Bell's Table by elwen of the hidden valley

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Author's Chapter Notes:

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.”

-0-

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.

 

 




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