Bell's Table by elwen of the hidden valley

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The sound of giggling, interspersed with a rythmic thud, thud, could have been cause for concern at any other time but Bell knew it was only two of her youngest, beating rugs in the back garden. It was spring and spring was the time for cleaning.

“Everythin' in its time and a time for everythin',” as Da Hobson would say. Bell had set Sam and Marigold to cleaning the rugs. She and Hamfast had draped them over the empty washing line and then handed out the paddles. It seemed that Sam and Marigold were making a game of it.

Bell dumped some candle holders in the sink to wash and looked up to see how they were getting on. She smiled to see her two bairns dashing round and around the kitchen hearth rug and Bell's bedroom rug, beating as they went. It was fortunate that they had chosen one rug each or Bell could have been dealing with bruises and cracked heads, but all her children were sensible about such things . . . even Daisy most of the time.

Daisy would be washing the kitchen window later for it, like the tater patch, was now covered in a film of grey dust. No doubt Ham would have something to say about his taters when he came home. Still, the widow Rumble was forecasting rain overnight, which should wash the leaves clean. That reminded Bell that she must take some willow bark ointment down the hill later. If Buttercup Rumble was forecasting rain her arthritis must be acting up.

Daisy entered the big kitchen that served as the family room, a shallow basket filled with more candle holders. “Thank ye, lass. Set that down over here then I need ye to go out to the wash house, fill the copper and set a fire 'neath it. When yer brother and sister have finished out there they'll need a bath and we'll need to wash their clothes too.”

Daisy leaned over her mother's shoulder to look out of the window. In typical tween manner, she rolled her eyes at the sight of two little dusty grey figures rolling in a giggling heap on the grass. “Why does one cleanin' job always lead to another?” she asked with a grimace.

Bell chuckled. “'Tis the way of it. And when ye get to the end of all the jobs ye just start again at the beginnin'.”

Daisy sighed but collected some kindling in her apron, from the basket on the hearth, and headed for the garden door.

“And ye'd best make sure there's enough hot water for ye to have a bath too. Ye'll need to beat the top of the rugs where yer brother can't reach.” Bell grinned as Daisy stomped out, knowing that her daughter was of an age to be “proper mortified” if a lad saw her head to toe in muck. Bell was a firm believer that tweens needed taking down a peg every now and then and today was as good a day as any.

She took up an old knife and began to scrape wax off a candle holder and was just setting the last one in the sink, about to pour a kettle of water over them, when there was a knock at the front door. Wiping her hands on her apron she went to open it, breaking into a surprised smile when she found Bilbo and Frodo Baggins on her doorstep.

“Bless me, sirs. I thought ye weren't due home 'til the morrow. I would have gone up with some shoppin' if I'd known. But come away in. I'm sure I can spare some milk and bread or send Sam down to market for ye.”

“Thank you, Bell. I'd appreciate a drop of milk but Frodo can go down to the market later for the rest. That's not the only reason we called, however.” He and Frodo stepped aside to reveal a slight figure that had been standing unseen behind them.

“Hello Ma.”

“May, lass!” Bell opened her arms and May ran into her mother's astonished but welcoming embrace. “Ye never wrote to tell me ye was comin'.”

Frodo giggled, his bright blue eyes sparkling with mischief. “Eglantine suggested that May travel home with us to visit her family for a few days. There was plenty of room in the cart so here she is.”

Bell let her daughter go for long enough to wave everyone into the kitchen. “Come in, sirs. I clean forgot my manners. Sit yerselves down and I'll make tea. Ye must be parched after bein' on the road so long.”

Bilbo unfastened his jacket. “We stopped off at the Frog and Bucket halfway but I certainly would not refuse a cup of tea.”

Frodo joined his uncle at the scrubbed kitchen table while May hung her cloak on the pegs by the door. Bell was already pouring water into the large brown teapot when she glanced up, her eyes widening as she saw her daughter fully for the first time. “Well, would you look at my lass! She's all grown up. A proper little gentlehobbit. Just look at that frock.”

May beamed and Frodo had to agree that May looked much more mature than her eighteen years. When May had gone to work at Great Smials in Tuckborough she was a little wisp of a girl in her sister's cut down dress, with wide eyes, freckles, and a riot of misbehaved sandy curls. The May that stood before them now had grown a good six inches. The curls were tamed into glossy ringlets and she wore the pretty summer print dress of Great Smial's maids, protected by a fine, lawn pinafore.

“All the maids wear this,” May assured her mother, but she smiled proudly as she held out her full skirts and performed a pirouette that set her curls dancing.

Bell put the lid on the teapot. “Well, ye'd best put it away so it don't get spoiled while yer home. I won't have ye goin' back with a ruined frock.” All the same, she reached out admiringly to touch the fine weave of the pretty dress. “Do they really dress all the maids in this? It seems too fine.”

May giggled. “Yes Ma. They really do. And in winter we have nice warm wool ones with red flannel petticoats.” She blushed as she remembered that they had male gentlehobbits to tea. “Beggin' your pardon, sirs.”

Bilbo waved her apologies aside. “Don't worry, May. It will take more than the mention of a flannel petticoat to embarrass this old hobbit.”

Frodo ducked his head, however, and Bell noticed a becoming blush touch his cheeks. She ignored it as she set out her best cups and saucers and May fetched the milk jug from the cool slab in the pantry.

“T’was good of ye to bring May, all the same. Did ye come with Tom Carter?” Bell asked as she poured thick dark tea into everyone's cups.

Bilbo added liberal helpings of milk and honey to his. “We did. He's taken the cart down to the stables and will stay at the Ivy Bush overnight. Tomorrow he collects the post and will be off to Frogmorton and Buckland. Eglantine has made arrangements for May to ride back with him to Tuckborough next Mersday.”

May slipped into place at her ma's side. “I've got a whole five days to visit,” she announced brightly.

“That's very kind of the lady I must say. I hope as how ye've earned it,” Bell added. “It was good of ye to ask if my May could be put into service at Great Smials, Mr Bilbo. It looks to have suited her at the least.”

Bilbo fished about in his jacket pocket, finally producing a small drawstring bag and placing it on the table with a soft, “chink”. “Mistress Eglantine is more than pleased with May and she asked me to give you this. It's May's first year's wages.”

“Wages? I weren't expectin' no wages. Me and Ham was just pleased that May would have food and clothin' and a roof over her head.” Both Bell and May leaned forward as Bell reverently released the drawstring and tipped the contents onto the table. “Oh my!” Twelve shiny silver pennies glinted up at them. Neither made to touch them, as though unable to believe that such bounty was real.

Finally, May whispered, “What are you goin' to do with all that, Ma?”

Bell blinked, sweeping the coins back into the bag and tying it off tightly before dropping it in her apron pocket. “That's for yer da to decide.”

Frodo hoped that at least some of it would find its way into May’s pocket.  It was she who had earned it after all.

Bilbo hid a grimace as he took a last swallow of Bell's thick tea. “Well. It's time Frodo and I were off, if Frodo is to get down to the market before everyone packs up for the day.”

Bell selected a smaller jug and decanted a little milk into it. “Here's yer milk. There should be enough for a few cups of tea until ye can get more. If there's none to be had at market Arty Sedgeburry will be doin' the evenin' milkin' of Clara soon. I'm sure he'll have a drop to spare ye. Clara's milkin' well now the grass is greenin' up.”

“Thank you, Bell. I shall return the favour once Frodo returns from market.” Both gentlehobbits were beaten to the door by May, who dropped a very proper curtsy as she opened it.

Bilbo grinned and was about to exit when the kitchen door banged open at the other end of the room and a strange grey apparition stepped into the smial.

It seemed Daisy had done as her mother requested and finished the job of beating the rugs, for she carried both of them in her arms. The rugs were beauties, painstakingly knotted from rags Bell had collected for many years. They were vibrantly colourful. The same could not be said of Daisy Gamgee. Beating carpets was sweaty work, which meant that the clouds of dust clung to all exposed skin and coated hair and clothes.

When she saw Bilbo and Frodo, Daisy's mouth fell open. With a squeak of alarm, she dropped the rugs, turned and fled.

Frodo slapped his free hand over his mouth to stifle a laugh and concentrated upon not spilling the milk. Bilbo didn’t bother with such niceties and chuckled. “I take it you're spring cleaning, Bell.”

Bell grinned. “Aye. Daisy was just finishin' the carpets.”

Bilbo gave the still shaking Frodo a gentle shove out of the front door. “It looks rather more as though the carpets finished Daisy.”

Bell's smile widened. There was a time to bring tweens down a notch or two, and Daisy could not have timed it better had she tried.



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