Bell's Table by elwen of the hidden valley

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“May!” May turned to see Frodo Baggins slamming the gate to Bag End in his haste. She stepped back from the cart, where Tom waited patiently.

Bell Gamgee, who was waiting to wave off her daughter, watched with some curiosity as her young neighbour sprinted down the lane, brown paper parcel in hand. Her lips thinned as she noted her daughter's cheeks pink and her eyes begin to sparkle. In Bell's eyes her lass was doomed to disappointment if she was setting her cap at Master Frodo. The Baggins family were way beyond the reach of folks like the Gamgee's. Bell was a firm believer in maintaining the status quo . . . as, indeed, were most hobbits. It was always good to know where you stood in life and in Bell's eyes the Gamgees stood several steps below the Baggins.

Frodo arrived, only a little out of breath, and held out his parcel to May. “I know you have been learning to write and thought you would like this.”

May accepted the package with some surprise, pushing aside the paper to reveal a small book, a pen and a little bottle of ink. Frodo's face was almost as pink as May's as he shuffled his feet a little and murmured, “I thought you would like to write a journal, so that you don't forget things and can tell your parents what you've been doing the next time you visit.”

“A journal? Goodness, Master Frodo. I don't think any of my friends will have a journal. Thank you.” May re-wrapped the package with due reverence and handed it up to Tom Carter, who sat, reins in hand. Like Bell, he was watching with some interest.

Now both youngsters stood silent for some moments, clearly at a loss as to what to say. Bell decided to help things along in the proper direction. “Go along, May, lass. Tom can't wait all day. He's got packages to deliver in Bywater and the day's gettin' on.”

May blinked and turned to put her foot on the wheel hub, then thought better of things and turned back, intending to give Frodo a peck on the cheek. Frodo chose that particular moment to turn to Bell, however, and the light kiss landed fair and square on his surprised lips. Both youngsters jumped apart as though stung, their blushes deepening, then May clambered up onto the seat beside Tom with a muttered, “Bye, Ma.”

Bell watched with a sinking feeling as a slow smile crept across Frodo's face. “Can I write to you?” he called as Tom flicked the reins and the cart pulled away down the lane.

May turned to call back, “Yes, please. I'll write back.” She smiled broadly as she returned his wave and Bell shook her head slowly as she watched her daughter disappear down the lane. Mayhap distance would cool things down, the mother hoped.

-0-

“Ma, you've got a letter,” Sam called as he entered the kitchen of Number Three. “I met the post master comin' up the hill and said as how I'd save him the walk. I've already taken the one addressed to Master Frodo up to Bag End. It's in our May's writin'.”

Bell set down the cup she had been washing and wiped her hands on her apron. “Now, why would yer sister be writin' to me so soon? Ye'd best read it to me, lad.”

Sam sat down at the table, wiping his hands on his weskit before opening the carefully folded and sealed missive. He regularly received notes from his sister but he loved being asked to do the important task of reading out a letter addressed to his Ma. His face beamed as he read aloud.

“Dear Ma,

I hope you are well. I am very well. Mistress Eglantine says I can come home for the Thrimidge feast. It only feels like yesterday that I was home and now I can visit again. She says I can stay for a week. So I will come with Tom Carter on the eight and will be leefing on the fifteen.

Yours sincerily

May”

 

Bell grinned. “It will be good to have her back. I'd best tell Daisy to clear a space in the cupboard for her clothes. Did ye say there was a letter for Master Frodo too?”

Sam refolded the note and handed it over to his Ma, who tucked it carefully into her apron pocket. “Yes, Ma. Him and May have been writin' regular. Mister Chubb often gives the letters to me to carry up the hill.”

Bell sniffed. “It don't feel right getting' Bert to come all this way to Bag End just to deliver a letter from my May. And Bert is too old to be climbin' the hill.”

Sam looked confused. “It's not that far, Ma. And when I'm in the garden I can see Mister Chubb as he crosses the bridge. I can run down and fetch the letters if you like.”

Bell only turned back to her washing of the pots. “Daisy! Daisy. Have ye changed the sheets on yer bed today?”

-0-

“She's here, Ma!” Sam burst through the door, with little Marigold giggling at his side. Behind them, Bell could see May and Daisy, arm in arm, coming down the garden path. Bell slid the kettle onto the hob and wiped her hands as the girls tripped, laughing, into the kitchen. As soon as she saw her mother, May ran into her arms. “Hello Ma.”

Bell enveloped her then leaned back to examine her more critically. “Have ye grown?”

May laughed, “No, Ma. It's only been a few weeks since I was here last.”

Bell pursed her lips. “Ye look taller. Still, makes no difference. Yer still my little lass.” And she enfolded her daughter in another hug.

Daisy hoisted a huge carpet bag onto the table with a loud thud and Bell frowned. “Not on my clean kitchen table if you please. Take yer sister's bag into yer room.”

When Daisy rolled her eyes and would have complied May rushed to stop her. “No. Wait a minute. Mistress Eglantine sent some presents.”

Bell frowned. “Presents from the mistress of Great Smials? Whatever did she do that for? I hope she don't think we're paupers.”

May laughed as she opened the bag. “No, Ma. She just said as how she wanted to give somethin' to the festival day. If I stayed there for Thrimidge Day she'd be feedin' me so she said she didn't see why I should miss out. I see the Prancin' Pole's already up in the Party Field.” As she spoke she began to unwrap several packages that she laid out upon the table. When she had finished May pointed to each in turn.

“There's some powdered sugar, butter, a Thrimidge cake, cheese, tea … the best tea, Ma ... chocolate and some pipe weed for Da.”

The Gamgee family only stood and stared for a moment. The Thrimidge cake was encased in thick hard white icing and Bell's practiced nose could detect a liberal waft of brandy from within. The chocolate was grated for cooking or making drinks and the pipeweed was none other than Longbottom Leaf. Bell finally found her voice and her common sense as she smiled at her daughter. Pride was all well and good but sometimes gifts were just that, gifts. “Well now, that's very nice of Mistress Eglantine and please tell her, thank ye. Mayhap, when ye go back, I'll send ye with a cake as our Thrimidge present to her.”

The youngsters about the table let out a sigh of relief, imagining toast dripping in butter, posh Thrimidge cake with sweet tea, cups of hot chocolate or, even better, Ma's finest chocolate cake. Daisy was calculating how many cakes could be made with the butter and sugar even as she ferried them to the pantry.

Marigold reached out a grubby finger to touch the icing and Bell tapped it away. “Oh, no ye don't, lass. That's for Thrimidge and that's three days away. Daisy, come and put this in the pantry afore it gets mucky finger marks all over it.”

May giggled. “Now, Mari, that reminds me. I've got something for you.” She rummaged in her bag, finally producing two pretty green satin ribbons. “I expect they'll drop in the mud within five minutes of putting them in your hair but I thought you'd like them.”

Marigold's eyes widened and she wiped her hands on her already grubby pinafore before accepting them and holding them out to her Ma for approval. Bell smiled fondly. “That's sweet of ye lass. We'll keep 'em for best and she can wear them on Thrimidge.”

As Daisy returned she, like Sam, hovered a little expectantly and May did not disappoint. Two more little gifts were produced . . . a bright blue satin sash for Daisy and two pencils for Sam.

Bell tutted. “Yer a bonnie lass, May Gamgee, but ye shouldn't be spendin' yer hard earned money on us. When yer Da gave ye back half yer pay, him and me hoped ye'd spend it on somethin' nice fer yerself. We've got all we need.”

May only laughed. “Ma, I get food and board for free, and my uniform. I don't need to spend a lot on myself. I got some cloth for a couple of dresses and bits, and that's all I needed. I got these in Michel Delving when the Mistress took all us lasses in for the day last month.”

Sam's mouth dropped open in awe. Michel Delving was the nearest thing the Shire had to a town, boasting a whole street of shops. “You've been to Michel Delving? Is it big? Did you see the Mayor?”

May laughed again. “I don't know what the Mayor looks like so I don't know whether I saw him or not. It's not that big, either, but there was a big drapers shop. You would love it, Ma. Lots of beautiful cloth. Very posh. I think it was called Berttisl's or some such.” She winked at her younger brother. “It was a long name, anyway, and written in posh letters so I couldn't quite read it. I didn't like to ask for fear of lookin' stupid in front of the Mistress.”

At that moment the kettle lid began to rattle and Bell turned to lift it from the heat. “Ye'd best get yer things put away, May. Tea will be ready in a minute. Ye've just time to wash yer hands and face.”

The next morning dawned bright and clear and was everything a late spring morning should be. When Bilbo and Frodo arrived at Number Three the kitchen was a hive of activity. It was Hamfast Gamgee who opened the door and waved them in to the chaos. “Come in, sirs. I think the missus is almost ready. They're just packing the last of the baskets. I see you've brought your own.”

Bilbo nodded to the hamper held between himself and Frodo. “We have, indeed. We thought you wouldn't object to a little extra.”

Frodo's eyes went straight to where May was folding a linen cloth and placing it in one of several wicker baskets on the table and, following the direction of his gaze, Bilbo noted a flush of pink touch May's cheeks. Frodo at least had the presence of mind to contribute to the conversation. “It was very good of you and Mistress Gamgee to invite us to join you for the Gathering.”

“A picnic is no fun with only two and you've always been good to me and mine,” Ham answered, readily before adding, “In any case, I can use an extra set of hands cuttin' the Yule log.”

“And food always seems to go further when there's plenty to share it,” Bell contributed as she wrapped a shawl about her shoulders. High summer was still a way off and everyone had brought an extra layer against the cooler late spring breezes.

Only five minutes later everyone was trooping down the lane. They would be collecting the Hawthorn blossom from Farmer Brownlock's hedgerows so at the end of the lane they turned right and away from Hobbiton. May contrived to walk alongside Bilbo and Frodo. “Do you usually gather the Hawthorn on your own then, sirs?”

Bilbo jumped in before Frodo had time to reply. “Oh, no. I don't usually bother, if I'm honest.”

Frodo chuckled. “You mean, you usually forget. I've no doubt you've always had your head in a book.”

His uncle grinned. “You may be right. But I've always thought that Thrimidge is a celebration for the young. All that dancing and such . . .”

May laughed prettily. “Oh, I've seen you dance at the Yule Fire, Mister Baggins. I reckon you could show some of the tweens a lesson or two.”

Frodo hid a grin, slipping May a sly wink as Bilbo preened a little. “Well, one tries to stay fit,” his uncle replied as he tweaked his cravat.

For some minutes they walked on in silence, content to listen to the light banter going on around them. It seemed that although the choice for Thrimidge Queen had been narrowed there was still some debate upon the King. Frodo had been alarmed last week when he heard that he was being considered for the role, mainly because he knew Daisy Gamgee was the front runner for Queen. Indeed, Daisy had taken great delight in advising him of that fact. The final vote would take place tomorrow, with Thrimidge Day only one day after that. Frodo tried to turn his mind to something else.

“Have you heard from Hal and Ham recently?” he asked May.

“I haven't had any letters but Ma says she had a note from Hal sayin' they're both well. I think Hal had it from Ham by way of the landlord in the Pig and Whistle in Oakbottom and then by Tom Carter.”

Bilbo shook his head at the convoluted process that would have been so much simpler if folk would only bother to learn to read and write. “Are you still enjoying working in Tookborough?” he asked.

“Oh yes, sir. Mistress Eglantine took a few of us girls into Michel Delving last month, by way of a treat. They have proper shops there and everything.”

Bilbo held open the five bar gate for her. “We do have a couple of shops in Hobbiton, if you remember,” he pointed out with a wry grin.

May sniffed with all the disdain of a young person who has just tasted the heady sweetness of city living. “Only a baker and a butcher. Michel Delving has a drapers, a candlemakers and even a tailor and a dressmaker.” May looked down at her pretty spring dress. “Can you imagine having someone make your clothes for you?”

Her comment was met with a chuckle by the older hobbit, who was in the process of arranging a visit to his tailor. Frodo jumped to May's defence however. “I don't think you need the services of a dressmaker. You're obviously very skilled with a needle and thread. Your dress is beautiful.” He blushed and May ducked her head, but Bilbo noticed a smile touch the lass' lips. The older hobbit decided that the next few days could prove to be interesting. He rather enjoyed watching each new generation perform the courtship dance from the safety of his long bachelorhood.

In true hobbit fashion the picnic was set out before cutting of the hawthorn or the Yule commenced and, of course, some of the sandwiches had to be sampled. So it was mid morning before the party divided into smaller groups, armed with pruning knives and empty baskets. It was a good year for hawthorn blossom and many folk suggested that this was a good sign for a plentiful harvest to come. Of course, there were those who considered that more blossom would result in more berries and more berries signalled a harsh winter to come. Such was the nature of country sayings.

Frodo and May moved a little farther up the field and, when Frodo spotted a gap in the hawthorn, he suggested they cut blossom from the other side of the hedge, as that had not been picked over yet. May selected the branches and Frodo cut, handing them over to May, who stacked them neatly in their basket.

“I enjoyed reading your letters. Your writing improves with each one,” Frodo offered.

“It's getting easier to write but I still have trouble reading stuff when folk use fancy writing,” May replied ruefully. “Why can't everyone write the same? I can read yours and Sam's but some folks write so flowery . . .”

Frodo chuckled as he cut the next white, blossom-laden branch. May had dropped to her knees to adjust the basket's load and a little flurry of flowers landed in her hair, making her giggle. Frodo dropped to one knee before May to help pick the tiny blossom out of her ringlets.

Leaning forward Frodo was aware of the light chamomile-apple fragrance of her, mingled with the heady sweetness of the hawthorn blossom, and the silky softness of her curls between his fingers. Two sets of hands slowed as their fingers touched in May's ringlets and she lifted liquid brown eyes to meet the shining blue of his. For a long moment Frodo was held captive then his gaze dropped lower, to her pale pink lips, and curiosity took him. He wondered if they would feel as plump and soft as they looked. Gently, he used a hand upon her cheek to tilt her head, just a little, and leaned in. Her lips were soft and moist, tasting of honey and mint and he closed his eyes to better savour the experience.

“Master Frodo, Master Frodo .. . Ma says if you don't come quick there'll be no food left and Da's askin' for your help in felling the tree for the Yule logs!”

Frodo and May started apart to find young Sam standing a few yards away. Frodo held out a hand to help May to her feet and lifted the basket in his other. Sam carried on a stream of chatter as he led the way back to the picnic cloths and the rest of the party. “Ma couldn't find you and she sent me to look for you, but it's taken me ages, because I didn't think to look behind the hedge until I heard May laughing, and then I couldn't find a gap . . .”

-0-

Frodo climbed down the ladder, nodding thanks to Bartimus Brockbank, who was holding it steady for him. Both stood back to admire their handiwork.

A ring of poles had been set in place in the centre of the Party Field and Frodo had been one of those tasked with threading the swags of hawthorn blossom between them. The ladies of Hobbiton had been working hard all morning, twining blossom with ivy to make the heavy swags and the younger lads had been given the task of setting them in place.

“Have you heard about the King and Queen?” asked Bartimus. His sister was one of those short listed for the role of Queen. Ruby had been doing some pretty intense campaigning for the title and, bearing in mind that the King and Queen were supposed to represent the land's fertility, Frodo secretly held the view that she would be well suited to the role. He had certainly cast his vote for her. In truth, he would have voted for anyone but Daisy Gamgee.

“Have the votes been counted, then?” he asked as his stomach turned queezy somersaults.

“Aye. Our Ruby's at home, primping even now. I expect Ma will bring her down a peg in a few days but last I saw she was tryin' to talk Ma into cuttin' three inches off the bottom of her skirt.” Ruby was not what anyone would call a great beauty but she was very popular with the lads, for reasons that brought a winsome smile to Frodo's lips.

“So, who's the King, then?” Frodo asked, trying to decide whether he was upset or relieved that it was obviously not him.

Bartimus snorted. “Orton Sandiman, would you believe?”

Related to Ted Sandiman, Hobbiton's miller, Orton had inherited the family's sour temperament. Sadly, as the the only miller for miles around, when Ted put his weight behind the voting it was almost a foregone conclusion that Orton would be crowned. “I'm sorry,” Frodo offered in heartfelt condolence.

“Aye. Daisy Gamgee is fair spittin' that she didn't get the crown but I don't think there's a lass for miles about who has a fancy for Orton. Even our Ruby.” Bartimus grinned. “It'll make my job easier at least.”

Bartimus was big, in all directions, and made an excellent bodyguard for his wayward sister. He had once nearly caught Frodo in the bushes with Ruby at a Harvest Reel and, although they had not come face to face upon that occasion, Bartimus had later made it very clear that he knew exactly what could have happened. He also made it very clear what would have happened to Frodo if what could have happened, had. Since then he and Frodo had become friends. So it was without fear that Frodo replied, “I'd still keep an eye on her if I were you.”

Bartimus gave a rumbling chuckle. “Oh, I will.”

Just then a shout went up and a crowd of tweens and youngsters ran into the field. At their centre ran Delbin Chubb, holding aloft a wreath of hawthorn blossom and ivy. When he reached the beribboned Prancing Pole he dropped the wreath about his neck and began to shin upward to the chant of, “Climb, climb, climb, climb ...”

As Delbin clambered upward Frodo was reminded of a dwarven-made toy Bilbo had given him when a faunt. The stick had a strange little hairy creature that Bilbo told him was called a monkey, and when you pulled a string it ascended the stick. Not that Delbin could have been compared to the monkey in anything but climbing skill . . . well . . . not much.

Delbin's arrival at the apex was greeted with a loud cheer and much clapping and, now playing to the crowd, Delbin waved the wreath enthusiastically before dropping it neatly over the top of the pole and tying it in place. Frodo wondered if it were a reflection of his impending maturity that he was concerned Delbin would fall, and was relieved when his young neighbour was safely back on the ground. Frodo and Bartimus fell in with the other youngsters, however, as they left the field, joining in the general back slapping being awarded to Delbin.

Half an hour later Frodo and Bartimus sat on a bench outside the Ivy Bush, nursing two halves of cider.

“Daisy tells me May is home for a few days,” Bartimus observed with a twinkle.

“Yes,” Frodo replied non-committally.

Bartimus grinned as he took a good swallow of his drink. “They say she's growin' into a bonnie lass. I expect there'll be lots of lads hopin' she asks them for a dance tomorrow. Maybe I'll join 'em.”

“Better not,” Frodo mumbled into his mug.

Bartimus chuckled. “Don't fret. As usual, I'll be too busy keepin' an eye on our Ruby. I don't expect she'll get up to much mischief with Orton but I know she's got an eye on a few other lads. Your May is safe from me. Anyway, I'm hopin' for a prance about the pole with Daisy.”

After his initial shock that anyone would actually volunteer to dance with Daisy Gamgee Frodo tried on his most innocent expression. “She's not my May. She can dance with whoever she wants to.”

Bartimus' guffaw let Frodo know that he was not fooled in the slightest. “You surely don't think nobody knows you're sweet on each other? Little Sam Gamgee's been tellin' anyone who'll listen, how you two have been writin' to each other. He's right proud of the fact that his big sister can write and I don't have to read to be able to add two and two.”

“Does all Hobbiton know, then?”

Bartimus made a point of considering for several moments before replying with a grin, “Pretty much. And as Tom Carter gets to carry the letters I expect the rest of the Shire does too.”

Frodo groaned, dropping his head into his hands.

 




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