Bell's Table by elwen of the hidden valley

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Frodo yawned, stretched, and then blinked as his ears registered two voices coming from the kitchen down the hall.  Had he just heard his uncle he would probably have rolled over and claimed another hour’s sleep. Bilbo Baggins was a long-time bachelor and appeared to have grown so used to his own company over the years that he had taken to holding conversations with himself.  It was a habit that worried Frodo when first he came to live at Bag End but now he recognised it as his uncle simply thinking aloud, rather than living up to the epithet of Mad Baggins.

But the voice replying to Bilbo this morning did not belong to Bilbo.  The creaking of the apple tree outside Frodo’s window brought memory of last night’s visitor.  The other voice, deep and gruff, was Gandalf the wizard.  There was a wizard residing in Bag End!  Frodo threw back the covers, donned his dressing gown, collected his water jug and hurried to the kitchen.

“Well, of course I had intended to arrive tomorrow but there were so many people in Bree that one could find not a moment’s peace.  So I cut short my visit to the Prancing Pony and set out early.  And well it was that I did.  The Brandywine had risen almost to the level of the bridge when I crossed and the Bounders were too busy helping the Brandybuck clan to sandbank the lower smials to be overly inquisitive about me.”  Gandalf paused to draw deeply on his pipe.

“Many of the Bounders tend to treat the title as an honorific rather than a duty, I’m afraid.  Ham Bolger must be ninety, if he’s a day.  If he ever thought to challenge anyone they could probably just step around him.”  Bilbo poured hot water into the teapot.

“Good morning.”  Frodo paused in the kitchen doorway, awed again by the person of Gandalf the Grey.

“Ahh.  You’re awake at last.  The boiler is full if you want some wash water.”  Bilbo smiled at his nephew as he stirred the pot.  “If you care to wait a while I’m just making some tea.  You can join us for first breakfast.  I’ve warmed the last of those scones from yesterday.”

“That would be nice . . . if Mister Gandalf doesn’t mind.  I don’t want to interrupt anything.”  Despite his words Frodo set his empty jug on the table and pulled up a chair before Gandalf could send him away.

“Oh, you’re not interrupting.  We were only chatting over a pipe.  And plain ‘Gandalf’ will do.  I have always considered that Mister sounded a bit too prosaic for a wizard.  One is expected to at least appear to be a little out of the ordinary.”  Gandalf winked at Bilbo, who had pulled up his own chair and now chuckled as he began to pour tea into two mugs and a battered tankard.

“Gandalf, you could not pull off ‘prosaic’ if you tried for a year.  Especially dressed like that,” Bilbo replied with raised brows.

For the first time Frodo noted that the elderly wizard was draped in two patchwork quilts from the big bed.  He appeared to have wrapped one about his body, just beneath his surprisingly muscular arms and then draped another over his shoulders like a cloak.  The effect was anything but prosaic and more than a little comical.

Gandalf accepted the tankard, his bushy eyebrows rising in mock affront.  “I thought I looked rather dashing.”

Frodo hid a grin, stirring honey and milk into his own mug as Bilbo replied, “Just so long as you weren’t considering actually doing any dashing.  I’m not sure that outfit will stay put with any sudden moves.  You wouldn’t want to go shocking the good folk of Hobbiton.”

Gandalf took a large swallow of his tea before selecting a couple of scones and appropriating the butter dish.  “If Bell Gamgee is a sample of the rest of the folk in Hobbiton I suspect I would shock few.”  He flexed his injured arm a little gingerly but easily enough.  “A formidable lady.”

Frodo stepped in to protect she whom he had come to consider a favourite aunt.  “Mistress Gamgee is very kind when you get to know her.  She’s just not one for what she calls, ‘airs and graces’.”  

“Then we should rub along well enough, for neither am I.”  Gandalf popped an entire buttered scone into his mouth and chewed appreciatively, even as he narrowed his keen eyes at Frodo.

The youngster squirmed a little, rather wishing that he had not drawn attention to himself and discovering that he was unable to meet that gaze for too long.  It was as though the wizard had climbed into his mind and was rummaging around in all the dark corners.  Not a comfortable feeling at all.  He decided to try a distraction.  “What brings you to the Shire this time?”

Gandalf smiled and Frodo noted his eyes twinkling.  “Isn’t a visit to my favourite burglar reason enough?”

Bilbo snorted.  “I’m no dragon to be flattered.  You told me you were passing through.”  His eyes narrowed.  “But you never mentioned where you were passing through to.”

Gandalf swallowed another scone and washed it down with a good mouthful of tea.  Frodo refilled his tankard. “I am on my way to Mithlond, actually.”

“The Grey Havens?  You’re not thinking of leaving our shores I hope.  I shall miss Gandalf’s fireworks… as well as his good company,” Bilbo commented in mild surprise.

“No, no.  I shall not be leaving Middle Earth for a while, yet.”  Frodo squirmed a little, finding himself the subject of another of the wizard’s deep glances but Gandalf continued.  “I deliver a supply of fireworks to them every few years.”

“Now, whatever would elves want with fireworks?” Bilbo mused.  “Not that they aren’t rather entertaining,” he added hastily.

“They’re useful for ships to signal for help.  Even elven ships can founder in bad weather.”

Frodo could not hold back his surprise.  “But elves are so wise and clever!”

“Indeed but, clever as they are, they are not all powerful.  Even elves make mistakes.”  Gandalf frowned and knocked the ashes of his pipe into a conveniently placed ashtray.  Frodo stood to fetch the tobacco jar for him.

“You should have noticed that, Frodo lad.  I’ve told you enough of their tales over the years.”  Bilbo shook his grey curls.  “Sometimes great wisdom only seems to produce even greater mistakes.”  He nodded to Gandalf. “Present company excepted of course.”

Now it was Gandalf’s turn to snort.  “And I am not a dragon either, Bilbo Baggins.  I have made many mistakes and will, doubtless, make many more.”

Frodo filled his water jug from the boiler.  “I’m going for my wash, Uncle.  Then I shall help you with second breakfast.”  Frodo was learning all manner of interesting things this morning, and if he made the fastest ablutions since he was a faunt Bilbo made no comment.

-0-

The storm seemed to have cleared the air and they were blessed with one of autumn’s rare warm and sunny days.  It took some time for everything to dry out but by mid-afternoon the occupants of Bag End were all sitting beneath the oak tree atop the hill, their tea spread upon a blanket. 

They had been playing, “spot the hobbit” for a couple of hours.  The name of the game had been coined by Gandalf and he was winning.  The sight of a very large ‘man’, draped casually in two brightly coloured patchwork quilts and sprawled upon the lawn, was something not seen by many hobbits before.  Indeed, it would be fair to say that it had never been seen by any hobbit before.  Consequently, many came to gawp. 

Now, hobbits are very good at remaining unobserved when they wish but once Gandalf, as Bilbo put it, ‘Got his eye in’, he became very good at spotting the occasional head poking above a hedge or peering around a tree.  Of course, Frodo and Bilbo, being hobbits themselves, were well aware of any tricks employed.  So for a while the game had run neck and neck.  Now Frodo suspected that the wizard had been holding back for in the last half hour he had run far ahead in points.

Frodo was about to announce that he had just spotted Ted Sandyman when there was a loud, “Ouch” and Ted leapt up, red faced, and ran off.  Bilbo chuckled.  “Gandalf, you are supposed to just point them out, not get them to point themselves out.”

The wizard’s bushy brows rose in mock innocence, an expression he seemed to employ rather too frequently.  “Can I help it if he was sitting beneath a particularly large and ripe apple?  You are surely not suggesting that I had a hand in its fall?”

Bilbo did not deign to reply, taking a bite of his ham sandwich instead.

Everyone looked up as Bell and Sam Gamgee came toiling over the brow of the hill, a large wicker basket carried between them.  “Well, now.  That’s what all the comin’s and goin’s are about,” she announced.  “Ye’ll be the talk of the Ivy Bush this evenin’.”

When Frodo would have jumped up to help her Bell waved him back.  Once the basket was set down it was easy to see that it contained Gandalf’s clothes, folded carefully and, Frodo suspected, cleaner than they had been for many a year.

“And wouldn’t that be unusual?  Hello Bell.  Why don’t you and Sam sit down.  There’s plenty for all if Sam wouldn’t mind running down to the kitchen for extra cups and plates,” announced Bilbo with a smile.  “We refilled the teapot only minutes ago.”

Bell surveyed the repast and, obviously having decided it was at least as good as any she could provide, sat upon a corner of the rug, arranging her ample skirts.  Her little son only stood, wide eyed, completely lost in the vision of the wizard.  Bell tapped his arm gently.  “Off ye go, lad.  You know where Mr Bilbo keeps his crocks.  And don’t ye go breakin’ ‘em.”  Sam ran off down the slope toward the kitchen door as fast as his little legs would carry him.

“Afternoon to ye, Mr Gandalf.”  Once settled Bell graced Gandalf with an assessing look.  “I thought I told ye to keep to yer bed for the day.  Yer colour’s better at least. How’s the arm?”

Gandalf grinned widely.  “As good as new, thank you Mistress Gamgee.  You have a healing touch.  Oh, and just ‘Gandalf’ will do.”

Bell’s cheeks flushed.  “I only did what was needed.  Them stitches should stay in about a week, then ye’ll need to find someone to cut ‘em out.  Although who ye’ll find out in the wild I don’t know.  And if yer to be Gandalf I reckon ye can call me Bell.”

“If I set out this evening I should reach The Haven’s by then.  I’m sure Cirdan or one of his folk will take care of the stitches for me.”

Sam returned with cups and plates as Bell sniffed.  “Well, I don’t know this Cirdan fellow but ye just make sure he has clean hands.”

Bilbo sputtered and Frodo had to slap him on the back.  Gandalf only nodded his head to the lady.  “I shall be very certain to check.”  He lifted his tankard of tea in salute.  Bilbo kept a small selection of larger crocks especially for his guest.  They were mismatched to be sure but at least it ensured that Gandalf got more than two swallows from his cup.

Frodo poured two more cups of tea, noting that it was the second-best china, and added extra milk to Sam’s.  Bilbo had been trying for years to convince Bell Gamgee that she was welcome to use the best china but she would have none of it, insisting that it was not for the likes of her and she’d be afraid of breakages.

Bell selected a ham sandwich for herself and a large piece of pie for her son.  Politeness would have suggested a smaller piece but feeding a growing lad could be an expensive matter and no hobbit matron turned down the opportunity to fill her child at anothers’ table if there was an offer.  “Doctor Brockleby’s home, by the way, if ye want him to take a look at that arm afore ye go.”

“I don’t think that will be necessary Bell and I expect he’ll be needing some sleep.  How is Mistress Fennelly, by the way?” Bilbo asked after a sip of his tea.

“’twas twins, as expected.  Two bonnie lasses.  Bert’s as pleased as punch I hear.  No doubt he’ll be wettin’ the bairn’s heads in the Ivy Bush tonight.  At least that’s what most of the folk in Hobbiton are hopin’.  There’ll be a few thick heads in the mornin’, I’ll be bound.”

Bilbo chuckled.  “I have no doubt.  Do they have names yet?”

Bell sniffed.  “Aye.   Flora let Bert choose.  And she’s so smitten with that husband of hers that she let it stand.”

When she did not elaborate Frodo coaxed, “But what are their names?”

Bell pursed her lips.  “Daffy and Dilly.  I ask ye, what kind of names are they?  Two lasses sharin’ one flower . . . it don’t seem right to me.” 

The males just shrugged, unwilling to comment on Bell’s firmly held belief that daffodilly was not a flower to be split between two people. Bilbo broke the sudden silence.  “Can we not tempt you to stay a little longer, Old Friend?”

Gandalf shook his head.  “Sadly, no. Not on this occasion.  I must be at The Havens within the week as there are two ships ready to sail even now.  They only await the supplies I carry.”  He reached aside to examine the contents of the basket, pulling out one of his robes.  “Well!  Bell, you have surpassed yourself.  These clothes could be brand new.  Not only have you removed the stains but you have re-stitched the hems and seams.  How can I ever repay you for such kindness?”

“I’ll not say ‘twere an easy job. I don’t think them clothes have seen needle an’ thread for many a year.  It took me an’ Daisy hours an’ there’s a couple of patches I’m not happy with.  The material’s old and I’m not sure how long they’ll hold.  I’ll hope you forgive me if they don’t.”

Gandalf raised a hand to forestall further apology.  “Dear Lady, you have done a marvellous job.  Please also convey my thanks to your good daughter.”

“I will an’ thank ye.”

Frodo held back a grin.  If only Daisy Gamgee’s temperament was as neat as her stitches.

“Frodo, lad, when you’ve finished tea, would you nip down to Arty Sedgeburry with some money and ask if he can have the cart ready at sundown?”  Bilbo fished in his pocket for some coins and flipped them to his nephew who caught them easily.  “That should cover food and board for the horse and a little extra for any who helped last night.  He’ll probably need help this evening too.  Tell him I’ll pay any extra when I see him in the Ivy Bush later.”

“I’ll pop down again before sunset to help him with the tack,” Frodo commented as he pocketed the money.

Sam spoke up for the first time.  “Your cart’s in the field at the bottom o’ the hill, Mr Gandalf, sir.  I’ve been standin’ guard all mornin’.  Someone said as how you could have fireworks in there an’ then everyone wanted to take a peep.”

“Half the village has been in that field this mornin’.  Some o’ the bigger lads weren’t payin’ much attention to Sam.  But don’t you go worryin’ none, sir,” Bell added.  “My Ham’s taken over now.  He’s got the afternoon free, so later he can help Arty with the horse as well.”

“It seems I am greatly indebted to the Gamgee family.”  With those words Gandalf took Sam’s hand and dropped into it a huge, multi coloured marble.  Where he had produced it from none of them wished to speculate.  Gandalf was a wizard, after all.

Little Sam’s eyes grew as round as saucers and he wiped a hand on his shirt before picking up the beautiful thing and holding it to the light.  The coloured swirl within seemed to move in the sunlight.  He blinked when his mother nudged his ribs with a gentle elbow.  “Thank ye, Sir.  I aint never seen one as pretty,” he offered hastily before slipping it deep into his pocket.  Frodo suspected that was one marble that would never be entered into a game.

-0-

That evening, in the Ivy Bush, the birth of twins was almost overshadowed by talk of the visit by Gandalf the Grey.  Bert Fennelly was not too disappointed however.

Everyone in Hobbiton had turned out to see the wizard depart and Gandalf the Grey had made a point of congratulating Bert, even going so far as to bless the babes’ with long life and good health.  Not that proud Bert had expected his lusty lasses to have aught else, for they were already running their mama ragged with their demand for milk.

But what really made him preen was when Gandalf reached the edge of the village.  There he paused to wave and, in the gathering dusk, a line of sparks shot heavenward, exploding into a shimmering bunch of bright yellow daffodils.  When the image finally faded cart and wizard were gone.

 

 




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