Bell's Table by elwen of the hidden valley

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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.

0o0

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.

 

 




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