing of a mansion in trees with a river, and guessed this was a place associated with Elves.
‘Elves! Now that is something worth leaving the Shire for…’ he said triumphantly, as if proving a point in a debate with himself. .
‘Not Elves again!’ said Bilbo. Sam turned around suddenly, abashed at being discovered in the study and saw the old hobbit standing in the doorway holding a cold pitcher of ale..
‘Begging your pardon, Mr.Bilbo, I was looking for you and…well the book was open..’ he stopped in confusion but Bilbo bustled forward and handed him a horn beaker and poured ale into it and said;
‘Stop apologising, Sam my lad, Bag End is almost your home too, so much time do you spend here.’ His eye fell on the book. ‘Dreaming of dragons? ‘ he asked Sam mischievously.
‘Yes!’ said Sam, then added hastily; ‘Well, no, Elves, really..’
‘I rather thought that, Sam my lad. Most of these books are about them, or copies of books written by them…’
And Bilbo ran his hand lovingly along the backs of the books on the shelf with a sigh. For a moment he seemed lost in thought, then he remembered Sam and turned to him suddenly and said; ‘Can you read, Sam?’
‘Me, Mr. Bilbo? No, I’m not book-learned…’ said Sam, embarrassed.
‘Then’ said Bilbo decisively. ‘I will teach you….’
‘Teach me to read?’ repeated Sam dumbly, staring at Bilbo with the beaker of ale untasted in his hand.
‘Yes. It is only fitting for you to learn.’
‘But my Gaffer….’ stammered Sam.
‘What about him?’ asked Bilbo indignantly. ‘Surely he won’t mind!’
‘No, of course not…’ said Sam, imagining only too well the Gaffer’s grudging acceptance of this new threat to the old order.
‘Right, that is settled!’ said Bilbo, pouring a second beaker full of ale for himself. ‘Come to me in the study tomorrow morning after breakfast, and we’ll start….’
‘He’e teaching my Sam to read and write….’ Said Gaffer Gamgee with a trace of wonder and not a little doubt in his voice.
Ted Sandyman shook his head and muttered darkly; ‘That is terrible unlucky. I never knew any good to come to folks as could read. They go mad, or as near as makes no difference…’
‘Mr Bilbo means no harm’ said the Gaffer with a confidence he did not really feel. ‘..and I hope no harm comes of it….’
Every muscle in Sam’s body ached, and at every breath he took his lungs burned. Constantly the vision of water, clear water such as abounded in the Shire, came into his head, but he dared not think of water, for then he knew he would go mad…. He raised his head and looked back down the zig-zag path they had trudged along the sulphurous clinker and it was dwarfed by the great mountain of cinder and ash above it. Despair rose in his heart and he wondered how they could go on.
‘We’re coming to the end of our story, Sam’ croaked a voice beside him and Sam turned to see Frodo lying with his eyes closed and one hand tightly clenched on his chest. He used to read like that, Sam thought suddenly, perched on a low bough of an oak tree with a book on his chest, all that time ago in the Shire. But now in his hand he clutched not a book but the Thing; gripped in his fist as if to prevent it from crushing him.
‘I wonder will our story ever be written, or if it is written will it ever be read….’ Frodo said.
Sam felt his heart wrung; not just Frodo’s weak voice and wasted face, but the dead, indifferent tone. He pulled himself over to his master’s side and said in a voice as cheerful as he could manage; ‘Stories….have a way of being written, no matter what.’
Frodo opened his eyes and looked wearily at Sam. ‘No matter what?’ he asked doubtfully.
‘And this one is no different’ announced Sam with an assurance he did not feel at all. ‘Just like all the great tales, it will go on through peril and doubt, and end happily…’
Frodo was smiling now. He sat up. ‘Sam, not all the great tales end happily; remember the tale of Luthien and Beren that Strider told us….’
‘Yes, well…’ said Sam, ransacking his exhausted mind for an argument ‘…we aren’t Elves, or great princes. We’re hobbits, and hobbits were meant to go back home, to the Shire..’
‘Sam..’ said Frodo. Sam looked expectantly at him, waiting for him to go on, but Frodo had stopped with the words on his lips. He was gazing out over Gorgoroth, no longer seeing the smoke-laden skies or smelling the sulphurous air. He saw the glittering pool at Bywater, and the road winding past Bag End…
‘If the ending is not happy, and no-one wants to read it, will you still promise to write the story…?’ said Frodo to Sam, fixing his eyes, bright and feverish, upon his friend.
Sam blinked back tears; for Frodo's sake he must not cry. 'Never fear, Mr.Frodo' he said 'I'll finish your story...'
Sam paused in writing and leaned back in his chair. Or rather, Bilbo's chair, recovered by Sam when he refurbished Bag End after its despoilment during the War. It creaked, or perhaps it was himself, his old bones were aching at the approach of winter. A cold breeze blew in the open casement and Sam leaned over to close it. Then he took the pen in his hand again and wrote an Elvish rune above his next paragraph. He looked at it for some moments then said to himself
'I did not think to ever write your story, Mr. Frodo. Not without you. But a promise is a promise....'
He bent his head then and wrote in a bold but elegant hand;
'The Gardener's Tale; being an account of the life and travels of Frodo Baggins....'
Sam paused then added; '..and his Gardener, Samwise Gamgee.'