Once he said good-night to Merry, Frodo headed across the fields toward the cottage. Even from a distance, he could see a light flickering in one of the front windows. Sam must be waiting up for his return.
When he entered the cottage, Frodo found it was just as he had expected: Sam was sitting alone in the little parlor across the hall from the nursery. Since it was a warm night, there was no fire lit in the fireplace, but a single candle burned on the mantelpiece.
"I'm sorry to come in so late, my dear, but you see I've come back well in time for tomorrow's picnic," Frodo said as he came to the doorway of the dimly lit room and smiled at his friend. "Have you been waiting very long-?" but the playful question died away when he saw the expression on Sam's face. Sam had obviously been crying, and there was a large, damp patch on the breast of his shirt that hadn't come from his own tears. "Sam, what is it? What's happened?"
"`Twas Nel," Sam replied, and wiped his face with his shirtsleeve.
"Is she all right?" Frodo turned toward the closed door to the nursery behind him.
"She'll be right as rain," Sam assured him. "We had a bit of an upset, that's all. I only just got her to bed before you came in, so mind you speak quiet."
"Yes, of course," Frodo spoke more softly as he took a seat in the other chair in the sitting room. "What happened? Was she taken ill?" He knew how quickly these childhood ailments could arise out of nowhere, then abate again as swiftly. "I can fetch Aunt Esme-"
"There's no need. `Twasn't that sort o' illness," Sam explained. "You know how Nellie is. She goes on for weeks as cheerful as a spring robin and never says a word about Rosie, so you start to think she's forgot all about her. Then all of a sudden, she asks you, 'Where's Mama gone?' or 'When's Mama coming home?' and you don't know how to answer."
Frodo nodded sympathetically. He'd faced these same abrupt questions from the little girl, and was never sure how much he should say. It was difficult to try and explain to Elanor what had happened to her mother; the three smaller children were too young to understand what death meant, but Elanor was just old enough to know and to grieve.
"Well, tonight, after we got back from Brandy Hall and I'd put the little uns to bed, I was helping her on with her nightgown when she asked me, 'When's Mama coming back?' I thought I'd tell her the truth--not the worst of it. I couldn't bear to do that. But I thought I was ready to say the plain words. So I said, 'Your mum's not ever coming back, Nellie.'" He turned to Frodo with pained eyes. "I thought that'd do for now, but then she comes back with, 'Is Mama dead?'"
"Oh, Sam..." Frodo reached out for his friend's hand; Sam gripped the extended fingers tightly as he continued.
"It was Missus Celie's boy, Mungo. He told my Nel last night that his dad was dead, but now he's got a new un. So Nellie wanted to know if she was getting a new mum now."
"What did you say?"
"I put her off at first, 'n' asked her if she wanted a new mum. And she said I could marry Aunt 'Gelica. I told her Angelica was married already to Uncle Lad, 'n' it wouldn't do for a lady to have two husbands. So Nellie asked me what about Aunt Melly? I thought she meant Milli Pibble, but it was Mrs. Took she was thinking of. Imagine me marrying Melilot Took!" The notion that he might marry someone like Milli Pibble apparently wasn't implausible to Sam, but he boggled at this match proposed by his daughter . "Well, I told Nel that Mrs. Took was married too. I was starting to laugh about it, just like you're trying not to, Frodo. I thought we'd got past the worst, when Nellie came right back to it again, 'Is Mama dead?'" When Sam was excited or distressed, the rudiments of grammar he'd learned from Frodo slipped away and he reverted to the language of a country lad. "There wasn't no help for it. I had to tell her, 'Yes, Mama's dead.' Now Nel was quiet for a minute or two after that, so I began to think she didn't understand. But she was just thinking it over, then her face puckered up and she started to bawl. The little uns was asleep by then, so I picked her up quick and carried her over across the way, into this room, before she could wake `em. I was crying by then too, and we sat right here." Sam smacked the arm of the chair he was sitting in with his free hand. "We sat for the longest time, weeping over it."
"Did Nel say anything else after that?" Frodo asked him.
Sam shook his head. "No more'n 'Mama,' a couple o' times. When she tired herself out with crying, she went to sleep."
Frodo moved to sit on the nearer arm of Sam's chair and put both arms around his shoulders; his friend's brow lay against his breastbone and Sam's arms wound tightly around his waist. "At least it's done now," he said softly. "She would have to be told the truth sooner or later." He knew how hard it must've been for Sam to do this. He couldn't deny the hard fact of Rosie's death, but Sam rarely spoke of her now and Frodo knew how he shied away from anything that reminded him of her.
"`Twas my place to tell her, before she heard it from somebody else," Sam responded, voice muffled against Frodo's chest. "Everybody in Hobbiton knows and once Nel hears 'em talking about Rosie, she'll want to know why I didn't tell her before. But I was hoping she wouldn't ask just yet." He lifted his head to look up at Frodo; he hadn't been crying again, but a new idea had occurred to him. "She'll want to know more when she's older, and I'll have to be the one to tell her then too--and little uns once they're big enough to wonder. They'll want to know where their mother is. I don't suppose it'll ever be easier to talk about, no matter how much time goes by. Thinking about Rosie only brings it all back to me like it just happened yesterday."
"It will hurt less over time, my dear," Frodo said in a comforting tone, and kissed the crown of Sam's head, "but I'm afraid it won't ever be easy for you to speak of her."
They sat silently for awhile, holding each other, then Frodo rose and gently led Sam to bed. It didn't occur to Sam to ask about Frodo's trip to Budgeford and Frodo didn't volunteer. Sam had had enough to trouble his sleep tonight and after his conversation with Merry, Frodo thought it better to keep his thoughts about his parentage to himself.
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