I do not own the characters, main events or settings of these stories. They were conceived by the fertile imagination of JRR Tolkien and are now owned by his heirs and executors. I am only playing in his sandpit and hope he will forgive me the liberty.
1. A Good Heart by elwen of the hidden valley
2. Broken Wings by elwen of the hidden valley
3. Tendin' with Taters by elwen of the hidden valley
4. The Brandybuck Intervention by elwen of the hidden valley
5. Light, Love and Laughter by elwen of the hidden valley
6. Bags and Thoughts on Bagin' a Baggins by elwen of the hidden valley
7. A Mother's Touch by elwen of the hidden valley
8. Two For Tea by elwen of the hidden valley
9. Harvest Reel by elwen of the hidden valley
10. Carpets and Cupboards by elwen of the hidden valley
11. Marriage and Mathoms by elwen of the hidden valley
12. Rising by elwen of the hidden valley
13. Goodbye Harry by elwen of the hidden valley
14. Making Do by elwen of the hidden valley
15. Yuletide Blessings by elwen of the hidden valley
16. The Gamgee Correspondence by elwen of the hidden valley
17. Washday Gathering by elwen of the hidden valley
18. Baggins Birthday Buttoned Up by elwen of the hidden valley
19. Grey Wizard by elwen of the hidden valley
20. Gandalf the Quilted by elwen of the hidden valley
21. Puddles and Perambulations by elwen of the hidden valley
22. Friends and Family by elwen of the hidden valley
23. Timing Is All by elwen of the hidden valley
24. Gathering by elwen of the hidden valley
25. The Prancing Pole by elwen of the hidden valley
Bilbo settled on one of the benches by the kitchen table and Bell smiled as she placed one of her best teacups before him, pouring milk and adding the strong tea. Little Samwise pushed the honey across the table and then continued to shell the large mountain of peas before him.
The master of Bag End watched in amusement as the lad rescued a large fat green caterpillar and walked gravely to the door, laying it down on the grass by the front step. It was a good job Hamfast was not around, for he would have told Samwise to kill it. In his mind, Bilbo could hear him chiding even now.
“I don’t grow vegetables for no caterpillars. I grows ‘em to feed people.”
Sam returned and continued his work and Bell reached out a hand to ruffle his curls as she finished slicing carrots. Bilbo stirred a spoonful of honey into his strong tea, careful not to use too much. He made a mental note to find a reason to send across a jar at some point. Honey was expensive and he knew that the Gamgees rarely used it in tea themselves, keeping it for cooking instead.
Wielding a small, sharp knife . . . it’s blade worn into a concave arc by years of sharpening, Bell did not look up as she spoke.
“So. How is young Master Frodo? It must have been a long trip for him from Buckland . . . him havin’ been so ill an’ all. I hope it don’t cause him to relapse. I’m surprised the doctor let him travel.” Her voice held a note of censure. But then, it always did when she talked of Buckland. Like most people in Hobbiton, she considered the folk who lived beyond the river a bit “touched”. “He should’ve been left tucked up in bed for another week at least after that influenza, if ye ask me.”
The implication of her words was not lost on the bachelor hobbit. “And you think I should have had more sense, Bell?” he asked quietly. He had been dubious, to be sure. But the doctor had offered cautious approval and Frodo had managed, although he had nodded against his uncle’s shoulder for the last two hours of the cart journey and Bilbo had shooed him straight to bed when they arrived. He had left the lad still sleeping soundly this morning.
Bell pursed her lips and started peeling onions. “Beggin’ yer pardon an’ all, Mr Bilbo. But ye’ll not be used to carin’ for young uns.” She looked towards the sink and the sound of splashing.
“Daisy, ye be sure to get all the blood clots out o’ that beast heart. I don’t want to go sticking my hand in to stuff it and coming up all bloody again, like last time.”
Daisy looked contrite. “Ma . . . I’ll do it right, this time. I ain’t never done it before last time. I’ll flush it out good. I promise.”
Bell nodded. “There’s my good lass.” She went on to start dicing onions and Bilbo noticed little Samwise wipe his eyes. Bell followed his gaze. “Why don’t ye move a bit further down the table, Sam? These onions are a mite strong.”
Sam nodded and slid himself and the peas further down the bench.
Bilbo sipped his tea. “I must admit that I wondered whether it would be safe to move Frodo. But the doctor seemed happy. And when I checked him this morning he had no sign of fever. He just seems tired.” A note of uncertainty crept into his voice. “Do you think he will be alright? Perhaps I should go and check on him again.” He made to rise and little Samwise’s eyes grew wide in alarm, but Bell’s calm voice cut the rising panic.
“Ye sit there an’ finish yer tea. If he didn’t start a fever durin’ the night he’s not goin’ to start one now. He’s young. He’ll bounce back. Youngsters usually do,” she announced sagely.
Daisy brought the cleaned heart to the table and set it in a roasting tin while her mother added the diced onions to the stuffing mix waiting nearby. She looked at Daisy for a moment, assessing. Then she pushed over the basin of sage and onion stuffing. “Here’s another job for ye, lass. Ye can stuff the heart. Make sure ye get it right down inside, mind ye.”
Daisy beamed at being entrusted with this extra responsibility. “Yes, Ma.” She took up a handful of stuffing and forced it down one of the holes widened in the top of the heart . . . her tiny hand disappearing inside as she forced the breadcrumb and suet mix down as far as she could reach.
Bell took up a larger knife and began to chop up some turnip. “Sam, lad. Will ye go to the pantry an’ fetch that little bowl of broth for me?” The turnip was firm and Bell struggled to get the large, razor sharp knife through the orange flesh.
“I put some beef broth aside for Master Frodo last night. It’s got a few vegetables in it but I’ve chopped ‘em extra fine for him. I weren’t sure how he would be feelin’. From the sound of it he’s taken no harm but he might like it anyhow.”
Sam crept carefully across the room from the pantry, a small basin held firmly between both hands. He concentrated on the sloshing liquid, tongue sticking out of the corner of his mouth and relinquished it to Bilbo in relief, returning to his pile of peas and popping one in his mouth as reward. Bell grinned.
Bilbo inhaled the fragrance of the broth, a very thin layer of fat crazing its surface like ice on a puddle. “I am sure Frodo will love it, Bell. The doctor said they were still having to tempt him to eat and I can think of few things more tempting than your cooking.”
Bell kept one eye on her knife as she glanced up at her guest. “I don’t know about that. Although I’ve learned a few things, bringin’ up this brood. Anyhow, yer a fair cook yerself, Mr Bilbo. The lad won’t starve, that’s for sure. Talkin’ of which . . . I think tis about time ye should be checkin’ on him. Tis an hour since ye came in.”
Bilbo’s eyes widened. “Oh my . . . that long?” He rose, hurriedly. “I should check, shouldn’t I.” His eyes fell to the basin of broth and he lifted it carefully. “He may be looking for his breakfast even now. Dear me. Some Uncle I am.” He hurried to the door and Sam rushed ahead to open it for him. “Thank you, Bell,” he called over his shoulder.
With that, he left, and Sam stood in the doorway, watching him hurry up the hill to the big smial, hoping to catch a glimpse of the new occupant.
“Samwise Gamgee . . . ye come in here and finish yer job. T’aint polite to rubberneck.”
Daisy giggled and her mother glared at her, reaching over to score the flesh of the beast heart that now lay, stuffed and ready for roasting, in the tin.
Bell dropped the chicken head into a dish, sighing, and Daisy hung her head.
“I’m sorry, Ma.”
“Never mind . . . can’t be helped now. But next time make sure ye ask the butcher to dress it afore he weighs it. I reckon nothin’ to paying for the weight of a head and feet I’m not goin’ to eat. Bill Bracegirdle saw ye comin’, lass.”
Daisy ducked her head once more and Sam hid a smile as he bent to his slate at the other end of the large scrubbed wooden table. He painstakingly formed the letter ‘A’ with his stub of chalk and checked it against the one flowingly scripted on the small piece of paper on the table at his side. The young lad sighed when he compared them and wished the learning would go faster so that his letters would look as beautiful as Mr Bilbo’s.
Bell took one of the yellow feet in her fingers and slit the skin around the joint, using the sharp knife to cut the sinews before bending the foot back, slicing through the bottom layer of skin and adding the severed foot to the head in the bowl. The second foot followed the first and Daisy rushed to dispose of the evidence.
Deciding that the point had been made, Bell relented when the girl returned. “Tis alright, lass. Everyone makes mistakes. It weren’t yer first and it won’t be yer last. Yer forgiven.” The small sharp bladed knife was run down the skin of the neck from shoulder to end and Bell began to peel back the skin. Finding the joint between the bones at the windpipe she sliced the neck away and placed it in a fresh dish.
Her eldest daughter smiled in relief. “Thank you, Ma.”
“Finish gratin’ that stale bread fer the stuffin’,” Bell instructed, as she turned the bird around and cut around the vent.
Daisy picked up the grater and the remains of the loaf and added crumbs to a growing mound in the basin.
Sam watched in interest as his mother slid her fingers inside the bird and moved them around a bit, then she seemed to grasp something right up at the neck end and began to slowly draw her hand out. With it came all the inner organs of the bird. Curiosity got the better of him and he left his seat to stand at his mother’s elbow. Bell noticed his presence.
“There now, Sam. All that came out of that bird. And most of it we can’t eat.” She fished around in the mound of sweet smelling offal.
“Why not, Ma?” Sam asked curiously, watching as she severed the tiny heart and added it to the neck, sitting in a dish. That bit he recognised from the shape. It was the same shape as the beast heart they sometimes had . . . although it was much, much smaller.
Bell cut away the liver, carefully dissecting and discarding the gall bladder. “Well, a lot of this is used for digestin’ its food so it’s got half eaten stuff in it. Ye don’t want to be eatin’ that. And some of it is very nasty tastin’.” She pointed to the tiny gall bladder she had just discarded. Bell added the gizzard and kidneys to the heap in the bowl and then waited while daisy removed the wooden board to dispose of the rest.
Sam’s mother took up a waiting damp cloth and wiped around inside the now empty cavity. She slipped fingers in either side of the vent and pulled out two pads of fat, which she laid on one side to sit on the bird’s breast when it was put in the oven.
Daisy returned and began to add warm water to the stuffing mixture, filling the room with the smell of sage and onion. Her mother looked up at the smell.
“I hope you added suet to that mix or it’ll be a stodgy mess.”
“I did, Ma,” Daisy assured her mother hurriedly. She was not about to make any more mistakes today, especially with Sam watching.
Bell caught Sam frowning at the carcass. “What is it, lad?”
“What’s that red mark on the thing on the side?”
His mother looked down in confusion, trying to find the source of his question. Sure enough, on one wing . . . about half way down the last set of bones, was a bruise. Bell rubbed it between her fingers, feeling the grating of broken bone.
“Poor thing had a broken wing. Mayhap that’s why it were killed . . . farmer put it out of its misery.”
Bell accepted the stuffing bowl from Daisy and began to fill the cavity, after folding the empty skin of the neck over the hole at the other end of the body.
They all jumped at a loud thumping on the door, and for a moment they were too stunned to react. Then Bell ran to open it, wiping her hands on her apron as she went. Whoever it was they were obviously agitated because they banged again before Bell could cover the short distance from the table. She flung open the door to find Master Bilbo leaning, gasping on the doorframe, his face red and covered in sweat.
“Why, whatever is it Mr Bilbo?” asked Bell, reaching out to help him across the threshold.
Bilbo waved her off, finally finding the breath to speak. “Frodo . . . Frodo fell. Think he’s broken his arm . . . possibly his wrist.” He took another deep breath. “Need one of your lads to . . . fetch doctor . . . if you can spare them.”
Bell blinked. “They’ve all gone off to help Tom Cotton with his harvest. There’s only me and Daisy and Sam. May’s taken Marigold down to watch and Sam’s too young to go runnin’ about the Shire on his own.”
Bilbo sagged against the doorframe. “I had forgotten. I can’t leave the lad. I’ll try further down the row.” He made to leave but Bell stopped him, untying her apron and throwing it onto the corner of the table.
“They’ve all gone to harvest.” With surprising strength she turned Bilbo around. “Ye go fetch the doctor and I’ll go sit with Master Frodo.”
Bilbo sighed with relief and managed a weak smile. “Thank you, Bell. You’re a treasure and Hamfast is lucky to have you.”
Bell blushed and pushed him lightly on the shoulders. “Get on with ye! He knows well enough what he’s got. Now off ye go.”
With one final, relieved smile Bilbo headed off down the path at a trot. Bell turned back to the smial to find her two children still open-mouthed. She stuck her hands on her hips.
“Would ye look at the pair of ye. Faces fit to catch flies.” Two sets of jaws snapped shut and Sam ran up to his mother, brown eyes threatening tears.
“Are they goin’ to kill Master Frodo?”
Bell knelt down and gathered him up. “Gracious no, lad. Whatever makes ye ask that. He’s just broke an arm. He’ll be fine.”
Sam sobbed against her shoulder. “But they killed the chicken. I don’t want them to kill Master Frodo.”
Bell sighed and squeezed him before pushing him away to look into his tearful soft brown eyes. “They only do that with chicken’s, love. The doctor will put a splint on young Master Frodo’s arm to hold it still while it heals, and he’ll be right as rain in a few weeks.” She reached out and brushed away his tears with her fingers, leaning forward to kiss his forehead as the little face cleared.
“Now . . . ye’ll have to help here while I go and sit with Master Frodo. Think ye can do that?”
Sam pulled himself up to his full height . . . which wasn’t very much . . . even for a hobbit. “Yes, Ma.”
Bell gave him one last squeeze and stood up, looking across the room at Daisy.
“Finish stuffin’ that bird, then truss it and put it in the oven. Ye’ve seen me do it often enough and I won’t shout if ye don’t get it right this time.” She turned Sam and pushed him back towards the table, still addressing her daughter. “When ye’ve done that ye and Sam start the vegetables. May can help if she comes back in time. Get them on to boil when the bird’s near ready. And don’t give Sam that sharp knife. He’ll manage well enough with one of the others. Then clean out the gizzard and when ye put on the vegetables, put the giblets to simmer for the gravy.”
Daisy blinked, her face filling with panic. “But I ain’t never got a whole meal ready on my own. What if things ain’t ready and the bird is cooked?”
“Then take the bird out and we’ll eat it cold. It won’t come to no harm. Just use a skewer like I showed ye to make sure it’s cooked through.”
Before Daisy could say more, Bell pulled the door shut and hurried off up the path to Bag End.
She found the door open and headed down the hall, trying to remember which of the many ones lining it led to Master Frodo’s room. After a moment it became easy enough to find and Bell just followed the sound of soft sobbing. She found Frodo, lying atop his bed and curled on his side, his left arm cradled gingerly in his right.
The boy looked up when he heard her steps and sniffed, then turned his head into the pillows to hide his tears.
“There now, lad. Yer Uncle Bilbo’s gone for the doctor and I’ve come to sit with ye ‘til they get back. We’ve not been introduced. I’m Bell Gamgee from number three.” She settled on the bed and combed her fingers through his thick chestnut curls and he turned huge blue eyes up to her.
His voice was a little shaky but she noted that his manners had been learned, for he gave a formal, “Pleased to meet you, Mistress Gamgee.” Then he swallowed before adding, “Please . . . I’m awfully cold.” And to confirm his statement his body gave a small shudder.
Of course he would be cold. His body had just had a nasty shock. “Ye silly hobbit, Bell Gamgee . . . anyone would think ye’d no young uns of yer own,” she murmured. Rising, she set too making him comfortable and within a few minutes Frodo was tucked up in his bed, supported by a mound of pillows, with his clothes loosened. Bell laid a damp cloth on his brow and slipped a pillow gently beneath his left arm.
Frodo sighed in relief at the temporary reduction in his pain. The cornflower blue eyes, which had clenched shut as soon as she had moved him, opened once more. “Thank you, Mistress Gamgee.”
“Yer welcome, lad.” Bell settled on the bed once more and used another damp cloth to wipe his tearstained face. “However did ye manage to fall? Did ye trip?”
Frodo made to shake his head and stopped when the cool compress threatened to slip over his eyes. Bell adjusted it. “I fell out of a tree.”
“A tree? Whatever were ye doin’ up a tree?”
His reply was rather sheepish. “Reading.”
Bell fought hard to suppress a smile. “Well now, I’ve found most people use a chair, although I confess I’ve seen ‘em reading on the floor. But up a tree is a new one on me. Is it somethin’ they do down over the river?”
She would believe just about anything about what they did down there. They were strange folk, those Brandybucks, and Bilbo had done right by the lad, bringing him back up to Hobbiton to live amongst proper folk.
Frodo gave a little laugh, wincing when the consequent movement of his chest and shoulder jostled his arm. “No. It’s just something I do. Usually I don’t have any trouble . . . and I hadn’t climbed high. But the book slipped off my lap and when I reached to catch it I lost my balance.”
“Well, tis a hard lesson to learn and mayhap I’m takin’ a liberty . . . but I can’t help feelin’ it were a warnin’ to ye to stay out of trees. T’ain’t natural for a hobbit.”
Frodo smiled. “You may be right.”
Bell recognised the look in his eyes. She’d seen it in her young ones too often. He’d be back up a tree as soon as the splints came off. Well. It was none of her business.
“Would ye like a sip of water, lad? Ye look a mite feverish.” Although Frodo’s face was ashen beneath his summer tan Bell could see two points of pink colour in his cheeks and his face was bedewed with perspiration.
Frodo looked as though he were going to give a grateful, “Yes please.” Then he looked down at his injured right arm and left wrist and back at Bell. “No thank you. I’m alright.”
Bell sniffed and filled a cup from the jug at Frodo’s bedside. This young Baggins was a stubborn one. “Nonsense. Yer burnin’ up.” She held the cup to his lips. “Pride’s a good thing, in its place but the sick bed’s no place for it.” When Frodo made no move to open his lips she met his gaze squarely. “T’ain’t no shame to accept help when yer poorly. Especially from folk’s that love ye. Love needs room to show itself.”
Now it was Frodo’s turn to be surprised and he opened his mouth obediently, greedily sipping the cool water. Bell simply nodded in approval. He was stubborn but teachable.
They both looked to the door as the sound of a conversation and the soft slap of footsteps announced the return of Bilbo with the doctor. Frodo’s face filled with relief when he saw his uncle.
The older gentlehobbit assessed his nephew and turned to Bell. “Bless you, Bell. I don’t know how you managed it but he looks better already.” He turned back to Frodo and smiled, reaching out to pat the lad’s knee.
“I only made him comfortable,” Bell announced, as she rose to give the doctor access to his patient. As she got to the door she turned, searching for those blue eyes. “Now ye mind what I said, Young Master. And I’ll send Sam across with a bite to eat later. I doubt yer uncle will have the time to cook today.”
Frodo smiled. “I will. And thank you.”
Bell nodded in approval and turned back to her own brood.
The table was full; and a line of bottoms filled the benches on either side. But there were three empty spaces.
Bell stood at the range, stirring a small pan, with Sam watching closely. She fished out the chicken giblets, leaving them on a small plate that Daisy provided. Bell forked up the tiny liver and offered it to a pleasantly surprised Sam, who chewed it delightedly. That titbit was usually reserved for his Da but Sam would have to wait for his dinner until he had run his errand, so Bell knew that her husband would not object on this occasion. There was, after all, no sacrifice greater to a young hobbit than to ask him to delay eating when food was on the table.
Bell left the pan to bubble and, with two large forks, lifted the roasted chicken onto a serving plate, which Daisy laid before her Da, following it with basins of piping hot vegetables. Meanwhile, Bell added the meat juices from the roasting tin to the giblet broth. She handed Sam a cup of white liquid.
“I’ve another job for ye, lad. This is flour and water. I want ye to trickle it very slowly into the gravy as I stir. Do ye think ye can do that?”
Sam swallowed the last of the tiny liver. “Yes Ma.” Behind him he could hear plates being filled and knew that his Da was making sure that there would be one ready for him when he returned from Bag End.
Bell began to stir the broth briskly and Sam trickled the flour paste in very slowly, watching in fascination as the broth thickened and turned a pale toffee colour, the fat from the roast forming sparkling lace curtains on its surface. Her family was firmly convinced that Bell Gamgee made the best gravy in the Shire.
“Well done, lad. Now fetch me that little dish of mashed potato and we’ll pour some of this over it for Master Frodo.” Sam obliged, his mouth watering as he watched the golden liquid being spooned over a little mound of creamy mashed potato. There were those who argued that Bell Gamgee also made the creamiest mashed potatoes in the Shire . . . adding milk, butter and pepper and mashing them until they were smooth as silk. If those arguers all belonged to her own family it mattered little to Bell.
Daisy bustled up with a jug and the rest of the contents of the pan were used to fill it. Bell set the bowl of potato and gravy on a couple of tea towels spread out on the wooden draining board, waiting. Sam covered the bowl with a plate and Bell wrapped it all carefully in the towels to keep it warm.
“Off ye go, then, Sam. Quick as ye can so it stays hot, but don’t go trippin’. One broken arm on the Hill is more than enough.” She ushered Sam out of the door and watched a moment as the lad set off at a quick walk towards Bag End.
She returned to the table as May began to cut up the chicken in little Marigold’s dish. Collecting Sam’s filled plate, she covered it with a bowl and set it atop a pan of boiling water to keep warm. If she knew Sam he would probably wish to get his first look at Bag End’s newest occupant.
Daisy snorted as her mother sat. “Fancy breakin’ an arm. What was he doin’ up a tree, anyway? No sensible hobbit should be climbin’ trees.”
It was her father who answered firmly. “Taint none of your business to ask and taint none of your place to comment on the doin's of your betters, Daisy Gamgee. You remember your place, my girl. The Baggins’ have always done well by this family. ‘Tis the wages Mr Baggins’ pays me that’s put this meal in front of you and don’t you forget it . . . and he pays above the goin’ rate for the job. Young Master Frodo deserves the same respect.”
Daisy offered a properly contrite, “Yes, Da.”
Sam rang the bell by the big green door and it was opened within moments by Mister Bilbo Baggins.
“Hello Sam. Is that the potato from your mother?” He made to take it from Sam but the young hobbit relinquished it very reluctantly.
“Could I visit Master Frodo for a bit? . . . I won’t stay too long. I expect he’s not feelin’ very well at the minute.”
“I’m sure he’d love to see a new face, but won’t your supper be getting cold?”
“It’s alright. Ma said she’d keep it warm for me.”
Bilbo considered for a moment. Sam was much younger than Frodo but he was a quiet and thoughtful lad, much like the younger Baggins. Perhaps he would help to take Frodo’s mind off the pain until Bilbo could make up the tea the doctor had left.
“Very well, Sam. You can take in the tray. He’ll be more likely to eat if you’re there. The doctor says he’ll be feeling right as ninepence by tomorrow but he’s a tad feverish at the moment and it’s making his stomach a bit offish. You may be better at tempting him than I.”
He led the way to the kitchen, where he unwrapped the dish and placed it on a small tray with an equally small bowl of custard. Bilbo inhaled approvingly. “I do believe your mother makes the best gravy I have ever tasted.”
“Yes sir. She does,” affirmed Sam, quite willing to agree the merits of his mother’s cooking.
Bilbo took up the tray and led the way to Frodo’s bedroom where the lad was sitting propped up by several pillows. His right arm was in a sling, made from one of Bilbo’s expensive silk scarves, and Sam could see the hard outline of splints beneath the fabric. The left wrist also sported a light bandage. An open book lay upon the lad’s lap, although when they entered the room his eyes were closed. He opened them when he heard their footsteps.
Pain had turned Frodo’s complexion almost grey and the eyes were clouded but Sam found himself looking into wide eyes the blue of summer skies, set in a fine boned face and framed with curls the colour of roasted chestnuts. He almost imagined that this was one of Mr Bilbo’s elves, and for a moment he was struck dumb.
Bilbo smiled. “Here we are Frodo, lad. Some nice smooth mashed potato with gravy, courtesy of Mistress Gamgee, and a little custard . . . nothing too heavy on your stomach. And here’s young Sam Gamgee to help you with it.” Bilbo set the tray on his nephew’s lap as Sam stretched up to grab the book.
Frodo looked at the tray listlessly. “I’m not very hungry, really, Uncle.”
“Nonsense lad. The doctor said you couldn’t take the pain medicine on an empty stomach so eat up while I go and get it ready,” Bilbo replied . . . his tone brooking no further argument on the matter. As he left he handed Sam a spoon. “He has trouble managing with his left hand . . . sprained the wrist. You’ll have to feed him.” He left quickly, closing the door firmly behind him.
Sam looked about. There was a chair by the bed but he was too small to be able to reach Frodo’s mouth from there. Ever practical, he shrugged his shoulders and clambered onto the big bed, sinking into the soft feather mattress. He wished his own bed were as soft as this. He would never want to get up again. Frodo winced a little as the movement jostled him.
“Sorry, Master Frodo.”
“It’s alright, Sam.”
Sam dipped his spoon in the potato and held it to Frodo’s lips. At first he thought the older hobbit was going to refuse but, after a moment, pale lips parted and took the proffered morsel.
Frodo blinked in surprise. The potato was as smooth as could be; not a lump to be found. And it tasted of butter, with a slight edge of salt. The gravy was smooth too, mildly flavoured with chicken. It slid down his throat with little effort and his tender stomach showed no signs of rejecting it. When Sam offered another spoonful there was no further hesitation.
“I feel such an idiot, having to be fed like a baby,” Frodo confessed between mouthfuls.
“My Ma says there’s nothin’ to be ashamed of in acceptin’ help when you need it. You can’t help it, and you’ve got to eat,” Sam announced, sagely.
Frodo smiled in spite of his pain. The arm was throbbing, his wrist ached and the combination of that, with a mild fever, was also making his head ache. But Sam was trying hard not to jostle him, now that he had managed to get onto the bed, and he was keeping his voice quiet, as though he knew.
The stomach, which had been complaining only a few minutes ago, was now settling. Perhaps Bilbo had been right and hunger, rather than fever, had caused the discomfort there. He had not eaten since first breakfast and had been in too much pain to bother over much about anything else until the doctor had set his arm.
Sam could stand it no longer. Despite his Da’s words curiosity got the better of him and he could not resist. “Would you mind if I asked a question, Master Frodo?”
“No Sam. What is it?”
“Why was you climbin’ a tree?”
Frodo suppressed a wince as he chuckled, wondering how many times he would have to answer that question. “It’s a habit I got into when I lived at Brandy Hall. I like to read but the Hall was so busy that I was always getting interrupted. I discovered that if I climbed a tree I could be out of sight and enjoy my book in peace. It’s not a problem here, of course, but old habits die hard.”
Sam nodded. “Will you be stoppin’ climbin’ trees in future, then?”
Frodo thought for a moment. “I don’t know, Sam. I quite like it . . . you can see so much more of the world from the top of a tree and I would so like to explore that world one day. I wonder if that is why Big Folk travel so much . . . because they can see farther than us and want to go and visit the places that they can see.”
His helper absorbed that piece of information and filed it for future reference as he moved on to attack the custard. They were nearly finished when Bilbo returned with two cups.
As he crossed the room Bilbo took in the scene. Sam was settled on the bed, facing Frodo, offering him the last mouthful of custard. Both bowls were empty and Frodo was resting comfortably against his pillows. Some of the dullness about his eyes had gone, he was smiling gently and his face did not look as ashen. It seemed that Sam Gamgee was good for him. Perhaps he would pass on to Frodo the task of teaching Sam his letters.
“Here we are, lad. This is the willow bark tea and some milk to wash it down. Two big swallows and the medicine will be gone.” He handed over the smaller of the cups to Sam, who put it to Frodo’s lips at once, tipping in the suggested large mouthful. Frodo’s eyes widened and he swallowed quickly, his mouth turning down at the corners in an involuntary grimace. Sam gave him no time to pause as he delivered the second mouthful. He had been given this tea once when he broke a finger and he knew it tasted very bitter. As soon as it was swallowed Bilbo handed Sam the milk and Frodo drank it greedily, desperate to be rid of the horrible taste of the medicine.
“Well done, Frodo,” Bilbo praised. “Now let’s get this tray out of the way and you can take a little nap.” He removed the empty tray and Sam clambered down as gently as he could. The older Baggins helped Frodo scoot down beneath the covers, tucking them under his chin as soon as he was comfortable. Blue eyes closed and Bilbo signalled for Sam to follow him from the room. Frodo was exhausted by pain and shock and the willow bark tea would ease him enough to let him sleep now.
As they reached the door a small voice whispered, “Thank you, Sam. And please tell your mother that she makes the best mashed potato and gravy I’ve ever tasted.”
Sam blushed. “I will, Mr Frodo, and I hope as how you’re feelin’ better soon.”
Bell and Daisy were washing and May was drying the pots when Sam got home. Hamfast was playing with Marigold on the floor by the fire.
His Ma brought the warmed meal to the table and Sam tucked in. “Mr Frodo says to thank you and that you make the best mashed potato and gravy he’s ever tasted,” Sam reported.
Bell preened a little, although all she said was, “Well, he’s probably never had proper mashed potato and giblet gravy, livin’ the wrong side of the river as he was. But I’m pleased he liked ‘em.”
“How’s he doin’?” asked Sam’s Da.
“He’s broken his right arm an’ hurt the left but the doctor says he’ll be right as ninepence tomorrow. Mr Bilbo gave him some of that horrible willow bark tea and he was goin’ to sleep when I left.”
Bell nodded approvingly. “Sleep and good food’s the best thing for him. I’ll send ye across with some sweet potato puddin’ tomorrow. That’ll set him right.”
Sam grinned. Oh yes. Ma’s sweet potato puddin’ would set anyone right, and if they were lucky, they would all get a taste of it.
This is one of the new chapters in the tale
“Can you pour the tea, Frodo?”
Frodo lifted the lid and stirred the fragrant contents of the teapot. “Yes Bilbo. I can manage that at least,” he replied a little ruefully. Even this had to be done slowly for he was naturally right handed and that was the arm in splints. His left wrist sported a supporting bandage too, although the pain and swelling had reduced considerably in the past few days.
Bilbo added a couple of rashers of bacon to each plate while Frodo filled their cups and joined him at the table. Just as he was reaching for the milk jug there was a loud knock at the kitchen door. “Sticklebacks!” There was nothing more frustrating to a hobbit than being interrupted when about to tuck into second breakfast.
Grinning, Frodo went to answer the summons. “Hello, Mister Gamgee. What can I do for you?”
Hamfast tugged at his forelock and held out a handful of letters. “Me and Halfred met the postmaster on his way up the hill so we said we’d delivery these for him.”
“Thank you, Ham,” Bilbo called from the table, where he was cutting up Frodo’s bacon for him. “I’ll pop out after breakfast to have a word with you about the roses.”
“Aye, Mister Bilbo, sir. Me and Halfred will get on with the weedin’ ‘til then.”
Frodo settled down at his place just as Bilbo finished cutting the bacon and he nodded thanks as he handed over the post. Bilbo grabbed a mouthful of scrambled egg before sifting through the envelopes.
“There’s one for you.” He handed over a cream envelope and Frodo accepted it with raised brows. It was the first letter he had received since moving to Bag End and he recognised Aunt Esmeralda’s round script at once.
He tore open the envelope and perused the single sheet of paper it contained, his brows drawing down now. “It seems Aunt Esme has heard about my fall. She’s asking if we would like to celebrate our birthdays and the Harvest Home at Brandy Hall.”
Bilbo looked up a little sheepishly. “I’m afraid I was the one who told her. I thought it would be better to hear it directly from me than through gossip. I suspect that by the time the gossip reached Buckland, Esme would be told that you had broken every bone in your body when I flung you from a tree.”
Frodo had to grin, knowing only too well how the gossip tree worked. He forked up a piece of bacon, judging it a little crispy for his liking but grateful that Bilbo was willing to take the greater share of the work at present.
“Would you like to go back and visit, lad? We can if you wish.”
Frodo did not need to consider for too long. “I feel as though I’ve only been here five minutes. I think I’d like to celebrate our birthday here this year. If that’s alright with you.”
When Bilbo did not reply Frodo looked up to find his uncle reading a letter on the same cream paper. “I have a letter from Saradoc,” he announced baldly.
“You don’t sound very happy about that,” Frodo observed with growing concern.
“Esme’s letter may have been a suggestion but Sara is not so diplomatic. We have been summoned to Buckland. It seems he is concerned about my ‘parenting skills’.
Frodo set down his fork, suddenly losing interest in his breakfast. “Oh dear. I am so sorry, Bilbo. This is all my fault for being careless.”
Bilbo threw down the letter. “Nonsense, lad. It was an accident . . .pure and simple. Saradoc was never happy about your adoption. He thinks this crusty old bachelor has no right to be looking after a tween.”
“Well, he’s wrong! I love being with you.”
Bilbo sighed. “I’m afraid there’s nothing for it. I’ll send Halfred over to Bywater to deliver a message for Tom Carter. He will still be around after delivering the mail and if he’s heading back Buckland way he may be able to take us as passengers.” He nodded to Frodo’s arm. “You’re in no fit state yet to walk all that way.”
It seemed to Frodo that half the occupants of Brandy Hall were gathered at the large front door to greet them. Esmeralda was smiling and ran forward to kiss his cheek and then envelope him in a careful hug. She held him at arm’s length for a moment to study him. “Well, you look a little tired but otherwise well,” she pronounced with a knowing glance aside to her husband.
Saradoc was not smiling as he shook Bilbo’s hand. Others came forward to greet the pair and then, suddenly, there was a shriek and a tiny figure bolted forward, flinging his arms about Frodo’s waist. “Frodo!”
Frodo staggered under the momentum of his attacker but recovered quickly. “Hello, Merry!”
“Up!” the faunt demanded, reaching up his arms.
“I’m afraid I can’t, Merry dear.” Frodo could almost feel the ice coming off the glare Saradoc gave Bilbo. “I’ve hurt my arm.”
Merry’s eyes widened as Frodo pointed to his arm, in its sling. He had made a conscious decision to discard the bandage on his other wrist the day before, aware that Saradoc needed no further ammunition. The little lad reached up to touch the sling, stroking gently along Frodo’s forearm. “Poor Frodo,” he pronounced as he turned to his mother. “Mama, kiss it better,” he demanded, with all the faith of any faunt in the healing power of a mother’s love.
Esmeralda tucked her son into her skirts. “I’ll kiss it later. But I think what Frodo needs now is a wash, something to eat and a nap.”
Saradoc motioned for them to enter the hall. “While you see to that, Bilbo and I will have a chat.”
Bilbo offered Frodo a wink when the lad looked as though he would protest their separation. “You go ahead with your Aunt, Frodo. I’ll see you at supper.”
Saradoc led Bilbo into his study, it’s neatness a strong contrast to Bilbo’s eclectic muddle. For some minutes, they talked stiltedly of the weather and travel, the state of the crops and whether Eglantine Took’s recently announced pregnancy would finally produce a male heir for the Thain. The older hobbit recognised this for what it was . . . a delaying tactic . . . and played along readily enough.
Esmeralda swept in a few minutes later with a smile and a flurry of fine lace petticoats. “There now. I’ve put you and Frodo in the blue room. I thought you’d like to share and it’s a nice big room.” She smiled, her green eyes filled with warmth. “I’ve left Frodo unpacking.”
Saradoc bristled, “On his own . . . with only one good arm?”
Esmeralda rolled her eyes as she began to pour a fine red wine into three glasses. “He’s only broken the one arm, dear. He’ll manage well enough.”
Bilbo settled onto a settee, hiding a smirk, but Saradoc noticed and it was all that was needed to let slip his temper at last. “He shouldn’t have to manage. That’s the whole point.” He sat down bristling at Bilbo across the clear expanse of his huge polished desk.
His wife handed him a glass of Winyards, turning to perch on a corner of the desk, between the two protagonists, before offering Bilbo his. “Frodo’s always been a very capable lad, Sara,” she responded calmly.
“Capable of getting into mischief you mean.” Saradoc took a large swallow from his glass and Bilbo cringed at the blatant disregard for such a beautifully mellow wine.
Esmeralda chuckled. “We used to call him the Terror of Brandy Hall. If there was trouble to be had, Frodo Baggins would find it.”
Seeing now, how the land lay with Esmeralda and Saradoc Bilbo relaxed a little, taking a moment to savour a sip of wine before making his own observation. He couldn’t resist bating Saradoc, however. The fellow was just too, ‘upright’. “He’s a Baggins, through and through.” He had to bite his cheek as his words had the desired effect. He’d always been able to dig himself beneath Saradoc’s skin.
All the anger he had been holding at bay for days bubbled over and Saradoc exploded upward to pace before the row of three round windows behind him. “I was against this adoption from the start. That lad’s had enough trouble in his life. He doesn’t need to be led into any more by ‘Mad Baggins’.”
Esmeralda’s eyes widened as she watched Bilbo, but ‘Mad Baggins’ continued to sip his wine.
“And I have no intention of doing so. I have had my adventure, and very enjoyable it was. But Frodo is yet too young to be traipsing off after wizards.” In truth, Bilbo felt a little uncomfortable with that statement, for there were moments of his adventure that could only truly be considered enjoyable when viewed through the softening lens of time.
When Saradoc began to turn puce his wife stepped in. “Do stop blustering dear. You know the doctor says it’s not good for you.” With a sigh, she led him back to his chair and placed the glass in his hand once more and to his credit, Saradoc allowed her to do so.
Esmeralda stood at her husband’s shoulder. “I don’t share Sara’s opinion about the adoption, as you know. I think the undivided attention of one person is exactly what Frodo needs. But you really must give him that attention, Bilbo dear.”
Bilbo shifted uncomfortably. Had he been too absorbed in his own interests? He confessed that there were occasions, in the middle of a particularly difficult translation, when he lost track of time as well as Frodo.
Noting his hesitation, Esmeralda pressed on. “I think you and Frodo are good for each other. He will keep you grounded.” They all winced at that wording. “And you will keep that sharp mind of his occupied. It was boredom that was at the root of many of his pranks here.”
Saradoc’s features had faded to a more normal colour as his wife spoke. Now his tone was exasperated, rather than angry. “Did you even know he was up a tree?”
Bilbo had regained some of his own composure. “I did not. Although he tells me he did so first whilst living here.”
Now it was Saradoc’s turn to squirm for he had not been privy to that particular fact. Esmeralda laid a gentle hand upon her husband’s shoulder. “I knew. As he grew, the ‘Terror’ was slowly replaced by the ‘Scholar’. That’s another of the reasons I thought you would be so well suited.”
Saradoc laid a hand over hers. His outbursts of temper were always short lived. “The lad needs nurturing, Bilbo.”
Bilbo nodded. “I know and I am trying my hardest. We’re rubbing along nicely most of the time and he’s certainly turning into a very good scholar.”
Saradoc shook his head. “He’s a tween. There should be more in his head than books. Are there any lasses of his age in Hobbiton?” he asked pointedly.
Bilbo blinked. His own tweenage years had been so long ago that he had forgotten the heady discovery of lasses, the flirting, the uncertainty, the anguish of first rejection. Frodo had only just entered his tweens though. Surely there was time for him to grow into that? He had a sudden very sobering thought. Had Saradoc told Frodo about the birds and the bees? Was Bilbo expected to tackle that subject?
Noting the thoughts flitting across Bilbo’s face Esmeralda smiled. “How old were you when you had your first proper kiss, Bilbo?”
Gilly Brownlock’s freckled features formed in Bilbo’s mind. Now, there had been a willing participant in his first attempts. Of course, she had been eclipsed by the arrival of Pansy Berrydown in his young life. Bilbo pushed down the image of glossy chestnut curls and laughing eyes the colour of new holly leaves. Marriage and faunts had not been for him but Frodo was not Bilbo. “I don’t remember precisely.”
Saradoc set down his glass. “We are not telling you to throw him into the arms of the next willing lass, but at least make sure that he gets out and about amongst lads and lasses of his own age. I know there’s not the choice in a small place like Hobbiton that we have here, but there must be some. There’s more to life than books and tall tales, Bilbo.”
Half an hour ago Bilbo may have bristled at that last comment but now he considered carefully. “I suppose I just assumed that, as he showed such an interest in my books, he was getting all he needed. But you may have a point. I shall make sure he attends social occasions more often.”
Esmeralda raised finely arched brows. “And how will you do that, Bilbo dear?”
At first inclined to make some glib comment about shoving the lad out of the door, Bilbo was suddenly reminded of something his father had once told him. “The best way to teach is not to tell but to show.”
“I suppose we could start by attending Harvest Home here . . . together.”
Esmeralda’s face broke into a smile. “I think that would be a very good idea. He can help with the harvest again and get re-acquainted with some of his old friends.”
“And just how is he supposed to help with harvest when he only has one good arm?” her husband enquired with a frown, still a little unwilling to let Bilbo off the hook.
Esmeralda smacked his shoulder playfully. “He can keep Merry out of trouble for a start.”
Bilbo chuckled. If he knew Frodo Baggins at all, he suspected that before long he would be getting Merry into far more trouble than he would be keeping him out of.
Sam stood on tiptoe to ring the bell hanging beside Bag End’s round green door. As he waited for what felt to the youngster a very long while, he studied the sky. It was overcast and he hoped Old Widow Rumble was right when she had told him that it would not rain today. A loud groan of hinges announced the opening of Bag End’s door and he spun about to discover himself face to weskit with Mister Bilbo.
“Hello Sam. What brings you out on this cold afternoon?”
“Beggin’ your pardon, Mister Bilbo, but Da sent me to ask if you was needin’ any greenery for the yule decoratin’ in Bag End. Only me and Halfred and Da is goin’ into the woods to collect some.”
Bilbo smiled down at the lad. “How very good of you. But I wouldn’t want to put you to any trouble. I bought a few sprigs of holly at market yesterday.” He bent down to whisper, “Between you and me they’re a bit straggly, but they’ll do in a pinch.”
Samwise drew himself up to his full height to announce with some certainty, “Oh, my big brother, Halfred, knows where there’s some mistletoe and Da always finds the best holly bushes. Nobody else knows about ‘em. We can bring you some pretty stuff.”
Bilbo considered for a moment. “Very well. If you think you can manage to carry enough for Bag End as well, yes, I would love some.”
Sam beamed. “We’re goin’ to take the handcart so we’ll be able to get lots.” He spun about to race back down the hill, shouting over his shoulder, “Goodbye Mister Bilbo.”
Bilbo closed the door pausing once inside to chuckle at the exuberance of the very young. Frodo stepped out of the parlour, hefting a set of ladders. “Was that Sam Gamgee?”
“It was. You had better leave those here for it seems we are to have lots of decorating to do upon his return.”
Frodo sighed with relief as he leaned them against the wall and blew hair out of his eyes. “I thought you had decided not to do too much decorating this Yuletide.”
His comment was met with a sniff. “Well, I’ve changed my mind. Come and help me mix the Yule pudding. Then we need to put some oil on that door hinge.”
Frodo grinned. There was just no telling what Burglar Baggins would do next. That was one of the things he liked most about his uncle. Bilbo could be infuriating, absent minded, even self-absorbed upon occasion, but he was never predictable.
It was dark by the time Sam, Halfred and their father, Hamson Gamgee, came ringing at Bilbo’s door again. Light spilled out from the hallway to reveal a handcart piled high with the deep, glossy sheen of holly, the vibrant glow of red berries, blue green spikes of sweet scented pine and pale green and white clusters of mistletoe.
“Oh my! You three must have worked like an army of beavers to collect all that in just a few hours.”
Ham chuckled. “T’were a hard afternoon’s work I’ll grant you but twas worth it. Just let me know how much of this you’ve a fancy to and me and Halfred will bring it in for you. No sense in all of us getting scratched.” He held out his hands to show liberal smears of blood amongst the grime.
“Oh dear. Holly does not like to be cut, does it? But shouldn’t you find out how much Bell needs for your smial first? I know how she loves to decorate for Yule.”
Ham and Hal began tugging at the holly. “Oh, she’s had her pick and Daisy and May are goin’ to be busy tonight I can tell you,” Hamfast assured him. “No Sam. Don’t you go touchin’ the mistletoe. Leave that to the grown-ups.”
“Just pile it in the corner over there if you would,” Bilbo advised. “I think just one clump of mistletoe and perhaps half of the holly and pine that you have there.” He stood back as Hamfast and Halfred began dragging branches into the hall. “How much would you like for them?”
Frodo appeared from the kitchen, blinking when he saw the green bounty. “Hello Master Gamgee, Halfred. Surely that is not all for us?”
Hamfast paused to acknowledge the young master before adding a large clump of mistletoe to the top of heap. “Bless you, Mister Bilbo. I don’t want no money from you. Look on it as a Yule gift from the Gamgees to the Baggins.”
Halfred winked. “We’ll sell the rest at market tomorrow. There’s always someone leaves it ‘til last minute and tis much better than the stuff Sandon Grubb was sellin’ the other day. I reckon this were an afternoon well spent. Mayhap we should try it every year.”
Hamfast tutted. “Not every year, lad. Give the poor trees time to regrow. It don’t pay to be too greedy with nature.” He touched fingers to his forelock. “We’ll say goodnight, sir. My Bell will be waitin’ supper on us and no doubt you’ll be wantin’ yours.” He nodded to the wooden spoon in Frodo’s hand and the lad grinned.
“Goodnight Hamfast. And thank you for the gift. I’ll see you at the celebration tomorrow.”
Hamfast and Halfred headed back down the hill with their much lighter cart while little Sam Gamgee skipped on ahead to number three.
“Have you the kindling bag, Frodo?” Bilbo grunted as he made final adjustments to the huge oak log in the parlour fireplace, setting loose a soft expletive when one of the sprigs of holly decorating it scratched his wrist.
“Here, Uncle. It took some finding. What was it doing in your study?” Frodo held out the small hemp bag and Bilbo opened it, scattering ashes and small lumps of charred wood from last year’s yule log around the base of this years.
“I seem to remember having an idea for a translation that I was working on at the time. I thought I’d better write it down before I forgot so I set the bag on my desk.” Bilbo shrugged. “Then things got away from me, and for the rest of the year I just kept moving it from place to place.”
Frodo giggled. “You mean, from pile to pile.”
Both Baggins stood back to admire their day’s labour. The mantle and window sills were all but hidden beneath swags of holly and pine, with a few pinecones and some red ribbon bows for good measure. Sprigs of mistletoe hung on either side of the freshly scrubbed fireplace and pale candles stood ready in every sconce. The room was filled with the scent of greenery, laced with beeswax, mingled with the spicy richness of mulled wine and baking that drifted in from the kitchen.
Bilbo clapped his nephew on the shoulder. “Not a bad job if I say so myself. Is the bonfire ready down the hill?”
Frodo nodded. “I helped Mister Gamgee haul up the holly crown myself. It looks rather grand. We didn’t have that tradition in Buckland. Is it true that everyone will be coming to the bonfire?”
“Oh yes. All are welcome at the Yule fire.” Bilbo glanced toward the window. “Speaking of fires, I think I see the first star so we’d best light our own. Being top of the hill, so to speak, it all starts with us.”
Half a dozen eager steps brought Frodo to the parlour window. Sure enough, although it was getting dark, not a candle showed down in Hobbiton. “Goodness. It looks so sad with no lights. But for the kitchen chimney smoke you’d think it was deserted.”
Bilbo took flint from his pocket and bent to the hearth, beckoning Frodo to join him. “Then let’s make sure they don’t sit in darkness for much longer.” He struck flint to the kindling in the hearth and blew gently. The wood shavings caught first, their edges shimmering yellow as each curl burned from outside to centre. Soft wisps of grey smoke drifted through the larger twigs and soon they caught, spitting and cracking. The charred wood from last yule’s log kindled next, its light more blue than yellow as it licked at the green of the holly leaves decorating this years. Finally, the yule log began to char. It had been drying out for weeks so that it would burn well but it was the bark that took first, whistling as steam escaped through cracks, followed by tiny spurts of yellow flame.
Keeping another for himself, Frodo handed his uncle a twig of dry holly, its leaves curled and brittle for it had been cut some days before.
“Time to say goodbye to the old year, lad.” They knelt together before the fragrant fire for some time, each contemplating the events of the past year. Both smiled softly as they came to the independent conclusion that there had been more good than bad. It was Bilbo who leaned forward first, flicking his holly into the growing flames. Frodo followed suit only a moment later.
The older hobbit clapped his hands and grinned at his nephew. “Now that we’ve dispensed with the old year, let’s start the new one.” He selected a twig from the kindling basket, lighting it from the fire and then setting it to the wick of a large fat candle offered reverently by Frodo. As the golden glow began to light their faces they recited the yule blessing together. “May we have hearth to comfort, fire to cook and candle to guide us home.”
Frodo stood, shielding the delicate flame as he crossed to the window and placed it in a lantern set amongst the greenery; Hobbiton’s first light of the new year. Bilbo brought another lantern and its candle was lit from the one in the window. Frodo ran into the hall to collect their cloaks as his uncle took a moment to place a wire guard before the fire.
As they made their way down the hill Frodo saw folk drifting out of their darkened smials, to stand in their gardens. Someone from each smial held an unlit candle. Bilbo stopped at the gate of number three. “Yuletide greetings to you, Hamfast.”
“And to you, Mister Bilbo.”
Bilbo opened the door of his lantern and Hamfast reached in to touch his candle to the one burning warmly within. As the wick caught Bilbo bowed, intoning, “May you have hearth to comfort, fire to cook and candle to guide you home.”
Frodo saw now that the whole Gamgee family was standing in their darkened doorway. Bell stepped forward solemnly to light a candle from her husbands and, followed by the girls, took it indoors to light their own yule log and set a lantern in the window of number three’s kitchen.
Hamfast stepped on down the lane, followed by Frodo and Bilbo, to where Harry Mugwort waited at the gate to number two Bagshot Row. Ham offered greeting then repeated the blessing as he watched Harry light his own candle and pass the flame to his mother, Clover Mugwort. The yule log was lit at their home and the flame passed by Harry, to Arty Sedgeburry.
Slowly the yule flame passed from hand to hand. From their high point half way down the hill, Bilbo and Frodo watched little pinpoints of golden light bob from smial to smial, spreading outward along all the lanes of Hobbiton. Frodo was reminded of a morning glory, spreading open her petals to the sun. Soon a candle shone in every window and a log blazed in every hearth.
Then the light merged from single points to groups and then lines as it contracted once more, converging upon the Party Field at the foot of the lane. The residents of the hill formed a golden river of their own, that moved off to merge with others until there was a long candle lit procession, with Bilbo at the front. Excited faunts skipped along at their parents’ side whilst others, too sleepy, were carried in father’s arms. Kitchen chairs were dressed with ribbons and pressed into use to carry the old folk and, here and there, a good natured jibe was muttered about dropping some particularly cantankerous aunty. There would be music and singing on the way home but now there were only whispered greetings and the occasional reedy voice of a faunt.
All Hobbiton formed a circle about the huge bonfire in the Party Field, waiting.
Once more it was Bilbo who stepped forward with his lantern. Lifting out the candle, he pushed it deep into the centre of the holly crowned pile that stood three times as tall as a hobbit. Once more smoke curled, wood crackled and an orange glow began to peep through the carefully stacked branches and logs. Youngsters cheered as the first sparks flew heavenward.
Other candles were lobbed into the growing blaze as folk joined hands about the fire. With one voice the cry went up,
“Tis the time of endings.
Tis the time of beginnings.
Health, Hope and Happiness.
Light, Love and Laughter.
Prosperity and Peace to all!”
Bilbo turned to hug those closest and found Frodo. “Health, hope and happiness, lad.”
Frodo’s bright eyes brimmed with life and he grinned as he was released. “Light, love and laughter, Bilbo.”
Bilbo drew him into another hug. “Prosperity and peace to us all.”
Behind them someone struck up a drum and the first few notes of the Yule Circle sang out from a fiddle. Bilbo grabbed Frodo’s hand and Buttercup Rumble took his other as all around the fire a circle was formed. A chord was struck and the circle began to move as everyone’s feet trod the age-old pattern.
His feet long used to the ancient measure Bilbo used the time to watch his nephew. The lad’s face was filled with a light that had nothing to do with the glow of the fire about which they danced. Bilbo had to shout to be heard over the voices of the singers. “I’m so glad you’re here to share Yule with me this year, Frodo.”
Frodo face broke into a joyous grin. “Oh, so am I, Uncle. So am I.”
Their voices joined the chorus while, before them, the bonfire sent showers of golden sparks upward to blend with Elbereth’s silver stars, wheeling in their own ageless circle about the night sky.
“Let me see those hands afore ye sit down, Sam,” Bell demanded as she set his plate on the table at the side closest to the fire. The lad had just come back from helping his father clear snow from the garden path at Bag End and the cold air had turned his nose and ears quite purple. Dawn had brought with it an unusually heavy fall of snow.
What a waste of time that had been . . . and Hamfast was off to Hobbiton to help Widow Rumble with her path. Bell looked up from the sink drainer, where she was drying pots, and rubbed away some of the condensation from the window. Within five minutes of Hamfast leaving the snow had started up again and a strong blustery wind was dashing large wet flakes against the windowpanes. Bell hoped that her husband would soon be inside. She knew that Buttercup would at least keep him warm with plenty of cups of hot tea once he reached her smial.
A small tug at her apron told Bell that Sam had finished washing and she examined the sturdy little hands, turning them over to check the finger nails. Not that Hamfast and the lads ever managed to keep their nails clean . . . but Bell insisted that they at least try. She reached down and ruffled his hair.
“Ye’ll do. Go eat yer elevenses. And don’t go gobblin’ up all the bread. Leave some for luncheon.”
Sam’s face, which had lit up at sight of the big plate of bread and butter, fell. He tucked in nonetheless, ignoring Daisy’s snigger. They all looked up at a tentative tap at the door. Daisy suddenly became engrossed in her mending and Sam started to get up, but Bell put a hand on his shoulder.
May would have stood from her place by the hearth, where she was sewing a new doll for a currently napping Marigold. Her mother waved her down as well. “Go see who’s at the door, Daisy.”
Daisy sighed and made a big show of securing her needle and folding the cut down nightshirt she had been making over for Sam.
“Spit spot, lass. Whoever’s there is standin’ in a blizzard,” chided Bell and Daisy jumped to obey, aware she had taken one step the wrong side of a line. Sam ducked his head to hide a smile and May suddenly concentrated hard on her stitching, but Bell knew enough about siblings to cast a disapproving eye at each.
Daisy opened the door, admitting a flurry of snow and revealing a figure in a thick green hooded cloak. From the depths of the big hood a light but cultured voice asked, “Good morning, Miss Daisy. Is Mistress Gamgee at home please?”
Not used to being addressed in this manner, Daisy simply blinked and turned back to her mother for instruction. Bell realised who it was as soon as he spoke and bustled forward, wiping her hands on her apron.
“Bless me, lass. Invite poor Master Frodo in. He must be half froze, standin’ on the doorstep. And close the door proper after him. Don’t go lettin’ in any more cold air.”
Daisy stepped back and Frodo entered quickly, turning to close the door himself, before pushing back the hood of his cloak and wiping his feet on the mat. The young lass assessed him critically, having previously seen him only from a distance, and dismissing him at once as too skinny and pale than was proper for a hobbit, returned to her sewing.
Bell took over as hostess. “Come in, Young Master. Let me take yer cloak. Ye must be froze. Come sit by the fire.”
Frodo made to protest at first but within seconds she had unfastened his cloak, draping it over a chair to warm by the range, and shepherded him to sit on the bench beside Sam. Frodo grinned down at the lad. “Hello again, Sam.”
"Mornin’ Master Frodo, sir,” Sam replied with a shy smile.
As soon as the doctor pronounced Frodo well enough to travel after his tumble, Bilbo had escorted the lad back to Brandy Hall for a visit. Bell suspected that they had been summoned. They had celebrated their joint birthday in Buckland, only returning in time for the Yule festivities. Cold weather had ensured that the Gamgees had seen little of either Baggins for some time after their return.
Frodo returned his attention to his hostess. “Thank you, Mistress Gamgee. I did not think to interrupt your elevenses. Bilbo asked me to run down to enquire if you could spare any yeast. He had intended to go into Hobbiton to buy some, but with the weather as it is . . .”
Bell set a cup of tea in front of their guest and pushed the honey pot towards him. Frodo eyed the nearly empty pot and shook his head. “I don’t take honey, thank you.” His mouth dropped open. “Oh . . . that reminds me.” Tugging at his jacket pocket the tween pulled out a small jar, holding it out to Bell. “Bilbo asked if you could find a use for this honey. He bought it in Hobbiton last week but is not terribly fond of the flavour. He usually buys from Charlie Proudfoot and it will only be wasted if we keep it.”
Bell smiled as she looked at the unbroken seal, recognising the ploy but willing to accept because she knew it was kindly meant. Sam licked his lips as he eyed the pot.
“Thank ye, Young Master and please pass on my thanks to Mister Bilbo. I were goin’ to bake some cakes this afternoon and this’ll come in right handy. I’ll send Sam across with one later for yer tea.”
Frodo’s eyes lit up at the mention of cake and Bell bringing the warmth of summer sun on this bleak day. The lad had the makings of a handsome catch for some young lass in the future.
“Yeast, did ye say? I’m sure I’ve got some in the pantry. Let me check.” Bell disappeared through a small door, returning a few moments later with a small covered basin. “Did he say how much he wanted?”
Frodo nodded, the scrape of a fork on china drawing the young gentlehobbit’s eyes inexorably to the contents of Sam’s plate. Dark eyebrows drew together in thought as he stared at the thin squares of pale cream and grey, dressed with malt vinegar and salt. “Enough to make three loaves, he said.”
Noting the direction of his gaze, Bell considered the contents of her pantry and decided she could do without elevenses today. “Have ye eaten elevenses? There’s plenty of pig bag left if ye care to join Sam.”
Frodo blushed. “Oh, thank you for the offer, but Bilbo was about to make some bacon sandwiches.” His dark brows drew together once more. “What is pig bag?”
For a moment Bell was surprised, and then she considered the young hobbit’s upbringing. His diet had probably never included such items. She knew that Mr Bilbo didn’t eat much offal, apart from kidneys and liver, and she didn’t want to even consider what those strange folks in Buckland ate.
“Why don’t ye try a mouthful? Give him a bit of yours, Sam.” She handed Frodo a clean fork from the draining board and Sam slid his plate towards their guest.
Frodo’s blush deepened. “Oh, I couldn’t eat some of your elevenses, Sam. Goodness knows but you’ve earned it with all the hard work you did this morning,” he stammered.
“T’aint no trouble, Master Frodo. I can spare a mouthful,” Sam assured him gravely.
Frodo speared a small piece and popped it in his mouth. It had a mild flavour . . . the grey layer a little dry and crumbly and the cream layer a chewier texture, with a thin smear of fat between. He nodded in approval as he swallowed. “It’s very nice. But what is it?”
“We get it from the butcher in Hobbiton. Tis a messy, smelly job preparin’ and cookin’ it yerself. Tis boiled pig’s stomach, chopped up.”
The pink tinge in Frodo’s cheeks, so recently conjured by the cold weather, suddenly faded and he took a large swallow of strong tea. “That’s interesting.”
Bell rescued the used fork, throwing it in a basin of washing up water in the sink and in her chair by the fire Daisy sniggered.
“Daisy Gamgee, ye hold yer tongue. Likely as not they eat different the other side of the river. T’aint polite to laugh at a guest and I taught ye better manners.” Bell turned back to the sink to hide her own smile. In future, she would have to remember that the young master was squeamish about such things. She divided her yeast and popped some in an old cup that had long since lost its handle, turning back to hand it to Frodo.
He accepted it gravely. “Thank you. I’d best get back, or Bilbo will have the bacon burned,” he announced, draining his teacup and rising. Bell shook out his cloak and laid it about his shoulders, fastening the large buttons and pulling up the hood without thinking . . . treating him as one of her own. Frodo found he quite liked it and stood still to allow her to do so.
“Now ye keep that yeast inside yer cloak and don’t let the snow at it. Or ye’ll have bread as flat as pancakes.”
“Yes, Mistress Gamgee. Goodbye.”
Sam ran ahead to open the door and, with a final nod of thanks, Frodo slipped out, running as fast as he could back to the warmth of Bag End.
“Well, close the door, Sam,” called Daisy, happy to be able to catch her younger brother in the same fault of which she had often been guilty. With a last glance at Frodo’s retreating figure, Sam closed the door.
Daisy’s jibe had not been missed by her mother. “That’ll do, Daisy. Have ye finished that shirt yet?”
“Well, get a move on then . . . or Sam will have grown out of it afore ye’ve finished. And small stitches mind ye. I’ll have none of yer cobblin’.”
Sam returned to his meal, glancing at his sister, whilst trying to hide a grin, and Daisy checked that her mother’s back was turned before sticking her tongue out at him. May had the sense not to become involved.
“He’s a skinny one,” Daisy commented, mainly because she could see that Sam had taken a liking to the new Baggins but also because she enjoyed shocking her younger sister. “They say he’s sickly too. I like my lads with a bit more meat on ‘em,” she announced, boldly as May’s mouth dropped open.
Bell did not bother turning from her washing up. “We don’t listen to nor pass on no gossip about the Baggins family, Daisy. And I should hope that ye were not takin’ a serious interest in any lads, whatever their build, until ye come of age, young madam.” She set the freshly washed fork on the draining board once more. “He’s got plenty of time to fill out and he’ll be a good catch one day. I dare say Mister Bilbo will make sure he’s well provided for. The lad’s got a nice way with him an’ a pleasin’ face.”
At mention of Frodo being “well provided for” Daisy began to re-assess her comment. Perhaps he would be worth her notice after all. She would add him to the bottom of her list of potential’s.
Bell turned and caught her eldest daughter staring off into the fire. “Daisy Gamgee, stop wool gatherin’ and start sewin’.”
Her mother sighed. Daisy was getting to that age.
Frodo called a hello to May Gamgee, who was supervising her young sister, Marigold, as they gathered strawberries from the patch in the garden of Number Three. From the bright red lips of both girls, the stains down the front of Marigold’s pinafore and the only half-filled basins, Frodo suspected there was very little supervising and a great deal of nibbling going on.
He hesitated before the door. A light spring breeze ruffled Frodo’s hair and he turned his head in irritation as a few stray strands of fringe got caught in his eyelashes and whipped across his high cheekbones. Perhaps it was too long but why couldn’t Bilbo cut it?
A loud, “Ouch . . . Daisy!” came from beyond the yellow door and Frodo took an involuntary step backwards. Maybe his hair wasn’t that long after all. The conversation beyond the door continued at a loud volume and Frodo grimaced.
“Good grief, lass. Ye’ve taken off half my ear.”
“Serves you right for movin’. I told you to sit still.” Came Daisy’s shrill reply, with more than a little sadistic glee.
“Come here and let me look. Tush lad. ‘Tis nothin but a clip. Ye’ll live. Get on with ye,” Bell’s firm voice encouraged. “Go help yer Da and young Sam with the taters at Bag End.”
Too late, Frodo turned to leave but there was nowhere to hide and he had no sooner turned on his heel than Halfred threw open the door, pausing to roll up his sleeves. Turning back, Frodo’s eyes were drawn inexorably to the small drop of blood at the tip of Halfred’s left ear.
“Oh! Mornin’ young Master Frodo. I nearly bowled ye over. I didn’t hear ye knock.”
“Errr. No. I was just about to, when you came to the door.”
Halfred and Frodo were near enough in height and the Gamgee lad leaned close. “Don’t let Daisy loose on yer hair. Ye’ll look like a half-drowned kitten when she’s finished.” He half turned and shouted over his shoulder, “I’ve seen better jobs done on hedges.”
Both he and Frodo dodged when a damp towel flew towards them, followed by Bell’s raised voice. “Halfred . . . ye stop yer teasin’ and Daisy . . . stop throwin’ about my good towels.”
Obviously used to his younger sister’s antics, Halfred had plucked the wet towel out of the air with ease. With a conspiratorial wink and a whispered, “Good luck,” he pushed it into Frodo hands and ushered him across the threshold into the steamy warmth of Bells kitchen. “Yes Ma. Sorry. Here’s Master Frodo.”
Bell beckoned from the other end of the huge scrubbed kitchen table, accepting the towel with a smile. “Come in Young Master. Take off yer jacket and have a seat. I’m just waiting for the next lot of water to boil. She fanned her red face with her apron and peered through the thick dimness of the small-windowed room.
“Daisy lass. Tis worse than wash day in here. Go open the windows for a while to let some of the steam out afore we all drown. And hang up this towel while ye’re at it.”
Frodo shrunk aside as Daisy moved to comply behind him, her skirts brushing his calves on the way past. The room was a little over cluttered with furniture, but not enough to warrant her stepping quite that close. He removed his jacket and took some time to drape it carefully across the table before perching nervously upon the end of a bench.
“Won’t be long now, Mr Frodo. Mr Bilbo said yer hair could be cut dry, but we can see better what’s going on if it’s wet. Daisy, have ye got the clean towels ready and the soft soap? And for goodness sake, give those scissors a good rinse and wipe.”
Frodo winced as Daisy flounced onto the bench directly opposite him and began to wipe and clean the scissors. He found his eyes drawn to the small smear of blood on the cloth, evidence of her last victim. She met his eyes with a suggestive glint and ran the cloth slowly up and down one blade, then the other. Frodo could feel himself blushing and tried to look anywhere else, without seeming impolite.
“Right now, come and help me fill the basin with hot water, Daisy . . . Daisy?” Bell’s voice paused and even Frodo cringed at the final, “Daisy Gamgee. Ye put those scissors down and come here at once. And when ye’ve helped me with this ye can go and feed the sow.”
“Sow! The lads always draw lots over that job when it’s hot. It’s horrible.” Nevertheless, Daisy helped her mother ladle hot and cold water into a large enamel basin on the table. Her compliance did not win her a reprieve, however, for Bell handed over the bucket of slops.
“Off ye go, lass. And don’t forget yon sow likes a drink too. As you say, tis a hot day. Make sure she’s got some water.” Her words were almost lost in the sound of the back door slamming. Finally, it was just Frodo and Bell. Frodo let out a long breath . . . blowing his fringe out of his eyes.
Bell slid the basin across the table. “That lass will be the death of me,” she muttered as she turned back to the range.
Frodo sincerely hoped Bell was wrong but could well understand the sentiment as he stared at the firelight glinting on the blades of the scissors. He tore his gaze away, trying not to consider his fate at the hands of Daisy Gamgee. She had a reputation for a sharp tongue and in Frodo’s opinion putting a set of blades in her hand was asking for trouble.
A warm fire glowed in the kitchen range and a large iron casserole sat towards the back, its lid shuddering gently. Bell lifted a cloth and moved the dish closer to the cooler edge of the hob, causing the lid to settle. Still, from it arose the tantalising aroma of stewed rabbit and vegetables. Doubtless a supper supplied by the nearby woods.
“Come round here, if ye please Master Frodo, and sit on the bench in front of the bowl,” Bell instructed. “And slip off that fancy weskit.”
Frodo complied, a little warily. Would he have to take his shirt off? What would happen if Daisy returned? He all but jumped when Bell’s work worn fingers began to tuck under the collar of his shirt. She paused a moment then continued. “We don’t want to get this wet now, do we?” she soothed. “I usually make the youngsters take off their shirts but I reckon ye’ve got sense enough to sit still.”
Frodo breathed a small prayer of thanks to whichever of the Valar had the job of protecting young hobbit lads from the unwanted attentions of young hobbit lasses, wielding sharp scissors and sharper tongues.
Bell produced a small but exquisitely carved wooden comb and began to run it gently through Frodo’s dark curls. He yipped as she found the first knot but once she had his measure Bell managed to untangle the rest relatively painlessly. Frodo found himself surrendering to the process; the firm pressure of one hand upon his scalp while the other pulled the comb over a small area until a knot was worked out. And then there were the long strokes as all the tangles were gone, the feeling of the teeth of the comb scraping lightly down his scalp in steady rhythm. It all became quite soothing.
He blinked when she laid the comb aside, surprised to see how much of his hair was caught in the fine teeth. Just how much hair did he have? Perhaps she had already combed most of it away and Daisy would not have to cut any more off. Bell knew nothing of his thoughts, placing firm hands on his shoulders and pushing down until Frodo’s head hung over the steaming basin.
“Here, lad.” Frodo looked aside to find Bell offering him a folded facecloth and looked up at her in confusion. “Hold it over yer eyes. It’ll stop any stray runs of soap getting in.”
Only half convinced of the efficacy of this suggestion, Frodo nonetheless held it in place. Any attempt at keeping soap out of his eyes was better than none and his Aunt Calli had never even offered him the option. His eyes used to tear for hours after she washed his hair. Frodo had been washing his own hair ever since he came to Bag End. He was a tween now, after all. He removed the cloth and glanced up. Whatever must Mistress Gamgee think of him? “I can wash it myself, Mistress Gamgee.”
The cloth was guided back at once and Bell filled an old cracked cup from the basin before leaning over Frodo’s hunched shoulders. “I’m sure ye can. But I like washing hair. Besides, knowing young lads I’ll warrant ye’ll have water all over my floor and yerself by the time ye’ve finished.” She tweaked his ear playfully and then poured the warm water gently over Frodo’s head. He was left with no option but to replace the cloth.
Warm. The water flowed from the back of Frodo’s head and down to his temples, where it ran off back into the basin in little splashing trickles. Bell’s fingers followed the path of the water across Frodo’s scalp, gently using liquid and hand to smooth the thick dark hair forward. By the time she had his hair fully wet, Frodo was beginning to relax again, unresisting as her hand guided his head to one side or the other.
Aunt Rosemary had been the last person to wash and cut his hair and Frodo still shuddered at the memory of her rough handling. He and Bilbo had been visiting Brandy Hall for Harvest Home and his elderly aunt had insisted that Frodo have his hair cut for the event. Then she had proceeded to half drown and sheer him like some wayward sheep.
The wetting stopped and Frodo flinched as something cold was dabbed upon his head. Sensing his reaction, Bell paused.
“Tis alright Master Frodo. ‘Tis just soap shavings softened in water a while. ‘Tis easier than using a block of soap, though I confess it’s a bit cold. It’ll warm when I lather it up.”
Without further ado, Bell’s strong fingers began to swirl in his hair, creating a thick, creamy lather that crackled in Frodo’s ears. Any tension caused by the chill soap was soon worked away by the firm but gentle touch of Bell’s fingers and Frodo’s body drifted down closer to the bowl as the muscles of his back relaxed.
Aunt Rosemary’s hands had scrubbed and tugged but this was a slow massage of kindly fingers. Frodo was glad that his face was hidden and he swallowed against a sudden lump in his throat as he remembered another’s touch. Aunt Esmeralda loved him, to be sure, but he was one of several youngsters fostered in her care. She had little time to provide the individual love of a mother. For a moment a need to be cherished warred with the need to show that he was an adult. The need for the touch of a mother’s hands won and he was glad of the facecloth covering his watering eyes.
Bell seemed to sense his mood and continued to rub her fingers across his scalp in silence for a few minutes before starting the first rinsing. “There, now, lad. That’s the soaping done so ye can let go that cloth if ye like, while I get fresh water.”
Frodo peeled it away, to find his nose scant inches above the cloudy water. He had not the time to contemplate it, however, as Bell draped a warm towel over his head and slid the basin away.
“Now just ye sit there while I fill this for the last rinse.”
Frodo felt no inclination to do otherwise. The room was warm and still damp and the air was a strange mixture of lavender scented soap and rabbit stew. For a moment he imagined that the feet moving around on the flagstone floor behind him had burnt chestnut hair instead of rich loam brown. But then the basin, filled with fresh, steaming water, was slid back by Bell’s lined, square hands. His mother’s hands had been smooth and long fingered.
“Let’s just add a drop of this to cut through the last of that soap.” A slightly pungent liquid was poured into the water and Frodo sniffed tentatively. It actually didn’t smell too bad.
“What is it?”
“Tis just cider vinegar. Soap can be nasty stuff to get out of yer hair. Ye’d best put that facecloth back. Don’t want vinegar in yer eyes.”
The air felt cold on Frodo’s scalp as Bell lifted the towel but the chill was soon washed away by the warm water running over it once more. Frodo surrendered to the sensation of water running through his hair, chased by Bell’s capable fingers. He could hear the squeak of clean hair as she combed her fingers through; the sound setting his teeth on edge. Too soon, it seemed to him, the rinsing stopped and his head was draped in a warmed dry towel. Frodo abandoned his face cloth.
“Up ye come, lad and let’s see how long this tangle really is.” He lifted his head slowly, watching little motes of light dance before his eyes for a moment as his body adjusted to the change in position. Once more Bell’s fingers massaged his scalp, this time through the fabric of the towel, and Frodo could not help a pleasurable smile at the relaxing feel of it. Bilbo loved him dearly; he had no doubt of that. But only a mother could give this kind of loving touch, and he had missed it for far too many years.
A nagging worry began to make itself felt however, as he considered what Daisy would make of the cutting. Hers was anything but a mother’s touch. But there was no sign of Daisy’s return and it was Bell that set the scissors on the table before him.
Bell pushed the basin out of the way and removed the towel. Then she reached aside for a small glass bottle. Opening it, she dabbed a little of the contents onto a finger and rubbed the pale glistening drop of liquid into her palms. Frodo recognised the scent of lavender as Bell began to smooth her palms over his hair.
“This will help ease out the tangles and make it shine. ‘Tis just oil with a touch of lavender to make it smell nicer. Although I don’t think ye need any help with the shine. Ye’ve got a fine head of hair.” She took up the comb again, having pulled out the fluff of hair from her previous attempt at ordering, and ran it through his now damp locks. To Frodo’s relief, any tangles were soon dealt with and he could feel the teeth of the fine comb running from crown to nape with no resistance.
Bell’s deft fingers pushed up the hair at his crown several times until she found the little whorl of growth that marked the natural centre and combed the thick, almost black hair out smoothly from it in all directions. Then she fished about in her apron pocket and produced two smaller combs, which she set upon the table. These were not as fine as the one she had used before, obviously carved from animal bone and with some of their teeth missing.
Once more, Frodo responded trustingly to the confident fingers that tilted his head forward, hoping against hope that it would be Bell cutting his hair. He felt her run the comb across his neck and then blinked in surprise as first one and then the other of the old combs disappeared and he felt them tucked into his hair, holding the upper part out of the way. He swallowed hard as the feel of a similar touch flashed through his mind. Frodo tried to place the errant memory.
Aunt Callendula had always sat a pudding basin on his head and cut around it. Frodo cringed at the memory and the teasing he used to get from the other lads. Aunt Rosemary just seemed to take up random chunks of hair and chop them off. It didn’t look too bad when it had grown out after a couple of weeks but for the first few days it stuck up on end in every direction which, when combined with his large blue eyes, gave him a permanently startled look. A small tear ran down Frodo’s cheek as the memory finally settled into place. Mamma’s combs had been delicately carved from dark wood but she had used them in this same way.
Bell pushed his head a little further forward and Frodo felt the blade of the scissors slip along the skin at his neck . . . heard the long quiet crunch . . . and felt the tiny wet feathers of liberated hair settle coldly upon the sensitive flesh of his nape. Using the corner of a towel, Bell brushed the leavings away, moving to deal similarly with the other half of the layer. The next layer was sectioned off and Frodo resisted the slight tension as Bell pulled it away from his scalp between her fingers and snipped. This process was repeated over and over as Bell’s gentle and comfortable fingers worked meticulously up his head, layer by layer. And all through the process, Frodo’s tears tracked silently down his cheeks. So long . . . so long since he had been the recipient of such tender attention.
“Well now, that’s the back done,” Bell announced. “Turn around and stand up to face me now, and I’ll do the sides and front, Frodo, lad.” Bell had gradually lost all the formality between servant and young master as she worked, so absorbed was she in the task. Frodo sniffed and tried to wipe his tears away before standing, hoping that Bell would see it as him disposing of a stray hair or two.
Standing, he was almost Bell’s height nowadays, and when he turned he found himself looking into her warm eyes. Frodo dropped his gaze when he saw concern settle there. He knew at once that he had not fooled her. “I’m sorry, Mistress Gamgee.”
“Whatever is the matter, lad. Did I tug too hard?”
“Oh, no,” Frodo rushed to reassure her. “I’m being silly, I’m afraid. It’s just . . . just . . . that you reminded me of . . . Mamma.”
There was only a moment’s pause before he was enveloped in soft strong arms, his nose buried in the warm linen of Bell’s neckerchief, inhaling the motherly scents of soap and baked bread. Frodo let out a strangled little sob and leaned instinctively into the embrace, wrapping his arms around her ample waist.
“And why should ye be sorry for rememberin’ yer Mamma?” Bell murmured as she rocked gently, in the instinctive way of all mothers. “Ye hold on to them memories, lad. Treasure them and don’t ever be ashamed when they come up on ye unawares. Them’s the memories that’ll help ye through the bad times.”
The words poured into Frodo’s mind like fresh spring rain on parched grass. “I . . . I didn’t want to embarrass you. I’m supposed to be a grown tween. Crying is for faunts, or so my Uncle Saradas said.”
Bell pushed him back gently and lifted his chin with a touch of her hand. “Well now, I don’t hold with young lads crying at every little thing. And I’m not so grand thinkin’ as yer Uncle Saradas, I reckon. But the loss of a mother . . . ‘tis not what I’d call a little thing and it don’t do no good to hold all that pain inside. Ye’ll find many an old gaffer dropping a tear or two, so don’t ye ever be ashamed of cryin’.” She blotted his face with a corner of her apron. “And ye won’t never embarrass me. I’ve raised bairns and seen enough of life to know all about tears.” Bell smiled softly and Frodo found himself smiling back. He took a deep breath, feeling as though a tight weskit had suddenly been undone, so that he could inhale the full glory of the air around him.
Bell smoothed down her apron and picked up the scissors once more. “Now. Let’s cut the rest of this hair. Mister Bilbo said he wanted to see them blue eyes of yours again and I can see why. I’m thinkin’ ye’ll have no problems finding dancin’ partners at Ferdy Brownside’s birthday party next week.”
Frodo blushed and his smile widened into a grin as Bell lifted her combs.
“When I’ve finished this we’ll have a nice cup of tea and an apple tart, afore my brood start coming back and demanding their supper.” She lifted the scissors to his brow. “Close yer eyes so I don’t get any clippings in them.”
Frodo obeyed willingly and felt her begin to section off some hair from the crown as she continued.
“And mayhap, when ye open them again the world will look a bit better.”
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.
“Bilbo, should I wear the brown waistcoat or the red?” Frodo stood in Bilbo’s bedroom doorway, holding up a waistcoat in each hand.
His uncle paused in his own sartorial primping to study the garments. “The red one goes well with your black breeches but appears to be missing a button.”
Frodo examined the garment more closely. A clump of loose threads and a small tear was evident where a brass button should have been. He sighed. “The brown it is, then” he stated with a philosophical air as he disappeared back to his own room.
Bilbo hoped it was in order to brush his hair, which at present seemed to be sticking up in all directions. He frowned for plain brown cord was not the most elegant for such a social event. Still, it was clean and appeared to be unscathed by Frodo’s activities. The lad seemed to have a knack for destroying clothes, whether by his extensive hiking or his writing. Bilbo supposed that at some point he would have to take the lad to his tailor.
Half an hour later Bilbo was standing in the hall when Frodo reappeared, with a covered basket over his arm. His uncle was pleased to note that the lad had brushed his hair, both that on his head and on his feet. He also smelled pleasantly of the scented oil Esmerelda had gifted him on his birthday last year. His black breeches were pressed, the white shirt was freshly laundered and the waistcoat had been sponged to revive it. In truth, Bilbo was rather impressed that Frodo had managed to do all that in such a short space of time.
Aware that he was being studied closely, Frodo grinned. “Will I do?”
“I do believe you will. Is that the cake?”
Frodo lifted the basket. “Yes. And the scones. I have added flour to our shopping list for tomorrow. We used the last on the cake.”
“Good lad. Come on then. Let’s go and join the revellers.” He led the way out of the smial and down the lane. “Remember what I told you about Hamfast’s home brew. Stick with the cider instead. I don’t want to have to carry you back up the hill.”
Walking in the dark, Frodo risked rolling his eyes. “I remember, Uncle. Cider only.”
Bilbo cleared his throat. “There will be lots of lasses there of your own age. Just you remember that you’re a Gentlehobbit and a Baggins. I don’t want to have to explain a tweenage wedding to your uncle Saradoc.”
Once more Frodo was grateful for the cover of darkness for he could feel the blush climbing his face. “Bilbo! I do know about the birds and the bees.”
Bilbo’s sigh was audible. “Good. Just make sure you remember them when you’ve had a half or two of cider.”
By now they had reached the bottom of the hill and the Party Field. The noise level was quite astonishing for everyone from miles around was celebrating the safe gathering of the harvest. Anyone who helped with the harvest, even in the most minor capacity, was welcome at the Harvest Reel. It was the event of the year.
Gaffers gathered around tables with beer and pipes to discuss the relative merits of this year’s harvest against those of previous years. Gammers sat in another corner, discussing the antics of absent family and neighbours. Matrons wore their best skirts and crammed themselves into bodices with straining laces. They were setting out the food on long trestle tables on the far side of the field, where awnings had been erected in case of rain.
A motley group of musicians were grabbing a few mouthfuls of cider while lines of lads and lasses were forming up for the next dance. Amongst all this faunts ran in squealing trails, like butterflies dancing in a summer sky. It was late for some and in a corner farthest from the band, beneath another awning, a small area had been set aside, spread with blankets and tended by some of the younger matrons. There some bairns could already be seen, curled in little hummocks of sleep and oblivious to the noise and clamour around them.
Suddenly, May Gamgee appeared before Frodo. Her sandy hair, with its usual riot of curls, was dressed with green ribbons and she wore a pretty bright green dress to match. She smiled shyly up at him. “Would you care to dance, Master Frodo? The next one’s to be the Cotters Line.” She gnawed at her bottom lip. “I used to dance with Halfred but he’s not able to get home this year.”
Bilbo knew that Halfred always made a point of partnering his younger sisters for at least one dance at the Reel. “Go on, Frodo. I’ll take the basket.”
Frodo handed it over and then bowed low to the young lass. “Miss May, would you do me the inestimable honour of accompanying me in the next dance?”
May’s brown eyes widened at such an invitation. Halfred had always just said, “Come on, lass.” She executed her very best curtsey and if it was a wee bit wobbly from lack of use Frodo made no comment. “I’d like that very much, sir.”
Frodo took her hand to help her rise and then tucked it into the crook of his arm to lead her to the end of one of the lines of dancers. Almost as though they had been waiting for that very last couple the band struck up and the dancers were off.
Bilbo watched as the lines of dancers drew together and parted, formed squares and cartwheels, skipped and pranced. Some of the less experienced made missteps and were pushed good-naturedly to the correct position by their companions but Frodo led his partner through the figures faultlessly.
Bilbo smiled as he wondered how many dancing lessons the lad had endured at the hands of his Aunt Esmeralda. The torture was paying off now at least for many a lass was glancing his way as they endured the graceless leadings of their own partners. Hobbiton lasses were not backward at coming forward, as Bell Gamgee would say. No doubt Frodo would have a gaggle of lasses fluttering their lashes and swinging their skirts to gain his arm for the next set.
“Here you go, Mister Bilbo. I saw you comin’ down the hill so I got this ready for you.” Hamfast Gamgee held out a half pint tankard and Bilbo recognised the heady smell of Ham’s home brew. He accepted it with a grin, along with the expectation of a thick head tomorrow.
“Thank you, Ham. I’m just on my way to deliver my contribution to the ladies table.” He took a careful sip and licked the foam from his lips appreciatively. “My, but that’s a good brew. You’ve excelled yourself this year.”
Ham followed him as they threaded the edge of the dance square. “I was thinkin’ the same. I think it’s the hops. They was a good crop this year.”
Bilbo took another sip, making a mental note to pace himself or it would be Frodo carrying him up the hill at the end of the night. “Here we are, Buttercup.” He relinquished his basket to the gnarled hands of Buttercup Rumble who gave him a toothless grin.
“Thank ye, Mister Bilbo. I hope there’s some of yer scones in here.”
“There are indeed, and a coffee cake. There can never be too many cakes at a party.” He looked down at a gentle tug on his coat tail, to find little Marigold Gamgee staring up at him with sleepy eyes. “Can I have a danthe, Mithter Bilbo?” she asked artlessly.
Hamfast rolled his eyes and leaned in to whisper . . . at least it would have been a whisper but the noise level was such that he almost had to shout. “She should be sleepin’ but she says she won’t go ‘til she has a dance with you. I hope it’s not an imposition, sir.”
Bilbo smiled down at the faunt and handed off his beer to Hamfast. “Of course you may have a dance.” In a sudden movement, he swooped down to gather up Marigold, who squealed with delight as he began to prance about with her in his arms.
Two hours later the noise level had not reduced one jot, even though the children’s corner was now quite filled with little bundles of sleep. Bilbo mused that the volume was probably due to the amount of beer and cider which had been dispensed by the now rather tipsy Ted Hoarfoot. Beer and cider was provided free by the local farmers at this event but Ted undertook the job of unofficial bar tender every year, and was usually snoring under the table by the end of the night . . . at which point everyone just helped themselves anyway.
Bilbo watched as a particularly lively reel began to wind down, noting that the dancers were growing more inventive as the night progressed and pleased to see that Frodo was still in control of his feet. He was dancing with Ruby Brockbank at present and the lass was taking every opportunity to flounce her skirts to give Frodo a glimpse of her knees. Bilbo smiled appreciatively for they were a very shapely pair of knees to be sure.
Something sharp suddenly jabbed him in the ribs and he glanced aside to find Bell Gamgee grinning at him. “Ye just get that twinkle out yer eye. Ruby Brockbank is young enough to be yer grandbairn.”
Bilbo snorted. “I’m old, not dead. And where have you been all evening?”
Bell settled upon the grass at his side with a relieved sigh. “I’ve been servin’ at table most of the night. Then there was nothin’ for it but Hamfast would have a dance. By the time we’d done that I had to put down May and Sam. Poor Sam was all but asleep on his feet but he would have it that he had to say goodnight to Master Frodo. And as yer lad’s been on the dance square most of the evenin’ that weren’t easy to manage.”
Bilbo nodded to where the dancers were starting to break up. His eyes followed Frodo assessingly as he escorted Ruby to the visit Ted Hoarfoot. “Well he’s off the square now,” he murmured.
Next to him Bell grinned into her cider mug. “He is that. Looks like Ruby’s takin’ him off somewhere quiet to drink their cider.”
When Bilbo made to rise she dragged him down again. “Leave ‘em be. Yer lad has a good head on his shoulders and he’s been doin’ too much dancin’ to be in his cups. He knows what’s what, and well enough to keep it in his breeches.”
Bilbo choked on his beer and Bell had to strike him firmly between the shoulders once or twice. When he could breathe again Bell continued.
“Ruby Brockbank shakes her skirts a lot but that’s as far as it goes. She’s a good lass at heart.” She took a thoughtful sip of her cider. “I expect it’s ‘cause she’s the only lass in the smial. Her Ma died a few years back and she’s been lookin’ after her Da and three older brothers ever since. I reckon getting’ the local lads a bit bothered now and again gives her a bit of power.”
Bell pointed out a taller, rather well-built hobbit threading his way through the crowds and into the shrubbery at the edge of the field in the general direction Ruby had taken Frodo. “That’s Ruby’s brother, Bartimus. Him and his brothers always keep an eye out fer Ruby.”
“Oh dear. Will Frodo be alright.”
“Bless you, yes. Bartimus wouldn’t hurt a fly. He’s got his sister’s measure. He’ll probably just crash around a bit in the bushes and call out fer her.” Bell took another sip of her cider.
Sure enough, a few minutes later Ruby sashayed out from the bushes with her brother a few paces behind. Bilbo continued to worry until Frodo appeared a little later. The lad looked a little flushed but there were no signs of a black eye or a limp. In fact Frodo looked rather pleased with himself, which Bilbo found even more worrying. “You’re sure about Ruby?”
Bell laughed. “I’m sure. Although from the look of the lad Ruby’s given him a lesson or two in kissin’ and canoodlin’ he won’t forget in a hurry.”
Bell stood, arching her back to stretch out the kinks, and lifted the basket of weeds she had just grubbed up from the tiny flower bed outside number three Bagshot Row.
“Good afternoon, Bell.” Bilbo Baggins leaned upon the garden wall.
“Hello there, Mister Bilbo. How are ye today?” She smiled warmly.
Bilbo grimaced. “I think I had one too many of Hamfast’s home brew last night but I think I’ll survive.”
Bell chuckled. “I reckon ye won’t be the only one sufferin’ today. Harvest Reel is a good excuse to let loose and more than a few do just that.” She spotted the basket by his feet. “Are ye comin’ back from market?”
“Yes. We just needed one or two bits. How is Daisy today? Every time I looked about last night she was dancing with one lad or another. I felt tired just watching her.”
Bell shook her head. “She’s been like a bear with a sore head all day. Between you and me I think she had a mite too much cider between dances but she’ll not admit it, and I couldn’t keep an eye on her every minute of the evenin’. Why don’t ye come in for a cup of tea? Shoppin’ is thirsty work and so is weedin’.”
Bilbo grinned. “I cannot disagree with that. I’d love a cup of tea. Thank you.” He followed Bell into the wonderfully cool interior of the Gamgee kitchen.
“Ham’s gone down to help clear off the last of the tables and awnin’s in the field so settle yerself down in his chair. It’s more comfortable than a bench. Sam went with him.” Bell shifted the big black kettle onto the hob and began to gather the accoutrements for tea.
Bilbo settled into the large cushioned seat with a sigh, the darker interior of the smial giving some relief to his sore eyes and pounding head. “So, where is Daisy?”
“She’s gone down to help Buttercup Rumble with her laundry. Butter don’t cope so well with scrubbin’ with her arthritis and May’s taken Marigold over the hill to play with Fern and Lilly Bracegirdle. I’ve got the place to myself.”
Bilbo chuckled. “I bet you don’t know what to do with yourself.”
“Oh, yes I do,” Bell asserted with a snort. “Whatever I like. What did Master Frodo make of the Reel? Ye missed last years.” She handed Bilbo a cup of strong tea and placed the honey within reach.
“I think Frodo enjoyed it very much. He seemed to have no shortage of dancing partners.”
Bell settled in her rocking chair at the other side of the hearth. “That’s no surprise. He’s a polite way with him and when ye add in those big blue eyes I don’t reckon there’s a lass wouldn’t like his attention. Did he say aught about Ruby Brownlock?”
“No, and I don’t think I want to ask. I have to trust Frodo at some point, but it’s hard not to fret after the run in I had with Saradoc Brandybuck over his falling from that tree last year. I think he may very well kill me if Frodo suddenly had to get wed!”
“Well, ye know my opinion on those folk over the river but I have to say that they seem to have done well by the lad when it comes to manners at least. And with ye teachin’ him common sense he’s doin’ alright. He’ll not get caught unless he’s ready to be and that’s not yet if I’m any judge.” Bell took a good swallow of her tea. “I wouldn’t worry too much about Ruby. She’s a nice enough lass but Master Frodo will be lookin’ fer more than a shapely leg. Ruby’s likely not the one for him.”
“I confess I wonder if he’ll find a lass in Hobbiton. I cannot see any of them discussing the finer points of elvish translation.”
“Well, now, I don’t know nothin’ about elvish and neither will they. But there’s many a lass has a good sensible head on her shoulders too. There’s more to runnin’ a house and raisin’ bairns than can be found in yer books, and I hope I don’t give no offense by sayin’ so.”
“No offence taken, Bell. I suppose you’re right and one scholar is enough for any smial. Maybe there’s something in the old adage that opposites attract.”
Bell looked about her cramped kitchen and her reply held a wistful note of envy. “I’ve always thought it a shame that Bag End’s never held a big family. There’s plenty of room for bairns to grow up in there.”
Bilbo took a good swallow of his cooling tea. “Perhaps Frodo will raise a big family there one day. I can remember having great fun as a faunt, sliding up and down that hall on a rug. Indeed, when Frodo visited as a faunt I showed him how to do that . . . much to his mother’s annoyance I may add.”
Bell pursed her lips. “Well, I don’t like to speak ill of the dead but Primula Brandybuck was a bit of a one fer the airs and graces. She kept that poor bairn on a tight rein.”
Bilbo shrugged. “She did like to keep him close. She and Drogo had almost given up on the idea of having bairns when Frodo arrived so he was particularly precious to them. I have to say that she wasn’t as fussy when they were in their own home. I think she was worried he would damage the furniture or something in Bag End. I’m afraid that fifty years ago I was much the same.”
“A lot of water under the bridge since then,” Bell commented, taking a sip of her tea.
“Indeed. There’s nothing like being chased by a group of giant spiders to bring home to one the relative unimportance of grandma’s doilies.” Bilbo smiled wistfully. “I do hope that one day Frodo does teach his own faunt slide down that hallway.”
Bell grinned. “With his winnin’ ways he’ll find the right lass and there’ll be plenty of Harvest Reel’s to find her before he comes of age.”
“Be sure and put them books back as ye found ‘em, Daisy. Mr Bilbo won’t thank ye for losing one if he’s in the middle of readin’ it.” Bell Gamgee swiped her damp duster along the bedroom mantelpiece, tutting as she turned it over to examine it, before rearranging to a clean bit to make another pass.
Her daughter scowled but did as instructed; carefully replacing the pile she had dumped on the counterpane in order to polish the bedside cabinet. Her mother nodded approval as she stepped over to collect the tin of beeswax and polishing cloth. “Ye’ve done a good job there, lass. I can see my face in that. Mind ye, buffing aint a chore when furniture’s got as many layers of polish as Mr Bilbo’s. He told me some of these pieces came with his Ma from Great Smials in Tookborough.”
Daisy beamed at the praise, then scowled again as she realised there was still the chair in the corner to be tackled. She hated chairs. All those stretcher thingies between the legs at the bottom seemed to be there for the sole purpose of collecting dust. Her Da had once explained patiently that they were there to stop the chair legs splaying when a body sat on them. But Daisy was of the opinion that they had been invented just to make her life difficult. With a huff she dropped to her knees and set too with the dusting cloth.
The room had smelled of books and dust, pipe weed and Mr Bilbo’s cologne when they entered an hour before. Now the tickling smell of dust had been replaced with the sweet clean scent of beeswax and lavender polish. They were nearly finished in here and then they were to move on to Master Frodo’s room. Daisy was curious to find out what it looked like. He’d come up from Buckland after all. And they were odd down there. She wondered if he had any boots because she’d heard tales that folks down there wore them. Daisy had never seen boots.
Her musings were interrupted by the slap of running feet and her youngest brother, Sam, burst into the room, clutching Mr Bilbo’s chamber pot in both hands. He came to a skidding halt at a glare from his Ma.
“Samwise Gamgee, what did I tell ye about runnin’ with Mr Bilbo’s things?”
Sam hung his head, although having done so he suddenly found himself fascinated anew by the ring of blue dragons, chasing each other about the rim of the pot. He pulled himself back swiftly enough to mumble an apology. “Sorry Ma.” And he could sense, rather than hear, his older sister sniggering in the corner.
Having issued her censure, however, Bell nodded. “Let me see it then, lad. Not that it needed much cleanin’. That’s one thing Mr Bilbo is very clear about. Cleans ‘em out himself every morning’. There’s not many posh folks as does that.”
Sam filed away that bit of information as he held up the pot proudly for inspection. His Da had given him his very own workspace outside the back door, with buckets of water, cloths and cleaning stuffs. And there he sat, cross-legged, cleaning whatever Ma or Daisy brought him. Mr Bilbo’s chamber pot had already been sparkling but Ma had insisted that it was better to clean everything, just in case. “In case of what?” he had wondered. But Sam had set too, with a little bit of salt on a damp cloth first. Then white vinegar and water. He had grown quite fond of the blue dragons by the time he had rinsed and polished with a dry cloth . . . a scrap of his Ma’s old petticoat.
Sam held his breath as Bell’s eyes narrowed. She made great show of turning the pot this way and that in the light from the open window and running her fingers around the inside. After what seemed an age to her little son, Bell handed it back with a smile. “Well done. Put it back now.”
Sam made to slide it under the bed but his Ma tutted. “No lad. In that cupboard under the washstand.” His eyes widened at the idea that there could be a piece of furniture specially made to house a po. Crossing to the corner washstand Sam opened the door to discover that, sure enough, it was the perfect size. It was with some sense of reverence that he replaced the po and closed the door; standing to stare for a moment. His own po was brown earthenware, had a chip in the rim and was kept under the bed. Never in his wildest imaginings had he considered that there would be a piece of furniture specifically made to house such an item. He had an auntie who always called hers a “guzunder” which seemed to Sam an eminently practical name for an item that goes under the bed. Did Mister Bilbo call his a “guzinto”?
His gaze travelled up the stand to take in the fine white marble top, the little porcelain dish with its lemon scented soap, and the matching dragon laced wash basin and jug. To one side was a rail, over which was draped the finest white towel he had ever seen. Oh, it wasn’t the whiteness that took him. His Ma had the whitest whites in Hobbiton in his opinion. It was the soft fluffy look of it. Checking his ma wasn’t watching; Sam wiped a hand on his breaches and reached out a finger to stroke it. Yes. It was as soft as it looked and he crushed a handful experimentally. As soon as he released it the fluffy material sprung open with not a crease left behind. The towels they used at home were of thickly woven linen with not a “fluff” in sight.
With a quick glance over his shoulder to ensure Ma had not seen him, Sam skipped from the room to return to his workplace and Master Frodo’s po. Bell only smiled as she continued to buff polish on the mantelpiece with a fresh rag.
Bell and Daisy worked silently for some minutes more, passing cloths and polish tin between them in the easy rhythm of those much used to the task. As they were reaching the end of their toil there was a sound of loud puffing. “Watch out for them cloakpegs,” announced the arrival of Hamfast and Cousin Holman. Sure enough, the two appeared in the doorway with one of Mr Bilbo’s best rugs rolled up on their shoulders.
“In front of the hearth, if ye please,” instructed Bell as she stepped out of the way.
“I don’t hold with all these carpets. A good earth floor, or wood, is good enough for most folk,” announced Holman as they dropped the offending item and began to unroll it.
“Other way round,” instructed Bell and the two rolled eyes at each other as they took opposing corners and spun it about.
“Well, they do hold a lot of dust it seems,” replied Da as they straightened it. His wife was not about to argue that point. Beating carpets was a hot and dirty job and she sighed as she considered the bath she was going to have to heat water for later. Ham’s face was grey with dust, except where perspiration had tracked clean lines on his flushed forehead. And there were deep circles of sweat under the arms on both hobbit’s shirts. Looking at them Bell decided she’d better let Holman share the bath, before sending him home to his wife, Daffy. Mayhap she should also send him home with a fresh loaf in apology for the laundering of that shirt.
Daisy was replacing the last of the cleaning stuffs in Ma’s pretty storage box. “They’re nice ‘neath your toes, though,” she announced as she ran an appreciative foot across the brightly coloured pile.
Her father scowled. “Don’t you go gettin’ ideas, my lass. Folks like us can’t afford carpets.” Daisy ducked her head, lips pursed mutinously, but did not dare to contradict her Da. If all else failed, mayhap she could marry someone with a carpet. Daisy considered for a moment more. If it came down to carpet or love what would she choose?
Bell changed the subject. “Have ye more to tackle?”
Ham and Holman turned to leave. “Just the one, thank goodness; the one for Master Frodo’s room. You said as how you were doin’ that one last,” her husband called over his shoulder.
“I hope it rains later,” Holman could be heard to comment as they disappeared down the hallway. “Or that vegetable plot will have to be watered tomorrow. Aint never seen a grey cabbage afore.”
Ham’s voice was fading as he replied. “Aye, well. Tis better a grey garden than grey windows if we’d done it at the front of the smial. I don’t fancy cleaning all that glass again.”
“An’ that’s another thing. All them windows in a smial aint natural,” was the last comment Bell and Daisy heard.
Bell stood in the middle of the room and turned a slow circle. “I do think we’ve finally finished in here. Now there’s just Master Frodo’s room and we’re done. An’ a good job too with the masters due back from Buckland tomorrow.” She stepped aside to close the window and tweak a curtain. It was hard work, but Bell quite enjoyed spring cleaning. But it made it much easier when Bag End was empty and Bilbo and Frodo had obliged her by visiting relatives for a week.
Daisy picked up the cleaning box, eager to see inside Master Frodo’s room at last but her Ma reached to snag it from her grasp.
“I can fettle the last room alone. Ye get home and set the copper boiling. Yer Da and Uncle will need a bath when they’re finished or all we’ll be doin’ is movin’ Mr Bilbo’s muck over to our smial instead.”
Daisy pouted. “But Ma. We could do it a lot faster with two and still have time to boil the copper,” she wheedled. “An’ I aint never seen inside Master Frodo’s room since he moved in.”
Bell drew her lips into a thin line. “Aye. I know. An’ t’aint right for a maid to see inside a lad’s bedroom. So ye be setting off back now.”
“But I’ve seen my brother’s room afore,” the lass argued.
Her Ma only pointed at the doorway. “I know yer game, my girl. Yer settin’ yer sights too high an’ tis time ye came down from the clouds and dug yer feet in the good soil where they belong. Ye could do worse than Will Brownfoot. He’s comin’ courtin’ tomorrow, aint he?”
Daisy could scarce prevent her feet stomping as she left the room and Bell allowed herself a quiet laugh as she heard her daughters muttered comment from the front door.
“Aye. But I’m guessin’ he’s no carpets and no cupboard for his po neither.”
It was full dark as Hamfast reached the lane that wound about the hill to Bagshot Row. Candles burned in a couple of the windows of Bag End and Bilbo could be glimpsed at his desk in the study. The rest of the hill was dark, the occupants having followed the old rule of going to bed at sundown and getting up at sunrise. Candles and oil cost money and firesides were all well and good but gave only light enough to chat by. There was yet one light on Bagshot Row, however. A small flickering candle glowed welcome in the window of the Gamgee home. The Gaffer smiled, knowing that Bell would have water heated for his wash, a bowl of stew and fresh baked bread ready for the table . . . and a warm hug.
He let himself in, quietly, aware that all the young ones would be abed by now and was a little surprised when Bell jumped up from her chair by the fire and spun towards the sink, a pool of pale fabric landing at her feet. She cleared her throat before speaking.
“Did ye get Widow Bolger’s garden cleared of weeds, then?”
Curious, Hamfast rounded the large, scrubbed table and joined his wife at the sink, where she was filling a basin with warm water from a jug and laying out a towel. When her husband turned her about Bell realised that standing facing the light of the fire had not been a good idea. Its warm flicker was easily enough for her husband to see the glistening tracks of tears on her cheeks and she looked down at her apron, drying her hands.
“What’s the matter, Bell? Is somethin’ wrong with one of the young uns?”
Bell looked up at once, her eyes wide. “Oh, no, love. All the bairns are tucked up warm in their beds. Though Daisy had a bit of a spit when it came her turn. That lass is getting far too sassy. She wanted to wear my weddin’ dress to Molly Brockbucks birthday party. My weddin’ dress no less! As if her best yellow weren’t good enough.”
Hamfast grunted in understanding. Daisy was of an age where she liked to think she was all grown up but was still capable of acting like a five-year-old when she didn’t get things all her own way. He turned to the sink and Bell helped him out of his jacket.
“Thought you’d been savin’ that for her to wear on her weddin’ day,” he murmured as he rolled up his shirt sleeves and picked up the sliver of soap on the drainer, dipping his hands in the water and watching it turn cloudy with the muck. He began scouring his hands, working up a good lather with the soap. “Just say the word, Bell, and she’ll learn she’s not too grown for a good old fashioned spankin’ if she’s playin’ you up.”
Bell returned to the fire, uncovering a pan of coney stew and stirring it, before bending to recover the large heap of fabric on the floor and lay it lovingly upon her chair.
“Don’t fret. I’ve got her measure.”
Hamfast bent to scrub at his face, making sure to attack his ears and the back of his neck. “What’s troubling you then? It takes a lot to get my Bell down.”
Settling on one of the benches flanking the table, Bell stared at the pale cloth on her chair. “It’s a long time since I’ve looked on that dress and I fancied havin’ just a peep. Just to remember,” she replied, wistfully.
Hamfast turned back to her, drying his neck on the clean but rough towel, noting that it had been warming before the fire for him. He smiled. “It was a grand day, wasn’t it? And you were a stunner . . . still are.” He came to sit beside her and Bell leaned into his shoulder as he wrapped a beefy arm about her. “I bet you’d still be a beauty in all that pale green. Like a fresh spring mornin’ you looked.”
Bell batted at his hand, where it was making far too free with her bodice laces. “I think I’d have to let it out a bit, love,” she chuckled. “I’ve had too many bairns since then. And I don’t think anyone could have ever called me a beauty.”
Hamfast continued to try to work his fingers inside Bells bodice. “Oh, you were always a nice handful, lass and you will ever be a beauty in my eyes. ‘Tis proper for a hobbit to be well rounded. And I can’t say as how I didn’t enjoy helpin’ ye fill out.”
Bell pushed him away in mock horror. “Ham Gamgee! Whatever would we say if one of the children came in? Keep yer hands . . . and yer tongue . . . still.” The words were said with a smile but there was a flatness to them that grated on her husband. Bell began to ladle stew into a large basin, setting it on the table at his side. “Anyway . . . there’s nobody goin’ to wear that dress any more. Tis ruined.” Her voice was level but Hamfast could see her hand shaking as she laid a plate of bread next to the stew.
He grabbed her wrist lightly to stop her turning away and his voice was gruff with concern. “What do you mean . . . ruined?”
Bell reached across and pulled the pile of fabric into her lap as she sat at his side once more holding up what was, now that he looked at it more closely, a sleeve made of shimmering fabric. It was difficult to see in the poor light but Ham knew that sunlight would show it to be the pale green of frosted grass on an early spring morning. The firelight glimmered through it.
“I don’t remember it havin’ lace on the sleeve . . . although I do remember a lot o’ lace,” he added with a wink.
“The lace was on the petticoat, love,” Bell chided. “And this aint lace.” She swallowed. “Tis moths.”
“Moths?” So this was what had been bothering her. Well, he couldn’t blame her. The material had been bought in Michel Delving by Bell’s family, and it had been the talk of the Shire for a long time after the wedding. “But I thought you had it all bundled up in paper and tucked away.” Hamfast slipped his arm about his wife’s waist again and she melted into his shoulder, silent tears sliding down her cheeks.
“Seems the paper got torn and that’s how they got in. Oh love . . . tis ruined. I don’t reckon there’s enough decent material left to even make Daisy a bodice. I knew I was never goin’ to get into it again but I thought I could at least alter it and pass it down to our lass. Seems it’s not to be.”
“I’m sorry, Bell love. Mayhap that dress was only meant to be seen once . . . on the comeliest lass in the Shire.”
Hamfast hugged her close as he heard Bell’s soft answering snort. “Yer a soft old fool, but I love ye for it.” She wiped her eyes on her apron and wriggled out of his grasp. “Come on and eat yer supper, afore it gets cold.”
Shaking out the remnants of the dress she held it up critically in the firelight . . . the practical mother once more, now that she had shed her tears. “There’s a piece here on the skirt that don’t look too bad. Mayhap I could make a pillowslip from it.”
Hamfast chuckled. “The Gamgees with silk pillow-slips. We’d be the talk of the Shire.” He turned around on the bench and tucked into his stew while Bell folded the dress thoughtfully and laid it back upon her chair.
Maybe green silk was not quite proper for pillow-slips after all. She wouldn’t want folk to think that the Gamgees had ideas above their station.
Bell handed Daisy the last of the cups to be dried and turned to the pantry, producing one of her grandma’s best plates, covered with a piece of muslin. Sam licked his lips as he saw two large pieces of his Ma’s birthday cake sitting proudly beneath the cloth. His mother bent to pinch his cheek.
“Ye can put yer eyes back in yer head, Samwise. That cake is for Mister Bilbo and young Master Frodo. You’ve had yer piece. In fact, as I recollect, ye’ve had two pieces.”
“Aye . . . but it was a grand birthday cake.” Sam’s eyes stayed firmly fixed upon the delicacy despite his mother’s warning . . . although he would never actually have dared to take a piece. It was Ma’s cake and her birthday present to them all. And Bell Gamgee’s cakes were never mathoms.
Bell took off her apron, laying it on the table with the plate and then smoothing back the odd brown curl that had strayed out of her carefully applied combs. “It was, wasn’t it? And all the better for having my helper to mix it for me.”
Sam sat straighter on the bench and Daisy snorted. “He only creamed the powdered sugar and butter. Takes more than that to back a cake,” came her haughty comment.
Before her younger brother could step in to defend himself his mother saved him the effort. “A task taken on willin’ is better than a task done because twas ordered and makes for lighter bakin’ my lass. Mayhap if ye put a little more love into yer cakes they’d come out a might less sad.”
Sam resisted the temptation to stick his tongue out at his sister but Daisy sniffed anyway. She continued putting away the clean crockery, however, and Sam rested his small chin upon his hands on the table, still staring at the wedges of cake shrouded beneath their fine muslin canopy. Recognising his mood his Da seated himself on the bench at the other side of the table. “Out with it, lad. Somethin’s been gnawin’ at you all through the party.”
Sam’s hazel eyes met those deep, earth brown eyes of his Da. “I still don’t know why Master Frodo and Mr Bilbo couldn’t be invited to Ma’s party. The whole of Bagshot Row was here.”
The Gaffer took the small hand of his youngest son in his, seeing already the ingrained dirt that came from working with trowel and plant, the calluses on palms from hours of turning earth for the autumn vegetable planting.
“It wouldn’t be proper havin’ a gentlehobbit mixing social with us common folk.”
Sam shook his head in confusion. “But Mr Bilbo and Master Frodo are often poppin’ over for a chat and I’ve had second breakfast up at Bag End once or twice.”
Hamfast stole a sidelong look at his wife as she reappeared from their bedroom, with two small parcels wrapped in brown paper and yellow ribbon that she set on the table with the cake.
Ham’s face was sad but firm set. “There’s a world of difference between sharin’ a cup of tea and a slice o’ bread and butter with friends and introducin’ those high livin’ friends to the rest of your family and expectin’ everyone to get on. Highborn folks like Mr Bilbo and the Young Master don’t get free and easy with the likes of their servants. It’s not proper.”
Sam grimaced. There was that phrase that all the grown ups kept using so freely. “Proper.” He glanced up at his Da. “Who makes up their mind as to what’s proper and what’s not?”
His question drew a short silence and then his Da gave another well-used answer. “Hobbits decide . . . and they decide by what’s always been proper afore. It’s tradition. Tradition allows a chap to know exactly where he is in the grand plan and where he’s going. And that’s what’s kept the Shire going all these years. Things just are . . . as they always were and they always will be.”
A tear trickled down Sam’s cheek as he picked at a bit of icing that had smeared upon his sleeve. His Ma came to stand behind him and kiss his ear. “Well. We couldn’t invite them to the party but we can take a bit of the party to them. Come on Sam. Ye can carry the cake.”
Sam lifted the cake with all the care he would have given a bowl full of his best agate marbles. At a glare from her mother, Daisy opened the door to allow them egress, her fingers still stroking the long pale green silk sash that had been her mother’s present to her. It would look very fine indeed about the waist of her best yellow dress at Molly’s party next week. She closed the door indolently behind them as the two made their way up the hill in golden evening light.
Bell paused to comb her fingers through Sam’s wayward hair before knocking lightly upon the bright green door of Bag End. It was a delighted Frodo who admitted them to the grandly appointed hallway.
“Happy Birthday, Mistress Gamgee. And many more of them.” The Young Master smiled. It seemed that the dark hall was washed with the warm sunshine of those eyes and then the spell was broken as Frodo turned to his uncle, just entering from the study.
“Happy Birthday, Bell. I’ll not ask which one it is this year, for I know ladies are apt to get cagey about such things after a certain age.” He winked and turned towards the parlour, waving them through. “Come in and sit down while Frodo makes some tea, for if my eyes do not deceive me there is cake beneath that cover. And if it’s cake made by the famous Bell Gamgee it needs eating quickly, before it floats away.”
“Get on with ye!” Bell chided, although Sam noticed that she walked a little taller at the compliment. “I’m sorry ye couldn’t come to the family party but I didn’t think it right that ye should be forgotten. I hope as how I’m not bein’ too forward in sayin’ this, but ye and the Young Master have become like family to me and mine, even if we was brought up different. And I hope ye don’t take no offence in that.”
Bilbo only smiled as Frodo re-appeared with a tray, on which could be seen all the accoutrements for tea, along with a knife to cut the cake, and four plates to put it on. “I take no offence, Bell. In fact, I take it as an honour . . . as I am sure Frodo does.”
Frodo’s grin widened. “I can’t think of a family that I’d rather be adopted into.”
Bilbo splashed a few drops of tea into one of the saucers but quickly recovered himself, as Frodo turned two giant pieces of cake into four reasonably sized pieces and laid them before everyone. For several minutes all conversation ceased as they got on with the important job of eating and drinking.
With a satisfied sigh, Bilbo leaned back in his chair and took a good swallow of his tea. “I was right, Bell. That truly was a cake worthy of an elven baker.”
“It certainly was, Mistress Gamgee. Thank you very much for thinking of us.”
Bell blushed. Had the compliment been offered in her own kitchen she would have accepted it willingly enough but sitting in this grand room, with a carpet beneath her toes, she felt a bit embarrassed. Mister Baggins was, after all, a wealthy and much travelled gentlehobbit who had doubtless tasted many a fine cake in his day.
“It weren’t as grand as ye’re probably used to but I’m not much for fancy cookin’. A good plain sponge cake with a bit of butter-cream and raspberry jam is all I’m up to. But I thank ye for the compliment.”
She reached into the pocket of her best frock and brought out two small parcels, which she set upon the table before her hosts. Although they were only wrapped in brown paper, Bell had managed to find some ribbon in her sewing box so each was neatly tied with a yellow bow.
“What’s this? Birthday presents for us? Bell, you shouldn’t have,” Bilbo exclaimed, although he picked up the little package and began to untie the bow. From out the paper fell a large pale green silk handkerchief, one corner neatly embroidered with “BB”. Frodo’s package revealed a similar handkerchief, embroidered with “FB”. Both Baggins smiled broadly.
“Thank you, Mistress Gamgee. This will look very well in the breast pocket of my green suit,” Frodo assured her, fingering the delicate fabric.
Bilbo bent to examine his, well pleased with the fine needlework. There was something familiar about it though. Bell watched as his brow furrowed in concentration, trying to drag a memory to the fore. Bilbo Baggins was noted for his elegant waistcoats and he could spot an expensive fabric from quite a distance. This was a good silk and must have cost Bell a pretty penny. Suddenly, his face cleared.
“Why this is the same fabric your wedding dress was made of. I remember it well.”
Ever willing to help and praise his Ma’s cleverness, Sam cleared up the mystery. “That’s because it’s made from Ma’s dress, Sir. She was keepin’ it but the moths got at it and she’s used the bits to make all sorts of pretty presents.”
Frodo watched as Bell Gamgee’s normally affable face stiffened. She was proud of having been able to make use of the undamaged bits of fabric, but she was not particularly happy about such gentlehobbits knowing that their fine silk handkerchiefs were made from one of her old dresses.
Sensing the atmosphere at once, Sam shuffled in his chair and began to make a careful study of his fingers. The youngster was not quite sure what he had said wrong, but he was painfully aware that he had caused his mother some distress and he wished that the floor would open up and swallow him whole. Frodo glanced at him in sympathy.
“If that is the case, then this gift is to be doubly precious,” announced Bilbo, before the silence grew too solid. “Every time I see this I will be reminded of how grand you looked that day.”
Frodo’s quiet voice followed swift on his uncle’s. “And I am honoured that you would think to give me a piece of such a treasured possession.”
The air cleared at once and Bell smiled in relief. “I was hopin’ ye’d like the material, Sirs. Ye’ve both been good to me and mine and I wanted to let ye know how much I appreciate that.”
“The feeling is mutual,” Bilbo replied, folding the handkerchief carefully and handing back the yellow ribbon. Bell made to refuse but Bilbo put it in her palm and Frodo followed suit. “A present from us to Daisy. They’ll look well in those pretty brown curls.”
Bell pushed them into her pocket. “I’ll see she gets them, and the message. Now we must be away. My Marigold needs bathin’ afore I try and put her to bed. Ye should see the mess she got herself into with that cake.”
She rose and Bilbo escorted her to the door, Sam following meekly and silently on her heels. The usual pleasantries were exchanged and then Sam and Bell were walking back down the hill. Before they were out of sight of Bag End Sam was crying silently and once into the lane, a concerned Bell drew him to the grass verge and sat down.
“What ever is the matter, Sam, love?” His mother pulled a hanky out of her pocket and began to wipe at his face.
“I’m sorry, Ma,” the little voice wailed. “I didn’t think afore I spoke. Da’s always tellin’ me to do that and I forgot.”
Bell gathered her little lad into her lap and tucked his head beneath her chin. “Oh, Sam love. Ye didn’t say nothin’ wrong. Ye told the truth and ye should never be ashamed of that. If anyone should be sorry tis me. Pride has its place but too much of it can be a bad thing and I let it get the better of me.” As she spoke she rocked him gently, kissing his curls until the sobs finally subsided. Bell tilted his face up and was not surprised to see sleepy hazel eyes.
“I’m sorry I hurt ye, lad. Come on. Let’s get home. We’ve both had a long and busy day.” She set her youngest son on his feet and stood, making sure to take his hand as they walked back to the smial.
Things were quiet when they entered the kitchen for it was, indeed, late and even the older children were abed. It may have been a birthday celebration today but tomorrow would be another workday and even Marigold had been put to bed by Daisy. If Hamfast noticed that his son had been crying, a quick shake of the head from his wife told him to keep silent about it, and Bell set too warming some milk for Sam while the lad put on his nightshirt.
When he was settled at the table with a mug, Bell disappeared for a moment. Returning, she laid a small square of pale green silk before her son and Sam glanced up in surprise. He lowered his mug and wiped his palms upon his shirt before touching the fine thing. Open, it revealed itself to be another handkerchief, but this time with “SG” embroidered in one corner.
“I was goin’ to keep it until ye were older but I think ye know how to look after it.”
Tears trickled down Sam’s face again, but he was smiling as he used his sleeve to dry his eyes. Then he folded his precious handkerchief carefully on Ma’s spotless kitchen table.
Frodo came to an abrupt halt at the closed door to the Gamgee’s smial. Closed? On a hot summer’s day? He knocked timidly, wondering if something could be amiss, and was somewhat relieved when he heard Bell’s cheery, “Come in, whoever ye be.” On opening the door however he took an involuntary step back, hit by a wave of warm, damp air, redolent with yeast.
“Come in, Young Master and shut the door if ye please. I’m sorry I couldn’t come to the door but I’m all over flour.” Bell waved her plump arms at him with a broad smile. She was indeed, all over flour. In fact it seemed to Frodo that everything was all over flour.
Silky white powder coated the large kitchen table and dusted the floor about and on Bell’s feet, turning her foothair grey. Broad splashes of it adorned her apron and arms and she even had a dab on the end of her nose. When Frodo breathed in he noticed that it hung in the air, making his nose itch and catching in his throat.
His awe must have registered on his face for Mistress Gamgee chuckled. “Now ye know why Mister Bilbo don’t bake bread in the summer. I’ve nearly got yer order done. Just a couple of loaves finishin’ in the oven.”
“Thank you, Mistress Gamgee.” Frodo dabbed at his upper lip surreptitiously, trying to wipe away the perspiration that had suddenly sprung out there and holding his arms a little away from his body. It didn’t help. He could feel damp patches developing under his armpits already. He could see that Bell herself was not immune to the temperature, her bodice completely soaked beneath its covering apron and tendrils of hair plastered to her brow.
Bell obviously noticed his small action and took pity on him. “Ye can come back a bit later if ye want. ‘Tis not a day to be sittin’ in a hot kitchen. Them loaves will be another quarter hour or so.”
Frodo considered the golden sun streaming through the room’s round windows. He had been sitting in the garden, reading, when Bilbo had sent him off to the Gamgee’s for their bread. As he suspected his uncle knew he would, Frodo had jumped at the chance to visit the family. Bag End was his home now and felt it. And Bilbo was dear. But the bustling Gamgee smial reminded him of Brandy Hall and Bell, herself, of his own Mama so he never turned down a chance to call.
His gaze returned to the table where, on a collection of mismatched wire trays, assorted breads steamed gently through their golden tops. Frodo swallowed a mouthful of saliva and dragged his eyes away from the display.
“I can wait. I was reading and by the time I’ve gone to my book and settled back into the story it will be time to come back anyway.”
Bell followed his gaze and swallowed a smile as she hoisted a lump of sticky dough out of the large stoneware basin and thumped it down on a circle of flour on the table, sending up a cloud of dust that made Frodo pinch his nose to stop a sneeze.
“Ye’d best sit down, then. But if ye want to keep that fancy weskit clean ye’d best sit at yonder end.” She motioned to the end farthest from her immediate work area and, perhaps not entirely coincidentally, far away from the cooling bread.
Frodo complied, pushing his shirtsleeves up a little further as he climbed over the bench and settled down. The sight and smell of all that fresh bread was a torture to his tweenage stomach and he hoped Bell could not hear it rumbling from way over there. From the twinkle in her green eyes however, he suspected she could.
For a few minutes there was silence in the room, apart from the slide of the dough as Bell kneaded and turned it about on her table. With each pull and knuckled tuck Frodo could feel the table shake beneath his elbows and he placed his chin in his hands, mesmerised by the soothing rhythm of it.
When the dough was no longer sticky but round and elastic, a smooth ball, Bell gathered it up in both hands and dropped it into another basin. Then she snagged a muslin cloth from a waiting pile and covered it, before setting it aside to rise. When she returned she had another bowl with her and paused to sprinkle a generous layer of floor before upturning the basin and dumping the huge lump of dough out onto the table.
Another dusting of flour on top and she began her kneading again, completely absorbed in her work and pausing only to sprinkle a little more flour. Pull, tuck and turn, pull, tuck and turn, pull, tuck and turn.
Frodo settled deeper into his elbows, smiling gently. He and Bell had settled into an easy relationship that didn’t demand that she entertain the young master of the hill. And Frodo had made himself a welcome addition to her motherly circle.
Bell dropped the dough back into its bowl and glanced up once more, as though suddenly remembering that she had a guest. “I’m sorry ‘tis so warm in here. But a stray drought can kill the yeast and flatten the bread.” She called out to the darkened entrance to the rest of the smial. “Daisy.”
From somewhere in the depths of the hill Frodo noticed for the first time the muffled sounds of flapping and suspected that the eldest Gamgee lass was making beds. The sounds continued and Frodo held his breath. Daisy would not be pleased at any interruption, particularly from her mother. Interruptions from mother usually meant another task in the offing. But Bell was mistress here.
“Daisy Gamgee. I know ye can hear me . . . Daisy!”
Frodo shrank at her last call; glad that the only person he had ever heard Bell use that sharp tone with was Daisy.
Daisy appeared, her hair mussed and hands planted defiantly on hips. “I’ve not finished the beds yet, Ma,” she got in quickly, before she took in Frodo’s presence with a flick of her eyes, and the tween found he didn’t like the sudden gleam there.
“Them beds should have been long done, girl. But ye can finish them in a bit. We’ve company. Go fetch a cup of cold water from the crock in the pantry.”
Daisy sniffed and made to flounce her skirts but a warning glare from her mother stopped the action mid flick and it turned into a smoothing motion. She grabbed up one of the second best cups from the top shelf of the dresser and headed off through an arched door. Frodo swallowed, and this time it had nothing to do with the smell of cooling bread. Daisy had a way of getting her own back and the younger lad sat up straight, bracing himself.
Daisy sashayed back into the kitchen, the dewed cup of her mother’s china held firmly in both hands. She approached the table opposite Frodo with a small but wicked smile on her face and leaned forward to place the cup before him. Frodo’s cornflower eyes widened.
It was high summer and the Gamgees had not been expecting company. With the warm work of making the beds, Daisy had loosened the lacings on her bodice and Frodo suspected her visit to the pantry had “accidentally” loosened them further.
Bell’s table was wide, had to be so to accommodate such a large brood, and it necessitated Daisy bending very low as she leaned across it, cup in one outstretched hand and eyes locked on Frodo’s face. Frodo would have returned the gaze but he found his eyes locked somewhere totally different as he found himself on the receiving end of his first good look down a lasses’ bodice. He could feel a blush creeping up his neck and shifted uncomfortably upon the bench. Daisy remained still, confident in her command over him until . . .
“Daisy Gamgee! Get ye outside and feed them pigs!” Bell’s voice was not loud but the warning note in it was very clear.
Daisy startled upright but soon regained her composure. “But Mam! I ain’t finished the beds yet. Why am I always the one that ends up swillin’ the pigs?” Daisy whined. “Why don’t Sam do it? He’s youngest.”
Bell grabbed up her ball of dough and thumped it down into the waiting basin, taking up a long and sharp knife to slice off a smaller lump. To Frodo’s eyes she seemed to do so with unnecessary gusto. “Aye. ‘Tis not a nice job, is it?”
Frodo took a hurried swig of the cold water, sighing in relief as he felt the liquid slide down his body and settle in his stomach, from where it sent out cooling tendrils to other parts.
“’Tis an easy enough job and gives a body time to consider other things. So happen while yer doin’ it ye’ll have time to think on the proper manners for a young lass before a lad and in particular, a gentlehobbit.” She glanced up from kneading the smaller ball of dough. “And ye could fasten that bodice up while yer about it. The pigs’l not be impressed.”
To her credit, Daisy did blush as she grabbed up the slop bucket and stomped from the smial, even taking care to close the door quietly behind her.
Bell gusted out a puff of air as her eldest daughter left and Frodo concentrated hard on the cold water . . . concentrated very firmly on “cold”. Thus it was that he did not notice anything else for some time until a small plate was slid before him, on which sat a breakfast roll, opened and steaming, with a large dollop of butter melting slowly into it.
He looked up into Bell’s knowing eyes and she smiled. “Food. ‘Tis a wondrous thing for taking the mind off other things.” And with those gentle words she turned back to her kneading.
The summer of 1391 was hot and humid in the Shire. By harvest time the crops were dry and just waiting to be cut. In Hobbiton Farley Brownlock and Tom Cotton set up shop in the Ivy Bush and all the local residents signed up with one or the other to help gather the harvest.
“Now then, Hamfast. Can I count on ye for my fields this year as usual?” Tom Cotton poised his pencil.
“That you can, Tom. My Bell, Daisy and May will help with the sheaves and Sam and Mari will go to gleanin’. Ham made his mark on Tom’s list.
“How many years is it now that ye’ve been helpin’ with the harvest?” Tom asked as he made marks in the appropriate columns for the rest of Ham’s family.
“Well, Bell used to help when she were a bairn but my family’s been cuttin’ your wheat since me and Bell set up home on Bagshot Row. That would be near twenty-eight year since.” Hamfast Gamgee may not be one for writing but there was nothing wrong with his numbers.
“And I hope as how ye’ll be helpin’ fer another twenty-eight.” Tom handed over six tokens which would entitle each member of the family to luncheon and drinks for each day worked in the fields.
Ham pocketed the tokens and grinned. “As long as we’re fit for it you can count on me and mine.” With that he made way for the next in line.
“Hello love. Did ye get signed up fer the harvest?” Bell Gamgee leaned in to kiss her husband then bustled off to get a kettle off the hob. “Ye’ll be wantin’ a cup of tea.” It should have been a question but Bell knew what her husband’s answer would be so it came out as a statement.
Ham hung his cap on a peg by the door and crossed to settle into his chair, moving it a little away from the warmth of the hob on this summer’s eve. “Aye. I’ve signed us all up. May can keep an eye on Sam and Mari and show them how to glean proper.”
Bell gathered up the tea things, handing over a plate with a heel of bread, some cheese and a couple of pickled onions. “Has Tom said what day they plan to start? Only Buttercup Rumble says there’s no sign of rain.”
Ham chuckled around of mouthful of bread and cheese. “You can rely on Butter’s arthritis to predict any rain. Tom’s thinkin’ of startin’ day after next. That’ll give folks time to get themselves sorted at home.”
Bell handed him his big mug, full of thick, dark tea. “Aye. I’d best get started bakin’ bread and such tomorrow. There’ll be no time once we start in the fields.”
“Ham! Ham, love. Wake up!”
Bell’s voice broke through his dreams, that and her persistent shaking of his shoulders. “What is it, Bell lass?” He blinked and sat up as the urgency of her tone registered. That’s when he became aware of the frightened voices of the children, almost drowned out by the sound of wind and rain.
“The wind’s blown in Sam’s bedroom window and I think there’s somethin’ wrong in the back yard.” Bell was tugging at the laces of her bodice and Ham noticed that she had not paused to take off her nightgown, but thrown bodice and skirt over the top of it. She thrust Ham’s breeches at him as he clambered out of bed.
“Is the lad hurt?” he asked as he tried to walk whilst pulling them on and nearly fell.
“Sam’s alright and Daisy and May are helpin’ to sweep the glass.” They left their bedroom together and Bell pushed him toward the back door. “Ye see what’s goin’ on out back. I thought I heard someone cry out and there were a crash. Arty or Harry may be hurt.”
Hamfast looked back as Daisy appeared with an old wooden tray. “Will this be alright to cover the window, Ma?”
Giving one final push to Hamfast’s shoulders Bell bustled off to help her daughter. “It’ll do, lass. Did ye bring the hammer and nails?”
Daisy’s answer was lost in the howl of the wind as Hamfast stepped out of the back door of number three Bagshot Row. He was instantly wet through to the skin as the wind flung rain at him. For a moment, he considered going back for his cap. The knowledge that it would be blown off before he took another step and the desperate cries of Clover Mugwort changed his mind.
“Help. Oh please, somebody help!” At a hundred years old Clover was still hale but her thin voice was almost lost in the wild roaring of the storm.
Ham lifted an arm in front of his face to try and keep the driving rain from his eyes and took a couple of steps into the wide back yard shared by the three properties of Bagshot Row. “Where are you, Clover?”
“Ham! Over here. By the workshop. Quick! He’s held fast!”
Hamfast had to lean into the wind to make any progress and almost fell when there was a sudden change of direction in the gale. The unexpected change did have the advantage of blowing the rain away from his face so that he could now establish that Clover was on her knees in the mud before her son’s workshop.
It was clear that one of the big double doors had been ripped from its hinges and now lay in the mud but at first it was not clear to Hamfast who she was referring to. Then he noticed that she was scrabbling beneath the edge of the fallen door, where a hand lay still in a puddle of dark water.
Ham ran the rest of the distance, thumping to his own knees at her side. He had to put his lips to her ear to make himself heard over the tumult, which seemed to have increased in ferocity even during those few steps. “What happened?”
As Clover shouted her reply he began scrabbling about for a plank, anything to help him lever up the huge door. “The bangin’ of the door woke us up so Harry came out to see to it. But there was a strong gust that blew it clean off its hinges.” Tears were indistinguishable in the rain but Hamfast could hear them in Clover’s voice. “It happened so fast and took Harry with it. I can’t lift it on my own. Oh, please help him!”
Finally finding a stray plank Hamfast squeezed her shoulder before levering himself to his feet against the onslaught of the elements that seemed determined to keep him on his knees. “If I get this under the door to lift it do you think you can pull him free?”
Birdlike as she was Clover took a firm grip on her son’s wrist. “Aye.”
Even as she did so a second beefy set of arms reached in, digging another plank beneath the door next to Hamfast’s. “I reckon ye’ll need a hand with this.” Hamfast nodded thanks to Arty Sedgeburry then both pushed down hard on their respective levers.
It became a four-way tug of war between Clover, Hamfast, Arty and the wind. The wind had the final say, sneaking beneath the raised door and snatching it up so suddenly that Hamfast feared it would go sailing off through the air to attack some other poor soul. In the end it only flipped the door to land it with a loud splashing thud several feet away.
The sound was soon followed by the loud wailing of Clover Mugwart as her son’s broken body was revealed at last. Hamfast leaned down to listen at Harry’s chest but it was clear that there was no hope. The heavy door had hit the Shire’s best carpenter with such force that his rib cage and skull had been smashed beyond any recovery. Had he survived the initial impact he would not have done so for long.
Arty caught Hamfast’s eye and his thought was clear. “Tis a blessin’ in its way.”
“Stay with him while I take Clover to sit with Bell. I’ll come back to help you move him,” Ham yelled as he wrestled Clover to her feet, curving a strong arm about her bowed shoulders to stumble with her to Number Three.
The storm which had blown in with such swift violence from the south, abated as quickly as it had arrived. Dawn broke with an eerie silence. Even the birds seemed subdued.
All about Hobbiton folk were boarding up windows, chopping up downed trees and rounding up stray animals. The residents of Bagshot Row were more subdued than most. Harry Mugworts’ body lay on the bench in his workshop and Bell Gamgee helped his mother to clean and dress him for burial, then sew him into his winding sheet.
Hamfast was dishing out fried eggs to his children when she returned. While she hung up her cloak he poured a cup of tea and handed it over with a peck on the cheek. Bell thanked him with a grim smile, taking a moment to look over her brood before she settled in her chair by the fire.
Clover Mugwort had gently refused any offer to stay with the Gamgees for a few days and would not hear of Bell abandoning her own family. Bell was both surprised and proud of Daisy for offering to stay with Widow Mugwort at least until the funeral. The tween had her faults but she was soft at heart.
The voices about the Gamgee table were quiet and May was helping a blissfully ignorant little Marigold with her food. Bell noted that the small cut on Sam’s hand had stopped bleeding. Her little lad was safe and, within a few weeks, she had no doubt that the scar would be unnoticeable among others from his work in the gardens with his father.
Hamfast offered Bell a plate containing a bacon sandwich. “Just to put you on.” He placed his own breakfast on the table and settled on the bench closest to her. “I’ve asked Birky Bracegirdle to start diggin’ the grave and he’ll come round to let us know when it’s done.”
Bell set aside her sandwich untasted, preferring instead to drink her tea. “Ye should go up and check on Bag End after breakfast. There’s no tellin’ what damage has been done, exposed as tis at the top of the hill.”
Hamfast shook his head. “I’ve already checked. Tis all tight and tidy. Just a few branches tore loose from the apple tree. Twas one of them as came through Sam’s window. There’ll be no decent crop from it this year. The garden’s all of a mess too. I’ll take Sam with me and we’ll save what vegetables we can afore we start on our own plot.”
“Me and May will sort out our plot. You just deal with Mister Bilbo’s garden,” Bell offered.
“Then you’ll need some food in you my lass,” Hamfast announced pointedly as he indicated Bell’s still untouched sandwich. “I reckon the salad stuff will be fit only for pigs but as long as the tops haven’t been tore clean off, the root vegetables will survive. Gather up anythin’ else that’s edible and what we can’t eat we’ll spread amongst other families. There’ll be plenty of folk, especially down by the river, who will have nothin’. I’ll do the same with Mr Bilbo’s stuff.”
Bell acknowledged the sense of her husband’s injunction and took a bite of her sandwich. “I wonder if Tookborough caught it as bad as we did.”
“I hope not. The smials down by the Water haven’t flooded this time but from what I hear it was a close-run thing. Most have had their gardens washed away. I’ll start handin’ out food there first. I don’t reckon Mr Bilbo will object. Even if he started home this mornin’ he wouldn’t be back in time to make use of it.”
Bell shook her head. “I still don’t understand where the storm blew up from. Buttercup usually gives warnin’ but when I spoke to her this mornin’ she said she’d felt nothin’.”
“I wondered how Buttercup had fared. I didn’t have time to call in on my way to Birky’s.”
“She arrived at Clover’s with some bread as I was leavin’. There’s no damage to her smial, just a fall of soot, and Rowley Proudfoot’s goin’ to see to that while Butter sits with Clover fer the mornin’.”
Hamfast took a moment as he chewed his bacon. Windows could be replaced and all his bairns were safe and well. His eyes fell upon the small heap of tokens in the middle of the table and his heart was filled with foreboding. “I wonder what this storm has done to the wheat.”
Harry was buried late that afternoon and most of Hobbiton turned out to say their goodbyes. Harry was renowned throughout the Shire and even beyond for the quality of his carving, but in Hobbiton he was known best for his generosity. He would put as much love into the construction of a solid kitchen table for the poorest smial as he would into the creation of the most intricately carved box for a wealthy client. Many a tear was shed that afternoon.
1391 became known as the year of the Great Storm. The crops, standing so tall and golden just hours before were now flattened, the wind having swirled them into fantastical patterns on the ground. Had they just been attacked by wind folk would have rolled up their sleeves and gleaned what they could. It would have been a poor harvest but they would have something. However, the wind had brought with it driving rain that soaked the ears and within hours, mildew set in.
Within days, once the mess was dry enough, fields were lit and laundresses all across the Shire complained about the sooty smuts marking their nice white linens. This was one of the least of their worries, however. The storm that had blown in from the south had not burned itself out until it hit the sea, so the ruin was widespread. The Master of Buckland and the Thain got together to pool what grain reserves there were, and managed to buy in some from outside the Shire, but the storm had blown through other lands before reaching them so there was little to be had. What there was commanded a high price.
For the first time in living memory there was no Harvest Reel celebration and hobbits all across the Shire prepared to tighten their belts. As always it was the poor who suffered most for a larger part of their diet was bread, and the Gamgee household were no exception to this.
There was a knock at the door and May jumped up from the table to answer it. Bell allowed herself a smile. Two more opposite temperaments in two lasses could not be found than in Daisy and May Gamgee. Daisy kept her soft heart well hidden beneath a sometimes-surly disposition. Bell suspected she was fearful of hurt to a heart that was, despite outward appearance, probably too soft. May was bright and sunny, wearing her heart on her sleeve for all to see and willing to pick herself back up when life knocked her down.
“Hello May. Is your mother at home?”
Bell recognised Mister Bilbo’s voice at once and handed over the soup ladle to Daisy before joining over from May at the door. “Good day to ye, Mister Bilbo. Can I do aught for ye?”
Bilbo felt some concern as a much-reduced Bell Gamgee smiled out at him. Behind her all but Hamfast were seated at the table before what looked to be bowls of nettle soup. Bilbo held back a shudder for he was not at all fond of nettle soup and he suspected that several about the table were of the same persuasion. Still, many of the poorer folk were reduced to eating it this year and he wondered what they would consume once winter set in and all the nettles disappeared. He pasted on a smile and held out the basket he had been carrying over his arm.
“Good day, Bell. I am sorry to interrupt your luncheon but Frodo and I wondered if you could make use of these.” He flicked back the cover to reveal half of a chicken and mushroom pie, half a dozen sausages, some bread cakes and half a loaf. (He was always careful to avoid offering a whole item for that would be too obvious.) “I’m very much afraid that I overestimated the size of Frodo’s stomach again and bought far too much food for the two of us. There’s not enough of anything to feed all your brood but I thought perhaps the youngsters could benefit.” He tucked the cover back over this bounty.
Bell had to clear her throat before replying and was very much aware that all conversation at the table behind her had ceased. Mister Bilbo had been doing this regularly enough of late for her to know that it was quite deliberate. But the amounts he offered were small enough to ensure that it did not look too much like charity, and hobbit youngsters had hearty appetites.
“Thank ye kindly, Mister Bilbo. I’m sure we can make good use of it.” She handed the basket off to May, who disappeared to the pantry, returning shortly and passing it back to their benefactor with the bob of a curtesy.
“I’m glad you could help us out. I do so hate to waste good food. Feel free to let me know if there’s anything we can do to help in return.”
May sat at one end of the table, chopping potato, while her Ma sat at the other, fishing the bones out of some chicken broth. The two were alone this afternoon, Daisy having gone to market, taking Marigold with her, while Sam had gone with his Da to work in the garden of the Sackville-Baggins.
“Make sure ye chop them taters nice and small, lass. They’ll help to thicken the soup. And when yer done ye can peel the carrots.” Bell winced as May used both hands to work her knife through a particularly large potato. “And watch yerself with that knife. I’d have liked more meat in this stew but I don’t want it to be yer fingers.”
May grinned. “I’ll be careful, Ma.” She began to slice the potato. “Ma . . . have you ever had a yen to see what’s outside Hobbiton?”
Bell picked out a piece of gristle. “Can’t say’s I have. I once went to Michel Delvin’ with my Ma and Da but that was afore I were married. Why do ye ask?”
May chipped the slices and then began to dice the chips. “I know things is hard this year. If Mr Bilbo hadn’t given us that chicken carcass we’d have no meat at all in the stew and I know that the coppers Daisy makes, working for Widow Rumble is helpin’. I was just wonderin’ if it would help if I got some work too.”
Bell set down her sieve. “Yer already a help here, lass. Yer Da and me will look after ye. Don’t fret. Yer too young to be worritin’ about such things. We’ve had hard times afore and we’ve always come through.”
Although young, however, May had already learned much from her mother. “I know there’s not much I can do in Hobbiton but I was thinkin’ of Brandy Hall. I was listenin’ to Master Frodo talkin’ to Sam and it seems they have maids and cooks there.” She started chipping another set of slices. “Master Frodo says they start some of ‘em even younger than me. Besides, I think I’d like to see what’s outside Hobbiton.”
Using the action of taking up her sieve once more and poking around for the last little bones gave Bell’s mind time to process this information. “I hope y’aint been givin’ too much thought to Mr Bilbo’s tales. Adventures is all well and good fer the occasional Took but most hobbits don’t hold with travellin’.” Bell sniffed. “And sometimes tales grow in the tellin’, ‘specially when there’s ale to go with ‘em.”
May considered this for a while as she pushed the small dish of diced potato down to her mother and began to peel carrots. “I don’t think I’d want to go on a real adventure, with wizards and dragons and the like. But I hear that the Brandywine River is so big that they have a ferry, and Brandy Hall is bigger than Great Smials. I think I’d like to see that.”
Bell tipped the contents of her sieve (now only scraps of meat) back into the broth and returned the pan to the hob. Checking the contents of a bag of onions she selected two, then reconsidered and put one back before beginning to peel it. “I know Brandy Hall is still in the Shire but (and I wouldn’t say this in front of Master Frodo) tis down on the borders and folks down there can be a bit touched. They do say that they see Big Folk sometimes, and even Elves. Although what business elves would have in the Shire I don’t know.”
Sweeping the onion skins into a basin, May went to add them to the kitchen waste.
“No, lass.” Bell stopped her chopping as May turned about, filled basin still in hand.
“Why, Ma? There’s no pig to feed so I was goin’ to put these for compost.”
Bell shook her head. “Nothin’ goes on the compost heap if we can eat it. Them skins will make a good base for broth. Put a pan of water on to boil and set ‘em simmerin’.”
May frowned but complied with her Ma’s instructions. “But I thought the skins were too tough to eat.”
“They are, but ye can boil all the flavour out of them and use the water for stock when ye’ve strained it.” Nothing went to waste in the Gamgee kitchen nowadays. Bilbo found many an excuse to provide tidbits to all the residents of Bagshot Row but even so, clothes were gettin loose and belts were getting tightened.
“So, what do you think, Ma?” May watched her mother add diced onion to the chicken broth and passed over her carrot to be thrown in.
Bell was a little distracted, as she often was this autumn. She was considering whether the stew would be sufficient served without a slice of bread, for that would leave bread for the morrow’s luncheon. “What do I think of what, May love?”
May sighed. “About me goin’ to work at Brandy Hall or Great Smials. Do you think Mister Bilbo could write a letter for me?”
Bell put her stew pan on the hob. “I don’t know, lass. Yer still a mite young to be leavin’ home. I’ll speak to yer Da after supper.”
Bilbo had just settled into his study when the front doorbell jangled and he waited, relieved when he heard the slap of Frodo’s feet on the hall tiles as he went to answer. He was about to pick up his quill when he heard Hamfast Gamgee’s voice. “Evenin’ Master Frodo. Me and the Missus was wonderin’ if Mister Bilbo was free for a chat.”
Bilbo did not wait for Frodo’s reply, instead stepping out of his study to greet his neighbours, for it was most unusual for both to visit, especially at this late hour. “Hello Ham, Bell. Please come into the parlour. Frodo, would you make us some tea?”
Although they followed Bilbo into the parlour and perched gingerly upon the settee, Hamfast waved away the offer. “That’s alright, Master Frodo. We don’t want to put you to no trouble.”
“Nonsense. It’s no trouble at all,” Bilbo announced as he settled in his arm chair and Frodo trotted off down the hall to the kitchen. “Now what brings you to my door at this hour of the evening?”
Usually not one to be backward at coming forward, nonetheless, Bell looked to her husband to speak first. Ham cleared his throat. “We was wonderin’ sir . . . and I hope you don’t think us too forward . . . but you was sayin’ the other day . . .” His voice petered out and Bell finally took over.
“Ye said as how if there were aught ye could do to help we was to ask.” She paused.
“I did, Bell, and I meant it. Out with it. How can I help?”
It was Hamfast who continued. “Well, you know we had to butcher the sow last week. It weren’t fair to keep her ‘cause we didn’t have nothin’ spare to feed her and Bill Bracegirdle gave us a fair price.”
Bilbo doubted very much that Bill had paid a fair price but he kept that thought to himself. The laws of supply and demand did not work in everyone’s favour and poorer folk like the Gamgees were suffering most.
Bell picked up where her husband left off. “We was wonderin’ . . . we was workin’ it out and we could cope if we had just one less mouth to feed. And with ye havin’ family in Tookborough and Buckland we was wonderin’ if they needed any folk to help with cleanin’ and cookin’. Our May is a hard worker an’ she says she’s a yen to see the world outside Hobbiton.” Bell sniffed. “Although where she gets such ideas from I don’t know.”
Frodo chose that moment to return with a tray and Bilbo drew up a table. Bell’s eyes widened when she saw that besides the tea pot there was also a plate containing shortbread.
Bilbo took charge of the teapot. “I don’t doubt that she is. I have not heard of any maids required at Brandy Hall but I know Great Smials can always make use of another pair of willing hands. I would be happy to send a letter to Eglantine Took if you wish.”
Frodo handed out cups and offered the shortbread but the Gamgees refused all but the tea.
“That’s very good of ye, Mister Bilbo. If May’s got it in her head to leave Hobbiton at least I know she’ll be looked after there,” said Bell with some relief. That relief was only partly a result of Bilbo’s offer. She had not been altogether happy about the prospect of one of her brood going ‘over the river’ to Buckland on the borders of the Shire.
Hamfast’s gaze kept returning to the shortbread and Frodo suddenly realised that they would probably not have flour to spare for such treats themselves. He began to feel uncomfortable, suddenly realising that Ham and Bell would not consider accepting such extravagance for themselves, when they had youngsters going hungry at home.
Bilbo was very much aware of the dilemma, however. “That’s settled, then. I was going to do some letter writing this evening so it will be no great hardship to include one to Eglantine. Now, I wonder if you would accept a little gift from us for your youngsters. I have made far too much shortbread again so you would be doing me a favour if you took half a dozen pieces home with you.”
Hamfast’s lips thinned but Bell laid a gentle hand upon his knee. “That’s very kind of ye, Mister Bilbo. Just four will do, though. Me and Ham is used to doin’ without,” she replied with a smile.
“But we could spare six,” Frodo insisted, then shutting his mouth quickly when he saw Bilbo’s warning glance.
This time it was Hamfast who replied stiffly, “Just four. I thank you kindly for the thought but I don’t hold with charity when tis not needed. I reckon Daisy and the young uns would like a treat, though.”
Bilbo nodded. “I quite understand, Ham. Frodo, would you go and wrap four pieces for the children?”
As Frodo left for the kitchen he heard Bilbo saying, “Now, when do you think you would be able to spare May?”
Amid all the hardship of 1391 and1392 there was one bright ray of sunshine in Hobbiton. Bilbo and Frodo Baggins decided that they would host a Yule Feast. It was usual for each family to share gifts and food within their own smials but Bilbo Baggins knew that it would be a sparse affair for most this year.
So it was that on a cold and windy evening the week before Yule, the coming feast was the main topic of conversation in the Ivy Leaf Tavern.
“I don’t hold with changin’ things,” Birky Bracegirdle asserted as he took a sip of his cider. It was the same mug he had purchased two hours ago for, in common with most of the patrons, there were few coins to spare for cider this year. And yet folk needed something to bring them together, so Borden Brewer would rather sell one half to each patron than have no patrons at all.
“I’m not a one for change myself but there’s to be free food and ale. Borden there says Mr Baggins has paid him for the ale already,” Cal Brockside noted. “I can only speak for mine but my missus were right worrited about providin’ our Yule Sup this year.”
Ted Sandiman drew on his pipe and sent a cloud of fragrant smoke upward. It joined the blue haze that always hung beneath the ceiling of the tap room. If Borden noticed that the smoke did not hang as thickly this winter he made no comment. Indeed, there were a few matrons who were rather pleased not to have to launder their husband’s shirts quite so often. “Well, I aint sayin’ ‘No’, to a free supper.”
“Didn’t think you would,” muttered Cal, earning himself a glower from Ted. Of all present, Ted was most able to afford to provide his own Yule Supper.
“Master Frodo says as how they always have a Yule Feast away down in Buckland,” Hamfast interjected.
“And they say elves live in trees but that don’t mean it’s right fer hobbits,” Birky pronounced firmly.
There was a long silence, in which all either took a sip of cider or drew on their pipes. Ted was the first to speak up again. “I hear Mad Baggins has paid Tom Cotton fer the use of his barn.” He frowned. “Might as well put it to some use fer it aint holdin’ no wheat.”
“Oh, he hasn’t paid,” Ham corrected. “He offered, mind you, but Tom wouldn’t take no money.”
Ted snorted. “Then he’s as touched as Baggins. He could have asked a pretty penny fer the use.”
Several sets of eyes rolled ceiling-ward but it was Hamfast who said, “Not everyone is lookin’ to line their pockets at the expense of others.”
Ted had sense enough not to reply to that for he had been charging over the odds for milling since the storm. His argument was that if he was asked to mill less grain he had to charge more if he was to feed his own family. It was an argument many could have made but most had more altruistic natures.
“Well, I think tis a neighbourly gesture and me an’ mine is goin’ to the feast.” Hamfast knocked out his spent pipe on the table edge. “Seems to me that in some folks eyes Mister Bilbo can’t win. If he don’t spend money he’s tight fisted and if he do, he’s showin’ off.”
Ted Sandiman snorted. “He’s mad as a box o’ frogs either way.”
The very next day Tom Carter made his way up the hill to Bag End, his wagon piled high with boxes and sacks. Frodo Baggins met him at the gate and helped him unload the entire contents into Bag End’s expansive hallway. Bilbo sent him on his way with two silver pennies for his efforts (twice the going rate). He also pressed into his hands a bag containing two pounds of flour, with the injunction to hand it over to Tulip Carter to bake yule cakes for their faunts. This almost reduced Tom to tears.
Once the door was closed Bilbo stood in the middle of his hallway, surrounded by their delivery, and performed a little jig. “Frodo, my lad, this will be a Yuletide to remember.”
Frodo grinned at his uncles cavorting. “And now it will be remembered for a good reason.”
His words brought Bilbo to a halt and he turned about slowly to survey their bounty. “I don’t know how the elves managed it. Some of these vegetables should not have survived the journey from Rivendell in this weather.”
Frodo lifted the cover from a shallow box and gasped. “Bilbo, there are oranges in this box! Oranges! Where did Lord Elrond manage to find oranges in mid-winter and why haven’t they rotted?”
Bilbo shook his head, his grin returning. “I’m blessed if I know, but I asked for his help and he provided.” He bent to open a small sack, marked with the elvish runes for ‘wheat flour’. Inside was a white powder so fine that it felt like cool silk in his palm. “I don’t think we’ll have any trouble persuading Olin Baker to use this for his bread.”
“Nor Mistress Gamgee, if you’re still going to ask her to bake some pies.” Frodo opened a larger box. “There are plenty of apples in this one.”
“Of course I shall ask Bell to bake some of her prize winning apple pies. And I shall be asking Rosemary Cornberry to bake some sponge cakes. Is there any jam in that box to your left?”
Frodo lifted the lid on a solidly constructed wooden box. Rummaging amongst the packing straw he discovered jars of pickles and jam, bottles of flavoured oils and tubs of deep yellow butter. “There’s strawberry and raspberry jam and even a big jar of orange marmalade.” Frodo grinned, for Lord Elrond obviously knew that Bilbo was fond of toast and marmalade for first breakfast. It was no surprise, therefore, when his uncle sent him off to put the marmalade in Bag End’s capacious pantry.
When he returned, Bilbo was standing with pencil and paper, listing the foodstuffs. “Give me a hand here, Frodo. Once we’ve listed them and know what we have we will need to divide them up amongst those who have agreed to bake for the feast.”
Eager to see what other treasures may be stowed within the boxes and sacks, Frodo began to open them, calling out the contents to his uncle for listing. They even discovered sweet, fresh cob nuts, their sack stamped with the clustered oak leaf of King Thranduil’s realm.
On the first day of the new year Hobbiton celebrated the return of light. Nobody paid heed to the months of hardship to come before the next harvest and, for one day, they chose to live in celebration of Now. There was music and dancing and everyone, from the oldest gammer to the youngest bairn in arms, had a full belly. Many a toast was raised to Mister Bilbo Baggins, although that Gentlehobbit pretended not to hear them. Even the Gamgees, who on the morrow would be waving off their daughter, chose to see this as an opportunity to celebrate together one last time.
Next morning, when many a Hobbiton resident was still sleeping off an excess of ale, there was a knock at the door of Bag End. It was Bilbo who opened it to find a sombre May Gamgee on the step.
“You said as how I should come say, goodbye, afore I left.”
Bilbo smiled and beckoned her in, taking a moment to glance down the hill to see Tom Carter’s wagon outside Number Three. No doubt Bell was offering him a cup of tea. “Indeed I did, Miss May. Come into the kitchen. May I offer you a cup of tea? Frodo and I were just starting first breakfast.”
May wiped her feet on the mat before following Bilbo down the polished hallway. “I thank you for the offer, sir, but Tom Carter is wantin’ to be away. Widow Rumble says there’s rain comin’.” She stepped into Bag End’s well-appointed kitchen and took a moment to look about her, for she supposed she must get used to such grand rooms if she was to work in Great Smials.
Bag End’s kitchen was actually no bigger than that of Number Three. It had the same large table in the centre, with benches either side and a large cooking range in the middle of one wall. There the similarity ended, for in her family home the kitchen served as parlour too and here fancy china gleamed upon the painted and finely carved dresser.
Master Frodo was lifting the kettle as she entered and he grinned. “Morning, May. All packed?”
His sunny smile was infectious it seemed, for May found her own face responding. “Yes, sir. I am. Not that I’ve much to take. The Thain’s lady said as how she would give me a uniform when I get there.”
Mister Baggins lifted two parcels from the table and held them out to her. “And that’s what made us invite you here this morning. These are for you, from Frodo and me.”
May’s eyes widened. “For me?” She unconsciously wiped her hands on her apron before reaching out to accept them. “But, tis past the time for Yule giftin’.”
Frodo poured water into the teapot. “Oh, this isn’t a Yule gift. This is a New Beginnings gift.”
May’s brows drew down. “There ain’t no such thing, beggin’ your pardon, Master Frodo.”
Bilbo chuckled. “Well, there is now. You will be given a uniform but you won’t want to be wearing it on your days off.” He winked. “Even parlour maids go to parties on occasion.” He took back the parcels when she made no move to open them, and set them back on the table. “Come on, now. Open them up.”
Once more, May wiped her hands before parting the brown paper, her wide brown eyes beginning to shimmer as she revealed a length of fine white linen. She slid a palm beneath one layer, and a tear slid down her cheek as she saw her own flesh through the fabric. “I ain’t never seen a linen so fine,” she whispered.
Frodo beamed. “That’s my gift. It’s came all the way from Rivendell. It was woven by elves.”
May flinched as though scalded, and she swallowed before she could meet his blue gaze. “Tis too fine for me. I thank you for the thought sir, but I wouldn’t dare cut it.”
It was Bilbo who replied, however. “Nonsense, young lady. Your mother tells me you’ve a neat hand with a needle and I cannot think of a lass who would look prettier in it. Now, open mine.”
With an almost dreamlike air, May set aside Frodo’s gift and opened the other package, which proved to be more fabric. This one was soft fine wool in a warm gold the colour of autumn leaves. Bilbo nodded approvingly. “I knew that colour would go well with your hair.”
More tears rolled down May’s cheeks and she had to fish about in her skirt pocket for a hanky. She folded the fabric away, reverentially. “Tis beautiful, Mister Baggins. I don’t hardly know what to say. You’ve been so good to me, gettin’ me this position and all. And now this.”
Bilbo helped her repackage the cloths. “It was the least I could do. I know I speak for Frodo as well when I say that your parents have given us more than we can say. I suspect that, had you a choice, you would have preferred to stay at home, but you have made a great sacrifice and we wanted to honour you.” He had to pause to clear his throat. “You are a brave lass, May Gamgee.”
On a sudden, May jumped forward to give Bilbo a strong hug. For a moment he froze, then his arms came around her. “I have no doubt that you will do well, but if you ever feel that you cannot cope, you come back to us. We’ll find another way through.”
May stepped back and dabbed at her eyes again. “Thank you, sir.”
Bilbo swiped at his own eyes and turned her toward the door. “Come on, now. Tom Carter will be wondering where you have go to.”
Frodo picked up her packages and followed them to the door. As he handed them over May reached up to plant a chaste kiss upon his cheek. “Thank you, too, Master Frodo.”
Before either Baggins could say another word she fled down the path, their gifts clutched close to her bosom.
Frodo looked up from the pages of his book. Daffodils nodded in a gentle breeze, their butter faces lifted to the fresh spring sunshine. He glanced aside to where Sam was copying out a letter to his older sister, May. Frodo had helped him to draft it on a slate first and now the youngster was using his new pencil to transfer it to paper.
The two were sprawled on a rug, spread upon Bag End’s green roof. The huge oak above them was not yet in full leaf so they lay in dappled shade. Frodo had provided his student with a wooden board to work on and the youngster was locked in concentration, tongue sticking out of the corner of his mouth.
“Master Frodo, how do you spell that word again?” He pointed to what appeared to Frodo to be a white smudge on the slate.
“Let me read the rest.” He accepted the slate and tried to make sense of the sentence. “I think it’s, “Ma. That’s ‘M’, with the two mountain tops and ‘A’ for apple.”
Sam grinned. “That’s it!” He bent over the board again and Frodo returned to his book, trying to force his brain to dive back into the complex paths of Sindarin past participles. It was some time before he surfaced once more, to find Sam watching him.
“Sorry, Master Frodo. I didn’t mean to disturb you, but I wondered if you’d just check I’ve got this right.”
Frodo smiled, setting aside his book to reach out a hand to accept Sam’s work. “It’s alright, Sam. I can finish this any time.” He accepted the sheet of paper with its carefully lined writing.
I hope this letter finds you well. We are all well here. Ma, Da, Daisy and Mari send their love and Master Frodo asks to be remembered to you. It is Master Frodo that has helped me write this letter to you.
Tom Carter says he spoke to Halfred last week and he is well too. We have not heard from Hamson but Ma says we will hear if anything is wrong.
I hope you like your work and folks are being nice to you. Master Frodo says they have a person in Great Smials called a scribe who will read this to you and send a letter back to me if you want. I hope to hear from you soon.
Frodo handed it back with a bright smile. “That’s lovely. Although maybe next time you should just sign your name as, ‘Sam’. You only really need to sign your full name if you are writing a business letter.”
Sam frowned. “Thank you, but should I write the letter again, then?”
“No Sam. I am quite certain that May will be more than happy to receive your letter, however you sign it,” Frodo hastened to assure him as he handed it back. “Shall I write out the address on your slate so that you can copy it onto the envelope?”
Sam took a cloth to wipe his slate clean. “If you don’t mind, Master Frodo, can I have a go myself? If you say it to me I’ll spell it on my slate and you can check it, like you did with the letter.”
“Of course. Ready?”
Sam poised his chalk above the slate. “Right you are, sir.”
Frodo sat up to watch. “Miss May Gamgee, care of Mistress Eglantine Took, Great Smials, Tuckborough, Tookland, West Farthing, The Shire.” By the time Sam reached ‘West Farthing’ he was running out of room on his slate. Hobbits were very precise about addressing correspondence correctly, being quite fond of knowing their place in the grand order of things. When he had finished Sam handed over the slate and Frodo corrected the spelling of Tuckborough.
Sam frowned. “Why is Tuckborough spelled different to Tookland?”
Frodo grinned. “It happens sometimes. Over time spellings change but not always in the same way or at the same time. Bilbo would know best whether Tuckborough came first, or Tookland. It is possible that in a few more generations, particularly if more hobbits learn to write, Tuckborough will eventually change to Tookborough.”
Sam’s frown did not lift. “So, words change because more folk spell them wrong?”
Frodo chuckled. “I think that sums it up well. Now, come along and address your envelope so that you can run down to the post office with it before they close for the day.”
Frodo set down his basket of lettuce and radishes when he heard Sam’s call.
“Master Frodo! Master Frodo, sir. May’s sent me a letter.” The little lad was grinning broadly as he sprinted up the hill, leaping over lines of vegetable tops in complete disregard for the niceties of lane and garden gate. Frodo had to catch him, for fear he would be bowled over if Sam did not manage to stop in time.
For a moment Sam rummaged in his breeches pocket, finally tugging free a folded envelope and thrusting it into his neighbour’s hand. “There’s a bit in it for you an’ Mister Bilbo.”
Frodo glanced down at the envelope. The writing was much too neat for May to have addressed it herself and he suspected that the scribe of Great Smials had penned it for her. He offered it back to Sam. “What message does she send?”
Sam only blinked, unused to the etiquette of letter exchange, and Frodo had to explain. “It is not considered polite to read another’s letters unless specifically invited. They may contain personal information or thoughts that are not appropriate for sharing.”
Sam considered for a moment. “That’s alright. Aint nothin’ personal in it. You can read it, sir.”
Frodo led the way to the little bench by Bag End’s front gate and motioned for Sam to sit with him. The letter inside the envelope was not long and his suspicion about the writer was confirmed when he read the signature at the bottom. Frodo went back to the top, aware as he read that the scrivener had tidied up some of May’s grammar.
“My Dear Little Sam,
I am so happy to hear that all are well back home. Ma is right about Hamson. He is probably too busy to send a letter but, why not write to him yourself?
Everyone here is nice. You should see the big room I share with just two other lasses. I even have my own bed and a big box to put my things in. It has a lock and Mistress Eglantine has given me my own key for it. I wish I could have a box like it at home to stop Daisy borrowing my stuff. I have been given a uniform and it is so pretty. I have two summer dresses, two winter ones and four pinafores.
The other two lasses in my room are Primrose Bracegirdle and Bluebell Proudfoot. They are parlour maids too and they are showing me what needs doing. They are very kind if I get things wrong.
Please tell Mister Bilbo that I have made up the cloth he gave me into a pretty dress for best. Please also tell Master Frodo’s that I have used his lovely cloth too. (Bluebell says I should not tell a young gentlehobbit what clothes I made from the white cloth, as it would not be proper.)
I am going to learn my letters, Sam! Mistress Eglantine has asked Master Noter to teach any who are interested and of course I said, ‘yes’. Maybe soon I will be able to write my own letters.
I miss you and everyone in Hobbiton.
(As dictated to Orman Noter.)
Frodo handed back the letter, hoping his face did not show the blush he felt upon reading Bluebell’s injunction. The fine linen he had gifted to May was suited only to the most personal of garments and he had felt a little embarrassed at the time of gifting, but Bilbo had insisted that May would need shifts and the like. He pointed out that, as he had already provided the dress fabric, Frodo would have to be the one who gave the linen. His cheek tingled in remembrance of the kiss May had given him as she left.
“Tis a fine letter, Master Frodo, and that’s a fact.” Sam slipped it back into its envelope and folded it carefully to return it to his pocket.
Frodo brushed away memory and smiled. “It’s a very fine letter. If you need help in writing your reply please don’t be afraid to ask.”
Sam frowned. “But what shall I write, sir? I’ve told her that we’re all well. What else would she want to know?”
“Well, think about what May has told you in her reply. She spoke of her room and the lasses she has met. It’s usual to write of the things we do or the things that happen around us. Imagine May is sitting next to you and tell her about your days, just as you used to do at the kitchen table in the evenings.”
Sam digested this advice for a while. “But nothin’ much happens in Hobbiton and she knows all the folk here. There ain’t nobody new to tell her of.”
Frodo grinned. “Then maybe you can pass on some personal greetings to her from family and friends. She may have made new friends but I expect she still misses her old ones.”
Ma and Da says they hope you are minding your manners and they are happy to know you are well.
Daisy says did you take her blue comb, because she cannot find it. She says if you did, she will tell Ma on you. I think she has just lost it and is cross that you have a box that you can lock and she does not.
Mari does not say much of anything but I gave her a bit of paper and a pencil and she has done you a picture. I do not know what it is supposed to be. Maybe you can make it out.
Master Frodo and Mister Bilbo was happy to hear that you had used the cloth and send their best regards. Mister Bilbo also said to tell you that if you need anything else you should let him know.
Thank you for your letter and please give my love to all at home, even Daisy.
Tell Daisy that I have not got her comb. I think she lent it to Honeysuckle Chub for the Yule Feast and she had best request its return before it disappears forever. Marigold’s drawing is very sweet. I do not know what it is supposed to be either but just tell her I love it and have pinned it to the wall above my bed. Mistress Elglantine allows us to do that.
Primrose and Bluebell showed me how to set out the knives and forks and other things in the Thain’s dining room the other day. There are lots of dining rooms here but the Thain’s is the grandest. The walls are all wood panels like Bag End’s hall and the table will seat twenty people. I have never seen so much cutlery (that’s knives, forks and spoons). Every person gets nearly four knives and almost as many forks and they all have to be set out in a line at each side of their plates. They have to be in a special order too. I keep getting that wrong but Prim. says not to worry as it took her ages to learn.
I hope to hear from you soon,
(As dictated to Orman Noter.)”
I hope his letter finds you well. We have all had colds here. Most of Hobbiton has had it and some have taken right poorly, but we are alright. The only ones who have not got it so far are Mari, Master Frodo and Mr Bilbo. Mr Bilbo does not ever seem to get poorly.
Daisy has got her comb back from Honeysuckle. I said she may want to say sorry for thinking you had taken it but she just sniffed, and Ma sent her out to clean the privy.
Why would anyone want so many knives and forks for one meal? Even if there’s more than one course you can always lick them clean between. Rich folks have some funny ideas to my mind, but do not go telling Ma that I said so. I am not supposed to say things like that about my betters.
I hope you do not get the cold.
I am writtin this in deb. I have the cold. But mistress Eglintin is very kind. Give my love to Ma and Da and all.
Did you write that letter on your own? I am happy you are learning. I was going to tell you that you spelled some of the words wrong but Master Frodo says that I should not make you feel bad when you are still learning.
He has asked me to send you this old book of his. It is a dictionary and you use it to look up the spelling of words. I have never understood that, becos you need to know how to spell the word to look up how to spell it. It is good of him to send it, though, and he is going to pay the post for it.
I hope you are soon feeling better.
Frodo watched Sam pulling weeds from between the carrot tops. “Good morning, Sam.”
Sam jumped up, wiping his hands on his breeches, and Frodo could almost hear Bell Gamgee’s sigh. “Mornin’ Sir. Da’s gone down into Hobbiton this mornin’. Is there somethin’ you’re wantin’?”
Frodo took a sip of his tea. “No, Sam. I just fancied a breath of fresh air.” He cleared his throat. “I think I may be coming down with that confounded cold everyone else has had.”
Sam’s young features registered concern at once. “Should I run for the doctor?”
Frodo managed a grin. “There’s not a lot he can do for a cold. I’ll be alright. When I’ve had this tea I shall take a nap.” He fished in his pocket and used a bright red hanky to wipe his nose. “Have you heard from May recently?”
“Not since she wrote she was in bed with a cold. That was a couple of weeks ago now.”
“Maybe she has been too busy to write.”
“I think that’s it, Sir. Or maybe she’s still poorly. Some folks have taken this cold right bad. Are you sure you don’t need the doctor?”
Frodo managed another smile. “I shall be better in no time.” He headed back to the door, deciding that he really would like a nap now. “Send my regards to May if she does write.”
Sam knelt among the carrots again. “I will, Sir.”
Washday is a communal event for the folk of Bagshot Row.
“Here you are, love.”
Bell rolled over to find Hamfast sitting on the edge of their bed, mug of tea in hand. She blinked, then grinned sleepily as she pushed herself up and jammed a pillow at her back. “What brought this on? What ye been up to?”
Hamfast rolled his eyes as he handed over the mug. “I had to be up early this mornin’. Mr Bilbo has asked me to run an errand with him and as tis washday I thought you’d like to start with a good strong up of tea.”
Bell made to throw aside the covers. “Ham! Ye should have told me. I need to get up to make yer breakfast. The range will need tendin’ and where’s Mari?”
Ham stopped her by the simple expedient of giving her a smacking kiss. “You sit there and drink that. Daisy and young Sam’s got all in hand at the wash house, includin’ Marigold, and I made first breakfast for us all.”
Bell’s eyes widened as she considered the meagre contents of their larder. “What did ye have?”
“Don’t you fret. We had bread and drippin’ and a cup of tea. Mr Bilbo says he’ll buy us both second breakfast at the Pony’s Rest on the way. We won’t be back til supper time tomorrow.” Ham grinned, knowing that would help stretch his family’s food supplies . . . or at least ensure that their bairns got an extra mouthful for the next couple of days.
Ham climbed onto the bed at her side and Bell leaned in to his shoulder, sipping her tea. “When did Mr Bilbo ask ye to go with him? Ye didn’t say nothin’ last night.”
“He came out to speak to me this mornin’, while I was fetchin’ water to the wash house. Says he’s got someone to see out Needlehole way in the north and don’t think tis wise to walk all that way alone. Master Frodo is still gettin’ over that cold or he’d take him.”
“Poor lad. Clover took over some linctus fer his cough yesterday. She says he looked like he was improvin’.”
“Oh, Mr Bilbo says the lad is up and about but he don’t think tis wise to take him all that way so soon.” Ham dropped his voice. “Although what business Mr Bilbo would have in Needlehole I don’t know. He’s no family nor business out there as far as I recollect.”
Bell frowned. “I don’t mind him askin’ ye fer the favour. Goodness knows but he’s done enough fer us this year. But ye were due to go work at the Sackville-Baggins today. They don’t pay much but we could do with the coin.”
Ham squeezed her so hard that Bell almost spilled her tea. “That’s just it, lass. He says, as he’s takin’ me away from my other job, he’ll pay me by the hour at his usual rate! And you know that’s better than Mistress Lobelia pays. He also said, seein’ as how I’d be on duty all day and all night as it were, he’d pay me for all that time. I’ll earn more in these two days than I’d earn in a week from Mistress Lobelia!”
Bell looked up at her husband, as though trying to gauge whether he was joking, but Ham was just grinning down at her. “Hamfast Gamgee, did I tell ye lately that I love ye?”
Ham looked thoughtful for a moment. “Not for ages. I think it were as long ago as last night.”
Bell’s gaze dropped to his lap and she stretched up to whisper, “How long have we got afore ye have to go to Bag End?”
Ham’s eyes widened and he lifted the mug from his wife’s hand to set it on the floor by their bedside. “I reckon I’ve got another hour. Plenty of time to show me how much ye love me.”
Bell batted her eyelashes. “Ye’d best go set the latch on the door, then.”
Bushy eyebrows waggled. “Already did.”
Bell avoided her husband’s roaming hands, chuckling as she pushed him down the path to the gate, where Bilbo Baggins leaned on his walking staff, face wreathed in a knowing grin.
“I’ll bring him back to you in a couple of days, Bell. I promise.”
“Covered in muck I’ve no doubt,” she replied, but her eyes twinkled. She watched them turn away and stroll down the lane, returning their wave before closing the door. “Well now. Let’s see what sort of a mess Daisy and Sam have got into,” she murmured as she crossed the empty kitchen to the back door.
As soon as she stepped into Bagshot Lane’s shared back yard she could smell laundry soap and was gratified to see her youngest son trotting into the laundry house door with his arms full of logs. She followed him into a steamy world.
In a far corner the huge copper steamed gently over a merry blaze that was fed by Sam. Daisy had her back to her mother, pouncing and twisting the dolly stick in its large, galvanised barrel.
On the floor around her were several more huge tubs. Some contained whites that had been left to soak overnight. Others held clean water or clothes waiting to have the soap rinsed from them. It seemed Daisy had been working for an hour or more and her dripping hair and water marked clothing stood testimony to her diligence. Bell surveyed the tubs as she rolled up her sleeves.
“Sam, lad. Have ye collected the linens from Bag End?”
Sam leaped up, his eyes wide. “I forgot!” He made to race out but Bell snagged his collar.
“Well, don’t forget Clover Mugwort’s linens, too. Tis the least we can do if she’s willin’ to look after Marigold.” She let go and bit back a smile as Sam shot off up the hill like and arrow from a bow.
Daisy didn’t bother to hide her amusement at her younger brother being caught in error, but her face straightened when her mother chided, “And ye should have checked that afore ye started, lass.”
Bell reached down to check a sheet from one of the tubs sitting on a long bench to Daisy’s right. “Have these been dollied?”
Daisy paused to straighten her back and tuck a strand of damp hair behind her ear. “Yes, Ma. That’s the first load, the ones that needed boilin’ first.”
Bell snagged the sheet, watching water sluice from it as she lifted it to shoulder height and then lowered it back to lean on it, before repeating the process. The clean cold water began to turn cloudy as soap was forced out by her actions. With a grunt, Bell lifted the rinsed whites into another tub, filled with blue tinged water and for several minutes both she and Daisy worked in silence.
So intent were they upon their work that when somebody spoke from the doorway Bell jumped. “Good morning Mistress Gamgee, Miss Daisy.”
Bell spun about to find Frodo Baggins smiling at her over an armful of sheets and towels. “Goodness, but ye scared the livin’ daylights out of me, Master Frodo.” She stepped forward to collect the bundle from him, dropping it into an empty tub to Daisy’s left. When she turned back Frodo was still standing in the doorway, taking in the scene in the little lime-washed space.
“Would you like some help? I feel at a bit of a loose end with Bilbo away.”
“Bless you, sir. The laundry house ain’t no place for a gentlehobbit like yerself. We’ll manage.” Bell studied the young master. His nose was dry but still red and his voice sounded a little nasal but Frodo’s eyes were clear and there was no sign of fever in his cheeks.
He stepped aside as Sam returned, linens piled so high in his little arms that he could barely see over the top of them and Frodo helped him load them into the tub with Bag End’s linens. Sam blew his hair out of his eyes. “I got ‘em all, Ma. And Mistress Clover says Mari’s settled down to sleep and we’re all to come to Number Two for elevenses later.” There was no time for second breakfast on laundry day. In truth, over the past year there was precious little food to spare for a second breakfast in most smials.
“That’s good of her, but we’d best take a drop of milk and some bread with us.”
“Are you sure I can’t help?” Frodo asked, surveying the piles of linen. “I know you struggle without May and, with Mistress Mugwort looking after Marigold it looks as though you could do with another pair of hands. How is Marigold, by the way?”
“She’s over the worst of the cold. Thank ye fer askin’.”
When Bell still looked sceptical Frodo grinned. “All Brandy Hall’s youngsters were expected to help out in the laundry at some point.” He hooked a thumb over his shoulder to where the mangle had been dragged out into the yard. “I can turn a mangle as well as anyone at least.”
Bell didn’t need to consider for much longer. With May at Great Smials and Clover Mugwort looking after a miserable little, cold-ridden Marigold they were two pairs of hands short, and Sam was yet too small to be of help with the heavy work. She fixed Frodo with her sternest gaze. “Don’t ye go tellin’ Mister Bilbo about this. It may be done down Buckland way but in Hobbiton t’aint proper fer a gentlehobbit to help with laundry.” Then her voice softened. “But I would be grateful if ye don’t mind helpin’ me to fold and mangle.”
Frodo’s face lit up and he rolled up his sleeves before reaching into the tub to fish about for the other end of the sheet that Bell bent to pull out. Bell found herself impressed when he followed her without instruction, touching his ends to Bell’s and helping her to wring before walking out together to the mangle. In the yard they folded the sheet until it would fit within the width of the rollers and Bell fed while Frodo turned the handle, guiding the flattened cloth into a dry tub.
By the time elevenses came around Frodo had switched jobs several times, turning to the rinsing, collecting buckets of water, and taking over from Daisy at the dolly tub for a while. Even Daisy was secretly impressed at his willingness. Skinny he may be but he was no weakling, despite having to pause for a couple of coughing fits. Frodo discovered that the steamy air and exercise of the wash house actually seemed to ease his chest and he did not need to resort to Mistress Mugwort’s kindly meant but revolting cough medicine.
Clover Mugwort had done laundry often enough to know that on a hot day like this there was nothing better than sitting in the sun to eat, especially after being locked in the damp heat of a laundry house for hours, so she had spread out a cloth on the grass atop Number Two, Bagshot Row.
Bell slipped indoors to check on her youngest but Marigold was curled up, asleep on the spare bed in Clover’s kitchen, so she simply kissed the little lass’ brow before creeping out to join the others.
Clover handed Bell a cup of tea. “She’s slept most the mornin’. I think the fever’s goin’. I reckon she’ll be a lot better on the morrow.”
Bell accepted it gratefully. “Twas good of ye to look after her today, Clove. She’s too young to be left alone fer long and this cold took her hard.”
Clover waved away the thanks. “She’s as good as gold. And tis nice to have another body about the place again.” She glanced across the yard to where her son’s workshop stood silent. Only last month she had asked Mister Bilbo if he would consider letting it out to someone else. She didn’t like the silence and would rather know it was being used. She had sold Harry’s tools and lumber to Tom Buckleby just before Yule but Mister Bilbo said he would not let out the workshop again until Clover was ready. Mister Bilbo was good like that.
There was an uneasy silence in which Bell watched Sam trying to eat a slice of bread and honey without getting himself too sticky. Honey and butter had been Master Frodo’s contribution to elevenses. She chuckled. “Ye’d best wash yer hands and face afore ye tackle any more laundry, lad, or it’ll be dirtier comin’ out the house than it was goin’ in.”
Sam grinned broadly before licking his fingers. They did not sit for too long and, having helped Clover clear away, they returned to their work, for they were but half way through the mountain of whites and Bell had yet to tackle the delicate coloured clothes. These could not be boiled nor, in the case of finer fabrics, pounded in the dolly tub, so it was Bell who took on that particular responsibility while Frodo stepped in to continue helping Daisy with the whites.
“Do you want me to spell you with that, Master Frodo?” Daisy asked when she saw Frodo pause to stretch. He had been working the Dolly Tub for some time and she knew that it could be taxing on the arms, even more so to arms unused to the activity.
Frodo firmed his lips and set too once more, with a will. “No. I’m fine.” Lift, drop, twist. Lift, drop, twist. Frodo got a better grip on the cross handle, under-arm, trying hard to ignore the blisters he could feel beginning to form in his palms. Hot water, strong soap and unaccustomed activity was a lethal combination for skin. He had not lied when saying he used to help in the laundry at Brandy Hall, but that was a couple of years ago and muscle and skin had forgotten.
Bell reached across from her own tub to lay a gentle hand upon his arm. “Not so hard, lad. Yer just supposed to be forcin’ the soapy water through it . . . not beatin’ it to a pulp.” She prevented Daisy’s potential snigger with a well-timed glare.
“Sorry, Mistress Gamgee,” Frodo murmured as he softened his action.
“Tis alright. We all got to learn and maybe they do it different away down in Buckland,” Bell replied as she went back to her gentle agitation of one of Daisy’s print skirts.
Frodo had to smile. ‘Away down in Buckland’ was one of Bell Gamgee’s favourite sayings and conveyed a wealth of meaning. In Bell’s mind Buckland was a strange place; a buffer zone between the Shire proper and the world of the Big Folk. As such, it was liable to strange influences and the hobbits living there were open to ‘corruption’ by outsiders. Who knew what strange things they got up to in Buckland?
Of course, having lived there for many years, Frodo knew that Buckland folk could be even more set in their ways than those deeper within the Shire’s borders. It was almost as though Brandybucks felt they had to keep even more hobbit traditions, precisely to prevent the ‘corruption’ that Bell so feared.
Sam helped his older sister rinse and wring another sheet, then Bell helped her fold it for the mangle that Sam turned for them.
By lunch time the huge shared yard of Bagshot Row was festooned with damp linen. Lines had been strung from trees to post and back again and sheets and clothing filled every inch. Strong summer sun dried and performed its own bleaching on linen spread upon hedges and the grass of smial roofs. It almost seemed to little Sam that snow had fallen and he had to resist the temptation to leave a trail of footprints across all that whiteness.
The exhausted laundry crew were not finished, however. There were buckets to be emptied, tubs to be rinsed and hung against the wall, the copper to be drained, its fire dowsed, a puddled floor to be mopped, the heavy mangle to be dragged back indoors and benches to be scrubbed. It was well past noon before Clover Mugwort ushered them into the Gamgee kitchen to eat. There, a much brighter Marigold sat, playing on her cushion by the fire, and Clover had set the table for all to eat.
Frodo donated a large pork pie and there were salad vegetables from the Gamgee garden, all washed down with milk for the youngsters and tea for the grown-ups. Daisy and Frodo were both proud to be included in those offered tea, although neither would have said so aloud.
Bell gathered Marigold into her lap, bending to check the child’s fever with a gentle kiss of her lips to brow, before wiping the lass’ little red nose. Marigold snuggled into her mother’s bosom at once whilst, of course, keeping an eye upon the food being placed upon her own little plate.
“Well, Master Frodo, I don’t know how we would have managed without ye, today.” Bell lifted her cup in salute to the tween sitting opposite.
Frodo’s face lit in a smile that would have had the laundry bone dry with its sunny brilliance. “I’m glad to have been of some help. Please don’t be afraid to ask if you need me again.”
“Thank ye, Young Master. Though I don’t think yer family would be over pleased with ye doin’ such work. Rinsin’ out yer own smalls and shirts is one thing but gentlehobbits don’t usually help with beddin’ and such.” Bell offered Marigold a piece of bread and butter after first wiping her faunt’s dribbling nose again.
Frodo only shrugged and Bell hid a smile as she studied the tween. He had long since abandoned his weskit and, like the rest of them, his fine shirt was damp from water and perspiration, clinging to him like a second skin. Bell noted that he had a good set of shoulders on him at least, but no matter how much he ate he never seemed to fill out around the middle as a hobbit should. Thankfully, there was little sign in those sparkling blue eyes of a return of the cold that had laid him so low for nearly two weeks. She bent to kiss her daughter’s crown.
That sickness had swept through the Shire in the past three months, made more virulent by the fact that many folk were still living on short commons until this year’s harvest came in. One or two older gaffers and gammers had succumbed and Hobbiton had endured its fair share of funerals but, with fresh vegetables ripening in the gardens and wheat beginning to pale in the fields, the worst of the epidemic and the famine seemed over.
An hour later Frodo made his way back up the hill to Bag End, a little pot of ointment in his pocket. “Fer the blisters,” Bell had whispered as she pressed it into his hand at the door to Number Three. He smiled. This morning the day had threatened to spread before him endlessly, with no Bilbo to share it. Instead he had found companionship and exercise, purpose and pride in a job well done.
He rolled his shoulders. What he needed now was a good wash and some clean, dry clothes. The irony of that was not lost on him.
Frodo sauntered down the hill to Number Three. Even this late in the summer there were plenty of wild flowers flanking the little lane that ran along the front of Bagshot Row. Cow parsley offered up large plates of lacy white blossoms, as tall as Frodo’s waist, growing out of the pale lilac spikes of a clump of apple-mint; the latter having escaped from the Gamgee’s garden by means of a hole in the hedge. Frodo bent to crush a leaf, inhaling deeply of the fresh clean fragrance before opening the garden gate to Number Three.
As was usually the case on warm days, the door to the smial stood open so Frodo could hear the murmur of voices as he came up the path. Bell Gamgee was issuing instructions in her usual calm, no-nonsense way.
“Ye sit here Sam, lad. Then ye can put the shirt on the table. It’ll slide off yer lap elsewise. Daisy, I couldn’t find any matching wool for yer Da’s jumper so ye’ll have to use that green. There’s no help for it, tis goin’ to show so make sure yer stitches is neat.”
Frodo paused to wink at little Marigold who was sitting on the step, propping the door open, with a huge bowl of peapods at her side and a colander of shelled peas in her lap. She smiled back shyly as Frodo tapped politely on the open door. “Good day to you Mistress Gamgee.”
As his eyes grew accustomed to the relative gloom of indoors Bell turned to him with a wide grin. “Hello Master Frodo. Come in. I’ve got everythin’ ready for ye. Did Mister Bilbo see ye leavin’?”
Frodo stepped into the Gamgee kitchen, relishing the mixed smells of clean laundry, fresh bread and wood fires. Despite the warm weather the fire in the range was lit, for irons and water must be heated regardless of the sunshine. He grinned in return. “He did but I told him I was bringing some of my old shirts for you to make dusters.”
“Clever,” the mistress of the household replied as she waved Frodo to a seat at the table opposite young Sam. They sat closest to the door, to take full advantage of the sunlight.
Frodo took a moment to survey the room. Little Sam was threading a sewing needle with white cotton thread, his eyes crossed and tongue peeping out from the corner of his mouth. Before him on the table was what appeared to be a nightshirt.
At the other end of the table Bell was obviously in the middle of her ironing. A folded blanket was spread on the table and at its side was a basin of water and a pile of neatly ironed shirts. A still overflowing basket of un-ironed linens sat on the floor and Frodo did not like to think about how many hours of work it would take to clear it. Two heavy black smoothing irons sat heating atop of the range.
Daisy Gamgee sat in her mother’s chair, pointedly ignoring him. Frodo hid a smile. She was probably pleased to have been granted this privileged seat and at the same time she must have been quite uncomfortable, so close to the fire on such a warm day.
He wondered how long she would tolerate it before common sense took over from pride.
When he noticed Bell hovering expectantly Frodo emptied the contents of his bag. Out fell Bilbo’s fine paisley patterned waistcoat and another smaller paper bag. Bell lifted the garment to examine it more closely. “Aye. Tis a pretty one. I remember him wearing it often. Pity about the missing buttons.” Indeed, where there should have been six buttons there was only one and even that was hanging by a thread. Bell tutted. “How ever did he manage to lose all these?”
Frodo giggled. “I think he was trying to escape a meeting with the Sackville Baggins’. He said something about getting caught up in a hawthorn bush.”
Bell shook her head. “If he’d said summat at the time I would have sent out Sam to collect them. Tis an awful waste of good brass buttons.”
“Well, I got these. They’re not brass but I thought they were rather nice.” Frodo opened the small paper bag and tipped out seven beautifully carved wooden buttons.
Bell scooped one up, laying it atop the fabric. “I wouldn’t have thought o’ wood to go with such a grand cloth but, bein’ dark an’ all, these look very well.” She smiled. “Ye’ve got yer uncles’ good eye for clothes I’m thinkin’.”
Frodo’s blue eyes glittered with pride at such praise. “I took the waistcoat with me to the market as you suggested. Tom Buckleby helped me choose the right size for the buttonholes.” Even as he spoke Bell was experimenting, slipping the new button through a buttonhole and nodding her approval.
She placed waistcoat and button back on the table and collected her sewing basket from the floor by the side of her daughter’s chair. Pausing for a moment to examine Daisy’s work she smiled. “Well done, lass. That’s very neat. Ye’ve a good hand with needle and thread when ye set yer mind to it.” Frodo swore he saw Daisy grow two inches.
Bell returned to the table, clambering over the bench to sit at Frodo’s side as she rummaged in her basket. “I still can’t believe they didn’t teach ye how to sew on a button away over the water.”
Frodo had to swallow a smile. Bell always made it sound as though Buckland was a million miles away over the sea. “There were lots of aunties who liked to do that sort of thing so it was not something I had to learn. And, if I’m honest, I was more interested in exploring the countryside or the library.”
Having found a close match of thread for the brown buttons and her pin cushion Bell opened a little felt needle book. “Well I never. I’ve heard of libry’s but I aint never seen one. All them books must be quite a sight.”
Even Sam had set down his threaded needle and was staring, wide eyed, at the casual mention of such a place. “Do they have books about elves?” he asked in an awed whisper.
“I don’t think so, Sam. They are mainly family histories or general histories of the Shire.” When Frodo saw his little friend’s face drop he added, “But there were some on gardening and a few lovely children’s story books, with coloured pictures.”
Sam’s face grew wistful as he took up his needle once more. “I wish I could see ‘em.”
“You just get that button sewn back on yer cuff, Sam Gamgee. If wishes were money ye’d be rich enough to buy yer own library. Ye just be grateful Mr Bilbo and Master Frodo is teaching ye to read.” Her kindly tone ensured that the censure was not as harsh as it could have been.
Sam bent his head to tie a knot in the end of his thread and Frodo determined to let the youngster have a look at one or two of his own books next time he came to Bag End for a lesson. They were a bit battered to be sure but they were childhood memories of his mother and he had kept them for that reason alone. He was sure Sam would be careful of them.
He was drawn back to the present by Bell’s hand in front of his nose, holding a fine steel sewing needle. “Well. Let’s start with threading the needle, shall we. Ye don’t need me to tell ye how. I’ve snipped off a piece o’ thread that should be long enough to sew on one button.”
Frodo accepted needle in one hand and thread in the other, holding them up to the light coming through the open door to accomplish this tricky task. Bell watched patiently. “When yer sewin never cut a piece o’ thread too long ‘cause every time ye pull it through the cloth it gets rougher and that’s when it starts to knot up or snap,” she imparted sagely.
Like most hobbits not encumbered by the natural clumsiness of extreme youth or age, Frodo had nimble fingers and good eyesight so the needle was threaded quickly enough. Which isn’t to say that the tween didn’t feel some pride in doing so.
“This first time I’ll show ye how to knot the end. Now, some folks don’t hold with knots, sayin’ as they come undone too easy and then the work unravels. But if ye do a couple o' little stitches first too that shouldn’t be a worry and it makes things easier.” As she spoke Frodo watched her draw both ends of the thread together. Then she licked her index finger and pinched the ends of the thread between thumb and finger. Frodo blinked as she deftly wrapped the thread three times about her finger and then rolled it off, catching it below the nail of her middle finger and tugging the thread tight, resulting in a neat, round knot.
Bell handed back the threaded needle and Frodo saw Sam grinning at him from across the table. Doubtless the youngster knew that Frodo would never be able to remember that action. Frodo decided to postpone that problem for the moment for beside him, Bell was already addressing the next step.
“Ye’re lucky here ‘cause ye can see where the old buttons was. Ye won’t have to measure ‘em. Can ye just see them little bits o’ thread? ‘Tis a good job the cloth didn’t tear or we’d have to patch and that never looks neat nor is as strong.”
Frodo decided he was rather pleased that luck was on his side. Sewing on a button was one thing but putting a patch on one of Bilbo’s best waistcoats was definitely pushing said luck. He was even more pleased when Bell announced that his luck still held.
“And the lining aint fixed at the hem. That means we can hide the stitches,” she announced with a smile as she lifted the lining up to expose the inside of the garment and handed it back to her pupil. “Now, I want ye to make two little stitches first, one atop the other. See the size o’ the gap between the two holes on the button? That’s how long they should be.” With those words Bell turned about to attend to Daisy, who had just let loose a mild expletive.
Frodo took a deep breath and applied needle to fabric, but when he tried to come back up again the garment began to slide away from him across the table. Suddenly a small foot kicked him firmly in the shins and he looked across at Sam in alarm. The youngster pointedly held up the cuff of his nightshirt in one hand and his needle in the other. Then he made his stitch, using his spare hand to steady the cloth. Following suit, Frodo offered him a silently mouthed, “Thank you.”
By the time Bell turned back, having untangled her daughter’s thread, Frodo had made the two requested stitches and Bell patted him on the arm in approval. “Well done, lad. That’s a good beginnin’.” She fished about in her sewing basket, finally producing a thin wooden bodkin. “I’ve learned when folks start to sewin’ they pull the stitches too tight and that’s no good with a button. It’s got to be loose to push it through the hole, so when I teach my bairns I use this. Turn the work over so ye work from the front now and bring yer needle up.” When Frodo complied, she smiled. “That’s it. Yer goin’ to be easy to teach.”
Frodo would have been proud of the praise if he had believed it. This was all getting very complicated and he was wishing he had just written his uncle a poem as this year’s birthday present. With the fabric in one hand and a needle in the other, Frodo was not altogether sure how he was going to be able to manage a bodkin and a button as well.
Bell held out a button. “Hold this in place with yer thumb, just on the edge.” One look at Frodo’s alarmed face and she relented, taking the garment and needle from him. “Like this.” She gathered the fabric up in her palm popped the button on the right spot and held it in place on the edge with her thumb nail. It looked so easy when she did it, Frodo thought. “Alright now. Ye put yer hand over mine and we’ll swap. Don’t look so worried. Ye’ll get the hang o’ it.”
With a bit of fumbling on Frodo’s part they managed to transfer and once his hand was in place it did actually feel quite secure. Frodo even managed a shaky smile. He did notice that Sam had set down his own work and was now watching with some interest. Bell noticed too.
“Samwise Gamgee, I don’t see no new button on that cuff yet. Ye get on with yer own job.”
“Yes, Ma.” The youngster gathered up cuff and needle, catching up his own button and holding it in place in a way that only drew a splinter of envy from the older Frodo.
“Now, Master Frodo. T’is easier from here, I promise. Push the needle up through one of the holes in the button, down through the other and back through the cloth. But remember what I told ye and don’t pull it too tight.”
This much Frodo managed to do and was surprised when Bell then slipped the slender bodkin between button and fabric and through the stitch just formed. “There now. Ye can pull yer stitch tight and the bodkin will still give ye a bit o’ slack. Yer biggest problem now is findin’ the hole in the button again and I’m afraid ye’ll just have to fish a bit for it. After one or two stitches yer hand sort of gets to know where tis.”
A little sceptical of his hand’s ability to know anything Frodo tried nonetheless. By the third stitch he discovered that Bell was right and for the next three he had no trouble.
Bell grinned. “I said ye’d get it. Stop now. Six stitches is enough. Ye’ll not get more through them holes. Take the needle down through the hole but not into the cloth.”
Frodo complied with a bit of fumbling, hoping against hope that the next instruction would be, ‘Now cut the thread.’ Sadly, it was not.
Bell slipped the bodkin out. “Now wrap the thread around ‘neath the button four times. It’ll wrap the stitches and make it stronger. That thread’s goin’ to take a lot o’ wear over time. When ye’ve done that push the needle through to the back of the cloth.”
Frodo had to consider for a moment before he realised that he could now let go of the button. His mind was so filled with instructions on this new craft that it seemed to have stopped functioning temporarily. Once he did let go, however, wrapping the thread was easy and he soon had the needle back on the inside of the waistcoat. He glanced up to see that Sam was snipping off the thread at the inside of his cuff and the youngster grinned.
“Now just do two little stitches. Keep ‘em where they’ll be hidden by the button on the front. Then ye can cut off the thread.”
Frodo followed instructions and finally lowered the waistcoat with a sigh of relief. He decided he really did prefer Quenya translation to sewing.
Bell lifted the waistcoat and examined the newly attached button. “Well done. That’s a neat job for a first go.”
Frodo was aware of a soft sniff from Daisy behind him. No doubt she would have done a much neater job and in half the time. But when Frodo looked again at his work he decided it didn’t look too bad at all. In fact, it was quite passable. He smiled. But his face dropped when Bell spoke again.
“Now ye’ve just another five to put on the front and the spare is stitched on the inside o’ the side seam.”
Bell must have seen his expression for she patted his arm. “If ye want to stay and do ‘em here, in case ye get stuck, yer welcome. We’ve some cold cider in the pantry and I think there’s an apple pie goin’ spare.”
Frodo did not need to consider for too long. Hide in his room and potentially get himself in a knot or sit here, with help on hand and the offer of food and drink? “Thank you, Mistress Gamgee. I’d love to stay.”
Frodo arrived to first breakfast with a big grin and a carefully wrapped parcel.
“Happy Birthday, Bilbo.” He held out his beribboned package.
Bilbo beamed in response and pointed to a small box on the table by Frodo’s plate. “And a Happy Birthday to you, lad.”
Frodo sat to open the box. Inside was a beautiful silk cravat. “Oh Bilbo, how lovely. Thank you so much.”
“It’s time you started dressing as more of a gentlehobbit.”
Frodo grinned as he bent to examine the fine stitching on the hem and Bilbo tugged at the satin ribbon on his own gift. The brown paper fell open to reveal his old waistcoat and for a moment he was perplexed. Then he noted the fine new buttons and grinned. “Well, now. It looks like Tom’s Buckleby has been busy.” He held it up against himself.
Frodo’s smile widened and he could not hold back any longer. “Bell Gamgee showed me how to do it but I sewed on all the buttons myself.”
Bilbo’s bushy eyebrows rose. “Then I had best take better care of them this time. Thank you, Frodo. I’m touched.” He slipped the waistcoat on, fastening the buttons before giving a twirl, arms wide. “So, what shall we have for breakfast? How about your favourite? Bacon and mushrooms?”
Autumn seemed to have leapt out of summer, full blown and bitter again this year. Fortunately, it waited until after the harvest this time, much to the relief of everyone. Frodo listened to wind ripping the last leaves from the apple tree and moaning in the chimney, glad to be sitting with a good book by a warm fire on this blustery eve.
He was alone in the parlour, Bilbo having taken himself to the study for his weekly letter writing. Aunt Dora had sent one of her regular missives and Bilbo always complained that he needed silence and concentration, to ensure that his replies stayed within the bounds required of polite society. Frodo grinned. Aunt Dora’s latest injunction was that Frodo should not be allowed to read too much, as it was well known that all the Baggins family had weak eyes. Dora had obviously not taken into consideration the fact that most of the current crop of Baggins’ were considerably older than Frodo. He was roused from his thoughts by a loud and persistent knocking at the door.
“Now, who in the world would be out in this weather at this time of night?” He set aside the book and hurried out into the hall, in time to see Bilbo stick his head out of the study doorway. “I’ll get it, Uncle.” Frodo had a firm grip on the handle but still he stumbled back, landing on his bottom as the front door swung open with alarming force. His jaw dropped as he beheld the image revealed by lamplight.
It was a huge grey mountain. No. It was a person, dressed all in grey . . . long grey robes, grey scarf, grey beard, grey pointed hat. A very big person. A distant part of Frodo’s mind connected elderly gent, grey beard and pointy hat to equal wizard whilst the rest of his mind, including that part which controlled his voice, ran for the hills.
“Gandalf! My old friend. How lovely to see you.” It was Bilbo’s voice and it’s familiar tones restored enough of Frodo’s sanity to enable the youngster to gather his limbs and clamber to his feet. He performed a hasty bow, noting as he did so that the newcomer was dripping rainwater on the antique rug.
The wizard leaned heavily on a large gnarled staff and cleared his throat before replying. “Hello Bilbo. I wonder if I could impose upon your hospitality for a little longer than expected?”
Bilbo trotted forward, his face wreathed in smiles of welcome. “Of course you can. Your room is all ready. Just as well we prepared it early. With this weather I wasn’t expecting you until tomorrow or even the next day.”
Frodo had been studying the big person throughout his uncle’s welcome and he noted that Gandalf was swaying a little. His gaze surveyed this person from legend from head to foot once more and blue eyes widened as he realised that it was not just rain water that was staining Bag End’s hall rug. “Bilbo . . . he’s bleeding!”
Weary eyes fell upon the youngster as though noting him for the first time. “Sorry to be a nuisance. A slight accident. My cart went into the ditch. Silly horse took fright at a fallen tree.”
Bilbo seemed to grow ten inches before Frodo’s eyes. “Right. Frodo, go and rouse the Gamgees and Sedgeburry’s down the row to see to the horse and cart. Then tell Bell Gamgee that I could do with her nursing skills up here.” He pushed Frodo out of the door, before ushering the wizard inside.
For a moment Frodo could only stand upon the doorstep in his shirtsleeves, buffetted by wind and rain. Then he took a deep breath and sprinted down the hill to number three. He was more than a little thankful to see the glow of a candle through the window, showing that the household had not yet gone to bed but his hand refused to rap politely, instead hammering loudly and every bit as urgently as Gandalf had just done at Bag End.
The yellow door was thrown open to reveal Hamfast’s angry face. “Here now. What’s the need for all this racket when decent folks is preparin’ for bed?” Behind him the rest of the family gathered about the long kitchen table. Their faces showed a mixture of surprise, annoyance and curiosity. Peering into the darkness beyond the doorway Hamfast Gamgee took in the breathless young master of Bag End, hair dripping into his eyes and shirt plastered to his chest, and his expression morphed to concern. “What ever is to do, Master Frodo?”
Frodo gulped in a deep breath. “Sorry to disturb you Master Gamgee. I know it’s late, but I believe a horse and cart belonging to our guest have gone into the ditch down the lane. There’s also a tree down and Uncle Bilbo asks if you and Arty Sedgeburry could go and see to it?”
Hamfast asked no questions, only turned to grab his jacket and cap from a peg by the door. “Consider it done, sir. I’ll go get Arty. Leave it to us.”
Bell Gamgee wound a scarf about her husband’s neck. “Is yer guest alright?” she asked.
Frodo shook his head as Hamfast pushed past him and ran down the hill. “No. He’s bleeding and Bilbo wonders if you could come and help?”
Bell grabbed her heavy winter cloak, throwing it about her shoulders as she turned back into the room. “Daisy, lass . . . yer in charge till we get back. Make sure Mari and Sam get to bed.” She did not wait for a reply before slamming the door and wrapping her arm and cloak about Frodo’s shoulders. “Walk with me, lad. Ye must be fair froze.”
Indeed, now that his tasks were almost fulfilled Frodo was beginning to tremble a bit with the cold so he was grateful for the warmth of Bell’s ample body at his side and the thick cloak protecting them both from the worst of the wind and rain. On top of the hill as it was, Bag End got the worst of the weather and both were breathless by the time they stood in the warmth and quite of the panelled hallway.
Bell unfastened her cloak and Frodo took it from her. “I’ll hang this in the kitchen to dry.”
“Thank ye. Where’s yer guest?” Bell took a moment to shake out her skirts and smooth her hair.
Frodo looked at the line of large wet bootprints disappearing down the hall and glanced aside at Bell, who was frowning as she too noted that they were boot prints and not those of bare feet. “Bilbo will have put him in the big bedroom. I’d better show you in.” He set down her cloak and led the way to Bag End’s special bedroom.
When Frodo had first arrived at Bag End he had discovered the big bedroom when exploring. In truth, the room itself was not much bigger than others in the smial, it’s height being most notable. Indeed Bell Gamgee had been heard to complain that the height was a nuisance when it came to dusting off the cobwebs. The main reason it was called the big bedroom was because of the size of the bed. It was wider and twice the length of a normal bed and had taken a lot of effort to dress yesterday.
Frodo tapped lightly before popping his head around the door. “Is it alright for Mistress Gamgee to come in?”
How he had done it Frodo would never know but Bilbo had managed to divest the huge wizard of his wet clothing, which now lay in a sopping heap by the hearth, pointy hat atop the pile. Bilbo looked up from where he was tucking in the blankets and quilts. “Yes lad. He’s decent.”
Frodo held open the door for Bell to enter.
Bell stood upon the threshold, eyes wide and mouth open. Bell Gamgee had never come close to the borders of the Shire in all her years so this was the first big person she had ever seen. Oh, she’d heard of them. She’d even imagined what they may look like from the size of the bed in this room, but knowing they existed and actually seeing one was quite a different matter. Frodo could only sympathise. Having been raised in Buckland he had seen many large folk on the borders but only from a distance.
He smiled at the lady, still holding the door for her. “It’s alright, Mistress Gamgee. This is Gandalf. He has visited the Shire before. You may have heard of him,” he coaxed quietly. “He went with Bilbo on his big adventure and he used to visit Tookborough when the Old Took was alive.”
“Thank goodness you’re here, Bell.” Bilbo came forward to usher her to the bedside. “I can wash a cut but I think this needs stitching.” It was his matter-of-fact voice that seemed to pull Bell from her shock and she stepped up to the bedside willingly.
“I am sorry to be such a trouble,” Gandalf offered in a soft, gruff voice. “I should have been paying more attention. The tree came down in front of my horse and I was not fast enough to stop him panicking. We both ended up in the ditch, although I think I came off the worst.”
“The Gaffer and Arty Sedgeburry have gone to see to your horse and cart. They’ll bring them back to the barn at the bottom of the road. Don’t worry,” Frodo offered.
“Well, there’s a lot of blood, to be sure. Have ye a medicine box or needle and thread? And Master Frodo had best gather up them clothes. They’ll need a good wash.” Bell frowned as she took in the young master’s appearance again. “And ye’d best find some dry clothes for yerself while yer at it, Master Frodo. I don’t want to end up physickin’ both of ye. Put Mr Gandalf’s clothes in a bucket of cold water. Not hot, mind you, or that blood stain will set.”
Bilbo winked at his nephew and Frodo gathered up the huge pile of wet clothing and departed for the normality of the kitchen. There he dumped all but the hat into a bucket before adding wood to the range and checking the water level in the boiler. No doubt Bell would be sending for warm water soon.
Bell lifted Bilbo’s hastily contrived dressing to examine the arm beneath. A long and ragged rip was revealed and Bell tutted. “It needs a good cleanin’ afore we do anythin’. It’s still bleedin’ freely but that can be good to wash out anythin’ inside the wound.”
As she replaced the cloth Frodo returned, bearing a large tray, and Bell nodded approval as she noted a ewer of steaming water, basin, rags and the physick box. Frodo had even taken a moment to throw on a dry shirt and breeches, although his hair was still dripping onto his shoulders. “Thank ye kindly, Master Frodo. Can I impose on ye to light a fire in the grate?”
“Of course.” Frodo pulled a tinder box from his pocket and set about putting flame to the kindling already laid, following up with the judicious use of a pair of bellows. As he worked he glanced over his shoulder to where Bell Gamgee was warming to her task.
He had heard of Gandalf the wizard, of course. Bilbo had been regaling him with tales from his adventure for years. And when Gandalf had stepped out of legend and into Bag End’s hallway Frodo had found the sight more than a little frightening. But now, seeing the grey haired old man, lying naked and trembling in the big bed he found that he wasn’t nearly as scared. He even began to wonder if all Bilbo’s stories of the wizard’s exploits were actually true. Goodness knows, Bilbo Baggins never let a little thing like the truth get in the way of telling a good story.
“Now sir, are ye hurtin’ anywhere else?” Bell made good use of the footstool Bilbo brought to the bedside, accepting his hand to help her to step up so she could reach better.
Gandalf shook his head. “Only some bruises. I am certain nothing is broken. I was winded more than anything.”
“No doubt,” Bell commented. “I don’t hold with travellin’ in carts. We was given two strong feet for a reason.” This elicited a thin smile from the traveller.
“Should I send for Doctor Brockleby?” Bilbo asked as Bell poured warm water into a basin and added a cleansing herb.
The lady shook her head. “He’s away down t’other side of Hobbiton, tendin’ Flora Fennelly. It’s her first confinement and they think tis twins. He’ll be gone hours yet.” She began to cleanse the long and ragged cut and Frodo noted Gandalf’s jaw working, as though he were grinding his teeth. Frodo could only pity the old man, having experienced the stinging effects of that particular herb on several cuts and scrapes over the years.
“I’m sorry, Mister Gandalf, sir. I know it stings a mite but it’s got to be cleaned afore I can stitch it. We don’t want to be closing in the muck or it’ll fester.” Bell held the old man’s arm in a firm grip but Frodo suspected that if he wanted to, the big man could have easily broken free.
Gandalf managed another weak smile. “It’s alright, Mistress Gamgee. I’ve endured worse and you’ve a gentle touch.”
“Well, now . . . er . . . thank ye,” Bell stammered, apparently still a little overwhelmed by the wizard. She laid a clean dressing over the wound for a moment while she threaded a rather large and wicked looking needle with green silk. As soon as Bell began to apply the needle to Gandalf’s flesh Frodo swallowed firmly and decided it was time he went to heat some broth for their guest.
It was almost half an hour later when he judged it safe to return with the tray, and arrived in time to see Bell tying off a neat bandage. Gandalf the Grey was living up to his description, Frodo noted. His face was almost as grey as his long beard.
When Bell spotted Frodo she smiled broadly. “Perfect, young Master. A nice drop o’ hot broth is just what Mr Gandalf needs.”
Frodo thought “Mr Gandalf” did not look too sure about that statement, his face taking on a slightly greenish cast. He lowered the legs and set the tray across their guest’s knees however.
“Perhaps later?” Gandalf asked hopefully.
But the formidable hobbitess was not to be put off. “Now would be better. Ye’ve had a nasty shock for a gentleman your age and ye need somethin’ warm inside. Ye’ll feel better for it,” she pronounced firmly as she offered a spoon.
To Frodo’s surprise, rather than threatening to turn her into a toad for her impertinence, the wizard meekly accepted the utensil and began to spoon up the broth without further demure.
A knock at the door sent Frodo scurrying from the room to greet Ham Gamgee. He shepherded Bell’s husband to a chair in front of the now blazing kitchen range and poured him a mug of broth before asking, “How did it go? Did you find somewhere big enough to stable the horse?”
Ham nodded. “I did, Master Frodo. And it weren’t an easy job, I can tell ye. There were only just room to fit him in the stable with Arty’s cow. We had to just cover the cart wi’ a tarpaulin and weight it down wi’ rope and stones. I hope it’ll hold ‘til this wind dies down.”
“Thank you, Mister Gamgee. I hope you did not have too much trouble brushing down the horse?” Frodo offered a plate of fruit scones and Ham took two.
“Well. I wouldn’t want to do it again. We had to stand on a milkin’ stool and a box but we did the best we could. He’s well-mannered at least and we’ve left him with a bucket o’ water and another of oats. There’s hay in the manger if he’s still hungry.” Hamfast sniffed. “Goodness knows how much an animal that size eats.”
“I’m sure Bilbo will recompense Mr Sedgeburry for the feed and lodgings in the morning. Did Arty go straight home?” Frodo took a scone for himself. All this excitement had made him hungry.
“He did. Buttercup weren’t too pleased about him goin’ out so late on a night like this but it couldn’t be helped. You can’t leave a poor animal out in this rain. Them smials along the river is like to flood again if it goes on like this.”
Bilbo and Bell stepped into the kitchen at that moment. “Do you think they could?” Bilbo asked as he set down the tray. “It seems only a few months since we had to bail them out last time.”
“In truth, I think this’ll blow itself out in a couple of hours. It depends on how bad they had it upstream and it’ll be sunrise afore we know that. Best leave ‘em to sleep.”
Bell bent to examine Gandalf’s robes, which Frodo had left soaking in cold water, as instructed. “I think the blood is comin’ out o’ these. Tis washday tomorrow, if the weather breaks, so Ham and me will take these with us. I can do ‘em with our stuff. They’ll need tendin’ with needle and thread anyhow.”
Frodo offered her and Bilbo mugs of broth and they settled into chairs around the table.
“You don’t have to do that, Bell. I’m sure Frodo and I can manage,” Bilbo replied.
Bell grinned. “Beggin’ yer pardon, Mister Bilbo, but I’ve seen yer sewin’ an’ I’m thinkin’ Mr Gandalf would prefer mine. And Master Frodo, here, ain’t much further on than sewin’ a button.”
“I think you’re right,” Bilbo chuckled. “If it’s alright with you, I’ll let you do the repairs. I will gladly recompense you for your efforts.”
Bell smiled at her husband. “Bless you, sir. But I’ve got so much washin’ and repairs with our brood that one more set of clothes won’t make no difference.”
“Talkin’ of our brood, I think we’d best be gettin’ back to ‘em, Bell, lass. You know how Mari plays up when Daisy tries to put her to bed.” Hamfast grabbed his cap and placed his empty mug in the sink and Bell let Frodo help her into her now dry cloak. As she allowed herself to be walked down the hall she gave Bilbo instructions.
“Don’t you go lettin’ that Mr Gandalf out of his bed afore tomorrow eve, and then only to sit by the fire for a bit. If he tries to go too far just ye remind him I’ve got all his clothes. Hobbiton is too respectable a place for folks to go stridin’ around in their nothin’s.” She winked. “I’ll bring ‘em back teatime.”
Bilbo held the door open for Bell and Hamfast. As soon as they stepped outside Hamfast took his wife’s arm to steady her against the gusting wind but still she turned to shout one last word over her shoulder. “If he takes to fever send for me.”
“I will, Bell. And thank you both. Please let Arty know that I’ll be popping around tomorrow morning to pay him for the lodging of Gandalf’s horse.”
Hamfast tugged at the peak of his cap before turning himself and Bell for the warmth of number three, Bagshot Row.
Bilbo watched for some moments as his neighbours struggled against the wind and rain before closing Bag End’s strong door on the wild elements. “Brrrrrrrr. It’s a raw night, Frodo lad. Let’s have a nice hot cup of tea and another scone before we go to bed.”
Frodo yawned, stretched, and then blinked as his ears registered two voices coming from the kitchen down the hall. Had he just heard his uncle he would probably have rolled over and claimed another hour’s sleep. Bilbo Baggins was a long-time bachelor and appeared to have grown so used to his own company over the years that he had taken to holding conversations with himself. It was a habit that worried Frodo when first he came to live at Bag End but now he recognised it as his uncle simply thinking aloud, rather than living up to the epithet of Mad Baggins.
But the voice replying to Bilbo this morning did not belong to Bilbo. The creaking of the apple tree outside Frodo’s window brought memory of last night’s visitor. The other voice, deep and gruff, was Gandalf the wizard. There was a wizard residing in Bag End! Frodo threw back the covers, donned his dressing gown, collected his water jug and hurried to the kitchen.
“Well, of course I had intended to arrive tomorrow but there were so many people in Bree that one could find not a moment’s peace. So I cut short my visit to the Prancing Pony and set out early. And well it was that I did. The Brandywine had risen almost to the level of the bridge when I crossed and the Bounders were too busy helping the Brandybuck clan to sandbank the lower smials to be overly inquisitive about me.” Gandalf paused to draw deeply on his pipe.
“Many of the Bounders tend to treat the title as an honorific rather than a duty, I’m afraid. Ham Bolger must be ninety, if he’s a day. If he ever thought to challenge anyone they could probably just step around him.” Bilbo poured hot water into the teapot.
“Good morning.” Frodo paused in the kitchen doorway, awed again by the person of Gandalf the Grey.
“Ahh. You’re awake at last. The boiler is full if you want some wash water.” Bilbo smiled at his nephew as he stirred the pot. “If you care to wait a while I’m just making some tea. You can join us for first breakfast. I’ve warmed the last of those scones from yesterday.”
“That would be nice . . . if Mister Gandalf doesn’t mind. I don’t want to interrupt anything.” Despite his words Frodo set his empty jug on the table and pulled up a chair before Gandalf could send him away.
“Oh, you’re not interrupting. We were only chatting over a pipe. And plain ‘Gandalf’ will do. I have always considered that Mister sounded a bit too prosaic for a wizard. One is expected to at least appear to be a little out of the ordinary.” Gandalf winked at Bilbo, who had pulled up his own chair and now chuckled as he began to pour tea into two mugs and a battered tankard.
“Gandalf, you could not pull off ‘prosaic’ if you tried for a year. Especially dressed like that,” Bilbo replied with raised brows.
For the first time Frodo noted that the elderly wizard was draped in two patchwork quilts from the big bed. He appeared to have wrapped one about his body, just beneath his surprisingly muscular arms and then draped another over his shoulders like a cloak. The effect was anything but prosaic and more than a little comical.
Gandalf accepted the tankard, his bushy eyebrows rising in mock affront. “I thought I looked rather dashing.”
Frodo hid a grin, stirring honey and milk into his own mug as Bilbo replied, “Just so long as you weren’t considering actually doing any dashing. I’m not sure that outfit will stay put with any sudden moves. You wouldn’t want to go shocking the good folk of Hobbiton.”
Gandalf took a large swallow of his tea before selecting a couple of scones and appropriating the butter dish. “If Bell Gamgee is a sample of the rest of the folk in Hobbiton I suspect I would shock few.” He flexed his injured arm a little gingerly but easily enough. “A formidable lady.”
Frodo stepped in to protect she whom he had come to consider a favourite aunt. “Mistress Gamgee is very kind when you get to know her. She’s just not one for what she calls, ‘airs and graces’.”
“Then we should rub along well enough, for neither am I.” Gandalf popped an entire buttered scone into his mouth and chewed appreciatively, even as he narrowed his keen eyes at Frodo.
The youngster squirmed a little, rather wishing that he had not drawn attention to himself and discovering that he was unable to meet that gaze for too long. It was as though the wizard had climbed into his mind and was rummaging around in all the dark corners. Not a comfortable feeling at all. He decided to try a distraction. “What brings you to the Shire this time?”
Gandalf smiled and Frodo noted his eyes twinkling. “Isn’t a visit to my favourite burglar reason enough?”
Bilbo snorted. “I’m no dragon to be flattered. You told me you were passing through.” His eyes narrowed. “But you never mentioned where you were passing through to.”
Gandalf swallowed another scone and washed it down with a good mouthful of tea. Frodo refilled his tankard. “I am on my way to Mithlond, actually.”
“The Grey Havens? You’re not thinking of leaving our shores I hope. I shall miss Gandalf’s fireworks… as well as his good company,” Bilbo commented in mild surprise.
“No, no. I shall not be leaving Middle Earth for a while, yet.” Frodo squirmed a little, finding himself the subject of another of the wizard’s deep glances but Gandalf continued. “I deliver a supply of fireworks to them every few years.”
“Now, whatever would elves want with fireworks?” Bilbo mused. “Not that they aren’t rather entertaining,” he added hastily.
“They’re useful for ships to signal for help. Even elven ships can founder in bad weather.”
Frodo could not hold back his surprise. “But elves are so wise and clever!”
“Indeed but, clever as they are, they are not all powerful. Even elves make mistakes.” Gandalf frowned and knocked the ashes of his pipe into a conveniently placed ashtray. Frodo stood to fetch the tobacco jar for him.
“You should have noticed that, Frodo lad. I’ve told you enough of their tales over the years.” Bilbo shook his grey curls. “Sometimes great wisdom only seems to produce even greater mistakes.” He nodded to Gandalf. “Present company excepted of course.”
Now it was Gandalf’s turn to snort. “And I am not a dragon either, Bilbo Baggins. I have made many mistakes and will, doubtless, make many more.”
Frodo filled his water jug from the boiler. “I’m going for my wash, Uncle. Then I shall help you with second breakfast.” Frodo was learning all manner of interesting things this morning, and if he made the fastest ablutions since he was a faunt Bilbo made no comment.
The storm seemed to have cleared the air and they were blessed with one of autumn’s rare warm and sunny days. It took some time for everything to dry out but by mid-afternoon the occupants of Bag End were all sitting beneath the oak tree atop the hill, their tea spread upon a blanket.
They had been playing, “spot the hobbit” for a couple of hours. The name of the game had been coined by Gandalf and he was winning. The sight of a very large ‘man’, draped casually in two brightly coloured patchwork quilts and sprawled upon the lawn, was something not seen by many hobbits before. Indeed, it would be fair to say that it had never been seen by any hobbit before. Consequently, many came to gawp.
Now, hobbits are very good at remaining unobserved when they wish but once Gandalf, as Bilbo put it, ‘Got his eye in’, he became very good at spotting the occasional head poking above a hedge or peering around a tree. Of course, Frodo and Bilbo, being hobbits themselves, were well aware of any tricks employed. So for a while the game had run neck and neck. Now Frodo suspected that the wizard had been holding back for in the last half hour he had run far ahead in points.
Frodo was about to announce that he had just spotted Ted Sandyman when there was a loud, “Ouch” and Ted leapt up, red faced, and ran off. Bilbo chuckled. “Gandalf, you are supposed to just point them out, not get them to point themselves out.”
The wizard’s bushy brows rose in mock innocence, an expression he seemed to employ rather too frequently. “Can I help it if he was sitting beneath a particularly large and ripe apple? You are surely not suggesting that I had a hand in its fall?”
Bilbo did not deign to reply, taking a bite of his ham sandwich instead.
Everyone looked up as Bell and Sam Gamgee came toiling over the brow of the hill, a large wicker basket carried between them. “Well, now. That’s what all the comin’s and goin’s are about,” she announced. “Ye’ll be the talk of the Ivy Bush this evenin’.”
When Frodo would have jumped up to help her Bell waved him back. Once the basket was set down it was easy to see that it contained Gandalf’s clothes, folded carefully and, Frodo suspected, cleaner than they had been for many a year.
“And wouldn’t that be unusual? Hello Bell. Why don’t you and Sam sit down. There’s plenty for all if Sam wouldn’t mind running down to the kitchen for extra cups and plates,” announced Bilbo with a smile. “We refilled the teapot only minutes ago.”
Bell surveyed the repast and, obviously having decided it was at least as good as any she could provide, sat upon a corner of the rug, arranging her ample skirts. Her little son only stood, wide eyed, completely lost in the vision of the wizard. Bell tapped his arm gently. “Off ye go, lad. You know where Mr Bilbo keeps his crocks. And don’t ye go breakin’ ‘em.” Sam ran off down the slope toward the kitchen door as fast as his little legs would carry him.
“Afternoon to ye, Mr Gandalf.” Once settled Bell graced Gandalf with an assessing look. “I thought I told ye to keep to yer bed for the day. Yer colour’s better at least. How’s the arm?”
Gandalf grinned widely. “As good as new, thank you Mistress Gamgee. You have a healing touch. Oh, and just ‘Gandalf’ will do.”
Bell’s cheeks flushed. “I only did what was needed. Them stitches should stay in about a week, then ye’ll need to find someone to cut ‘em out. Although who ye’ll find out in the wild I don’t know. And if yer to be Gandalf I reckon ye can call me Bell.”
“If I set out this evening I should reach The Haven’s by then. I’m sure Cirdan or one of his folk will take care of the stitches for me.”
Sam returned with cups and plates as Bell sniffed. “Well, I don’t know this Cirdan fellow but ye just make sure he has clean hands.”
Bilbo sputtered and Frodo had to slap him on the back. Gandalf only nodded his head to the lady. “I shall be very certain to check.” He lifted his tankard of tea in salute. Bilbo kept a small selection of larger crocks especially for his guest. They were mismatched to be sure but at least it ensured that Gandalf got more than two swallows from his cup.
Frodo poured two more cups of tea, noting that it was the second-best china, and added extra milk to Sam’s. Bilbo had been trying for years to convince Bell Gamgee that she was welcome to use the best china but she would have none of it, insisting that it was not for the likes of her and she’d be afraid of breakages.
Bell selected a ham sandwich for herself and a large piece of pie for her son. Politeness would have suggested a smaller piece but feeding a growing lad could be an expensive matter and no hobbit matron turned down the opportunity to fill her child at anothers’ table if there was an offer. “Doctor Brockleby’s home, by the way, if ye want him to take a look at that arm afore ye go.”
“I don’t think that will be necessary Bell and I expect he’ll be needing some sleep. How is Mistress Fennelly, by the way?” Bilbo asked after a sip of his tea.
“’twas twins, as expected. Two bonnie lasses. Bert’s as pleased as punch I hear. No doubt he’ll be wettin’ the bairn’s heads in the Ivy Bush tonight. At least that’s what most of the folk in Hobbiton are hopin’. There’ll be a few thick heads in the mornin’, I’ll be bound.”
Bilbo chuckled. “I have no doubt. Do they have names yet?”
Bell sniffed. “Aye. Flora let Bert choose. And she’s so smitten with that husband of hers that she let it stand.”
When she did not elaborate Frodo coaxed, “But what are their names?”
Bell pursed her lips. “Daffy and Dilly. I ask ye, what kind of names are they? Two lasses sharin’ one flower . . . it don’t seem right to me.”
The males just shrugged, unwilling to comment on Bell’s firmly held belief that daffodilly was not a flower to be split between two people. Bilbo broke the sudden silence. “Can we not tempt you to stay a little longer, Old Friend?”
Gandalf shook his head. “Sadly, no. Not on this occasion. I must be at The Havens within the week as there are two ships ready to sail even now. They only await the supplies I carry.” He reached aside to examine the contents of the basket, pulling out one of his robes. “Well! Bell, you have surpassed yourself. These clothes could be brand new. Not only have you removed the stains but you have re-stitched the hems and seams. How can I ever repay you for such kindness?”
“I’ll not say ‘twere an easy job. I don’t think them clothes have seen needle an’ thread for many a year. It took me an’ Daisy hours an’ there’s a couple of patches I’m not happy with. The material’s old and I’m not sure how long they’ll hold. I’ll hope you forgive me if they don’t.”
Gandalf raised a hand to forestall further apology. “Dear Lady, you have done a marvellous job. Please also convey my thanks to your good daughter.”
“I will an’ thank ye.”
Frodo held back a grin. If only Daisy Gamgee’s temperament was as neat as her stitches.
“Frodo, lad, when you’ve finished tea, would you nip down to Arty Sedgeburry with some money and ask if he can have the cart ready at sundown?” Bilbo fished in his pocket for some coins and flipped them to his nephew who caught them easily. “That should cover food and board for the horse and a little extra for any who helped last night. He’ll probably need help this evening too. Tell him I’ll pay any extra when I see him in the Ivy Bush later.”
“I’ll pop down again before sunset to help him with the tack,” Frodo commented as he pocketed the money.
Sam spoke up for the first time. “Your cart’s in the field at the bottom o’ the hill, Mr Gandalf, sir. I’ve been standin’ guard all mornin’. Someone said as how you could have fireworks in there an’ then everyone wanted to take a peep.”
“Half the village has been in that field this mornin’. Some o’ the bigger lads weren’t payin’ much attention to Sam. But don’t you go worryin’ none, sir,” Bell added. “My Ham’s taken over now. He’s got the afternoon free, so later he can help Arty with the horse as well.”
“It seems I am greatly indebted to the Gamgee family.” With those words Gandalf took Sam’s hand and dropped into it a huge, multi coloured marble. Where he had produced it from none of them wished to speculate. Gandalf was a wizard, after all.
Little Sam’s eyes grew as round as saucers and he wiped a hand on his shirt before picking up the beautiful thing and holding it to the light. The coloured swirl within seemed to move in the sunlight. He blinked when his mother nudged his ribs with a gentle elbow. “Thank ye, Sir. I aint never seen one as pretty,” he offered hastily before slipping it deep into his pocket. Frodo suspected that was one marble that would never be entered into a game.
That evening, in the Ivy Bush, the birth of twins was almost overshadowed by talk of the visit by Gandalf the Grey. Bert Fennelly was not too disappointed however.
Everyone in Hobbiton had turned out to see the wizard depart and Gandalf the Grey had made a point of congratulating Bert, even going so far as to bless the babes’ with long life and good health. Not that proud Bert had expected his lusty lasses to have aught else, for they were already running their mama ragged with their demand for milk.
But what really made him preen was when Gandalf reached the edge of the village. There he paused to wave and, in the gathering dusk, a line of sparks shot heavenward, exploding into a shimmering bunch of bright yellow daffodils. When the image finally faded cart and wizard were gone.
“Mornin’ Master Frodo. Tis a grand mornin’.” Hamfast Gamgee touched his forehead in greeting as he climbed to his feet in the middle of Bag End’s vegetable plot. Young Sam Gamgee jumped up too, grinning as he saw Frodo roll his eyes.
“It had the makings of a good one, Master Gamgee, until I burned the toast.” He lifted his mug in rueful salute. “I have been banished from the kitchen this morning.” As he spoke, Bag End’s kitchen door was thrown open and the unmistakeable odour of burnt toast wafted toward them.
Hamfast wrinkled his nose and knelt down, making a small furrow for Sam to drop in some seeds. “Aye. Mister Bilbo was never in his best temper afore second breakfast.”
Sam concentrated upon not sewing the seeds too close together. “I thought you and Mister Bilbo was goin’ to Great Smials today.”
Hamfast frowned. “And, if you’ll excuse me sayin’ so, Young Master, your uncle seems a mite put out by just the loss of a couple of slices of bread.”
Frodo took a sip of his tea. “I’m afraid my mishap has made us late and that’s another reason for my banishment. We were going to have first breakfast here and second breakfast at the Ivy Bush. But by the time we reach the Ivy now they’ll have finished serving breakfasts.”
Now Hamfast chuckled. “So now you’ve missed first breakfast completely and will have to take second breakfast at home afore you can set out. I can see why Mister Bilbo would be a bit upset.”
Sam straightened, his features puzzled. “Da, if they didn’t have first breakfast, on account of the burnt toast, won’t that make second breakfast, first breakfast?”
“Never you mind, lad. Get on with coverin’ them beetroot seeds afore the birds get ‘em. Yon robin’s a cheeky chap and would steel ‘em from your hand if you let him.” Hamfast nodded to where said bird was sitting boldly upon the handle of their spade at the end of the row, his black beady eyes fixed upon Sam’s every move.
At that moment Bilbo appeared at the kitchen door, hands upon hips. “Frodo! Come in and set the table or it will be lunch time before we leave.”
With a twinkling grin at the two Gamgees, Frodo spun about and jogged back across the garden. “Coming, Bilbo.”
Sam watched. “Do you think Mister Bilbo will be cross for long?” He had grown rather fond of Master Frodo.
“No lad,” his father replied. “Mr Bilbo’s temper is like a spring storm. Wild for a bit but soon blown over. Young Master Frodo didn’t sound too concerned to me. Don’t you worry. By the time they’re on the road they’ll be full of the joys of spring again.”
Hamfast was right. Once Bilbo actually had some breakfast inside him, whether it be first or second, his humour improved somewhat and the pair were striding down the lane before elevenses.
Frodo waved to Bell Gamgee, who was washing the front windows of number three Bagshot Row, but Bilbo hurried them on. “Come along, lad. If we make it a brisk walk we can have elevenses at the Ivy Bush.”
“Bilbo, we've only just finished breakfast. You surely aren't hungry again already.”
“Of course not. But by the time we reach the Ivy we shall have worked up a thirst and it would be rude to have a half and not have a bacon sandwich to go with it, now would it not?”
Frodo giggled. It was said that tweens were bottomless pits when it came to food but Bilbo could give many a tween a run for his money. Bilbo once ascribed his great appetite to the fact that rations had been short for at least part of his journey with the dwarves, so he made sure to get plenty of food nowadays, “To make up for it, you know.” Frodo was always amazed that his uncle's expanding waistline never seemed to slow him down and it was not long before they were striding across the bridge and into the village.
“Well now, if it aint the grand master of Bag End. Where are you off to in such a hurry, Mister Baggins?” Ted Sandyman was sitting outside his mill, smoking a pipe and gnawing on a cheese sandwich. Frodo rather got the impression, from his tone, that 'Mister' was not Ted's first choice of title. The miller was often known to refer to Bilbo as 'Mad Baggins'.
Whether he was aware of the appellation or not Bilbo only smiled brightly and replied, “None of your business, Mister Sandyman.” He made great emphasis of the 'Mister' and, in a quiet aside to his nephew added, “Any speed beyond 'stop' would be considered a hurry by Ted. I don't think he has walked any farther than Bywater in his entire life.”
Once over the bridge they came into the village square, where the market was in full flow. Most of the traders were local but sometimes a small group of dwarves would appear, selling children's toys and cheap jewellery. Occasionally traders came from other villages in the Shire, bringing cheese or honey. Today Frodo noted that all the traders were local.
The Ivy Bush was doing its usual brisk market day trade but Bilbo and Frodo found seats in a small corner and ordered Bilbo's yearned for beer and bacon sandwiches. It was known throughout the three farthings that Borden Brewer served a grand bacon butty, the bread soft, warmed in the oven and dripping with butter. Half an hour later Bilbo wiped butter from his chin and sat back with a satisfied sigh. “Well, Frodo, shall we go on?”
Frodo grinned as he licked the last of the beer from his lips. “I think we'd better if we are to make Bywater for lunch.” He patted his waistline. “Although whether I will have room for it after that sandwich is another matter.”
Bilbo stood, lifting his walking staff and shrugging his pack onto his back. “Nonsense, lad. We will soon walk that off. Come on.” Frodo barely had time to hoist his own pack and staff before they were out of the door and back into the market day crowds.
“Well, now. Bilbo Baggins. I've not seen ye for many a week.”
Bilbo rolled his eyes at this further delay but turned with a wide grin when he recognised the voice. “Hello, Pansy! I've been out and about as often as usual and it is good to see you about too. How is your sister these days?” He leaned upon his staff as the flow of market customers parted around them as though they were rocks in a stream.
The old hobbitess' wrinkles arranged themselves into a bright smile and, despite her hunched back and gnarled fingers, her green eyes twinkled. “She's right enough, although that nephew of mine is still not settled.”
Frodo mumbled an apology to an annoyed gaffer, who tried to steer a barrow around them, but Bilbo and Pansy seemed totally oblivious to the obstruction they were causing in the middle of the thoroughfare. Bilbo continued good-naturedly, “That maid should get her father to tie the lad up and sit him down in front of the Mayer. I'm sure Penley Whitfoot will marry them fast enough and the whole of Hobbiton will attend, just to make certain the deed is done at last.”
Pansy gave a loud cackle. “He could have a worse task for his first term.” She glanced aside at Frodo and nodded toward their packs. “And where are the pair of you off to? Not going off to chase more dragons I hope.”
Bilbo shook his head. “Indeed not. My dragon hunting days are over. Frodo and I are on our way to Tuckborough. We've not seen little Peregrin since a few days after he was born and that's almost three years ago.”
“Well, ye'd best get on, then. Or ye'll not arrive afore dark.” Pansy nudged Frodo, knowingly. “Although, knowin' yer uncle, by the time ye've stopped along the way for lunch and high tea ye'll probably still not arrive until the stars are out.”
Frodo grinned, despite being jostled from behind by a rather large lady with a heavily laden basket filled with, from the smell of it, fish. “You may be right.”
Pansy turned away, only pausing to call back, “Ye'd best get a move on, lads. Butter Rumble says it's goin' to rain later. I hope ye packed a cloak.” She was swallowed by the crowd before Bilbo could reply.
“Did you pack a cloak, Bilbo?” Frodo asked with some alarm, knowing that he certainly had not.
Bilbo shook his head, with a confident, “We'll be well on our way before the rain arrives. And it's only water, when all is said and done. It won't do you any harm.”
Frodo was not convinced. Buttercup Rumble's arthritis was the best predictor of rain that Hobbiton had. If she said it was going to rain it usually did. He scanned the cloudless sky with some trepidation as they made their way out of the market and down the road to Bywater. But off to the left the pool mirrored a bright blue sky and after a while Frodo pushed Widow Rumble's prediction to the back of his mind.
Lunch was taken at the Green Dragon in Bywater barely two hours later. Bilbo ordered a meat pie with vegetables but Frodo settled for bread, cheese and pickles and watched in bemused silence as Bilbo cleaned his plate.
“Are you sure you don't want anything else, lad. There are no more decent eateries until we reach Tookbank and that's near on five miles away. The Frog and Bucket doesn't serve food.”
Frodo grinned. “I have eaten plenty, Bilbo. I promise not to keel over from starvation before we get to Great Smials.”
Bilbo only collected his walking staff. “Very well. But don't say I didn't warn you.”
Soon they were strolling down the Bywater road and in the distance Frodo could see the dark line of hawthorn that marked the edges of the Great East Road. When they reached the junction it took all of Frodo's persuasive powers to prevent Bilbo stepping into the Frog and Bucket for a swift half. Instead they turned left onto a broad, flat road, kept in good repair by order of the Mayor and bordered upon both sides by ditches and sharp hawthorn hedges. Already, those thick hedges showed a pale green haze of spring buds.
They made good time, although the hard metal of the road was not as comfortable under foot as the grassy lanes of Hobbiton. As they stepped out Bilbo taught his nephew an old walking song so the time passed pleasantly, with few others on the road. It was with some surprise, therefore that Frodo glanced up to see that the sky had turned from blue to a pale pearl white which was rapidly darkening to grey.
“How much further is it to the Stock turn off, Bilbo?”
“Just on that bend ahead. Why?”
Frodo pointed upward with his staff. “I think Widow Rumble was right, after all. It looks like we're in for some rain.”
Bilbo pursed his lips. “We'd best get a move on, then.”
They picked up the pace but after turning left at the junction they had only walked for a few minutes more before the first fat drops of rain began to fall.
“Oh, bother,” Bilbo announced.
Frodo smiled mischievously. “It's only water, remember?”
“It's not the rain that bothers me. It's the mud it will create.” Bilbo grimaced, hunching his shoulders against the downpour. Frodo followed without further comment. If there was one thing guaranteed to anger Bilbo it was having his carefully selected outfit ruined and, having annoyed his uncle once today, Frodo was sensible enough to hold his tongue.
The rain dropped from deluge to downpour only half an hour later but the two travellers hardly noticed for, by then, they were already soaked to the skin. Bilbo scowled down at his feet, where the grey colour of his foot-hair was lost beneath a layer of dark mud. Indeed, his feet, ankles and calves were covered in the sticky stuff to the point where he began to wonder whether they would ever be clean again. He could not remember having been this filthy since his travels with Thorin and company. And it was just too bad that he should be arriving thus at one of the grandest establishments in the Shire.
Suddenly, Bilbo heard a yelp, followed by a loud splash and he spun about. There, spread-eagled upon his back, was Frodo, in the centre of a large puddle that Bilbo had only just managed to skirt without incident some moments earlier. It seemed Frodo had not been so lucky. For a moment Bilbo thought that the lad was having trouble catching his breath and that was no wonder, having landed hard upon his pack. Then he realised that his nephew's strange convulsions were actually caused by laughter.
Bilbo sighed and reached down to help the lad at least make it to a sitting position. But the mud was slippery and Frodo was laughing so hard that he was making very little effort to help himself. It was almost inevitable, therefore, that Bilbo should also lose his footing and land on his bottom at Frodo's side in the huge puddle. This only made Frodo laugh even louder and for a stunned few moments Bilbo could only splutter in indignation. Then imagination provided his mind with a picture of the two of them, head to toe in mud and sitting in the middle of the road like a couple of mischievous faunts. Soon he was joining his laughter to Frodo's guffaws, so helpless that they had to lean upon each other.
Two hours later, in almost full dark, two muddy and soaked travellers battered upon the huge round door of Great Smials.
There was a great deal of muttering to be heard through the stout barrier before it swung open on well oiled hinges to reveal the sparkling, tiled floor of the Thain's entrance hall. The ancient servant's eyes widened when he saw the state of the two visitors and he pointed immediately to a large tray of clean water set by the door. “Who shall I say is calling, sirs?” he asked in a voice that seemed to form around some large invisible plum in his mouth.
Bilbo took a perverse delight in letting his muddy pack land with a loud splat upon the clean floor. “Please tell Master Palladin that Bilbo and Frodo Baggins have arrived. I believe we are expected.”
“Please wait here, sirs,” the servant instructed in a tone that almost begged them not to spread any more mud upon his nice clean floors.
Frodo waited politely while Bilbo dabbled his feet in the basin and by the time he had attended to his own, Paladin arrived. “Good grief! What have you been rolling in? You look like a couple of drowned rats. Did you not bring cloaks?” he demanded as he saw for himself the state of his guests.
Bilbo had to bite back a chuckle. “We set out in a bit of a hurry.”
“My fault. I had a bit of a mishap with first breakfast,” Frodo explained as he blew rain drops off the end of his nose.
Knowing better than to ask for a more detailed explanation until his guests were dry, Paladin led them to one of the many guest suites, heedless of the line of muddy footprints they left in their wake. There was only so much mud one could wash off in a basin of cold water after all. “I'll send some lads with baths for you and tell Eglantine to hold supper until you're ready,” he announced as he left. “Join us in the family parlour when you're ready.”
It was clear that the hobbit who had answered the door had leapt into action before his master's instructions had been relayed for, within minutes, the promised bath's arrived and the two visitors peeled off their wet and muddy clothes with some relief. They were removed to be cleaned and fresh ones promised, there being sufficient residents in Great Smials to be able to provide temporary clothing. Bilbo was soon sitting, wrapped in a blanket, before a very welcoming fire.
Frodo stepped from behind the dressing screen, towel draped low about his hips while he dried his hair with another. At that precise moment there was a light knock and the door opened to admit no other than May Gamgee, her arms piled with an assortment of garments. Frodo dodged back behind the screen but not before a bright blush flashed in May's cheeks.
The stunned silence was broken by Bilbo's soft chuckle. “Hello, May, lass. Just pop the clothes down over there while Frodo makes himself respectable.”
From the safety of the screen Frodo glared at Bilbo, even as he threw a blanket about himself, knowing that his own cheeks were as pink as May's. He cleared his throat as he re-appeared. “Hello, May. It's good to see you.”
May bobbed a little curtsy. “It's good to see you, too, Master Frodo.”
Bilbo swallowed another chuckle as both youngsters blushed even brighter at the unintentional innuendo.
May set down the clothes and all but bolted for the door, pausing only long enough to call over her shoulder, her accent thick with embarrassment, “The Master and Mistress is waitin' for ye in the family dinin' room when yer ready, sirs.”
Bilbo gave up the battle and let out a loud guffaw as he stood to examine the clothing and Frodo's glare dissolved easily enough with the prospect of a good meal. All hobbits set a good table but Eglantine Took's dinners were not to be missed.
Half an hour later Bilbo and Frodo stepped into the noisy dining room. With three pre-tween girls in the family it could only be so, particularly with a two year old Peregrin protesting loudly about being seated in his high chair. His wails could be heard all the way down the hall and a frustrated Paladin was trying to bend his little son in the middle with no success at all. Peregrin was holding himself ramrod straight, his little face a bright beetroot red that did not sit well with his golden curls.
Bilbo winced. Long used to the peace and quiet of Bag End, he found visiting his relations in Tuckborough or Buckland a little stressful, until he sampled the food, that is. After all, what hobbit did not enjoy a meal that he had not have to prepare for himself?
Having finished seating the girls, Eglantine held out her arms for her son and Paladin relinquished the lad with some relief. Peregrin ceased his wailing at once and Paladin gave a frustrated huff as his son submitted meekly to being placed in the chair he had taken such a dislike to but minutes before.
Spotting their guests, Paladin tugged his waistcoat straight, and advanced with a smile. “Hello again, Bilbo, Frodo. You're looking a bit more the thing.”
Bilbo looked down a little ruefully at his brown trousers, yellow jacket, blue waistcoat and red paisley cravat. “Not my usual style but they are at least clean and dry.”
Frodo grinned, having had to resort to blue trousers, pink shirt and green waistcoat himself. The waistcoat he had left open for it strained across his chest and only just reached his waist.
Paladin led Bilbo to a place at his right and directed Frodo to a seat between Pearl and Pimpernel. Pimpernel grinned a greeting and Pearl nodded aloofly, in the way only an almost tween lass was capable of. Frodo squirmed a little uncomfortably, wishing he had been seated closer to Bilbo and Paladin. He was feeling a little outnumbered by the female side of the family, with little Peregrin too young to assist him at this point.
Eglantine frowned at her eldest as she rang the bell and Pearl dropped her gaze to her plate. The door opened to admit a string of maids, laden with platters and dishes. It was usual for family to serve themselves so the dishes were placed in the centre of the table. Soon they were being passed from hand to hand and the conversation began to flow as good food began to loosen tongues.
As the main course was being cleared and the deserts arrived Frodo looked up to find a pair of hazel eyes staring intently. He smiled and little Peregrin grinned broadly. “Hello Pippin.”
Pippin offered him a piece of soggy, slavered-on bread and Frodo shook his head. “That's alright, Pip. I'm going to have some pudding soon. You finish that and then you can have some too.”
Eglantine smiled at her guest, even as she steered her youngest's hand back toward his mouth and used her napkin to wipe drool and other less identifiable substances from Pippin's little pointed chin. “Your cousin, Frodo, doesn't want your half chewed bread,” she assured him with a smile.
Pippin was a generous little soul, however, so once he had taken a nibble he held it out again with a shouted, “Fow!”
Frodo chuckled and that was all the encouragement the faunt needed. He gave a bright little giggle that had the whole table grinning in response. “I think he's taken a shine to you, Frodo,” Paladin commented. “You don't fancy a job entertaining him tomorrow do you?”
His question was met with a vigorous shake of Frodo's dark head and a hasty, “I think he would soon tire of my company.”
“Nonsense lad. You've a good way with youngsters. Little Sam Gamgee has been following you about like a shadow ever since you moved into Bag End.” Bilbo helped himself to some plum duff and Paladin passed the custard jug.
“Sam is a little older than Pippin. I don't think Pip would be very interested in learning to read at his age.”
Eglantine placed a little bowl of cooled custard on her son's tray and concentrated upon keeping his fingers out of the dish as she spooned some for him. “He can't read yet, that's true. But he does like to listen to stories before bed.”
Frodo selected some rice pudding. “If he wants exciting tales Bilbo is our storyteller.”
“Oh, I don't think Pippin would be much interested in dragons and trolls,” Bilbo replied airily.
Eglantine frowned. “And I hardly think those are the sort of tales to be filling his head with just before sleep.”
Bilbo widened his eyes in what was only partially feigned affront.
“His favourite tale is one about a duck and a frog. It's from one of our old story books,” Pimpernel offered around a mouthful of plum duff and custard.
“Don't speak with your mouth full, Pimpernel.” Eglantine was a stickler for table manners and Frodo hurriedly removed his elbow from the table.
The conversation changed direction and Frodo forgot all about Pippin's love of stories until Eglantine gathered up her faunt. “Come along, Frodo. Time you learned how to deal with bairns. You'll have some of your own one day so you may as well learn now.”
Frodo shot a pleading look to Bilbo but the older hobbit only waved him off with a twinkling grin. “Off you go, lad.” No doubt he was relieved not to have been set the task himself.
Pearl and Pimpernel sniggered and Pervinca looked from one to the other in confusion, blissfully unaware of the undercurrents of adult conversation.
“Oh, Pip!” Frodo jumped back as Pippin smacked his hands gleefully in the bath water, showering mother and cousin alike in soapy suds. Eglantine laughed as Frodo used a towel to wipe his face and clothing. “It's alright for you, Aunt. I've only just got dry from earlier,” Frodo complained with a wry grin.
“Don't worry, lad. We've got plenty of spare clothes and towels. A little water never did anyone any harm.”
“That's what Bilbo said about the rain and look where that got us.”
Eglantine reached down to lift her squirming son from the water and Pippin's face began to crumple. “Oh no you don't,” she asserted as she buried him in a thick, thirsty towel. “Now where's my little Pip?” She tweaked a corner aside to reveal his giggling face and declared, “There he is!” This was obviously a regular bath time game for Pippin crowed with laughter as his mama covered him again. “Where is he?”
Pippin grabbed the towel, dropping it himself with an impish grin. “There he is!” Eglantine declared as she began to dry his hair. It took several minutes to pad his lower regions and wrangle him into his nightgown and then, to Frodo's dismay, Eglantine thrust her son at him. “Fow!” Pippin crowed with delight, clinging to him like a limpet, grabbing a handful of Frodo's curls and trying to stuff them into his mouth.
Frodo winced, disentangling tiny fingers. “Come on, Pip. Time for bed.”
“Tory!” Pippin announced indignantly and Eglantine steared Frodo to a rocking chair set beside the high sided cot and handed him a small and colourful book that had obviously seen better days. He settled in the deeply cushioned chair and sat Pippin in his lap.
“Once upon a time there was a little green frog who lived in a farmer's pond . . .”
Half an hour later Eglantine turned back the brightly coloured bedding as Frodo whispered, “And the frog and the duck lived happily ever after.”
Peregrin was fast asleep and Frodo bent to kiss blond curls, inhaling the sweet fragrance of lavender and faunt. Eglantine lifted her son from his cousin's arms, noting the softness in bright blue eyes with a knowing smile. Frodo watched as she tucked in her bairn and then she turned to him with a nod. “You'll do, lad. Give it a few more years and you'll be best friends, I've no doubt.”
Frodo followed her from the room as Pervinca entered to seek her own bed. The two youngest girls shared the nursery with Pippin, Pearl only recently having been deemed old enough to have a room of her own. Pervinca reached up to give her mama a hug and received a kiss in return. Frodo was surprised when the lass hugged him too and he bent to kiss her cheek. It was a long time since he had experienced such family interaction and he cleared his throat as he felt tears prickle behind his eyes.
As spring weather is wont to do, after the rain of the previous day, the next morning dawned bright and sunny.
Bilbo sighed with pleasure as he smoothed the fine wool of his own waistcoat, newly returned from the laundry. He felt much more comfortable in his own carefully co-ordinated wardrobe. Frodo had to acknowledge that he too felt better in his green suit. At least he could fasten the waistcoat, although he noted that the sleeves of his shirt were a little shorter than was usual for Shire fashion. He was still growing and it was perhaps time to pay a visit to one of his aunts in Brandy Hall to have some new ones made.
Like Brandy Hall, breakfasts in Great Smials were an informal affair taken in the largest dining hall, which could seat all its residents at once if required. At breakfast time, however, visitors and family drifted in an out over the period of an hour, helping themselves from the many warming dishes set on a long board to one side of the hall.
Ferumbras having taken breakfast in his own rooms at his usual horrendously early hour, Paladin was presiding over the hall as he finished his own repast. Sitting at top-table with the farm steward, Pal beckoned them to places at his other side. As soon as they were seated May Gamgee appeared to fill their cups with tea. Traditionally, coffee was never served at breakfast in Great Smials. She smiled prettily at Bilbo, gaze dropping as she served Frodo.
Bilbo began to add milk and honey to his cup. “Good morning, May. How are you settling in here?”
May glanced at the Master's son, who smiled and nodded. “Very well, sir. I'm learnin' a lot and everyone's very friendly,” she replied with a smile of her own.
Paladin nodded. “May is a hard worker and seems to get on well with the other lasses.”
“I'm pleased to hear that. Your mother asked me to pass on your family's regards.” Bilbo stirred his tea.
“Thank you, sir. I hope I'm not too forward if I ask you to give her my love when you return? I'm afraid I haven't had time to write of late, what with the spring plantin'.”
Bilbo's eyes widened as he sought the girl's scrubbed hands. “Surely they have not had you tending the fields!”
Paladin snorted. “Don't be a goose, Bilbo. What do you take me for? Eglantine would have my hide if I asked the smial staff to work in the fields. This isn't Hobbiton. Extra folk and family come from round about to help with the planting and they have to be fed and found beds. That means the indoor staff have their hands full. But May here is pulling her weight well enough.”
May blushed at the compliment, bobbing a little curtsy before bustling off to answer a call for more tea from another table.
Frodo buttered some toast. “When does the planting end? I think it's just finished around Hobbiton.”
Paladin nodded. “Aye, we're almost done here. In fact we would have almost had it yesterday, but for the heavens opening. I reckon two more days will do it. Then things will calm down a bit.”
Frodo kept one eye on May as she flitted about the large room. She had filled out again in the past year, in more places than her waistline, and her freckles did not contrast so sharply with her complexion now that her cheeks had regained their roses. The sandy curls that she had so often been teased about were now tamed into glossy ringlets that bounced pertly as she moved. Perhaps it was being away from home and having to fend for herself, but she seemed more mature. Even her way of speaking had changed, losing some of the contractions of her country roots.
In his turn, Bilbo kept one eye on his nephew. He suspected that Frodo would probably end up settling down with someone of more fire, but there was no denying that May Gamgee was growing into a comely lass. Seventeen was a bit young to be thinking about courting but Bell's brood had always been mature for their years and May was no exception.
“Good morning Aunt Eglantine.” Frodo finally tracked down his aunt in the nursery.
“Fow!” Pippin, who was sporting an alarmingly bright pink jumper, was sitting in the centre of a large, thick rug, surrounded by a the detritus of his morning's play. When he clambered onto unsteady feet and began to stumble his way to Frodo, Eglantine wisely swept everything out of his way.
Incredibly flattered by his little cousin's display of affection, Frodo dropped to his knees and held out his arms. Three more steps and he was clasping a wriggling Pippin, who placed an incredibly sloppy but loving kiss on his older cousin's cheek. “Hello, Pip.” Frodo grinned as he settled the faunt upon the rug at his side and used his sleeve to wipe slobber from his cheek.
Eglantine dropped her head to hide a smile.
There was a chuckle from behind. “We were wondering when you would turn up.” Frodo turned to discover a grey haired matron sitting in a rocking chair, a large pile of knitting in her lap. “I knew once they'd met proper he wouldn't be able to stay away. Our Pippin draws people like flies to honey.”
Eglantine Took beamed. “I don't think you've met before. Frodo Baggins, this is Margery. Margery has been in charge of the Great Smials nursery since Pal was a faunt. Margery, this is Bilbo's nephew. Drogo and Primula's son.”
Margery's brown eyes narrowed and she fixed him with a gimlet gaze, pursing her lips. “It's good to see you've taken no harm from yesterday's adventures.” She sniffed as she started another row on her project. “Never understood this fascination Brandybucks have for water. It only ever leads to trouble. Your father learned that the hard way.”
Frodo felt anger rise. Ever since his parent's drowning he had been hearing similar comments and still they had the ability to make him see red.
Eglantine cleared her throat hurriedly but before she or Frodo could say anything Pippin, who had been watching his older cousin creating a tower with his building bricks, knocked over the edifice with a loud, delighted squeal. Frodo's ire melted into a giggle. “You little terror. I suppose I shall have to build that all over again,” he asserted with mock dismay.
Pippin gave a wide grin and held out a brick. “Fow, fix.”
Eglantine laughed. “Now you've done it, Frodo. He'll have you building towers all day.”
Frodo began to pile the bricks that Pippin solemnly handed him one by one. “I don't mind.”
“How are you liking Hobbiton,” Eglantine asked as she began to collect up some of the other toys scattered about them. “I expect it feels very different to Brandy Hall. Do you miss all your friends?”
Pippin crowed loudly as he toppled the bricks and Frodo patiently began to pile them again. “I do miss Fredegar and Merry but Bilbo has promised that we shall visit regularly.” He paused before adding, “I suppose it's the same for May Gamgee. Uncle Paladin says she's settling in well but I suppose, coming from a large family, that she misses her brother and sisters.”
Eglantine handed Frodo a stray brick that had rolled under the rocking chair. “I knew she had a large family in Hobbiton but I'm afraid I haven't had much time to talk to the girl. She seems to have made friends with her room mates, Primrose and Bluebell.” She smiled as Pippin knocked over Frodo's carefully constructed tower once more and helped corral the bricks. “I wonder if she'd like to visit home for a few days once the planting is done. I'm certain we could spare her and she can take her first year's wages home to her parents.”
“I'm sure she'd like to see her mother again and I know Bell misses her terribly.”
“Tom Carter is due the day after tomorrow. She could ride back to Hobbiton with him. I don't like the idea of a girl walking the Great East Road alone and I'll give him a couple of coppers for his trouble.”
Margery interjected dryly from her corner. “Mayhap Masters Bilbo and Frodo could do with the ride as well. That way, if it rains, they'll not get so muddy.”
Frodo grinned and rolled his eyes. “I'm told mud is good for the complexion.”
Margery was never at a loss for words, however. “Then you two must have the prettiest backsides in the Shire.”
Two days later Tom Carter was feeling very cheerful. Carting packages did not bring in much money but passengers paid more and, if they were of the right sort, provided good company too. Bilbo and Frodo Baggins now, they were definitely the right sort. Before the cart wheels had left the courtyard the gents were singing one of Mister Bilbo's compositions, and young May Gamgee was joining in by the second chorus. Most hobbits can carry a tune but Master Frodo had a particularly fine voice and Bilbo persuaded him to sing a solo. If the lad noticed May Gamgee's admiring gaze he said nothing but Tom and Bilbo shared a smile.
At the Frog and Bucket they stopped off to stretch their legs and tend to nature's call. Whilst food was not a speciality of the house, the establishment was renowned for it's cider so, of course, Bilbo insisted that they all sit down for a half. As Bilbo offered to pay for all, Tom decided it would be rude to refuse. May was a little young for cider but Bilbo only winked when she pointed that out. “One half will do you no harm.” Frodo proved himself to be the perfect gentlehobbit, holding May's chair for her, and Bilbo suspected that her blush had very little to do with the warming effect of a mug of cider on a brisk spring day.
When they climbed back onto the cart Bilbo moved up to sit with Tom and the two lit their pipes. That left Frodo and May amongst the parcels at the back. Even as he made small talk with Tom, Bilbo kept one ear tuned to the conversation behind him. For several minutes there was silence. Then two voices spoke at once.
“Are you looking forward to getting home, Master Frodo?/Are you looking forward to seeing your Ma again?”
That was followed by a chorus of embarrassed laughter. “I love visiting relatives but I've grown to enjoy the peace and quiet of Bag End. It was difficult at first, being used to all the noise and bustle of Brandy Hall, but now I love having space and time to myself, and Uncle Bilbo is very good company.”
Bilbo felt a warm glow within his chest, for he had always worried that life at Bag End, with a crochety old bachelor, would not suit the youngster.
“I can't imagine rattling around in that big smial. I like havin' family around me. It was bad enough when Hal and Ham left home and mayhap Daisy won't be far behind.” May rummaged in a basket at her side and offered Frodo an apple.
Frodo was a tween so he accepted readily. “I hope you don't mind that Sam showed me your letters. Are you really happy at Great Smials or are you putting a good face on it? Because I'm certain Bilbo can arrange for you to come home if you want to and the Thain won't mind.”
May passed a couple of apples up to Bilbo and Tom and selected one for herself. “Oh, no. I love workin' there. I've made lots of new friends and they're gettin' to be like family. I don't see the Thain much but Master Paladin and Mistress Eglantine are nice and I'm learnin' so much.”
Bilbo smiled to hear May's country accent creeping back, the closer they got to Hobbiton.
“Ferumbras is not one for standing on ceremony and Eglantine and Paladin are good people. They treat everyone like family. Great Smials is at least a little less formal than Brandy Hall. Much as I love Rorimac, he can be a bit of a stickler for rules.”
“Hah!” A blackbird started out of the hawthorn, with a scolding chatter of alarm, at Bilbo's exclamation. “The Master of Buckland is a stickler at applying the rules to everyone else. Not so much to himself.”
Frodo joined the general laughter. “He says there has to be some advantage to being the Master.”
By now they had reached Bywater and there was some discussion about whether to stop at the Green Dragon for some food, but home was beckoning to May and the Baggins. Tom would be happy enough lunching at the Ivy Bush in Hobbiton for he had no post to deliver in Bywater that day and several pieces for Hobbiton.
Tom had to navigate his pony and cart carefully through the market and, with a chorus of thanks to their driver, May, Frodo and Bilbo set cheerful feet onto the lane, over the bridge and up the hill toward home.
The sound of giggling, interspersed with a rythmic thud, thud, could have been cause for concern at any other time but Bell knew it was only two of her youngest, beating rugs in the back garden. It was spring and spring was the time for cleaning.
“Everythin' in its time and a time for everythin',” as Da Hobson would say. Bell had set Sam and Marigold to cleaning the rugs. She and Hamfast had draped them over the empty washing line and then handed out the paddles. It seemed that Sam and Marigold were making a game of it.
Bell dumped some candle holders in the sink to wash and looked up to see how they were getting on. She smiled to see her two bairns dashing round and around the kitchen hearth rug and Bell's bedroom rug, beating as they went. It was fortunate that they had chosen one rug each or Bell could have been dealing with bruises and cracked heads, but all her children were sensible about such things . . . even Daisy most of the time.
Daisy would be washing the kitchen window later for it, like the tater patch, was now covered in a film of grey dust. No doubt Ham would have something to say about his taters when he came home. Still, the widow Rumble was forecasting rain overnight, which should wash the leaves clean. That reminded Bell that she must take some willow bark ointment down the hill later. If Buttercup Rumble was forecasting rain her arthritis must be acting up.
Daisy entered the big kitchen that served as the family room, a shallow basket filled with more candle holders. “Thank ye, lass. Set that down over here then I need ye to go out to the wash house, fill the copper and set a fire 'neath it. When yer brother and sister have finished out there they'll need a bath and we'll need to wash their clothes too.”
Daisy leaned over her mother's shoulder to look out of the window. In typical tween manner, she rolled her eyes at the sight of two little dusty grey figures rolling in a giggling heap on the grass. “Why does one cleanin' job always lead to another?” she asked with a grimace.
Bell chuckled. “'Tis the way of it. And when ye get to the end of all the jobs ye just start again at the beginnin'.”
Daisy sighed but collected some kindling in her apron, from the basket on the hearth, and headed for the garden door.
“And ye'd best make sure there's enough hot water for ye to have a bath too. Ye'll need to beat the top of the rugs where yer brother can't reach.” Bell grinned as Daisy stomped out, knowing that her daughter was of an age to be “proper mortified” if a lad saw her head to toe in muck. Bell was a firm believer that tweens needed taking down a peg every now and then and today was as good a day as any.
She took up an old knife and began to scrape wax off a candle holder and was just setting the last one in the sink, about to pour a kettle of water over them, when there was a knock at the front door. Wiping her hands on her apron she went to open it, breaking into a surprised smile when she found Bilbo and Frodo Baggins on her doorstep.
“Bless me, sirs. I thought ye weren't due home 'til the morrow. I would have gone up with some shoppin' if I'd known. But come away in. I'm sure I can spare some milk and bread or send Sam down to market for ye.”
“Thank you, Bell. I'd appreciate a drop of milk but Frodo can go down to the market later for the rest. That's not the only reason we called, however.” He and Frodo stepped aside to reveal a slight figure that had been standing unseen behind them.
“May, lass!” Bell opened her arms and May ran into her mother's astonished but welcoming embrace. “Ye never wrote to tell me ye was comin'.”
Frodo giggled, his bright blue eyes sparkling with mischief. “Eglantine suggested that May travel home with us to visit her family for a few days. There was plenty of room in the cart so here she is.”
Bell let her daughter go for long enough to wave everyone into the kitchen. “Come in, sirs. I clean forgot my manners. Sit yerselves down and I'll make tea. Ye must be parched after bein' on the road so long.”
Bilbo unfastened his jacket. “We stopped off at the Frog and Bucket halfway but I certainly would not refuse a cup of tea.”
Frodo joined his uncle at the scrubbed kitchen table while May hung her cloak on the pegs by the door. Bell was already pouring water into the large brown teapot when she glanced up, her eyes widening as she saw her daughter fully for the first time. “Well, would you look at my lass! She's all grown up. A proper little gentlehobbit. Just look at that frock.”
May beamed and Frodo had to agree that May looked much more mature than her eighteen years. When May had gone to work at Great Smials in Tuckborough she was a little wisp of a girl in her sister's cut down dress, with wide eyes, freckles, and a riot of misbehaved sandy curls. The May that stood before them now had grown a good six inches. The curls were tamed into glossy ringlets and she wore the pretty summer print dress of Great Smial's maids, protected by a fine, lawn pinafore.
“All the maids wear this,” May assured her mother, but she smiled proudly as she held out her full skirts and performed a pirouette that set her curls dancing.
Bell put the lid on the teapot. “Well, ye'd best put it away so it don't get spoiled while yer home. I won't have ye goin' back with a ruined frock.” All the same, she reached out admiringly to touch the fine weave of the pretty dress. “Do they really dress all the maids in this? It seems too fine.”
May giggled. “Yes Ma. They really do. And in winter we have nice warm wool ones with red flannel petticoats.” She blushed as she remembered that they had male gentlehobbits to tea. “Beggin' your pardon, sirs.”
Bilbo waved her apologies aside. “Don't worry, May. It will take more than the mention of a flannel petticoat to embarrass this old hobbit.”
Frodo ducked his head, however, and Bell noticed a becoming blush touch his cheeks. She ignored it as she set out her best cups and saucers and May fetched the milk jug from the cool slab in the pantry.
“T’was good of ye to bring May, all the same. Did ye come with Tom Carter?” Bell asked as she poured thick dark tea into everyone's cups.
Bilbo added liberal helpings of milk and honey to his. “We did. He's taken the cart down to the stables and will stay at the Ivy Bush overnight. Tomorrow he collects the post and will be off to Frogmorton and Buckland. Eglantine has made arrangements for May to ride back with him to Tuckborough next Mersday.”
May slipped into place at her ma's side. “I've got a whole five days to visit,” she announced brightly.
“That's very kind of the lady I must say. I hope as how ye've earned it,” Bell added. “It was good of ye to ask if my May could be put into service at Great Smials, Mr Bilbo. It looks to have suited her at the least.”
Bilbo fished about in his jacket pocket, finally producing a small drawstring bag and placing it on the table with a soft, “chink”. “Mistress Eglantine is more than pleased with May and she asked me to give you this. It's May's first year's wages.”
“Wages? I weren't expectin' no wages. Me and Ham was just pleased that May would have food and clothin' and a roof over her head.” Both Bell and May leaned forward as Bell reverently released the drawstring and tipped the contents onto the table. “Oh my!” Twelve shiny silver pennies glinted up at them. Neither made to touch them, as though unable to believe that such bounty was real.
Finally, May whispered, “What are you goin' to do with all that, Ma?”
Bell blinked, sweeping the coins back into the bag and tying it off tightly before dropping it in her apron pocket. “That's for yer da to decide.”
Frodo hoped that at least some of it would find its way into May’s pocket. It was she who had earned it after all.
Bilbo hid a grimace as he took a last swallow of Bell's thick tea. “Well. It's time Frodo and I were off, if Frodo is to get down to the market before everyone packs up for the day.”
Bell selected a smaller jug and decanted a little milk into it. “Here's yer milk. There should be enough for a few cups of tea until ye can get more. If there's none to be had at market Arty Sedgeburry will be doin' the evenin' milkin' of Clara soon. I'm sure he'll have a drop to spare ye. Clara's milkin' well now the grass is greenin' up.”
“Thank you, Bell. I shall return the favour once Frodo returns from market.” Both gentlehobbits were beaten to the door by May, who dropped a very proper curtsy as she opened it.
Bilbo grinned and was about to exit when the kitchen door banged open at the other end of the room and a strange grey apparition stepped into the smial.
It seemed Daisy had done as her mother requested and finished the job of beating the rugs, for she carried both of them in her arms. The rugs were beauties, painstakingly knotted from rags Bell had collected for many years. They were vibrantly colourful. The same could not be said of Daisy Gamgee. Beating carpets was sweaty work, which meant that the clouds of dust clung to all exposed skin and coated hair and clothes.
When she saw Bilbo and Frodo, Daisy's mouth fell open. With a squeak of alarm, she dropped the rugs, turned and fled.
Frodo slapped his free hand over his mouth to stifle a laugh and concentrated upon not spilling the milk. Bilbo didn’t bother with such niceties and chuckled. “I take it you're spring cleaning, Bell.”
Bell grinned. “Aye. Daisy was just finishin' the carpets.”
Bilbo gave the still shaking Frodo a gentle shove out of the front door. “It looks rather more as though the carpets finished Daisy.”
Bell's smile widened. There was a time to bring tweens down a notch or two, and Daisy could not have timed it better had she tried.
“May!” May turned to see Frodo Baggins slamming the gate to Bag End in his haste. She stepped back from the cart, where Tom waited patiently.
Bell Gamgee, who was waiting to wave off her daughter, watched with some curiosity as her young neighbour sprinted down the lane, brown paper parcel in hand. Her lips thinned as she noted her daughter's cheeks pink and her eyes begin to sparkle. In Bell's eyes her lass was doomed to disappointment if she was setting her cap at Master Frodo. The Baggins family were way beyond the reach of folks like the Gamgee's. Bell was a firm believer in maintaining the status quo . . . as, indeed, were most hobbits. It was always good to know where you stood in life and in Bell's eyes the Gamgees stood several steps below the Baggins.
Frodo arrived, only a little out of breath, and held out his parcel to May. “I know you have been learning to write and thought you would like this.”
May accepted the package with some surprise, pushing aside the paper to reveal a small book, a pen and a little bottle of ink. Frodo's face was almost as pink as May's as he shuffled his feet a little and murmured, “I thought you would like to write a journal, so that you don't forget things and can tell your parents what you've been doing the next time you visit.”
“A journal? Goodness, Master Frodo. I don't think any of my friends will have a journal. Thank you.” May re-wrapped the package with due reverence and handed it up to Tom Carter, who sat, reins in hand. Like Bell, he was watching with some interest.
Now both youngsters stood silent for some moments, clearly at a loss as to what to say. Bell decided to help things along in the proper direction. “Go along, May, lass. Tom can't wait all day. He's got packages to deliver in Bywater and the day's gettin' on.”
May blinked and turned to put her foot on the wheel hub, then thought better of things and turned back, intending to give Frodo a peck on the cheek. Frodo chose that particular moment to turn to Bell, however, and the light kiss landed fair and square on his surprised lips. Both youngsters jumped apart as though stung, their blushes deepening, then May clambered up onto the seat beside Tom with a muttered, “Bye, Ma.”
Bell watched with a sinking feeling as a slow smile crept across Frodo's face. “Can I write to you?” he called as Tom flicked the reins and the cart pulled away down the lane.
May turned to call back, “Yes, please. I'll write back.” She smiled broadly as she returned his wave and Bell shook her head slowly as she watched her daughter disappear down the lane. Mayhap distance would cool things down, the mother hoped.
“Ma, you've got a letter,” Sam called as he entered the kitchen of Number Three. “I met the post master comin' up the hill and said as how I'd save him the walk. I've already taken the one addressed to Master Frodo up to Bag End. It's in our May's writin'.”
Bell set down the cup she had been washing and wiped her hands on her apron. “Now, why would yer sister be writin' to me so soon? Ye'd best read it to me, lad.”
Sam sat down at the table, wiping his hands on his weskit before opening the carefully folded and sealed missive. He regularly received notes from his sister but he loved being asked to do the important task of reading out a letter addressed to his Ma. His face beamed as he read aloud.
I hope you are well. I am very well. Mistress Eglantine says I can come home for the Thrimidge feast. It only feels like yesterday that I was home and now I can visit again. She says I can stay for a week. So I will come with Tom Carter on the eight and will be leefing on the fifteen.
Bell grinned. “It will be good to have her back. I'd best tell Daisy to clear a space in the cupboard for her clothes. Did ye say there was a letter for Master Frodo too?”
Sam refolded the note and handed it over to his Ma, who tucked it carefully into her apron pocket. “Yes, Ma. Him and May have been writin' regular. Mister Chubb often gives the letters to me to carry up the hill.”
Bell sniffed. “It don't feel right getting' Bert to come all this way to Bag End just to deliver a letter from my May. And Bert is too old to be climbin' the hill.”
Sam looked confused. “It's not that far, Ma. And when I'm in the garden I can see Mister Chubb as he crosses the bridge. I can run down and fetch the letters if you like.”
Bell only turned back to her washing of the pots. “Daisy! Daisy. Have ye changed the sheets on yer bed today?”
“She's here, Ma!” Sam burst through the door, with little Marigold giggling at his side. Behind them, Bell could see May and Daisy, arm in arm, coming down the garden path. Bell slid the kettle onto the hob and wiped her hands as the girls tripped, laughing, into the kitchen. As soon as she saw her mother, May ran into her arms. “Hello Ma.”
Bell enveloped her then leaned back to examine her more critically. “Have ye grown?”
May laughed, “No, Ma. It's only been a few weeks since I was here last.”
Bell pursed her lips. “Ye look taller. Still, makes no difference. Yer still my little lass.” And she enfolded her daughter in another hug.
Daisy hoisted a huge carpet bag onto the table with a loud thud and Bell frowned. “Not on my clean kitchen table if you please. Take yer sister's bag into yer room.”
When Daisy rolled her eyes and would have complied May rushed to stop her. “No. Wait a minute. Mistress Eglantine sent some presents.”
Bell frowned. “Presents from the mistress of Great Smials? Whatever did she do that for? I hope she don't think we're paupers.”
May laughed as she opened the bag. “No, Ma. She just said as how she wanted to give somethin' to the festival day. If I stayed there for Thrimidge Day she'd be feedin' me so she said she didn't see why I should miss out. I see the Prancin' Pole's already up in the Party Field.” As she spoke she began to unwrap several packages that she laid out upon the table. When she had finished May pointed to each in turn.
“There's some powdered sugar, butter, a Thrimidge cake, cheese, tea … the best tea, Ma ... chocolate and some pipe weed for Da.”
The Gamgee family only stood and stared for a moment. The Thrimidge cake was encased in thick hard white icing and Bell's practiced nose could detect a liberal waft of brandy from within. The chocolate was grated for cooking or making drinks and the pipeweed was none other than Longbottom Leaf. Bell finally found her voice and her common sense as she smiled at her daughter. Pride was all well and good but sometimes gifts were just that, gifts. “Well now, that's very nice of Mistress Eglantine and please tell her, thank ye. Mayhap, when ye go back, I'll send ye with a cake as our Thrimidge present to her.”
The youngsters about the table let out a sigh of relief, imagining toast dripping in butter, posh Thrimidge cake with sweet tea, cups of hot chocolate or, even better, Ma's finest chocolate cake. Daisy was calculating how many cakes could be made with the butter and sugar even as she ferried them to the pantry.
Marigold reached out a grubby finger to touch the icing and Bell tapped it away. “Oh, no ye don't, lass. That's for Thrimidge and that's three days away. Daisy, come and put this in the pantry afore it gets mucky finger marks all over it.”
May giggled. “Now, Mari, that reminds me. I've got something for you.” She rummaged in her bag, finally producing two pretty green satin ribbons. “I expect they'll drop in the mud within five minutes of putting them in your hair but I thought you'd like them.”
Marigold's eyes widened and she wiped her hands on her already grubby pinafore before accepting them and holding them out to her Ma for approval. Bell smiled fondly. “That's sweet of ye lass. We'll keep 'em for best and she can wear them on Thrimidge.”
As Daisy returned she, like Sam, hovered a little expectantly and May did not disappoint. Two more little gifts were produced . . . a bright blue satin sash for Daisy and two pencils for Sam.
Bell tutted. “Yer a bonnie lass, May Gamgee, but ye shouldn't be spendin' yer hard earned money on us. When yer Da gave ye back half yer pay, him and me hoped ye'd spend it on somethin' nice fer yerself. We've got all we need.”
May only laughed. “Ma, I get food and board for free, and my uniform. I don't need to spend a lot on myself. I got some cloth for a couple of dresses and bits, and that's all I needed. I got these in Michel Delving when the Mistress took all us lasses in for the day last month.”
Sam's mouth dropped open in awe. Michel Delving was the nearest thing the Shire had to a town, boasting a whole street of shops. “You've been to Michel Delving? Is it big? Did you see the Mayor?”
May laughed again. “I don't know what the Mayor looks like so I don't know whether I saw him or not. It's not that big, either, but there was a big drapers shop. You would love it, Ma. Lots of beautiful cloth. Very posh. I think it was called Berttisl's or some such.” She winked at her younger brother. “It was a long name, anyway, and written in posh letters so I couldn't quite read it. I didn't like to ask for fear of lookin' stupid in front of the Mistress.”
At that moment the kettle lid began to rattle and Bell turned to lift it from the heat. “Ye'd best get yer things put away, May. Tea will be ready in a minute. Ye've just time to wash yer hands and face.”
The next morning dawned bright and clear and was everything a late spring morning should be. When Bilbo and Frodo arrived at Number Three the kitchen was a hive of activity. It was Hamfast Gamgee who opened the door and waved them in to the chaos. “Come in, sirs. I think the missus is almost ready. They're just packing the last of the baskets. I see you've brought your own.”
Bilbo nodded to the hamper held between himself and Frodo. “We have, indeed. We thought you wouldn't object to a little extra.”
Frodo's eyes went straight to where May was folding a linen cloth and placing it in one of several wicker baskets on the table and, following the direction of his gaze, Bilbo noted a flush of pink touch May's cheeks. Frodo at least had the presence of mind to contribute to the conversation. “It was very good of you and Mistress Gamgee to invite us to join you for the Gathering.”
“A picnic is no fun with only two and you've always been good to me and mine,” Ham answered, readily before adding, “In any case, I can use an extra set of hands cuttin' the Yule log.”
“And food always seems to go further when there's plenty to share it,” Bell contributed as she wrapped a shawl about her shoulders. High summer was still a way off and everyone had brought an extra layer against the cooler late spring breezes.
Only five minutes later everyone was trooping down the lane. They would be collecting the Hawthorn blossom from Farmer Brownlock's hedgerows so at the end of the lane they turned right and away from Hobbiton. May contrived to walk alongside Bilbo and Frodo. “Do you usually gather the Hawthorn on your own then, sirs?”
Bilbo jumped in before Frodo had time to reply. “Oh, no. I don't usually bother, if I'm honest.”
Frodo chuckled. “You mean, you usually forget. I've no doubt you've always had your head in a book.”
His uncle grinned. “You may be right. But I've always thought that Thrimidge is a celebration for the young. All that dancing and such . . .”
May laughed prettily. “Oh, I've seen you dance at the Yule Fire, Mister Baggins. I reckon you could show some of the tweens a lesson or two.”
Frodo hid a grin, slipping May a sly wink as Bilbo preened a little. “Well, one tries to stay fit,” his uncle replied as he tweaked his cravat.
For some minutes they walked on in silence, content to listen to the light banter going on around them. It seemed that although the choice for Thrimidge Queen had been narrowed there was still some debate upon the King. Frodo had been alarmed last week when he heard that he was being considered for the role, mainly because he knew Daisy Gamgee was the front runner for Queen. Indeed, Daisy had taken great delight in advising him of that fact. The final vote would take place tomorrow, with Thrimidge Day only one day after that. Frodo tried to turn his mind to something else.
“Have you heard from Hal and Ham recently?” he asked May.
“I haven't had any letters but Ma says she had a note from Hal sayin' they're both well. I think Hal had it from Ham by way of the landlord in the Pig and Whistle in Oakbottom and then by Tom Carter.”
Bilbo shook his head at the convoluted process that would have been so much simpler if folk would only bother to learn to read and write. “Are you still enjoying working in Tookborough?” he asked.
“Oh yes, sir. Mistress Eglantine took a few of us girls into Michel Delving last month, by way of a treat. They have proper shops there and everything.”
Bilbo held open the five bar gate for her. “We do have a couple of shops in Hobbiton, if you remember,” he pointed out with a wry grin.
May sniffed with all the disdain of a young person who has just tasted the heady sweetness of city living. “Only a baker and a butcher. Michel Delving has a drapers, a candlemakers and even a tailor and a dressmaker.” May looked down at her pretty spring dress. “Can you imagine having someone make your clothes for you?”
Her comment was met with a chuckle by the older hobbit, who was in the process of arranging a visit to his tailor. Frodo jumped to May's defence however. “I don't think you need the services of a dressmaker. You're obviously very skilled with a needle and thread. Your dress is beautiful.” He blushed and May ducked her head, but Bilbo noticed a smile touch the lass' lips. The older hobbit decided that the next few days could prove to be interesting. He rather enjoyed watching each new generation perform the courtship dance from the safety of his long bachelorhood.
In true hobbit fashion the picnic was set out before cutting of the hawthorn or the Yule commenced and, of course, some of the sandwiches had to be sampled. So it was mid morning before the party divided into smaller groups, armed with pruning knives and empty baskets. It was a good year for hawthorn blossom and many folk suggested that this was a good sign for a plentiful harvest to come. Of course, there were those who considered that more blossom would result in more berries and more berries signalled a harsh winter to come. Such was the nature of country sayings.
Frodo and May moved a little farther up the field and, when Frodo spotted a gap in the hawthorn, he suggested they cut blossom from the other side of the hedge, as that had not been picked over yet. May selected the branches and Frodo cut, handing them over to May, who stacked them neatly in their basket.
“I enjoyed reading your letters. Your writing improves with each one,” Frodo offered.
“It's getting easier to write but I still have trouble reading stuff when folk use fancy writing,” May replied ruefully. “Why can't everyone write the same? I can read yours and Sam's but some folks write so flowery . . .”
Frodo chuckled as he cut the next white, blossom-laden branch. May had dropped to her knees to adjust the basket's load and a little flurry of flowers landed in her hair, making her giggle. Frodo dropped to one knee before May to help pick the tiny blossom out of her ringlets.
Leaning forward Frodo was aware of the light chamomile-apple fragrance of her, mingled with the heady sweetness of the hawthorn blossom, and the silky softness of her curls between his fingers. Two sets of hands slowed as their fingers touched in May's ringlets and she lifted liquid brown eyes to meet the shining blue of his. For a long moment Frodo was held captive then his gaze dropped lower, to her pale pink lips, and curiosity took him. He wondered if they would feel as plump and soft as they looked. Gently, he used a hand upon her cheek to tilt her head, just a little, and leaned in. Her lips were soft and moist, tasting of honey and mint and he closed his eyes to better savour the experience.
“Master Frodo, Master Frodo .. . Ma says if you don't come quick there'll be no food left and Da's askin' for your help in felling the tree for the Yule logs!”
Frodo and May started apart to find young Sam standing a few yards away. Frodo held out a hand to help May to her feet and lifted the basket in his other. Sam carried on a stream of chatter as he led the way back to the picnic cloths and the rest of the party. “Ma couldn't find you and she sent me to look for you, but it's taken me ages, because I didn't think to look behind the hedge until I heard May laughing, and then I couldn't find a gap . . .”
Frodo climbed down the ladder, nodding thanks to Bartimus Brockbank, who was holding it steady for him. Both stood back to admire their handiwork.
A ring of poles had been set in place in the centre of the Party Field and Frodo had been one of those tasked with threading the swags of hawthorn blossom between them. The ladies of Hobbiton had been working hard all morning, twining blossom with ivy to make the heavy swags and the younger lads had been given the task of setting them in place.
“Have you heard about the King and Queen?” asked Bartimus. His sister was one of those short listed for the role of Queen. Ruby had been doing some pretty intense campaigning for the title and, bearing in mind that the King and Queen were supposed to represent the land's fertility, Frodo secretly held the view that she would be well suited to the role. He had certainly cast his vote for her. In truth, he would have voted for anyone but Daisy Gamgee.
“Have the votes been counted, then?” he asked as his stomach turned queezy somersaults.
“Aye. Our Ruby's at home, primping even now. I expect Ma will bring her down a peg in a few days but last I saw she was tryin' to talk Ma into cuttin' three inches off the bottom of her skirt.” Ruby was not what anyone would call a great beauty but she was very popular with the lads, for reasons that brought a winsome smile to Frodo's lips.
“So, who's the King, then?” Frodo asked, trying to decide whether he was upset or relieved that it was obviously not him.
Bartimus snorted. “Orton Sandiman, would you believe?”
Related to Ted Sandiman, Hobbiton's miller, Orton had inherited the family's sour temperament. Sadly, as the the only miller for miles around, when Ted put his weight behind the voting it was almost a foregone conclusion that Orton would be crowned. “I'm sorry,” Frodo offered in heartfelt condolence.
“Aye. Daisy Gamgee is fair spittin' that she didn't get the crown but I don't think there's a lass for miles about who has a fancy for Orton. Even our Ruby.” Bartimus grinned. “It'll make my job easier at least.”
Bartimus was big, in all directions, and made an excellent bodyguard for his wayward sister. He had once nearly caught Frodo in the bushes with Ruby at a Harvest Reel and, although they had not come face to face upon that occasion, Bartimus had later made it very clear that he knew exactly what could have happened. He also made it very clear what would have happened to Frodo if what could have happened, had. Since then he and Frodo had become friends. So it was without fear that Frodo replied, “I'd still keep an eye on her if I were you.”
Bartimus gave a rumbling chuckle. “Oh, I will.”
Just then a shout went up and a crowd of tweens and youngsters ran into the field. At their centre ran Delbin Chubb, holding aloft a wreath of hawthorn blossom and ivy. When he reached the beribboned Prancing Pole he dropped the wreath about his neck and began to shin upward to the chant of, “Climb, climb, climb, climb ...”
As Delbin clambered upward Frodo was reminded of a dwarven-made toy Bilbo had given him when a faunt. The stick had a strange little hairy creature that Bilbo told him was called a monkey, and when you pulled a string it ascended the stick. Not that Delbin could have been compared to the monkey in anything but climbing skill . . . well . . . not much.
Delbin's arrival at the apex was greeted with a loud cheer and much clapping and, now playing to the crowd, Delbin waved the wreath enthusiastically before dropping it neatly over the top of the pole and tying it in place. Frodo wondered if it were a reflection of his impending maturity that he was concerned Delbin would fall, and was relieved when his young neighbour was safely back on the ground. Frodo and Bartimus fell in with the other youngsters, however, as they left the field, joining in the general back slapping being awarded to Delbin.
Half an hour later Frodo and Bartimus sat on a bench outside the Ivy Bush, nursing two halves of cider.
“Daisy tells me May is home for a few days,” Bartimus observed with a twinkle.
“Yes,” Frodo replied non-committally.
Bartimus grinned as he took a good swallow of his drink. “They say she's growin' into a bonnie lass. I expect there'll be lots of lads hopin' she asks them for a dance tomorrow. Maybe I'll join 'em.”
“Better not,” Frodo mumbled into his mug.
Bartimus chuckled. “Don't fret. As usual, I'll be too busy keepin' an eye on our Ruby. I don't expect she'll get up to much mischief with Orton but I know she's got an eye on a few other lads. Your May is safe from me. Anyway, I'm hopin' for a prance about the pole with Daisy.”
After his initial shock that anyone would actually volunteer to dance with Daisy Gamgee Frodo tried on his most innocent expression. “She's not my May. She can dance with whoever she wants to.”
Bartimus' guffaw let Frodo know that he was not fooled in the slightest. “You surely don't think nobody knows you're sweet on each other? Little Sam Gamgee's been tellin' anyone who'll listen, how you two have been writin' to each other. He's right proud of the fact that his big sister can write and I don't have to read to be able to add two and two.”
“Does all Hobbiton know, then?”
Bartimus made a point of considering for several moments before replying with a grin, “Pretty much. And as Tom Carter gets to carry the letters I expect the rest of the Shire does too.”
Frodo groaned, dropping his head into his hands.
Thrimidge was another clear, bright, late spring day that perched hopefully upon the cusp of summer. As was the custom, anyone not involved in last minute preparations, went down to the local farms to watch all the cattle being driven between two large bonfires. Frodo had not encountered this tradition in Buckland and Bilbo had to explain that the custom was supposed to impart protection on the herds. Watching some of the cows roll their eyes Frodo was not so sure that anyone had stopped to explain this to the poor beasts, but the event seemed to go off well enough.
Unlike other feast days, Thrimidge did not have a market fair. Everyone was expected to join in the festivities and nobody worked, so by lunch time the Party Field was packed with picnic cloths and when Bilbo and Frodo arrived they at first thought they would have difficulty finding a space.
“Over here, Mister Bilbo, sir!” Little Sam Gamgee ran up to them, waving toward a small group off to one side. When they followed they discovered all the occupants of the hill seated together. Even the usually introvert Arty Sedgeburry had put in an appearance.
“Greetings of the day to you all,” Bilbo offered with a wide smile. “I'm afraid we may not be able to join you. I don't think I have ever seen the field so full. Perhaps Frodo and I can find somewhere farther away from the Pole.”
“Oh, that's alright, sir. Me and the lasses have saved you a place,” Sam announced proudly as his sisters stood and whisked away the cloth they had been sitting upon.
Bilbo's smile was in danger of splitting his face in two. “How clever of you. Thank you. Come along, Frodo. Let us join our neighbours and set out our luncheon.”
It took only minutes for Bilbo and Frodo to arrange their spread and if Sam and Marigold looked on enviously at the finger sandwiches, pies, buns, flans, cakes, scones, cold meats and salads Bilbo only winked and said nothing. And if May Gamgee switched places with her younger sister so that she was seated closer to Frodo, Bell also said nothing.
“Ham, love. Stand still. I can't tie these on when yer jiggin' about. Ye've been practicin' yer steps for weeks. In fact I watched ye so often I reckon I could do 'em myself,” Bell pronounced with a chuckle as she tried to tie the shield of bells about her husband's muscular calves. Ham Gamgee was one of Hobbiton's team of Thrimidge Prancers and was dressed today in white shirt and breeches, trimmed with brightly coloured ribbons. When Bell had finished Ham whisked up his hawthorn blossom trimmed hat and held out his arms. “Well, lass. Will I do?”
Bell snorted. “If ye don't bend down to much, aye. I think I need to let out those breeches a bit afore next year.”
Ham looked down at his belly, which was taxing the quality of Bell's button sewing abilities a little alarmingly. “You let 'em out last year and the year afore. I don't think there's any more left to let.”
Bell sighed. “Then I'd best get some cloth to make ye another pair for next year. For today ye'll just have to suck it in and ye can trot home to change when ye've finished yer prancin'.” At the jingle of several sets of bells she thrust a ribbon trimmed stick at him. “Here. Ye'd best get off and join the others. They're linin' up over yonder.”
Before he turned to join the line Ham pointed to Frodo with a grin. “Ye'd best pay attention Master Frodo. I think Cob Chubb is thinkin' of asking you to join before next year's Prance. Don't think your dancin' skills at the Harvest Reel haven't gone unnoticed.” With those words he trotted off toward the other assembled dancers.
Frodo's eyes widened and May Gamgee giggled to see it. “Don't worry, Frodo. The steps aren't hard and they only dance once a year.” Bell noted the dropping of Master Frodo's honorific with pursed lips. She and May needed to have a serious talk, and soon. In her eyes May was setting her cap at someone way above her station in life and was heading for heartache. First love was always the hardest, she observed.
Someone struck up a drum and the two lines of Prancers were off. Frodo did pay attention, watching several of Hobbiton's finest form their figures, tap sticks or wave kerchiefs, jump and prance, all the while the bells on their calves tinging in perfect synchrony with the drum. All around them folk cheered when they formed a particularly intricate figure or leapt especially high, and the applause was ecstatic by the time they bowed to each other at the end.
When a rather sweaty Ham returned Bell offered him a cup of lemonade that he downed in one go. “Phew! I'm gettin' too old for this, Bell, lass.”
Bell refilled his cup. “I've been tellin' ye that for the past three years. Yer goin' to have to give it up or stop eatin'. Go home and change. And ye'd best have a wash while yer at it. I don't fancy sittin' next to yer sweaty body all afternoon.” All about them, heads dipped down to hide grins for Bell Gamgee did not mince her words.
Ham took it all in good part, however, throwing back his head to laugh before bending down to give her a loud, smack of a kiss full on her lips. Unfortunately, the sound of the kiss was accompanied by the sound of Ham's breeches finally giving up the battle, and that was too much for the assembled company, who began to laugh uproariously as the gaping hole in the back seem revealed to all the world, Hamfast Gamgee's under garments.
The sound of a fiddle tuning up signalled dancing of another type and Daisy Gamgee suddenly leapt to her feet and reached out a hand to Frodo. It was the custom at Thrimidge for the lasses to invite the lads to dance. “Come prance with me, Master Frodo.”
Too polite to refuse Frodo only had time to cast a rueful smile to the astonished May before he was being tugged away to the Prancing Pole. There the lads and lasses formed two concentric circles, each grabbing a ribbon. As the music struck up each circle began to move in opposite directions, weaving in and out as the figures were called. With each step the ribbons shortened, and they drew closer and closer to the pole until bodies began to brush against each other. A final twist was called and each lad found himself bound close to a lass.
There was much blushing and giggling as the crowd shouted, good naturedly, “Kiss the lasses! Kiss the lads!”
The calling had been done to perfection so that each person was now with their original partner and Daisy Gamgee arched a knowing brow at Frodo, who would have squirmed had his body not been plastered so close against hers. Daisy had no such compunction, however, noting that to her side the hawthorn crowned Ruby Brockbank was trying to avoid Ortis' slobbery kiss. Daisy took a deep breath, which had the effect of mashing her soft breasts into Frodo's suddenly cringing chest.
The crowd were still calling, and out of the corner of his eyes he could see several couples already obliging. Frodo realised that to not comply was to draw unwanted attention, not to mention possibly humiliating Daisy, who was already smarting from having been pipped to the post for Thrimidge Queen. As part of the Shire gentry, Frodo was wise enough to know that he would be in demand for the dancing and by asking him for the first prance Daisy had scored a coup. He leaned in to place a soft kiss upon her pursed lips, surprised when he drew back, to see a shimmer of tears in her eyes. Just before the music started, to guide them all apart again, she leaned in to whisper, “Thank you, Master Frodo.”
As he followed the figures to unwind the ribbons Frodo considered that moment and filed it away for later examination. He knew that many of the local lads were as wary as he of Daisy Gamgee's sharp tongue and flirtatious ways, but perhaps she was not as harsh as she outwardly appeared. When the music stopped he offered his arm to escort her back to their party, bowing low and giving his hand to lower her courteously to the ground.
He could feel the icy chill emanating from May as he retook his place at Bilbo's side. As, it seemed, could everyone else for conversation was suddenly muted. From her place across from May, Daisy gave a haughty toss of her head and pointedly stared down her younger sister. Frodo pondered on how May could give off such a chill and yet have such fire blazing in her eyes, and he drew in a sharp breath as she reached across to fill her sister's cup, instead pouring lemonade all over Daisy's skirt.
May put a hand to her mouth in mock horror as Daisy shrieked and leapt to her feet to try and brush off the sticky liquid. Bell Gamgee looked from one daughter to the other, her lips thinning. Grabbing May's arm and hoisting her to her feet she led both girls from the field. The last thing Frodo heard was Bell's firm, “Right, my lasses, tis long past time ye and me had a talk.”
Bilbo patted Frodo on the back, offering a rueful smile and a pork pie. “I've never understood why they're considered to be the gentler sex. I suspect the Dark Lord would have been defeated much sooner had he been set against an army of ladies.”
Frodo accepted the pie. Thrimidge was not exactly going to the plan he had formulated so carefully in his head when he lying, staring at his bedroom ceiling last night.
Hamfast was coming out of Number Three as Bell and the girls arrived. Blinking in surprise he held the door open for them. “Hello Daisy. Did you spill yer lemonade?”
Daisy stomped past him, sparing only a moment to shoot an evil look at her sister over her shoulder as she replied, tersely, “No.”
Ham would have upbraided his daughter for such insolence to her father, but Bell only shook her head. “Ye'd best go see to the youngsters. I'll sort out this one.” She leaned in to place a peck on his cheek. “I'll explain later.”
Giving her a quick squeeze her husband left, closing the door behind him. This was obviously women's business and he'd long since learned to stay out of it.
Daisy and May were standing in the kitchen, staring daggers at each other across the width of the kitchen table. Bell sighed. “Daisy, go change yer dress then bring it out here and put it in a bucket of cold water to soak.” When Daisy looked as though she would argue Bell only narrowed her eyes. “Now, Daisy. I'll speak to ye after I've had words with yer sister.”
Daisy flounced off and Bell gave her attention to May, who was looking unrepentant. Her mother decided it was time to change that. “Well? What was that about? As if I didn't know.”
May was not about to let go of her anger. “Daisy knew I was goin' to ask Frodo for the first prance. She'd no right to go and do that.”
Bell folded arms across her matronly bosom. “For goodness sake, lass. It were a dance. Nothin' more. Ye've got the whole day to dance with Master Frodo and any other lad that takes yer fancy.”
“Frodo is mine!” May blinked in alarm as though surprised that the words had slipped out.
Bell nodded. “Aye. This is part my fault. I knew the way the wind was blowin' but I hoped it would blow out with time. May, lass, Master Frodo is a sweet lad but he's not for the likes of us.” When May only looked mutinous Bell continued. “He's polite and he treats every lass, high born or low, like a lady. Now that can turn a lass' head if she's not careful, thinkin' she means somethin' to him. But he's a gentlehobbit and when he weds it needs to be to a lass that can stand up in high company.”
May's shoulders dropped. “But I know how to set a table for posh folks and I'm learnin' to read and write,” she pointed out with a little less conviction.
Bell wanted to wrap her up in her arms, knowing how harsh this was going to be, and wishing she could spare her daughter the pain. “I know, lass. But it takes more than that. Master Frodo is very book learned and he needs a life mate who can match him. Couples don't spend all the rest of their days kissin' an' canoodlin'. They talk sometimes. What would ye talk about? I know ye like to write but are ye fond of history, dwarves, elves and the like?”
From the size of their family, Bell secretly wondered if Dandy and Flora Bracegirdle did anything but canoodling but that was another pairing and another matter. Of course, Bell had seen many a good marriage between two opposing characters, grow and thrive. Whilst May could be relied upon to run a good home and raise children, Bell had other reasons for worrying whether any lass of the Shire would be able to keep Frodo Baggins happy over time.
Often, through the years, Bell had seen a far-away look in Bilbo Baggin’s eyes when he looked to the east, and recently Bell had surprised the same expression in Frodo’s eyes once or twice. It was a gaze that said he was thinking of places far beyond the safe boundaries of the Shire. Who was to say that, one day, he too would not run off after dwarves or elves? Bell had no doubt that Frodo was enough of a gentlehobbit not to run off and leave his wife and bairns unsupported, but he may just grow to resent them, and Bell was determined that such would not happen to her daughter.
May settled onto one of the benches flanking the table. “I suppose your right. I hadn't thought about that.”
Bell came to sit at her side. “No lass. I didn't think ye had. Yer young yet and the right lad for ye will come along one day. Don't ye fret. Dance with Master Frodo if ye've a mind to, but dance with other lads too. There's lots of ‘em out there and yer a fine catch yerself.” She tucked a strand of her daughter’s hair behind her ear.
May leaned in and Bell wrapped an arm about her. May made one last complaint, however. “Daisy was still bad to do what she did.”
Her mother sighed. “Ye know as well as me that yer sister is all bluster on the outside and soft as butter on the inside. She had her heart set on bein' Thrimidge Queen this year. She may not show it, but she was proper hurt when Ruby got the crown. Did ye happen to notice who was standing next to yer sister round that pole?”
Light dawned in May's eyes. “Ruby and Ortis.”
Bell was pleased that her daughter was seeing sense at last. “Exactly. She knew that Ruby, along with half the lasses in Hobbiton, wanted Frodo Baggins to be King. I expect Ortis was low on Ruby's list of hoped for partners.”
“Poor Ruby. And poor Daisy.” May raised watery eyes to her mother. “I was so wrapped up in my wants that I'd forgotten about Daisy.”
Bell gave her a quick squeeze. “Well don't be too sorry for yer sister. I've yet to talk to her. But I think she'd appreciate ye sayin' sorry about the dress. It was her best, after all.”
May gave a nod and fished in her pocket for a hanky to blow her nose. “I'll go speak to her now.”
She was stayed once more by her mother however. “Ye go back to the party, lass. Daisy needs to cool down a mite. Ye can say sorry later. I need a word with her first.” When May didn't move Bell stood. “Come on lass. Off ye go. Ye don't want to miss any more prances. I expect Master Frodo at least is wonderin' where ye are.”
May leaned in to kiss her mother's cheek before leaving and Bell let out an explosive sigh, before squaring her shoulders to go and beard the lioness in her den. As she expected, Daisy was sobbing into her pillow, her best dress in a screwed-up puddle on the floor. Bell collected the dress, pausing to assess the damage before sitting upon the edge of the bed. She knew that her eldest daughter’s tears were about much more than a spoiled skirt.
“Come on, lass. That's enough of that. Tis not the end of the world.” When Daisy sat up her mother held out a clean hanky. “Wipe yer eyes and blow yer nose. Snot and tears is not a good look on any lass.”
Daisy complied but she frowned at her mother. “I hope you gave May a good tellin' off. She's ruined my frock and made me look a proper fool in front of Mister Baggins.”
Bell's eyes widened. “Mister Baggins is it? Are ye sure it's not young Master Baggins yer meanin'?”
Daisy had the good grace not to deny that. “Well, she's still spoilt my frock.”
“And why do ye think she did that?” Bell asked.
Daisy studied the soggy hanky in her hands. “I'm sure I don't know.”
“Oh, I'm sure ye do. Didn't yer sister tell ye she was goin' to ask Master Frodo for the first prance?”
Daisy was not going to capitulate easily. “She may have mentioned it. I wasn't payin' attention. She's always talkin' about Master Frodo. It's all, 'Master Frodo says this' and 'Master Frodo says that'. I've given up listenin'.”
“And there's the rub. Ye weren't listenin' to her because ye were thinkin' about yer own wants and she weren't listenin' to ye because she was thinkin' about her wants.” When Daisy looked up in surprise Bell continued. “Ye wanted to be Queen and she wanted Master Frodo. I know yer disappointed and ye saw a way to get back at Ruby, but ye hurt yer sister in the doin' of it. I'm not sayin' what she did was right either, but are ye so surprised that she wanted to hurt ye back?”
Daisy met her mother's gaze at last. “No Ma. Is May awful hurt? Is she still in the kitchen? I'd best go say, 'sorry'.”
Bell nodded. “There's my good lass. No, she's gone to ask Master Frodo for the next prance, and if ye've a mind to prance with Bartimus Brockbank ye'd best wash yer face, change yer frock and follow her.”
A little of Daisy's old fire returned, to her mother's delight. “Why would I want to dance with that lass' big oaf of a brother?”
Bell chuckled as she bent to kiss her eldest on the brow. “Because ye've been makin' calf eyes at him fer the past three month. Don't ye deny it. I'm yer mother and tis my job to notice these things.”
Daisy grinned. “Mayhap I have. But I'll not let him know that.”
Bell swept from the room, Daisy's damp frock in hand. “Then how will ye ask him for a prance?” She left her daughter to consider that one.
They were calling for the next group of prancers when Frodo saw May returning. She had lost her pinched look and she smiled widely at him as she held out a hand. “Will you prance with me, Master Frodo?”
Frodo scrambled to his feet with a broad smile of his own. “I'd be honoured to, Miss May.”
When they kissed sweetly at the pole Frodo felt that something had changed, although he could not put his finger upon what it could be.
He never got to steal another kiss and May’s letters grew less frequent. As time went on, the daily events of life crowded out his feelings for May Gamgee and, for her part, May found new friends in Tuckborough.
Bell’s relief was mixed with some sadness for, under other circumstances, she would have loved to see Bag End filled with the bairns of May and Frodo Baggins, but she wondered if Frodo would ever resolve the burgeoning wonder-lust in his heart. Would Hobbiton awake one day to find that he and Bilbo had disappeared over the river on some dangerous adventure? If he did follow his uncle would he return, and would he be the same when he did?
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