He'd offered Melly marriage once years ago, after Everard had spurned her on what should have been their wedding day. She'd thought it very sweet and had given his proposal serious consideration. As he spoke now, she stared at him in wonderment, as if she couldn't believe what she was hearing. Then she laughed. "Oh, Frodo, you are a dear, silly hobbit! You can't go around proposing to women whenever they're in trouble."
"I don't. I haven't--that is, I've only ever done it once before. You remember."
"Of course I remember." Her expression softened. "It was one of the worst days of my life. I was sitting and crying, over there," She waved a hand toward the green at the center of the garden, where a pavilion had once been erected for her wedding ceremony. Merry and Pippin were there now, staring at them since Melly had laughed out loud. "You came out of the darkness to talk to me. I haven't forgotten a moment of that night, Frodo--but you don't mean it this time any more than you did then. It's gallant of you, but you must stop making these grand gestures whenever you feel sorry for me. I might very well accept, and then where will you be? Stuck with a wife you don't really want!"
"It does sound like an odd match," Frodo admitted. "And I realize that it's far too soon to speak properly of such things to a new widow, but I have good reasons for asking you now."
"What good reasons?" Melly asked him. "I'd like to hear them, please."
She did look sincerely curious and Frodo was ready to explain. "Well, you told me once that you wanted to leave Brandy Hall and make a home for yourself. I thought that my home might serve the purpose. Bag End needs a mistress, you see. I've felt that very much since we lost poor Rosie. It isn't enough to have servants doing the cooking and cleaning. There has to be a woman who cares about the house because it's hers. Perhaps it isn't the cottage you spoke of taking for your own, but Bag End is a nice house."
"It's a charming little house," Melly agreed. Only a hobbit who had grown up in the enormous Brandy Hall would think of Bag End as 'little.' "But you don't have to marry to gain a housekeeper, Frodo."
"No-" Frodo hastily tried to correct this impression. "That isn't what I meant at all. If you came to live with us, it'd be your home as much as mine. You'd never have to give a thought to housekeeping unless you wanted to. Mrs. Parmiggen looks after the kitchen, and we have a couple of maids to sweep up and look after the children. Then there's Addy. He likes me and I'm very fond of him. I hope I can be a stepfather to him. I've taught Sam's daughter Elanor to read, and I can give Addy lessons as well. And I'd like it very much if you'd consider acting as a sort of stepmother--or at least as an aunt--to Sam's children, especially the little girls."
"Hadn't I better marry Mr. Gamgee then?" Melly asked. Frodo was certain that she was joking. He was delighted to see a renewed spark of liveliness in her eyes; if nothing else, this conversation had accomplished that.
"Elanor's suggested such a match already," he responded in kind. "You made a great impression upon her last summer, but I'm afraid the idea of it terrified Sam. He wouldn't dream of asking a Brandybuck lady for her hand. He'd say that he was getting above himself. But he is coming up in the Shire. He's become Chief Shirriff of Hobbiton and Bywater because of his work with me, and he'll go farther if he believes he can. He might even be Mayor one day. His children will certainly be prominent gentlehobbits, and Elanor and Rosemary ought to learn how to be ladies."
"One of them might marry Addy when they're old enough," Melly suggested. "Or Celie's boys."
"I don't see why they shouldn't. They're going to grow up to be quite pretty and they'll be my heirs, along with their brothers. If you like children, there are two others I'm also partly responsible for--my cousin Doriella's children who have lately come to Hobbiton."
"Yes, I've heard about them. Merry tells me you discovered them only after their mother died."
"That's right. We never knew she, or they, existed. They live with Ponto and Golda Baggins now, but I contribute to their upbringing. Eudora's a little darling. Everyone loves her, and you will too. Her brother Eudo's a bit shy and more difficult to know. He's a sensitive lad, and he likes to read. I've leant him books about the Elves that Uncle Bilbo translated and may teach him Elvish when he's older. Addy won't want for friends in Hobbiton. And-" Here, Frodo hesitated, feeling somewhat bashful. This was the most problematic part of his offer. "If you decided that you wanted to have another baby of your own, I'd be willing to try. I couldn't promise more than that."
Melly laughed again. "That's very generous of you, Frodo."
"Well... I can't claim I'd make a fit husband in that respect. I mean to be completely honest with you, Melly. I know what I am and who I love, and I can't apologize for it."
"I know about you and Sam Gamgee, if that's what you mean," Melly told him.
"Everybody knows about me and Sam these days." It had been a surprise to Frodo to realize how many people did know, and not just their intimate friends. All Hobbiton seemed aware that he and Sam had 'been together' before Sam's marriage and had resumed their old relationship since Rosie's death. Since he was a wealthy and socially prominent hobbit, well known and respected as the Shire's famous detective, he'd met so far with little in the way of insults or ostracism. At worst, some of his elder Baggins relatives observed his keeping house with Sam with tight-lipped disapproval. Sam's family had likewise grown reserved toward him, and the Cottons were sullen, but not openly hostile. "But you see that I'll have no secrets from you, and give you no unpleasant surprises. So I'm one up on Everard already."
"Oh, I don't think it matters very much, Frodo, if we do marry. I won't be troublesome, asking for- well- what you aren't able to give. I used to be frightfully keen on that sort of thing," Melly told him frankly. "Before I married Ev, I was so eager to learn what all the fuss was about, but I'm afraid I rather lost interest in it after we'd been married awhile and little Addy was born."
"You poor thing," Frodo murmured with sincere sympathy.
"Well, it was for the best. Ev was a poor husband. You certainly couldn't be worse than he was. He never really knew what he wanted, you see. In a muddle from the first. I should never have insisted he marry me after that awful business with Toby Clover, but I didn't know how it was all to turn out. I never foresaw this! After Toby died, Ev told me that he was through with- well- boys and all that, and he was ready to love only me. I believed him. I wanted so badly to believe him, and perhaps he honestly thought he meant it when he said it. But it was Toby's death that truly came between us."
"What do you mean?"
"Toby's dying the way he did made him more than just a boy Evvy had been friends with. He became the boy who'd sacrificed his life for Ev's sake. Because of that, I think Ev loved Toby more after he was dead than when he did when Toby was alive. Nothing I could do as his wife was enough to overcome that treasured memory. It made him easy prey for Tibby, poor fool." She shook her head. "We've been playing over this nonsense long enough, Frodo. If I'm to be free of suspicion, you ought to be off investigating instead of sitting here making silly proposals. Weren't you going to question that brother-in-law of Tibby's and see if he has better reasons than mine for wanting Tibby gone?"
"You're right. I should be on my way if I want to return in time for the funeral." Frodo rose, aware that he and Melly were being watched not only by Merry and Pippin, but by the other members of the family who were in the garden. Their long and animated discussion had drawn attention and open curiosity. Well, Melly was free to tell them whatever she wanted, or to keep her own counsel. "I know you haven't taken a word I've said seriously, but I hope you'll consider my offer as an honest proposal." He squeezed her hand lightly before he released it.
"Yes, darling, I will," Melly answered. "You're quite mad to make such an offer, but I don't see how I can help thinking about it. It's certainly given me something new to think of!"
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