Bell's Table by elwen of the hidden valley

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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.”



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