Bell's Table by elwen of the hidden valley

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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.”

-0-

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?”

 

 




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