6. Many Words, Few To The Point
Part 2. Socks. Chapter 6. Many Words, Few To The Point.
Sept 29, early evening, Number 3, Bagshot Row.
When I look back on them awful days, ones me Master rightly called 'worst' days, it ain't no surprise that he'd a said so. Then, of course we knew no better, how things would go from bad to worse to truly worst. But that autumn, The Gaffer and me—Socks, his pony—we thought things couldn'a look blacker, what with them new mean-spirited owners of Bag End, with our Sammie called to serve the young Master Baggins as far away as if on t' other side o' the Moon over in that strange place called Buckland… And with what seemed like a right invasion of The Shire by Big Folk riding on 'normous, tall horses. I never thought to see anything like it, I will tell ye.
Strange indeed it was that in one single week, not one but two of them tall Big Folk and their big beasts would come a ridin' to the door o' Number 3, Bagshot Row, to have words with old Hamfast Gamgee. Two in one week: one dark as midnight, one silvery-light; one rider all cold and shivery, the other right on fire with determination. One came to order us about, the other to listen—though not all that patient-like, if I recall it truly.
The first came on the very same day our Sam left us, and as such a sad day it already was. Master was a'tendin' the tater patch, diggin' for the last spuds of the season, more for something to do to keep hisself a bit busy than of necessity. I was nearby, munching a bit o' sweet grass in the side yard, when I felt a chill fall upon me like I'd never felt, not e'en in the bleakest, coldest winter. Master Ham felt it too, I could see it on his face, as I raised my nose and sniffed the suddenly fouler air. The Master shivered, and his old rheumy eyes went all wide and fearful-like. I felt my hackles rise at the sight of him lookin' so scared, and I wondered what it all meant.
And then we both spied him. Tall, wrapped in the darkest black cloak you ever did see, with a hood pulled forward and his face hidden, like he didna want to be known. He was a Big Person, all right, but queerer than the sight of one of them in our little lane was the sense of chill and darkness that came off 'im.
Words he had with Master Hamfast, hissing, nasty words, about the young Master Baggins, if I'm not mistaken. Searching for Mister Frodo, he was, and Master Hamfast stood up to 'im right proper-like, tellin' im to get off and go 'way, that Mister Baggins had gone, away out East, far off indeed. Fearful, Master Ham seemed, and I felt it too. But whilst I could see that me Master was afeared of that Rider all in black, my fear was aimin' toward the Big Person's steed.
A stranger critter I never did see, and never hope to again. The horse was huge, tall and broad, an' like his rider dressed all in black, every hair on that beast's hide was black as coal. Even his eyes were black. But what a'feared me of 'im was that the creature seemed, well, to be dead. A'course he weren't dead, I know that, but I got no sense of life from 'im, no spark or even a lick of aliveness, if you take my meanin'. Whatever was wrong with that poor creature, it gave me the shudders to be near 'im. His black eyes were flat and dull, not a shine in them, and his breath came slow-like with a wheeze like an old bellows. It came to me that the fella might be ill, or under a spell of some sort, and I started feelin' sorry for 'im.
So like the fool pony I am, I trotted up to the fence right near where that big horse's reins were looped about the post.
"Where you be a'from, stranger?" I asked, real polite and all. And that horse, he did nothing, nothing at all. I mighta been talkin' to a black statue carved of a block of black stone. "Yer Master's mighty strange," I continued, nickering in a low voice, in case his Master might overhear… though, o'course, his Master wouldn'a understood the speech of us beasts. But I was just being careful, you see.
This time, that big black horse seemed to notice that I'd spoken to 'im. And, I'll admit, I wished that he hadn't. For he turned toward me and set those dark eyes on me. I felt caught by them, as if whatever spell he lay under was trying to catch me too! Them eyes, that a minute ago had been dull as dust were suddenly blazing. I swear I saw a flicker of fire—real fire, I tell ye—curling out from his nostrils, as if he were half horse and half dragon.
I startled back, and stamped me hoof to give 'im the signal of what's what. I mighta been no taller than his big shoulder, but I wasn' about to let that one think he could get away with such glares, not with me he couldn'!
"You get on from here now!" I snorted at 'im. "And take that cold Master a' yours with ye!"
Then that beast them gave me a look I shall ne'er forget. T'was as if a mask fell off'n his dull dark eyes, and showed what was inside 'im. He gave me a look of such longing and such pain that I thought me heart might bust right up. My mouth fell open, and I had nothing to say, for in the very next moment his black-cloaked Master did indeed appear, leapt into the saddle, and off they galloped toward the Eastfarthing and beyond it, like a storm o' thunder.
After a moment to throw off me shivers, I trotted back through the grass and snorted and tossed my head right near by Master Ham, for he was a shakin' and shuddering something fierce. I blew a breath or two onto the side of his neck, and the old Gaffer seemed thankful for the warmth.
"Well, I never!" Master Hamfast whispered to me. "Nothin' good'll come o' that, you can be sure of it… I surely hope I did nothing harmful in speaking of young Mister Baggins as I did…" He reached up and stroked my nose and patted the side of my neck. "And nothing harmful to our Sam, too…" He sighed as he scratched behind my ears. "But Socks, I felt all strange … like I must answer 'im, if ye'd like to know…" And he sighed again, and soon retreated to the inside of his comfortable hole to warm hisself beside the hearth.
I worried about it for days, I'll admit. There was a chill in the air that weren't natural. Uncanny, if I tell it true. But gradually the chill seemed to blow off, and the autumn went on like nothing queer had ever happened. Nothin', o' course, except the strangeness of the new inhabitants of Bag End. But Mistress Lobelia and her son Lotho weren't exactly strange—more mean, and sour-faced. E'en me, who didn' have to have dealings with 'em, felt me nerves on edge each time that old biddy and her whelp appeared. And poor Master Ham, he got the worst of it from 'em. The old hen never lost a chance to say somethin' nasty and small-minded, most of it aimed at the Old Master Baggins or the Young one. Right jealous of her kinfolk, she seemed, and ashamed of it at the same time. A bad mix in Two-footed folk, or four.
But I was a tellin' you about the visits we had that week, and I must finish now with the second half of me tale.
Near to a week went by, and the coldness faded, gradual-like. Once more, the Master was out in his bit o' garden, tuggin' at this an' that, just for a bit o' work on his own patch for amusing hisself as the day ended. And it were about to end, you see, for the sky were all full o' glory and fire off in the West as the Sun sank away and painted the clouds with shades o' purple and orange. Right peaceful it was, and him and me were just a lingerin' there, restin' in the quiet.
But then the quiet was all busted up, by the clatter of hooves a bangin' on the cobbles of the narrow lane that passed by Number 3 and ended up at the Big House at the end. Me jaw fell open, I ain't ashamed to admit it, at the sight of the biggest, handsomest piece o' full grown horse-flesh I ever did see, all cloudy white 'n grey he was, with a silken silvery mane and tail. His hooves were black, and so were his proud-lookin' eyes. I'll admit I never even noticed who was a'ridin' that horse, so dumbstruck was I by the sight o' that royal lookin' beast. But it were t'other way round for the Master.
"Well, well," said he in a low mutter. "Looks like that ol' wandrin'greybeard's finally showed up…" I recalled then how our young Sam had been goin' on and on as the summer waned, 'bout how Mister Frodo was so worried an' all that his mighty wizard-friend was late—had failed to keep his promise, it seemed—and there was no explainin' it, and it makin' young Mr. Baggins all fretful. But there the old fella was, plain as daylight, ridin' a'top o' that magnificent horse!
Master Ham straightened up from the garden and leaned on his hoe to watch. "I'm afeared he's in for a might of a shock at the door o' Bag End…"
And sure enough, we could both see it playin' out. The Big Person all in grey, with 'is long grey beard 'n all, bangin' away on the door o' the Big House, and then that slimy Lotho answerin' and startin' right in a'tellin' the wizard off. I didn' think such was so wise o' Lotho, Mr. Gandalf bein' a wizard an' all, an' you never know what such a one might do in a pique, if you take my meanin'… But Lotho wasn' e'er been accused o' bein' wise, I'll tell ye… And the look o' shock on the old greybeard's face was just as clear as Master Ham said it would be. Then o' course that old stringy female Lobelia had to put in her copper's worth, and ol' Gandalf just a'stood there and a'took her tongue-lashin'…
But not for long. In a blink of an eye he fairly jumped that fence and came rushin' down the lane like his britches was on fire—if'n it is britches he wears 'neath that long grey robe o' his—and sure if'n he didn' turn right in at Number 3 and toss open Master Ham's gate like he owned the whole o' Hobbiton.
His dark eyes was ablazin', but Master didn' let hisself get stirred up by it—or at least, Master Ham didn' let on none He'd seen the old fellow on many an occasion afore, you see, had had words with him plenty o' times, and so he didn' feel intimidated, like some folks might, him being a wizard and all, and about as predictable as a thunderstorm—not to mention lookin' like he meant to unleash a lot o' lightning, at that.
Lots o' words they had 'tween 'em. Most of 'em seemed 'bout the new occupants of the Big House. And rightly so, for o' course Master Ham'd take the chance to voice his mind to someone who might have a chance o' doin' something about them nasty folk. I could tell he was tossin' hints here and there about how strong folk oughta be takin' care of bad folk with spells and conjurin' and such, things we'd heard our Sammie talk of—magic tricks that old Mr. Gandalf supposedly had up 'is sleeve… But from where I stood a'watchin' and a'listenin', the old wizard seemed awful dense. He didn' pick up on the Gaffer's hints at all, near as I could tell.
"I can't abide changes," said Master Ham at last, when it was clear that he weren't gonna get no conjuring out of the fella, "not at my time of life, and least of all changes for the worst." He shook his old head and mumbled the same thing again.
But the old wizard just a'glared at 'im, with them fearsome eyes o' his. "Worst is a bad word," he said, "and I hope you do not live to see it."
That seemed a might encouraging, I thought, that things weren't as bad as they could be, but Master Ham, he just kept a'repeatin' hisself, 'bout how awful it was to have that Lobelia and her nasty son as neighbors.
Now I'm just an old pony, and though I unnerstand the Common Tongue of Two-Footed folk just fine, I don' claim to no store o' wisdom or nothin'. But it was apparent to me that the old fella—Mr. Gandalf—was gettin' hisself more and more agitated by the minute, the longer Master Ham went on 'bout Mistress Lobelia. I started to feel sorta anxious myself, and I thumped the ground more'n once, tryin' to get the Gaffer to get down to answerin' the Big Person's main question, which was to ask after the whereabouts of the young Mister Baggins. As the wizard'd been missin' all summer, o' course, he didn' know what'd happened, how Mister Frodo had sold the Big House an' taken our Sam away to that Buckland place. But the Gaffer just ignored my thumpin' and the wizard's glarin' eyes, too, and took his own time gettin' 'round to the point.
When he finally tol' him, it looked like ol' Gandalf was gonna bolt right outta there and gallop on that fine lookin' steed of 'is right off, without hearin' the rest—and to my mind, the queerest and most important part of the whole tale. I thumped again, and this time Master Ham caught sight o' me and sorta nodded, like at last he unnerstood my meanin'.
"Now wait just a moment, there," Master Ham cried, and I thought he was awful bold—or brave, maybe—'cause he reached right out and grabbed a hunk o' that grey robe! Why, by what our Sammie said, that fella's robe itself mighta been able to do magic onto Master Ham all by itself! But grab he did, and hung on 'til the wizard stopped and peered down at 'im.
"Yes?" that old fellow said with a sharp tone, kinda impatient-like. "Is there something else, Master Gamgee?"
"Well," Master Ham said, "I 'spect you'll be wanting to hear 'bout the very queer visitor who rode in here, on the evening of the very same day that Mister Frodo and my Sam left for Buckland… All in black 'e was, with a black horse, and very strange he was, very strange indeed…"
Suddenly that old wizard was all ears. He crouched down an' put a hand right on my Master's shoulder, and the look he gave 'im was so fierce, so piercin' that I felt my hide a'pricklin' just to see it from a ways off.
"A Rider all in black?" Mr. Gandalf said, and his voice, which a moment ago had been kinda biting, was now all hoarse, like he was… well, if I say it rightly, like he was scared. Not that a wizard'd ever be scared, mind ye, but that's what he sounded like. "Tell me, Master Hamfast… tell me everything…"
Well, my Master, he did it right. He tol' that wizard ever'thing that happened, right down to the last word. Mighta had it put to mem'ry, like one o' them verses our Sam-lad was always a'goin' on about. And the tale did sound all a' mystry, like them stories outta the olden days. And the way Master Ham tol' it, why, it brought them shivers right back to me.
And then when the tale was full told, why, that ol' wizard blurted out his thanks, all in a rush, then he right flew from the gate o' Number 3. In a flash o' grey and silver, Mr. Gandalf and his big ol' horse were off down the lane and disappearin' into the gatherin' darkness in no time at all. And I ain't ashamed to admit it, that I watched 'em go, starin' down the Road 'til long after their figures blended into the shades.
And Master Ham, well, his mouth was a'hangin' open as he stared right along beside me.
"By The Moon and Stars," he whispered, "I surely hope he finds that all is well o'er at Crickhollow…"
To be continued... as Shadowfax once more picks up the tale in the next chapter...
Author's note: the title of this chapter, and a few of the words of the conversation between the Gaffer and Gandalf are taken from FOTR, "The Council of Elrond."
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