1. A Night's Watch
Four days had passed since her husband had asked her to go to Bag End and look in on young Mr. Frodo, who had seemed to be doing quite poorly.
“I don’t claim to know much about caring for young folk,” he had said, “But Mr. Frodo ain’t gettin’ any better, and seems a far sight worse than he did just yesterday. You can make him stay in bed, if nothing else.”
Now, four days later, Bell sat in the sickroom shadows of Bag End, listening to the boy’s labored breathing and the lonely sound of sleet tapping against the windowpane. Making Frodo stay in bed was hardly the problem anymore: indeed, it seemed likely that he might never rise from it again.
Pneumonia, the physician had said it was. The treatments had been simple at first. “Keep him warm, but not too warm. Sponge him down when his fever rises, but don’t let him get a chill. Make sure you keep liquids in him.” The prescriptions became more complicated with each passing day, and Bell had begun to recognize desperation in both the physician’s treatments and his face. Bell had held Frodo over steaming bowls of water. She had rubbed sharp-smelling ointments on his back and chest. She had applied heated cups to draw out the infection in his lungs. She had pounded on his back to loosen the phlegm, an effort that had only made Frodo vomit. Yesterday, the last day the physician had called, he had suggested a last resort: puncturing Frodo’s lung with a large needle to release the infected fluid. It had been known to work, in some cases.
“How many cases?” Bell had asked.
“Well, it worked on Mr. Brockhouse, just last year.”
“And how many times hasn’t it worked?”
The physician had cleared his throat. After a moment of uncomfortable silence, he had replied, “It is a last resort, Mrs. Gamgee. Those patients would most likely…would surely have died, anyway.”
Bell had thanked the physician and shown him the door.
Bell rose from her seat beside the fireplace and went to Frodo, who sat propped against a wall of pillows in his cousin Bilbo’s bed. Her eldest son, Hamson, had carried the boy here after Frodo had soaked through his own bedclothes during the last bad spell. It would be a while before that mattress could be used again.
She sponged Frodo’s face with cool water, more in the desperate need to feel useful than out of any belief that such treatment could help him. His face was the color of fireplace ashes, and his lips had taken on a bluish tinge, as if he were drowning. But he is drowning, Bell thought with dismay. Drowning right here in his own bed.
At her touch, Frodo opened his eyes a bit. In the dimly-lit room, Bell could not see their color, only the glitter of fever that lay in them. Yet his eyes seemed to focus on her, and Bell thought that he might be having a brief lapse in delirium.
“Tonight?” he asked in a whisper.
“What is tonight, Frodo?”
“Will I die tonight?”
Bell shook her head vehemently. “Oh, no!” she said, as cheerfully as she could. “Of course not!” Bell would never admit to the boy that he was dying; it simply was not done. A hobbit could be half-crushed beneath a tree, and all around would politely insist that he was quite all right, up until the very moment he expired.
“Good,” he said, and to Bell’s wonder, Frodo smiled and patted her hand, as if to assure her that he knew she lied, but he appreciated the kindness, nevertheless. “I’d hate to miss Bilbo.”
“Hamfast is out looking for him, dear. He’ll be home soon.”
Frodo did not answer. His eyes left Bell’s face and he gazed into the fire, blinking heavily. After a moment, he whispered, “Can I lie down? My back aches.”
“No, Frodo dear,” she replied, saddened at being unable to grant him even this simple wish. “It will make your breathing worse.”
“Oh,” he said, and closed his eyes wearily.
Bell looked at Frodo with pity. He had never been a stout lad, but this illness had drained him until he seemed as frail as a dandelion puff. She did not think he would have the strength to survive the night. Still, she tried to cling to hope. She had seen others who were this ill, and then something had risen up in them, and they had turned the corner on their own. It would be this way with Frodo. His fever could go no higher without killing him; he would turn the corner, or he would die before daybreak. An illness like this always took them at night, it seemed.
Bell sighed and put the washcloth on the nightstand. She leaned forward and took Frodo under the arms, shushing him gently when he made a soft, confused sound in his throat. Settling back upon the pillows, Bell laid Frodo against herself, his head nestled into her shoulder, his battered chest against her healthy one, and she rocked him and rubbed his back and hummed to him. This was how she had gotten her little ones to sleep when they were sick, and it might not do Frodo any good at all, but at least it would give him some fleeting comfort before he passed.
“There you go, dear,” she crooned soothingly. “Sleep is what you need. Sleep, sleep, sleep,” she whispered. Frodo clutched Bell’s sleeve in a gesture of mute appeal. He held on to the homespun fabric for a moment, and then released it and his arm fell to her side.
Bell rocked Frodo and listened to the sleet at the window, to the fire in the grate, to the rattle of the boy’s breath. She would cling to hope, because it was her nature, but in her heart, she knew the truth. She was sitting a deathwatch.
Notes on Medical Details: The practice of applying "heated cups" to a sick person is a traditional remedy along the lines of bloodletting. In the practice, a lit match or piece of paper is put into a special glass cup, which is then applied to the patient's skin. The vacuum effect that results is supposed to draw infection or fever out of the body. Several cups are used at once. This treatment was still in use when my parents were children, and remains a common practice in some parts of the world and in some schools of traditional medicine. This treatment, like most medical treatments, should only be practiced by a trained professional. No medical details in this story are intended as any sort of advice. In other words, do NOT try this at home!