Bell's Table by elwen of the hidden valley

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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?”



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