The winter of 1402 was bleaker than any in the memory of even the oldest hobbit. It was not terribly cold, but it was always grey, and raw, and it seemed that weeks passed with no sun, only dismal, penetrating damp. A chill fog stole in, and it covered the fields and wound between the trees and hobbit holes and smials and settled in, as if it intended to stay a while. Even indoors, with a bright fire blazing, it was nearly impossible to rid one's bones of the wet.
As 1402 passed into 1403, a nasty grippe afflicted the Shire. Some said it came from across the river, for the first cases had been in Buckland, but others said it had come in with the fog. Wherever it had come from, by late January hardly a household in the Shire remained untouched by it.
Bell's older children were spared, but her three youngest, May, Sam and Marigold, came down with it, and Bell nursed all of them while Hamfast took on Sam's duties at Bag End. Frodo himself was fortunate enough to avoid the illness, and he came to Bagshot Row and sat with Sam for a little while each day that he was sick. Bell knew that Sam was delighted, even though he told Frodo every day that he shouldn't be "puttin' himself out."
Bell began to hear stories that some folks out in the Marish had died from the illness. Little by little, the news of deaths closer to home reached her ears. Old Mr. Burrows died on January 20, but he had been well past one hundred, and few were surprised. If the grippe hadn't finished him off, something else would have―most likely Old Mrs. Burrows. The newborn Grubb baby died, and it was an awful, sad thing, but babies' lives could be like that, sometimes. But then others died, who were young and strong, even Mrs. Twofoot from next door, who had always been as hearty as Bell herself. And throughout the Shire, folks stayed indoors instead of visiting, and such a grey stillness hung over Hobbiton that the only signs of life were the tendrils of smoke rising from each chimney towards the gloomy sky.
On another rainy day at the end of January, when young Marigold was still in bed with her bout of the grippe, Bell sat by the fire nursing a cup of tea. She had a sore throat and had thought the tea would help, but she found that her stomach was queasy and she had no real desire to drink it. She shifted her chair closer to the fire, but it did not take the chill from her bones.
"Daisy!" she called. Her eldest daughter came into the kitchen. She was just a few years shy of her coming of age, and had so many suitors Bell was surprised her head hadn't been turned. It was a good thing that Daisy had outgrown all the giggling silliness of her childhood, and was as sensible as any Gamgee ought to be.
"What is it, Mum?"
"Daisy, I think I'm coming down with a case of it."
"Oh no, Mum!" Daisy said with dismay. "Are you sure? P'raps you're just tired."
Bell rose from her seat. "Aye, I'm sure of it. I'm going to take to my bed early. Look in on your sister, and make sure she eats her supper."
"Do you think you'll be up to eating tonight, Mum?"
"No, my stomach's griping me right now. What I need to do is sleep. A long sleep'll do me a world of good."
Three days later, Bell lay in her bed, looking up at the ceiling. Her fever was down a little, and though she felt more clear-headed than she had in days, she suspected the feeling would not last long. It was an odd thing, to be so sick. Bell had enjoyed robust health all her life, and had even come through the births of her children with admirable vigor. She had seen much illness in her life, but she had little knowledge of it herself. And yet here she was, bedridden at last, too tired to lift her own arm, and feeling as though each new breath became a little harder to take than the last.
Bell wondered if she was dying. If so, she was not sad. She had led a good life, and had been fortunate in her husband and children. She had lived long enough to hold her first grandchild in her arms, Hamson's little girl. His wife had insisted on naming her Hydrangea, of all things, as if Hydrangea Gamgee wasn't the most ridiculous, high-flown thing Bell had ever heard. Well, Hamson's wife was practically from Buckland, and so what did she expect? She was a nice enough girl, otherwise, and Hamson seemed mad about her, and about his new little daughter, and so Bell was happy. It had been a good life.
The thought of Buckland made Frodo come to Bell's mind. The first thing she had ever heard about Frodo Baggins was that he was from Buckland, and indeed a few hobbits in the neighborhood still considered Frodo almost a foreigner. Certainly the Sackville-Bagginses did, as they were not shy of telling anyone who would listen. Bell herself thought Frodo couldn't have belonged more at Bag End if he had been born there himself, and when Bilbo had made the boy his legal heir, Bell had considered it a right thing for the old hobbit to do, and a fine thing.
Bell had not looked quite so favorably upon Bilbo's sudden disappearance the September before last. He had been as steady a hobbit as any in the Shire during the twelve years that had passed since Frodo's illness, and Bell had been certain that the shock of almost losing the boy had made Bilbo settle down at last. There had been no more trips to meet up with dwarves or elves, or any strange doings at all for that matter, and while Bilbo could still tell the best tales in the Shire, his adventures only took place over a pint at The Green Dragon, or under the Party Tree on a warm summer day.
But in the last year that Bilbo lived at Bag End, folks had begun to notice things. They said they had seen him walking in the fields and woods, under the late-night stars, and that sometimes Frodo had been with him, but more often, he had been alone. They began to wonder what he was doing out there, and whom he was visiting, and why. Hamfast had been discreet as always, especially with that crowd of nosybodies at The Green Dragon, but he had confided to his wife that Bilbo had been spending a great deal of time alone in his study, and had begun to mutter to himself when he thought no one was listening. "He's like someone that's got an itch he can't scratch," Hamfast had told her. "Makes me jumpy, it does." That old wizard had turned up just before Bilbo's eleventy-first birthday party, and there had been many eyebrows raised over what that could mean. Bell hadn't known what it could mean, but she had certainly stared enough at Gandalf during Bilbo's party. It was said he had not been in the Shire since Bell was a very little girl, but to Bell he had seemed awfully familiar, as though she had just seen him someplace quite recently.
And then, right in the middle of the party, Bilbo had vanished. One minute he had been standing there, looking as miraculously hale as ever, and the next minute he had been gone, and no one had seen him since. And if Frodo knew where his cousin had gone, he certainly did a fine job of keeping it to himself.
For his part, Frodo had seemed to handle Bilbo's disappearance remarkably well. Once he had fended off his relations, he had settled into life as master of Bag End as if he had never been anything else. And if Frodo occasionally did something odd, like holding a birthday party for Bilbo (whom just about everyone assumed was dead), or if he was sometimes seen walking under the stars in the small hours of the night as Bilbo had been wont to do, well, perhaps it was that old Tookish strain coming out in him, or just the effect of having lived with Bilbo for so long. The world was a quiet place now, with no more dragons in it, so no real harm could come of Frodo's small peculiarities, after all.
"No real harm," Bell said and smiled up at the ceiling.
"What's that, Mum?" Daisy asked. She had been dozing in the chair by the fire, and her mother's voice had awakened her.
"No real harm," Bell repeated. She was tired, and it did hurt so to breathe, and it seemed her fever was coming back. Bell saw her daughter standing over her, and felt a cool cloth upon her brow, and she closed her eyes and slept.
Bell felt someone holding her hand. Even feverish, Bell knew these were not Hamfast's calloused hands, or any of her children's sturdy fingers. These were fine hands, with long slender fingers. A scholar's hands.
She opened her eyes and smiled.
"Well, bless my soul!" she said weakly. "Mr. Frodo! When did you get here?"
"A little while ago," he said with a smile. "How do you feel today, Mrs. Gamgee?"
"Ah, well, Mr. Frodo. I've been better in my day. But I think I'll be feeling much better, in just a bit of time."
Frodo nodded, and smiled sadly. They would never say the word between them, but he knew, as she did.
Frodo gently chafed her hand, and they were quiet for a moment. Then Bell asked, "And how are you faring, up there at Bag End all by yourself?"
Frodo laughed. "Oh, quite all right, but I'm glad Sam is back. It can get quiet, at times, with Bilbo gone."
"Well, you'll be married soon, and you'll fill all those rooms with children," Bell said.
"Perhaps," Frodo said.
Bell studied Frodo's face. He had never "filled out proper" as they said, and Bell had sometimes wondered if that had just been his nature, or if the illness of his youth had kept him from achieving a good, solid roundness. Slight or not, Bell had always liked his looks, even though she had sometimes been tempted to run up to Bag End and cook for him, and make him eat every bite. He was rosy-cheeked, and bright-eyed and…well, he was beautiful . Her Sam had said it first, so many years ago when he was just a little boy, and he had been right, all along. Bell would never tell Frodo this, of course. Hobbits just did not tell each other they were beautiful. Instead, she said, "You've grown up into a fine hobbit, Mr. Frodo. Mr. Bilbo did right by you, he did."
Frodo pressed her hand a little. "Well, thank you Mrs. Gamgee," he said. "But you must take some of the credit yourself."
"Me?" Bell asked, and laughed as well as she could.
"Yes," Frodo said softly. "I would never have grown up into any sort of hobbit, if not for you."
Bell recalled those endless March days, so long ago. She shook her head. "Now Mr. Frodo. 'Twas your own strength and good fortune that saw you through all of that. I just lent a helping hand."
Frodo smiled. "Mrs. Gamgee, I have never told you this. But there was hardly a moment during my illness that I didn't know you were there, somehow. Even when I was half out of my mind, or almost sure that I was about to die, I thought, It will be all right. Mrs. Gamgee is here. She won't let anything happen. And the thought always brought me back, from whatever dark place I had gone."
Whatever dark place…Bell heard. For a moment, in her feverish state, Bell's mind drifted, and Frodo's voice came to her from out of the past. Where is the black wolf? he asked. His eye…his red eye, he said. And Bell saw dream images, not thought of in years, of a dark and stony pass, and a sea of fire, and suddenly she was afraid.
Although she was weak, she tightened her fingers around Frodo's. "You will be careful, won't you, Mr. Frodo? You will be careful, now that Mr. Bilbo is gone?"
"Of course I will, Mrs. Gamgee. Don't worry." Frodo smiled, and Bell could see that he thought it was her fever talking. Perhaps it was, but Bell did not think so.
"You call upon my Sam, if you ever need any help," she said. "He's a good lad, and has a fine head on his shoulders. He will always do his duty by you, my Sam will. He's good as gold."
"Yes. He takes after his mother," Frodo said, and Bell relaxed and smiled. She did not know what had come over her. Perhaps it was just the fever, after all. She closed her eyes and sighed.
Bell dozed a little, and when she awakened, Frodo was still with her. In spite of her sleep, she felt very tired.
"Shall I ask your family to come in, Mrs. Gamgee?" he asked.
"Yes. I think so."
Frodo kissed her hand and then leaned forward and kissed her forehead. "Good-bye, Mrs. Gamgee. A safe journey to you."
"And to you, Frodo, dear lad. And to you."
Bell spoke to her children, to Hamson, her first-born, to Daisy, her eldest girl, to Halfred and May and Marigold. Lastly she saw her husband, who had tears in his eyes, for the first time in all the years she had known him. And finally, she spoke to Samwise, her Sam. It was afternoon, and the light of that grey winter was at the window, and she could hear rain upon it as well, but it seemed very far away.
"You've always been my joy, Sam. Do you know that?"
"Aye, Mum. I do."
"You've got a heart of pure gold, Sam, and you always will. I'm sure young Mr. Frodo thinks so, too." Bell thought for a moment, then said, "Stay close to Mr. Frodo, Sam. I think…I think the lad may need your sense someday. And your heart, even more."
"I wouldn't dream of bein' nowhere else," Sam said.
Bell smiled up at her son. "Even when I first laid eyes on you, I thought This one is different. I don't know how, but he is. And you are different, my Sam. I've always loved you for it. I think, one day, everyone will know what I've always known."
Bell saw tears roll down Sam's cheeks. "Now," she said. "None of that. I won't have you crying over me. I've been as lucky a hobbit as any that's lived. Your father…your brothers and sisters…and you most of all. Sam…how did I ever deserve so much?"
"Oh, Mum," Sam said, and he leaned down and wrapped his arms around Bell's small shoulders.
"My Samwise," she said. "My Sam."
The rain had stopped and the light had grown quite dim, or perhaps Bell's sight was failing. She could hear a soft hum of voices around her, although she could not make out what they said. Someone held her hand, and she felt a kiss on her cheek, and she smiled and closed her eyes.
Bell realized that the voices had quieted, and now she heard a new sound, like nothing she had ever heard before. Yet she knew it to be the sound of waves, whispering upon a wide shore. She opened her eyes and before her was a great water with no end, and a pale golden sun sparkled upon its surface. A voice called to her and Bell turned around and saw a meadow of tall yellow flowers, tossing their heads in the breeze, and a lady, a hobbit, came toward her through the flowers. Bell knew the lady as well, though she had never beheld her in waking life. A smile was upon her face, and her hand was raised in welcome, and her hair was dark, and her face was fair. And her eyes were as blue as an autumn sky.
May Day, 1421
In the Spring after Bell's death, Sam planted lilies-of-the-valley in the little garden behind Bagshot Row, for the tiny white bells of that flower reminded him of his mother. Frodo saw them one day, and asked Sam to plant a row in the garden at Bag End. He, too, had loved Bell, and had never forgotten her kindness to him during the illness that had almost claimed his life. The flowers thrived in both gardens, and the folk of Hobbiton came to call them "Bell's lilies," which was a much easier thing to say than lilies-of-the-valley, anyway. Every Spring, the neighborhood looked forward to the abundance of bright green leaves and delicate white bells that ran riot from Bag End to Bagshot Row, and delighted in their sweetness upon the mild air.
Frodo and Sam were far from home in the Spring of 1419, and so they missed the blooming of Bell's lilies for the first time. Very little bloomed in the Shire at all, that Spring. But 1420 saw a finer May Day than anyone could recall, and on Sam's wedding day, his bride carried Bell's lilies, just picked by Sam himself from the garden at Bag End.
On the bright May Day of 1421, Frodo and Sam sat together under the warm sunshine in Bag End's garden, this place where they had both been young once. From their feet to the ends of the garden to far off down the hill, Bell's lilies bloomed, bright green and white, and their fragrance filled the air.
Sam thought it was good to see Frodo out in the sun. He had been sick in March, dreadfully sick, and since then he had not wholly been himself. Frodo often seemed tired now, no matter how much he rested, and Sam knew that he was sometimes in pain, although his master would not admit it. They had wandered far together, and some part of Frodo had never quite come back. He had been badly hurt, and his wounds would not heal. Sam did what he could for his friend and master, but little that he did seemed to help. Sam clung to hope, because it was his nature, but in his heart, Sam knew the truth. Frodo was dying.
Frodo's eyes were half-closed, as if the warm sun and heavy fragrance had made him sleepy. His face was too pale, and too thin, but peaceful, almost content. "I'm so glad you planted these lilies, Sam, all those years ago," he said drowsily.
"Aye," Sam answered. "I never thought they'd fare quite so well, though."
"Of course they fare well," Frodo said. "They are blooming for Bell Gamgee. She was a wonderful lady, Sam. I have never forgotten her."
"She did care for you too, Mr. Frodo," Sam said, and Frodo smiled and closed his eyes and fell silent.
After a little while, Frodo said softly, "I have been uncommonly lucky in my life, Sam."
"How's that, Mr. Frodo?"
Frodo opened his eyes and looked at Sam. "Whenever I have been most in danger, and most desperate…I have always had a Gamgee at my side. That is uncommon luck."
Sam smiled. "'Tis we Gamgees who have been the lucky ones, I think," he said.
Frodo sighed and his eyelids grew heavy. He laid his head on Sam's shoulder, and Sam put his arms about him, and Frodo slept, in peace.
All around them, Bell Gamgee's lilies bloomed under the May sunshine. They would bloom every May, long after Frodo was gone from that place. And even after Sam and all of his descendants, and indeed, hobbits themselves, were no more, Bell's lilies covered the hill every Spring, in memory of that good lady.
If you've been following this story all along, I hope that you were not too upset/ticked off by Bell's death! When I decided to write a Sick Frodo fic from Bell's perspective, I felt that I had to say something about what ultimately happens to her. It's obvious that "the Gaffer" is living alone by the time the main exploits of Lord of the Rings take place, so, assuming that hobbits don't get divorced, Bell must be dead by the time Frodo and Sam leave on the Quest. She would still have been relatively young for a hobbit, so she couldn't have died of old age, and I certainly never imagined her dying in childbirth with Marigold…that would have meant Sam had grown up without a nurturing, maternal figure in his life, and I don't think Sam would have been "our" Sam if that had happened! Tolkien tells us absolutely nothing about Bell; a friend of mine recently said that to Tolkien. she acted as "a placeholder on Sam's family tree." It was satisfying to create a character for her and to give her a peaceful (and hopefully plausible) end.
Thank you thank you thank you to ALL of the wonderful people who have followed and reviewed this story! Your enthusiasm and appreciation was very encouraging, especially since I had bits and pieces of this story languishing for months in my hard drive, and had never thought I would get it off the ground. I recognize many of you as other writers of H/C fics and you've definitely been an inspiration. A little word of recognition to Golden Wolf, whose The Heir was the very first fanfic I ever read, and contained many YoungSickFrodo moments (including pneumonia!) that no doubt influenced this story.
After writing this story, I realized that a Sam POV story I wrote several months ago, named Portrait, is a nice companion piece to this one. I hope to get around to posting it here on ff.net, but look for it in the Drama section, because it's not strictly angst.
A Word about "Grippe:": In English-speaking countries, "grippe" is an outdated word for influenza. The word itself is French, but my dictionary said its roots are in Old German, so I figured I could get away with it (I understand Tolkien was not a big fan of French-derived words!). "Influenza" just sounded too high-falutin' and "flu" sounded too modern. Influenza can be an extremely dangerous disease, and people do die from it. If you're ever in the mood to have your hair stand on end, read some of the stories of the influenza pandemic of 1918. They'll keep you up at night!
A Word about the Characters' Ages: The main action of this story takes place in March, 1390 (Shire Reckoning). Frodo is 21 years old, and has been living with Bilbo since just before his 21st birthday in September, 1389, so he has only been at Bag End for six months. Bilbo is 99 and Sam is nine. Assuming that hobbits did not marry until after their "coming of age" at 33, Bell would have to be at least 58 years old (her oldest son, Hamson is 24).
Throughout the story, others refer to Frodo as a "boy" or a "lad." This is not to imply that he is immature! Given hobbits' lifespan and culture, I think any hobbit of only 21 years would be considered little more than a youth of 16 or so in our own society. However, while I think Frodo at 21 would definitely have still been a boy, he would have been a very mature one, especially given his natural intelligence and his early experience with grief.
And PS: I had always intended for one of the aftereffects of Frodo's illness to be hair loss…but seeing Elijah Wood's inexplicable new "do" gave me all the visual reference I needed!
Thank you again for reading!