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The Birthday Party - by Penny Nutbrown

Of all the seasons in the Shire, Sam liked the autumn best. This made sense, of course, for it is in autumn that a gardener realizes the full reward of his year’s labour. Yet it was not just for the harvest that Sam loved the fall. Everything about that time of year touched his heart in some way. The colours were gayer than in other seasons — not just the reds and golds of the trees, but the sky was a brighter blue and the earth a richer brown. He loved the smells of bonfires, ripe fruit and freshly-shorn fields. He enjoyed working outdoors all day in the crisp autumn air, then coming home at dusk to warmth and candlelight and good hot food on the table. The cries of the wild geese stirred his soul, and he watched their migration feeling sad at their leaving, yet also excited by the possibilities of travel. For many reasons, Sam liked the autumn, but that particular autumn — soon after Frodo’s arrival — promised to be extra special.

It just so happened that Bilbo Baggins and his chosen heir shared a common birthday, September 22. This had been one of the principal reasons, Mr. Bilbo insisted, that he had decided to adopt the lad — so that they could celebrate their birthdays comfortably together. Hobbits tended to make much of birthdays with plenty of food and drink, music and merriment, and presents for all the guests. Giving, rather than receiving, presents on one’s birthday was the Hobbit custom. Bilbo Baggins’ birthday parties had always been jolly affairs, and so expectations were high for this first joint celebration.

As apprentice gardener at Bag End, and frequent companion to Frodo, Sam was well-placed to observe, and sometimes take part in, the preparations for the event. This made him quite the popular fellow among the Hobbiton youngsters who beset him daily for details. They would converge each evening on the bridge over the millstream — the three Cotton boys, their sister Rosie and some of her friends, Robin Smallburrow and Ted Sandyman, the miller’s son, who was no particular friend of Sam’s.

"I heard a wagon-load of dwarves turned up yesterday," said Tom Cotton. "Is it true, Sam?"

Sam nodded. "Six of ’em. Friends of Mr. Bilbo from his adventuring days. They come just before tea time, and they brought a great iron chest with ’em!"

"Ooh!" gasped little Rosie, "what was in it, Sam?’

"Don’t know," said Sam. "But dwarves ain’t usually in the removal business, so I’m guessing it’s treasure."

"Is it true, Sam," asked Robin, "as there’s to be two birthday cakes and both of ’em near as tall as me?’

"Yes, sir, Rob," said Sam. "I’ve seen ’em and they’re this high." Sam held his hand up at eye-level. "And the landlord of the Green Dragon brought over six barrels of beer and the baker’s been, and the butcher. There’s a band of musicians hired from Bywater and, oh, but it’s going to be quite a time!"

"Well, if you ask me," said Ted Sandyman, failing to notice that noone had, "it’s a lot of fuss and foolishness for nothing. Who gives a toss for Mad Baggins anyway. My dad says he’s cracked, and a liar to boot."

"You take that back, Ted Sandyman!" cried Sam, jumping down from the railing and turning to face the older boy, eye to eye.

"I won’t!" declared the miller’s son. "All them tales of dragons and Elves and lost treasure — nobody but a fool’d believe such rot."

"I do!" said Sam.

"There’s my point exactly," Ted sneered.

Sam set his jaw and raised his fists, but Ted only laughed.

"Oh, but you’re funny, Sam Gamgee. Falling for all the old fellow’s yarns, and now tagging along after that other one like a little wee dog."

"Mr. Frodo’s the cleverest and smartest Hobbit in the Shire," said Sam.

"You’re pretty quick to stick up for somebody you didn’t even know a month ago," Ted noted.

"Mr. Frodo’s my friend and the best friend I’ve ever had."

Ted dismissed Sam’s claim with a wave of his hand and a laugh.

"Not likely," he said. "The master’s heir and the gardener’s ’prentice, friends. Why that’s as good as giant eagles for a story!"

The morning of September 22 dawned bright, blue and clear, and warm for the season. Mr. Bilbo stepped out onto the doorstep and pronounced the day acceptable to his needs. As had been prearranged by the boys, Sam arrived at Bag End early enough to have first breakfast with Frodo.

The normally spacious Baggins’ home seemed noisy and crowded with relatives from as far away as Buckland and Great Smials nodding to Sam in the hallway and asking him to pass the butter at table. Sam felt so shy surrounded by all these fine and foreign folk, that he could hardly eat. Frodo laid a plate of sausages, fried tomatoes and nice crispy bacon before Sam and filled his cup with creamy fresh milk. Sam nibbled on the corner of a raisin bun, and hoped that noone noticed that his fingernails were dirty and his waistcoat mended.

After breakfast, Frodo and Sam went out to the field where the festivities were to take place. They watched as the great tent was raised and the lanterns hung. The landlord of the Green Dragon and his sons were setting up the kegs of beer, while the baker and his wife were laying out tables with all sorts of breads and biscuits, puddings, pies and sweets. Over near the brook, the butcher’s boy was turning a fine roasting pig over a slow fire, and beneath the strong boughs of a great oak tree the Proudfoot Family Band of Bywater were unharmoniously tuning their instruments and arguing over the order of selections.

Just after noon, Mr. Bilbo made his way out to the field accompanied by the two young Hobbits hired as general dogs’ bodies for the day. The lads were carrying the huge dwarf chest. Sam was not the only one to hasten over for a look. Sam tried standing on his tiptoes and nudging between sharp elbows and well-rounded rumps, but still he could manage little more than the odd glimpse of sparkling colour and the suggestion of mechanical movement.

"Sam," said Frodo, plucking at the younger lad’s sleeve. Sam turned just as the assembled crowd issued a collective gasp of wonder. "Your father wants you." Frodo pointed to where the Gaffer was arranging an elaborate floral arch over the main gate at Bag End. The Gaffer beckoned impatiently, and reluctantly Sam went to see what the old gardener wanted.

"I need you to run home and fetch me the good rose shears and another roll of bailing twine."

"What, now?" Sam lamented.

The Gaffer was not impressed.

"Yes, now," he snapped. "You’re not a guest here, Sam Gamgee, and you’d do well to remember that."

Sam blushed pink as the late roses.

"It’s all right, Sam," said Frodo. "We can run over to your hole and be back in a quarter of an hour."

The little front garden of Number 3 Bag Shot Row was bright with fall flowers: asters, zinnias and mums. Smoke rose cheerily from the red brick chimney and there was washing on the line. The smell of fresh baking met them as Sam opened the round door and called to his mother.

"The Gaffer wants the good shears and some twine!"

Frodo followed Sam into the cozy dimness of the tiny kitchen.

"For pity’s sake, Samwise, there’s no need to shout, I’m right here."

Bell Gamgee, nee Goodchild, was as plump and pleasant-faced a Hobbit-wife as one could imagine. Though her honey-coloured hair was liberally threaded with grey, she had round rosy cheeks, like Sam’s, twinkling blue eyes and a warm and welcoming smile. Seeing Frodo there, she curtsied politely. Little Marigold, her thumb solidly planted in her mouth, followed her mother’s example, but lost her balance and toppled over onto her well-padded bottom. Frodo suppressed a smile, and Sam wondered if there had been any good reasons for the invention of baby sisters.

"The Gaffer needs the good rose shears and a roll of bailing twine," Sam said again, eager to be on his way.

"Yes, yes. I heard you the first time," his mother replied, and hustled about looking in cupboards and drawers for the requested items.

"Mam," groaned Sam, "he’s in a hurry!"

"Mm — like father, like son, I’d say," she said, casting a knowing look to Frodo.

Sam rolled his eyes.

"There!" she cried, triumphantly brandishing both the shears and the bailing twine.

Sam snatched them from her and bolted for the door.

"Not so fast, young sir!"

"What now?" said Sam glumly, shoulders sagging, turning back to face her.

Like most young lads, Sam had never given much thought to the subject of his mother. She had simply always been there, his mam. She cooked for him, sewed for him, took care of him when he was sick, scolded him when he was naughty, nagged, fussed, cuddled and cuffed him accordingly. As mothers will.

She stood there now, holding out a fragrant mince pie to him. As he went to take it from her, she withdrew the treat, teasingly, and tapped her cheek. Sam sighed deeply, resigned to his fate, and kissed her.

"And one for you as well, Mr. Frodo," she said, offering the plate to her son’s companion.

Somewhat shyly, Frodo accepted.

"Thank you, Mrs. Gamgee."

Sam’s mother smiled. "Happy Birthday, Mr. Frodo."

They were back at the front gate of Bag End within the promised quarter-hour, and assisted the Gaffer to put the finishing touches to the floral decorations. Mr. Bilbo had gone to settle accounts with the vinter, the mysterious dwarf chest was nowhere to be seen, and everywhere preparations for the party were winding down.

Sam and Frodo climbed to the top of a low hill overlooking the field, and leaning back against the solid trunk of an old beech, they sat down to survey the scene and eat their mince pies. It was Frodo who spoke first.

"Your mother’s very nice."

"She’s all right," mumbled Sam, mouth full.

Frodo took a bite of his pie. He looked out across the field, out beyond the road and the millstream, past the Bywater bridge, to some point far away in the distance.

"I don’t remember my mother," he said.

Sam looked over at his companion, but Frodo’s face was turned away, his eyes searching for something only the heart can see.

The first Baggins’ combination birthday party was a celebration the like of which residents of the Hill had never before seen. As they had been directed upon the invitations, the guests began arriving at dusk — just as the lanterns were lit and the musicians struck up the first chord. The long tables were heaped with all manner of delicacies and the beer and wine flowed as if from underground springs. Mr. Bilbo was in a merry mood. He stood beneath the floral arch with Frodo, greeting each new arrival personally, shaking hands with the fellows and kissing all the ladies. Frodo was not nearly so gregarious but hung back behind Bilbo, smiling shyly and saying thank you to the choruses of ‘Happy Birthday’.

His obligations as host kept Frodo so busy that Sam saw little of him that evening. Once the initial excitement of the noise and crowd and staying up so late began to wane, Sam felt somewhat lonely and out-of-place. He wandered about mostly, sampling the various wares, listening to the music, partaking of his first pint of ale and avoiding, as much as possible, the jeering eye of Ted Sandyman.

At midnight, the birthday cakes were rolled out and everyone gathered ’round. The candles were lit and voices were raised in unison with shouts of "Happy Birthday" and "Many Happy Returns!". Together Bilbo and Frodo blew out their candles. Sam slipped away from the party and went to sit alone on the back steps. He slouched forward, settling his chin in his hands, and sighed. Frodo found him there a half-hour later.

"At last!" said Frodo, sitting down beside Sam "I’ve been looking for you everywhere."

Sam said nothing. He gazed up at the clear autumn sky, to the stars assembled in their familiar and comforting constellations.

"It’s nice here," Frodo near whispered.

Sam turned to him. "Won’t they miss you?"

" I shouldn’t think so," said Frodo. "The speeches are made and the cake’s been cut. The grownups are dancing, the old folk are reminiscing, and Bilbo’s got an audience of young Hobbits, including Ted Sandyman, I’ll have you know, listening to his tales of adventure. I should be safe for awhile."

This struck Sam as an odd thing to say, but he offered no comment, and for awhile they simply sat there quietly together looking at the stars.

"This is for you, Sam," said Frodo, and he handed Sam something wrapped in soft, shimmering fabric.

"What is it?" asked Sam.

"Well, a present, of course," Frodo laughed. "This is a birthday party, after all."

Sam drew back the wrappings, and there among the folds he found a small red dragon with shining emerald eyes. Frodo turned a key in the dragon’s back and the wings began to flap and flame shot forth from its tiny mouth. Sam laughed out loud in sheer delight. He could hardly wait to show it to his Mam and Marigold.

"It’s of real dwarf-make," said Frodo. "There are none more clever at metal work than dwarves. It was among the things that Bilbo’s friends brought, and I thought — seeing as you like Bilbo’s stories of Smaug so much — you might like your own pet dragon."

Sam looked up at Frodo. "It’s a fine present, Mr. Frodo. Thank you."

"Well, you’re my best friend, Sam," said Frodo lightly, and then almost as a question. "Aren’t you?"

Sam smiled and nodded. "I am if you’ll have me," he said.

"I’ll have no other," Frodo replied.

Then Sam wound the little key as tightly as he could and the paper-thin wings began to beat. The little dragon lifted from Sam’s hands. They watched it rise, going higher and higher, out toward the stars.

It was a fine autumn night.

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