In which Merry finds his courage in an orchard
"Well, son, that was a good call with these trees, but I am sorry that you are right," my father said, intently studying the strip of bark he had just cut off the apple tree. A grove of trees in the back orchard was suffering from some type of blight, still early in its progress by my reckoning. Father sighed and lowered the bark, surveying the orchard.
"You caught it early," he said, "and perhaps we can halt its progress and save some of the crop. If not, at least we can prevent it from spreading to the rest of the orchard." He clapped a hand to my shoulder. "This was good work on your part, my lad."
Normally my heart would have swelled at this type of praise from my father, hobbit to hobbit regarding the workings of our estate. It was what I had always valued most my whole life: to have Father see me as a responsible hobbit worthy of his trust, to have him value my opinion in the management of our land. But today this accomplishment felt hollow, and only the smallest flicker of pleasure kindled in me. I may have saved the crop, but I doubted I would be here to see the harvest.
Father did not seem to notice my melancholy, moving from tree to tree and checking for the disease to see how widespread it was. I followed after him, hands in my pockets and head down, my thoughts on other matters. I did not think that in my life I would ever have to deal with anything worse than a crop blight, or the need to burrow further and add onto the Hall, or at worst a potentially dangerous flooding of the Brandywine, but these days my head was filled with much more dire scenarios. I found myself going over and over our plans in my head, checking for flaws, trying to determine what we might need on the road that I had failed to anticipate. How to keep the easily chilled Frodo warm enough at night, and to make sure Sam didn't overload his pack by taking more than his fair share, and Pippin -- the vise around my heart tightened a little bit more, and I left off the thought. I would not -- could not -- think of Pippin in peril and rely on myself to maintain a clear head.
I raised my head to survey the orchard and found that my father had stopped at the crest of a small hill and was looking at me appraisingly. "Eh," he grunted, "join your old da for a rest, would you, Merry?" He sat so he looked down over the ancient Hall and the river that separated our lands from the Shire proper, wincing a little in a way that I knew meant his knee joints were protesting the movement.
I stood beside him for a moment, digging into the turf with my toes, feeling like I had as a child caught stealing sweets from the kitchen. Father is nobody's fool, and my sinking stomach told me I had been caught in my dark study one too many times and now I would have to account for myself.
"Sit down, lad," Father said. I obeyed and pulled my knees to my chest, resting my arms upon them. We sat silently for several moments and then Father confirmed my fears.
"Your mother thinks it is a lass, Merry, but I think not," he said, still looking out at the fertile land and not at me. "At first I thought perhaps Pippin had gotten himself into some type of grave trouble, and that you were worrying yourself ill over it, but I saw the lad last week and whatever weighs on you does not burden him. Rather my nephew is restless and eager for some event yet to come. I cannot fathom what is afoot to strike you two so differently, yet I feel certain 'tis the same matter."
I swallowed hard and wiped my clammy hands on my trousers. Father was coming very close to the mark without anyone having said a word to him.
"And if it's not a trouble of Pippin's that is weighing on your mind," he continued, "it must have to do with Frodo. My thoughts are that this move to Crickhollow is not what it seems, and there's some type of trouble behind it. I have found this a strange event from the start, knowing how Frodo loves Bag End. But I cannot imagine what type of distress would make you feel you could not come to your father for help. If there is trouble with money, Merry, then surely you, and Frodo too, know that the Brandybucks take care of their own and he has nothing to fret about."
I pressed my forehead into my arms, still draped over my knees, feeling caught between the brambles and the thorns. I also felt foolish to have thought we had been so clever and secretive.
"It isn't money, sir," I said, and started to go on but then realized I did not know how to continue.
Father waited patiently for a moment, and then prompted me. "Can you not say, son? If it need be kept in confidence, I will keep it, but I would not have you involved in some type of trouble, thinking you cannot turn to your own family for help. You may come to me no matter the problem; I have always told you this and meant it. Can you tell me nothing?"
I drew a deep, shuddering breath, feeling as though someone were squeezing about my chest and preventing me from getting air. I had never kept secrets from my father, and the need to unburden myself to him was almost a physical pain, but this was too great a secret, too great a risk to share even with those I loved. Or perhaps especially with those I loved.
"Da," I said in a choked voice, reverting to the name I had used in childhood, "I have never lied to you."
"I know, Meriadoc," he said with a touch of pride when I did not immediately continue. "Whatever scrapes you may have gotten into in the past, you have always been honest with me about them."
I fought back hot tears. "I cannot lie to you now," I said miserably, "but this is not my trouble to share with you. And, Da, it is . . . well, it could be perilous for you to know. I would not keep it from you if it did not have to be so."
I finally found the courage to look my father in the face. His gray eyes were solemn and his brow furrowed. "I have faced many a trouble in my day, Meriadoc," he said gravely. "There is naught I would not do for Frodo Baggins, were he to ask it of me. Are you certain you cannot share this burden with me?"
"He does not . . ." My voice faltered as I tried to work out the words, but Father was quicker than I.
"Ah," he breathed, "Frodo does not know that you are aware of the trouble. Secrets upon secrets, Merry. This is not like you."
"I know," I said, and felt a tear break loose down my face. I wiped it away, angry at myself for succumbing to the well of emotions inside of me just when I most needed Father to see me as capable and in control. "But I do not see another way right now, Father, and I would not have you drawn into this danger as well."
I looked at the grim set to my father's jaw and the lines creasing his forehead and wondered if this is how I had looked these months to my family. If so, it was astounding that I had not been confronted before this. He returned the gaze, studying my face intently, searching for something. Whatever it was, I knew he had found it when he heaved a great sigh and turned away from me to look out over Buckland again.
"Well, you are determined to see it through, whatever it is, and to do it without my aid," he said. "But you are afraid, son, and I do not know what to make of that. You have never been plagued by childhood fears over the nonsense most young folk fret about, so if you say there is peril, I believe it must be near-mortal in nature."
I bit my lip as I searched for words. Part of me was enormously relieved that Father had guessed enough for me to give him some type of explanation, no matter how sketchy. It had troubled me -- that I would go off without a word to my parents, without a good-bye or a warning. I would not have them thinking I had abandoned my responsibilities with no thought to the consequences. There was nothing I could do that would prevent them the worry they would feel while I was gone, but at least I could let them know I left with forethought and as much preparation as possible, and did not merely go running down the Road without a handkerchief, as Bilbo had all those years ago.
"Father," I said, suddenly feeling more confident, "do you mean it when you say there is naught you would not do for Frodo, or give up to help Frodo?"
"Of course, my lad," he said, turning back to me and appearing startled that I would ask. "I have known him since he was a wee babe, and a finer hobbit or a better friend you could not ask for." Then the light in his eyes changed as they filled with heavy knowledge, and for a second it was almost as though my own eyes were reflected back to me.
"Oh," he said softly, "indeed. That is costly aid, Merry."
"He would never ask it," I said, "but I will give it to him even if I must press it upon him. He is the dearest of friends, and our kin, and this trouble comes to him unbidden. I cannot let him face it alone and still look at myself in the mirror, Father."
Father was silent for a long, long minute, his lips pressed tightly together. Then he smiled at me, but it was a smile tinged by sorrow. "Well," he said, "I am snared by my own trap. I suppose this is my reward for raising a son to be the type of hobbit I always hoped to be myself."
The pride I did not feel earlier in the blighted grove suddenly welled up within me so swiftly it was as if a dam had burst inside my heart. I had always tried to be a good son, and Father had never been faint with his praise, but never had I heard or hoped for such words from him. I already felt them taking root, bolstering my resolve and courage to do right by Frodo.
My emotions must have been beaming through my face, for Father chuckled and stretched his arm across my shoulders. "You will be careful, son," he said.
"Yes, sir," I answered.
He nodded in satisfaction. "That is all I can ask. You are taking Peregrin, then?"
I nodded. "Yes, sir."
"Hmph." His lips pressed tightly together again for a moment, and I added, "I tried to --"
"Ah, no point in that," he interrupted, "unless you intend to tie him up and stow him in one of the cellars. Even so he would but follow you at his first opportunity. I will speak to his folks, after. You take great care with him, now, Merry."
I sighed in relief. "The greatest care, Father," I answered.
"I don't suppose the Gamgee lad will be along as well?"
"There is naught that could stop him," I said seriously.
Father looked pleased. "Good, that's good. He is a hobbit that may be depended upon. And there is other help, too, I hope?"
"Aye, I hope," I said softly. "Both expected and unexpected, if we are lucky."
Father laughed gently. "It is Frodo who is lucky, I am thinking, to have such friends at his side. I do not understand what this danger is, but I judge it to be bigger than anything in hobbit imagining. Let us hope it does not prove greater than hobbit sense and love."
I swallowed hard, and a bit of fear crept back into my bones, but conviction and hope were flowing too strongly in me now for it to take over.
"Those are great allies, Father," I said, "hobbit sense and hobbit love. I think I would take them even over great armies of Men."
Father pulled me to him in a crushing hug and I returned it with relish. "Do not forget that, Merry, for you have them both aplenty. Let them serve you well."
"I will, Da," I answered softly, feeling my father's confidence in me lighten the burden on my shoulders. "I will."