Bell sighed, setting down her sewing at a knock on the door. She had wanted to get this pillowcase finished before the rest of the family invaded once more. She signalled and it was a suddenly serious little Marigold Gamgee who ran to open the round yellow door, sticking her tousled head around the edge to peep through a six-inch gap.
Bilbo grinned despite the rain running down his neck and bent down to her level. “Is your Ma at home?”
“Ma . . . ith Mithter Bagginth from up the hill,” called the little girl as she abandoned the door and ran back to hide from the legendary gentlehobbit behind her mother’s ample skirts.
Bell smiled apologetically. “Come in, sir. I’ve been tryin’ to teach Mari how to answer the door proper but she still gets a bit shy.”
Marigold ducked her head, green eyes peeping up at Bilbo from beneath a mop of copper curls.
Bilbo only chuckled. As a confirmed bachelor, he used to find it difficult to relate to youngsters but it seemed to get easier as he got older. Maybe there was something to that old wives saying that with age you come into a second childhood. “That’s all right, Bell. She’ll get the hang of it with time.”
Stepping out of the wind and rain, he swished the mud off his feet in a waiting basin, wiped them on the old mat and closed the door behind him. “It started out promisingly enough but, my goodness, it’s turning into a wet spring this year.”
“It is that,” Bell acknowledged as she lifted the lid on the kettle and, satisfied of the level of its contents, popped it onto the hob to heat. “Ye’ll have a cup of tea, will ye? Sit yerself down by the fire.” She handed him a towel from the drying rack on the ceiling above the range. “Ye’ve surely not got so wet from just comin’ down the hill? What brings ye out in this?”
Bilbo ran the warm towel over his hair and used it to flick rain from the shoulders of his old tweed jacket. “I’m afraid so, and that would be lovely. Thank you,” he replied as he took one of the only two chairs in the room, either side of the big hearth, and leaned in toward the heat. Bell’s basket of sewing materials sat on the floor at the side of the other, along with a big and slightly threadbare cushion. “I was hoping to talk to Hamfast about my vegetable garden.”
“He’s popped down into the village. I’m not sure when he’ll be back,” Bell replied. Then she set too trying to detach her youngest from her skirts. “Now, come on Mari,” she chided, disentangling little fingers. “Ye know Mister Bilbo. Ye’ve seen him many a time. Mind yer manners now and say hello proper.”
Marigold tried her most beseeching look but her mother only folded her hands at her ample waist and waited. So, straightening little shoulders, Marigold took the four steps required to bring her before their grey-haired guest. She dropped a rather wobbly curtsy and, in a pale pink voice that would have better suited a mouse, whispered, “Good day to you, Math . . . er . . . Mithter Bagginth.”
Smiling indulgently, to Bells surprise Bilbo arose and executed a perfect bow. “And a good day to you, Little Miss Marigold.”
Showing a missing top tooth, Marigold broke into an ecstatic smile that warmed Bilbo from head to foothair. Behind her daughter Bell, too, grinned widely and bobbed her head in thanks to the older gentlehobbit as she reclaimed the towel and deftly flipped it back over the drying rack above her head.
Fishing a key from her always overstuffed apron pocket Bell used it to open the small corner cabinet, taking down two matching sets of cup, saucer and side plate.
Marigold ran over to watch curiously as her mother rinsed and dried them. These were Ma’s best and she’d never actually seen them outside the cupboard, so it was a delightful surprise to discover that each had a little line of yellow daisy’s dancing about the rim. She followed her mother in awe as Bell laid them out upon the long kitchen table.
Bilbo waited in silence, watching his foot hair steam and aware that he was being accorded a great honour. He knew that Bell Gamgee had but four full place settings of these crocks (he had watched her parents gift them to the newlyweds) and that they were usually only produced upon special occasions.
“It’s very quiet in here. Where are the other children today, Bell?” he called as she disappeared into the cool pantry.
Her disembodied voice returned to him. “With all this rain, The Water’s burst its banks an’ one or two of the closer smials have flooded. They’ve gone down with Ham to help Widow Goodbody move her things. She’s going to stay with her sister ‘til everythin’ dries out.” She reappeared with the remains of an apple pie in its tin balanced on her arm, a pitcher of milk in one hand and a small jug of cream in the other. “Although when that’ll be I don’t care to think. There’s no sign of this rain lettin’ up.”
“Pansy Goodbody . . . my, my. I nearly offered for her once upon a time. How it flies,” Bilbo murmured. And then louder, “I remember warning Will Goodbody not to delve so close to the river when he started digging a smial for them there.”
“Aye. Will was a stubborn one. And there I’ll leave it for it don’t sit well with me to speak ill of the dead,” she added.
Before Bilbo could offer assistance Bell had expertly navigated the kitchen and deposited her load upon the table. “Ye’ll be doin’ me a favour to share this pie. There’s not enough left to feed all of us an’ ‘twill save arguments,” the mother commented as she collected cutlery. Here, she was not able to match the splendour of her crockery and so Bilbo watched her set out two dented teaspoons and three mismatched and slightly bent desert spoons. He filed this away for use when compiling his next birthday present list. He would present the Gamgees with a set of spoons. Not as fancy as Bilbo’s silver ones of course, or Bell would only lock them away with her best crocks.
"I would be honoured to share the pie. Mistress Bell Gamgee is famous throughout Hobbiton and beyond for her shortcrust pastry.”
Bell blushed. “Well, it’s won a prize or too but I dare say ye tasted better in Tookborough last week. I hear The Thain keeps a good table at Great Smials.” She cut the pie in half, placing a large wedge on each plate and all but drowning them in rich, pale yellow cream. Bilbo felt his mouth fill with saliva. “An’ how is the new little master?” Bell asked as she placed the honey pot on the table.
Swallowing, Bilbo dragged his eyes away from the plates to follow Bell as she collected her huge brown teapot and the caddy. “He’s a lusty bairn with a mop of hair the colour of a harvest sun. If I didn’t know better I’d say he was a Brandybuck. But then, those families are so intertwined through the generations, that’s no great surprise.”
Taking up a padded cloth Bell lifted the now steaming kettle off the hob. Pouring a little water into the teapot, she swirled it for a moment and then tipped it into the sink. Bilbo watched the ritual comfortably. No matter what your rank in society the making of tea remained the same. Although Bilbo suspected that Lobelia Sackville-Baggins would have turned up her nose at Bell’s homely brown earthenware teapot with its chipped lid.
“I expect his Ma and Da is happy, no matter what colour his hair. But birthing bairns can be a hard business. How’s his Ma?”
Three large spoons of tea were carefully measured and water added then, tilting the lid into place, Bell set the brew firmly upon the table between their two place settings. Marigold had retired to the cushion by the hearth with her rag doll, but her eyes followed every move her mother made, particularly when she saw her pull out one of the everyday saucers and Marigold’s own little cup.
“Well, he’s her fourth so I understand the birthing was quicker than some. Eglantine looked well enough when we left and Paladin was strutting about like a prize stallion. After three lasses they’d all but given up on a son.”
Bell laughed as she beckoned her little daughter to the sink, where she rubbed at grubby fingers with a soapy cloth and then pointed to a place at the table by her mother’s setting. Bilbo had to hold back a smile at the speed with which the little faunt clambered onto the bench.
Bell cut her serving of pie in half and slid it, and a goodly amount of cream, onto the lass’ dish. Marigolds eyes grew as wide as her saucer at the prospect of this unexpected bounty, and Bilbo noticed that she had to sit upon her hands to prevent herself from grabbing the spoon.
“Aye. Ham and me were happy to have the lads but I was hoping for a lass by the third. Daisy’s always been a bit of a handful but she’s a good one at heart and a big help to me now she’s older.”
Both Bilbo and Bell now sat, side by side, upon one of the benches set either side of the long, white scrubbed table. Having visited many times, Bilbo felt enough at home to pour milk into all three cups whilst Bell was stirring the pot. He recognised several bits of Gamgee jumpers in the multicoloured knitted stripes of the cosy Bell wrestled onto the pot. When she poured the brew was a deep brown, and Bilbo mused that were he to remove the cup the tea was so strong it would probably stand up on its own.
He was relieved to see Bell pour additional milk in her daughter’s cup. Stirring in a good spoonful of honey Bilbo pushed the pot aside to Bell, who added a very liberal dose to Marigolds and none to her own. The wealthier hobbit suspected that honey was rationed this week and Marigold had just been given her mother’s share. He also suspected that the slice of pie he was about to consume was originally scheduled for Bell’s husband. Bilbo felt guilty enough to determine to send Frodo down the hill later with a seed cake by way of replacement, but not so guilty that he was about to give up the chance to taste Bell Gamgee’s prizewinning apple pie.
Anyway, the fresh although wet air would do the lad good. He’d been sitting indoors with his books for far too long of late. The Brandybucks may be ones for hiding indoors in bad weather but Baggins’ were made of sterner stuff. As it seemed to do more often of late, Bilbo’s mind drifted away to memories of dark woods and darker caves, mild aired valleys and sunsets viewed from high peaks.
Bell cleared her throat and lifted her spoon to take a surprisingly dainty bite of her pie, nodding for Marigold to follow suit.
“Do you hear much from Hamson and Halfred nowadays?” asked Bilbo as he came back to the here and now and took a larger mouthful of his own helping.
He was immediately anchored firmly in the present as he all but melted with pleasure. The shortcrust pastry was light and sweet but with just a hint of salt to prevent it from being cloying. And he hardly needed to chew, as it dissolved against the roof of his mouth. The tartness of the apple had been softened by a good helping of honey (which would explain the shortage on the table) and a liberal sprinkling of cinnamon. And those apples had been cooked just enough to soften but not so much that they had turned to mush. Thick cream rounded the whole thing off to absolute perfection and Bilbo had to make a conscious effort not to roll his eyes heavenward.
“Hamson sent word with his cousin, Anson, that he was settlin’ in. And Anson says as how his Da is pleased with his work,” Bell replied, seemingly unaware of her guest’s rapture.
Bilbo swallowed reluctantly but was too much of a gentlehobbit not to do so before speaking. “I’m pleased for you. Roping is a good trade and there are only so many gardeners a place like Hobbiton can support.” He smiled. “Goodness, but it doesn’t seem five minutes since the lad was Marigold’s age.”
Bell paused to wipe a drop of cream from her daughter’s chin with a corner of her apron. “Mayhap. An’ tis one less mouth to feed here. Not that such was the reason for him leavin’,” she added hastily. “We manage well enough.”
“You and Ham are doing an excellent job with all your children.” Bilbo assured her. “And what of Halfred?”
“He’s settled in Oakbottom, over in the South Farthing. There’s no gardenin’ to be done there but he’s been taken on as farm hand tendin’ pipeweed. A friend of his was passing through here last month . . . Billy Marshbrown . . . an’ gave us word from him. Says he’s got his eye on a farmer’s lass.”
“He’s only just a tween,” Bilbo commented in surprise, before devouring the last mouthful.
“He’s near enough Master Frodo’s age and he’s always had a sensible head on his shoulders,” Bell replied as she set down her own spoon and gave Marigold’s mouth another swipe with her apron. “But lookin’ aint courtin’ and courtin’ aint weddin’. It’s good for him to cast about a bit at that age and when he’s a bit older I’ll not stand in his way when he finds the right lass. Neither will Hamfast if he listens to me.”
Bilbo smiled inwardly. It would be a foolish husband who ignored Bell’s opinion. Bilbo remembered the courtship of Bell Goodchild and Hamfast Gamgee with much amusement. Bell had made no secret of her intentions to marry Ham. Like a force of nature, she had swept the young gardener off his feet and Ham had been struggling to keep them under him ever since. That was six children ago and Bilbo could think of no kinder soul in all of Hobbiton. He’d come to rely upon her good hobbit sense many a time when dealing with Frodo over the past year.
He took a good swallow of his tea, trying not to make a face as it seemed to coat his teeth and tongue. He was used to a subtler blend but the Gamgee’s could afford no such luxury and he had learned to tolerate it.
Marigold downed her milky tea in one long and slightly noisy string of swallows, finishing by running her tongue around her lips appreciatively. Her mother nodded indulgently. “Have ye finished?”
Bell waited, looking over the rim of her teacup at her youngest. “Then what do we say?” she prompted.
“Oh . . . Pleathe may I leave the table?”
“Yes, you may,” Bell replied formally and then with a smile, “Down ye get and go play, lass.”
Clambering from the table, Marigold gathered up plate and cup and stretched up to place them carefully on the wooden draining board next to the sink. Then she returned to her cushion by the fire and began to undress her doll.
Bilbo sipped at his tea, watching the exchange. When had Bell Gamgee developed those lines about her eyes? And there were some grey glints among the brown in the curls of her hair. Once Marigold was settled he asked, “Is it me, or are folk marrying younger nowadays?”
Bell glanced at him sidelong around a sip of her own tea. “Some do . . . some don’t. An’ I think sometimes it just seems that way as the folks watchin’ gets older. Ye, most surely, know that.” As soon as the words were out Bell wanted to swallow them back again. Folks didn’t mention Bilbo Baggins’ age . . . not to his face at least.
For his part Bilbo only turned thoughtful. “I had not considered it that way,” he replied wistfully. He continued to drink his tea in the pregnant silence that followed and, a little flustered, Bell began to gather up the plates and fill a jug with hot water from the boiler to wash them.
She was relieved when the door burst open and a pile of wet and bedraggled hobbits stomped in. “Put the kettle on, Bell love. You’ve got four cold and wet Gamgees to warm up,” called Hamfast. Then he noticed Mr Bilbo at the table and snatched off his hat.
Hurriedly rinsing their feet, Daisy and May bustled their little brother, Sam into the dark interior of the smial to dry off and change clothes.
“Well, good afternoon Mister Bilbo. Can I do ought for you?” asked Hamfast. Not so long ago Hamfast would have been surprised to see the master of Bag End sitting comfortably at his table, but since his nephew’s arrival at Bag End Bilbo had become almost a regular sight. Bringing up a tween was not a job usually undertaken by someone of Bilbo’s age and the Gamgees had become his encyclopaedia.
“Well, I came to discuss the spring planting for my garden but it can wait. And Bell and little Marigold here have entertained me royally. But now I think it’s time to see what Frodo’s been up to in my absence. Why don’t you pop around tomorrow and we’ll see what the rain will allow us to salvage of my plans for Bag End’s vegetable plot this year.”
Bell handed her husband a towel and he began to rub at his hair, sensing something in the air but unable to fathom what it could be. “I can come around later if you like, sir” he offered.
Bilbo stood, fastening his jacket and turning up his collar against the weather. “I won’t hear of it Ham. From what Bell’s been telling me you’ll have seen enough rain this day to last a while.” He smiled and made for the door. “How is Pansy Goodbody, by the way?”
Hamfast accepted a cup of tea and a peck on the cheek from his wife. “She’s settled in with her sister. We managed to save all her furniture and bits and Tom Cotton has put ‘em safe in one of his barns until the river goes down.”
“You’ll let me know if Pansy needs anything, won’t you? I remember her fondly.”
“Aye, sir. I will an’ thank you.” He moved to open the door for Mister Baggins.
“Goodbye and thank you for the tea, Bell.”
“Yer always welcome, Mister Bilbo,” answered Bell and Hamfast together.
Then Bilbo was gone, trotting back up the hill through the rain.
Ham dropped gratefully into his chair by the hearth, tea in hand, and bent to ruffle Marigold’s fiery locks. She gave him a broad grin before turning back to the important task of redressing her doll.
“What was that about?” he asked as Bell collected up her own and Bilbo’s cups and poured hot water into a basin in the sink.
“What was what about?” replied his wife a little too nonchalantly.
“Come on, lass. Out with it. You an’ Mr Bilbo surely haven’t had words?”
Bell turned about and leaned her hip against the sink. “Not really. We was talkin’ about the age folks get married and I just let slip that sometimes it only seems like folks get married younger because those watchin’ are gettin’ older.” She began to wipe her hands on her apron. “Then I suggested he’d understand that better than most.” Wincing, Bell looked at her husband. “I didn’t mean anythin’ by it. It just popped out an’ then I couldn’t take it back without makin’ it worse. He knows well what folks are sayin’ about him not looking his age.”
Ham set down his cup and opened his arms. “Come here, lass.” With a sigh of relief Bell came into his shelter, perching on his lap and leaning her head against his.
“Never you mind. Mr Bilbo don’t bear grudges,” he murmured. Then he added, “Unless you’re called Sackville-Baggins.”
Bell chuckled. “Yer clothes are wet,” she commented matter-of-factly. “And ye smell of wet chickens.”
Ham leaned back in his chair and met his wife’s gaze with a twinkle. “Oh I do, do I? Then mayhap you’d better help me out of these smelly wet clothes afore I catch cold,” he suggested with a waggle of bushy brows.
Bell slipped from his lap, swatting away hands that would have recaptured her. “Hamfast Gamgee, tis the middle of the day and yer been dressin’ yerself this many a year. Go off with ye and I’ll start tea.”
Hamfast did as instructed, but was still grinning as he left the room.
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