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“We’ll have tents set up all over the field, my boy, and the main pavilion here by the tree – in fact, I think we’ll put the pavilion around the tree, that way we can hang lanterns from the branches. What do you say to that?”
Bilbo was in a fine state of excitement. Relieved to see him in good spirits again, Frodo willingly let himself be dragged round the field, enjoying his uncle’s delight in all the preparations. The Party was getting close.
“I think we’ll have some steps cut into the bank right here, and put in a gate – rope off the field, you know – we’ll have to keep everyone out while we’re setting things up, or it will be a madhouse,” Bilbo went on.
Frodo saw his chance. “Let Sam do that, the steps and the gate.”
Bilbo harrumphed. “Now, lad, don’t start that again! I haven’t got over that flood yet, if you have. I’ve had enough of young Gamgee to do me for awhile.”
“Bilbo, I told you –“
“Yes, yes, you told me you think the miller’s son was tampering with the water, though why he should traipse all the way up here from Bywater to muck about in my garden, I don’t know. But you can’t prove it, Frodo! Just because Sam told you so -- ”
“Sam didn’t tell me! Sam won’t say anything about it! I got the story out of Farmer Cotton --” Frodo struggled to speak pleasantly, not raise his voice. “Sam caught Ted Sandyman bullying the young Cottons when their parents were away, and he ran Ted off the place. Cotton says Ted was determined to get back at Sam somehow, and flooding Bag End is just the sort of trick he’d like.
“Bilbo, honestly, you could at least talk to Farmer Cotton yourself!”
At that moment, a farm wagon came up the road and stopped in front of Bag End. Sam was driving, and young Jolly Cotton sat beside him. Bilbo groaned. “Now what?” he demanded.
Sam jumped down and came to meet them. “Mr. Bilbo, sir, I’ve brought your carpet back. We cleaned it, sir, the Cottons and me. I wish you’d take a look at it.”
Sam was plainly unsure of his welcome. His ears were red with embarrassment, and he didn’t look Bilbo in the face, seemed in fact to be talking to his feet. Bilbo stared at him for a moment, and his provoked expression gave way to pity.
“Very well, lad. Show me what you’ve done with it.”
Sam and the Cottons had done a good job. The carpet was rolled up neatly in the wagon, clean and soft, smelling of the fresh air. Bilbo unrolled a few feet of it, examining it closely. Finally he smiled.
“That’s wonderful, Sam. A bit faded, maybe, but then it’s a hundred years old, that’s only to be expected. I wouldn’t have thought you could get it clean at all.”
He nodded decisively. “Lay it down in the parlor for me, will you, Sam? You and your young friend here. Then stop back and see me, I’ve got a job of work for you, if you want it.”
So Sam went back to working for Bilbo, though his exact position was unclear. He roped off the Party field, and put in the gate, and cut the steps. Then he tidied up the garden, which was rather unkempt, with a couple of weeks of neglect following the heavy rain. But Bilbo called him in each morning and told him exactly what to do that day, and there was nothing said about naming him gardener again.
A few days later, Gandalf arrived at Bag End, a gaggle of excited hobbit children prancing behind him. Bilbo and several dwarves, who seemed to have moved in while Sam was working at Cottons’, went out to help the wizard unload his cart, and Sam dropped his rake and came over to help. But Bilbo waved him away, and Sam returned to his garden chores feeling that he was still in disgrace.
However that might be, he soon had something else to think about. After Gandalf came, no one saw much of Bilbo. Frodo took over the final arrangements for the Party, and Bilbo stayed inside Bag End.
“He’s all took up with that there wizard, and there’ll be no good comes of it,” said the Gamgee’s next-door neighbor. He was leaning over the fence in the twilight, smoking his pipe and enjoying a gossip with the Gaffer.
The Gaffer rumbled agreement. “I mind my cousin Holman, him that was gardener before me up to Bag End – he said ’twas that wizard sent Mr. Bilbo off with the dwarves, years and years ago. And now the wizard’s back, and a pack of dwarves as well. I just hopes Mr. Bilbo’s not fixing to go off again!”
Sam was lying on the grass, drifting toward sleep – he’d been running errands all day, and he was about tuckered out. The Gaffer’s remark stung him awake, and he sat up with a start.
“You don’t think he would, do you, Gaffer? Go off again? He’s eleventy-one, after all, and he’s been settled down here all these years – and there’s Mr. Frodo –“
The Gaffer regarded him gloomily. “All the more reason, maybe. Might be getting restless again, mightn’t he? And he doesn’t have to worry about them Sackville-Bagginses trying to take Bag End, does he, with Mr. Frodo here.”
That made too much sense for Sam’s peace of mind. From his earliest memory, Mr. Bilbo had been a fixture in his world, as much as the Hill itself. He couldn’t imagine Bag End without him.
He was still fretting about it the following morning as he hammered tent-pegs in the Party field, setting up the kitchen tents. A contingent of cooks would be coming in, the day before the Party.
Just the Gaffer’s way, it was, to be looking for bad news. Mr. Bilbo wouldn’t leave Bag End at his time of life, it stood to reason. Sam hoped he wouldn’t. You’d never find a kinder, more fair-minded master than Mr. Bilbo.
It didn’t occur to him that Bilbo hadn’t been very fair-minded about the flood. In fact, Sam had almost come around to the common opinion that the flood was his own fault. True enough, he hadn’t left the water valves open! That was Ted Sandyman’s doing; he’d stake his life on it.
But it was his own doing, putting in the irrigation tubes. Farmer Cotton was right; he should’ve been content to do things the old way.
The day of the Party came at last, and Sam was nearly run off his feet, too busy to worry about whether Bilbo meant to go off again. Bilbo and Frodo stood by the gate welcoming guests, and it fell to Sam to keep order inside the field. There were cooks and waiters, musicians and jugglers, brought in from the far ends of the Shire, all intent on doing their own jobs, and getting in each other’s way.
Sam made sure the cooks had enough water, and stopped the water-carriers from trampling the flowers going back and forth to the well. He led the musicians to the north end of the field, where a large area had been left open for dancing., and chased a few inquisitive tweenagers away from Gandalf’s cart, loaded with fireworks for later in the evening.
Finally the guests were all inside, and Bilbo found him and sent him running: tell the cooks it’s time lunch was served, tell the musicians to strike up a country dance, go find young Pippin Took, whose mother somehow lost him in the crowd.
He found Pippin clambering around among the branches of the Party Tree, his pockets full of Gandalf’s smallest firecrackers, carefully tucking one in each lantern. Sam collared the young miscreant and hauled him back to his mother, then went back to the tree and checked each and every lantern hanging from the branches, shuddering at what Mr. Bilbo would have to say to him, if a firecracker should go off when the lanterns were lit.
By the time he finished, he was badly in need of a mug and a sit down. He parked himself where he could watch the dancing -- he had never danced, himself, but he did like to watch. He’d barely finished his ale when Frodo came by, in high spirits, and catapulted him right into the middle of the dancers. When he caught his balance, Rosie Cotton seemed to have her arms around him, and he thought maybe he’d try dancing after all.
He rather forgot his responsibilities after that. When the music stopped, Rosie looked a bit flushed, and he thought he’d better get her something to drink. When she suggested that he must be hungry, he remembered that he hadn’t eaten since elevenses, and they wandered off together to have dinner.
They were still sitting at one of the tables, Sam thinking that he’d never realized what good company Rosie was, or how witty he was himself, when Bilbo got up to make his speech. Sam and Rosie laughed and applauded with the rest, whispered to each other at his puzzling, “I like less than half of you half as well as you deserve”, and nearly jumped out of their skins when Bilbo disappeared in a blinding flash of light.
That brought Sam back to earth with a bang. He wanted to run over to Bag End at once, try to find Mr. Bilbo. But Rosie had burst into tears, and when he looked up at the head table, Mr. Frodo was still sitting there, not seeming at all alarmed. So Sam stayed where he was, rubbing Rosie’s back and murmuring comforting nonsense to her until she calmed down. As he listened to the babble of shock and outrage around him, he began to feel amused.
Mr. Bilbo had gone off again, seemingly – and Mr. Gandalf had something to do with it, to judge by that flash of light! But Mr. Frodo didn’t look surprised or upset, only a little sad, so it must have been planned this way. Mr. Bilbo had gone to find some more adventures, and Sam understood slowly that the spectacular Birthday Party was the old hobbit’s farewell to the Shire, and a last joke on the Shire’s staid, sober inhabitants.
He started to grin, looking around at the expressions of outraged propriety. Mr. Bilbo had the last laugh, and good for him!
Then it dawned on him that he would probably never see the old adventurer again, and his amusement vanished. He put his head down on his arms and cried like a child, and it was Rosie’s turn to rub his back and speak softly to him.
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