Bell's Table by elwen of the hidden valley

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Thrimidge was another clear, bright, late spring day that perched hopefully upon the cusp of summer. As was the custom, anyone not involved in last minute preparations, went down to the local farms to watch all the cattle being driven between two large bonfires. Frodo had not encountered this tradition in Buckland and Bilbo had to explain that the custom was supposed to impart protection on the herds. Watching some of the cows roll their eyes Frodo was not so sure that anyone had stopped to explain this to the poor beasts, but the event seemed to go off well enough.

Unlike other feast days, Thrimidge did not have a market fair. Everyone was expected to join in the festivities and nobody worked, so by lunch time the Party Field was packed with picnic cloths and when Bilbo and Frodo arrived they at first thought they would have difficulty finding a space.

“Over here, Mister Bilbo, sir!” Little Sam Gamgee ran up to them, waving toward a small group off to one side. When they followed they discovered all the occupants of the hill seated together. Even the usually introvert Arty Sedgeburry had put in an appearance.

“Greetings of the day to you all,” Bilbo offered with a wide smile. “I'm afraid we may not be able to join you. I don't think I have ever seen the field so full. Perhaps Frodo and I can find somewhere farther away from the Pole.”

“Oh, that's alright, sir. Me and the lasses have saved you a place,” Sam announced proudly as his sisters stood and whisked away the cloth they had been sitting upon.

Bilbo's smile was in danger of splitting his face in two. “How clever of you. Thank you. Come along, Frodo. Let us join our neighbours and set out our luncheon.”

It took only minutes for Bilbo and Frodo to arrange their spread and if Sam and Marigold looked on enviously at the finger sandwiches, pies, buns, flans, cakes, scones, cold meats and salads Bilbo only winked and said nothing. And if May Gamgee switched places with her younger sister so that she was seated closer to Frodo, Bell also said nothing.

“Ham, love. Stand still. I can't tie these on when yer jiggin' about. Ye've been practicin' yer steps for weeks. In fact I watched ye so often I reckon I could do 'em myself,” Bell pronounced with a chuckle as she tried to tie the shield of bells about her husband's muscular calves. Ham Gamgee was one of Hobbiton's team of Thrimidge Prancers and was dressed today in white shirt and breeches, trimmed with brightly coloured ribbons. When Bell had finished Ham whisked up his hawthorn blossom trimmed hat and held out his arms. “Well, lass. Will I do?”

Bell snorted. “If ye don't bend down to much, aye. I think I need to let out those breeches a bit afore next year.”

Ham looked down at his belly, which was taxing the quality of Bell's button sewing abilities a little alarmingly. “You let 'em out last year and the year afore. I don't think there's any more left to let.”

Bell sighed. “Then I'd best get some cloth to make ye another pair for next year. For today ye'll just have to suck it in and ye can trot home to change when ye've finished yer prancin'.” At the jingle of several sets of bells she thrust a ribbon trimmed stick at him. “Here. Ye'd best get off and join the others. They're linin' up over yonder.”

Before he turned to join the line Ham pointed to Frodo with a grin. “Ye'd best pay attention Master Frodo. I think Cob Chubb is thinkin' of asking you to join before next year's Prance. Don't think your dancin' skills at the Harvest Reel haven't gone unnoticed.” With those words he trotted off toward the other assembled dancers.

Frodo's eyes widened and May Gamgee giggled to see it. “Don't worry, Frodo. The steps aren't hard and they only dance once a year.” Bell noted the dropping of Master Frodo's honorific with pursed lips. She and May needed to have a serious talk, and soon. In her eyes May was setting her cap at someone way above her station in life and was heading for heartache. First love was always the hardest, she observed.

Someone struck up a drum and the two lines of Prancers were off. Frodo did pay attention, watching several of Hobbiton's finest form their figures, tap sticks or wave kerchiefs, jump and prance, all the while the bells on their calves tinging in perfect synchrony with the drum. All around them folk cheered when they formed a particularly intricate figure or leapt especially high, and the applause was ecstatic by the time they bowed to each other at the end.

When a rather sweaty Ham returned Bell offered him a cup of lemonade that he downed in one go. “Phew! I'm gettin' too old for this, Bell, lass.”

Bell refilled his cup. “I've been tellin' ye that for the past three years. Yer goin' to have to give it up or stop eatin'. Go home and change. And ye'd best have a wash while yer at it. I don't fancy sittin' next to yer sweaty body all afternoon.” All about them, heads dipped down to hide grins for Bell Gamgee did not mince her words.

Ham took it all in good part, however, throwing back his head to laugh before bending down to give her a loud, smack of a kiss full on her lips. Unfortunately, the sound of the kiss was accompanied by the sound of Ham's breeches finally giving up the battle, and that was too much for the assembled company, who began to laugh uproariously as the gaping hole in the back seem revealed to all the world, Hamfast Gamgee's under garments.

The sound of a fiddle tuning up signalled dancing of another type and Daisy Gamgee suddenly leapt to her feet and reached out a hand to Frodo. It was the custom at Thrimidge for the lasses to invite the lads to dance. “Come prance with me, Master Frodo.”

Too polite to refuse Frodo only had time to cast a rueful smile to the astonished May before he was being tugged away to the Prancing Pole. There the lads and lasses formed two concentric circles, each grabbing a ribbon. As the music struck up each circle began to move in opposite directions, weaving in and out as the figures were called. With each step the ribbons shortened, and they drew closer and closer to the pole until bodies began to brush against each other. A final twist was called and each lad found himself bound close to a lass.

There was much blushing and giggling as the crowd shouted, good naturedly, “Kiss the lasses! Kiss the lads!”

The calling had been done to perfection so that each person was now with their original partner and Daisy Gamgee arched a knowing brow at Frodo, who would have squirmed had his body not been plastered so close against hers. Daisy had no such compunction, however, noting that to her side the hawthorn crowned Ruby Brockbank was trying to avoid Ortis' slobbery kiss. Daisy took a deep breath, which had the effect of mashing her soft breasts into Frodo's suddenly cringing chest.

The crowd were still calling, and out of the corner of his eyes he could see several couples already obliging. Frodo realised that to not comply was to draw unwanted attention, not to mention possibly humiliating Daisy, who was already smarting from having been pipped to the post for Thrimidge Queen. As part of the Shire gentry, Frodo was wise enough to know that he would be in demand for the dancing and by asking him for the first prance Daisy had scored a coup. He leaned in to place a soft kiss upon her pursed lips, surprised when he drew back, to see a shimmer of tears in her eyes. Just before the music started, to guide them all apart again, she leaned in to whisper, “Thank you, Master Frodo.”

As he followed the figures to unwind the ribbons Frodo considered that moment and filed it away for later examination. He knew that many of the local lads were as wary as he of Daisy Gamgee's sharp tongue and flirtatious ways, but perhaps she was not as harsh as she outwardly appeared. When the music stopped he offered his arm to escort her back to their party, bowing low and giving his hand to lower her courteously to the ground.

He could feel the icy chill emanating from May as he retook his place at Bilbo's side. As, it seemed, could everyone else for conversation was suddenly muted. From her place across from May, Daisy gave a haughty toss of her head and pointedly stared down her younger sister. Frodo pondered on how May could give off such a chill and yet have such fire blazing in her eyes, and he drew in a sharp breath as she reached across to fill her sister's cup, instead pouring lemonade all over Daisy's skirt.

May put a hand to her mouth in mock horror as Daisy shrieked and leapt to her feet to try and brush off the sticky liquid. Bell Gamgee looked from one daughter to the other, her lips thinning. Grabbing May's arm and hoisting her to her feet she led both girls from the field. The last thing Frodo heard was Bell's firm, “Right, my lasses, tis long past time ye and me had a talk.”

Bilbo patted Frodo on the back, offering a rueful smile and a pork pie. “I've never understood why they're considered to be the gentler sex. I suspect the Dark Lord would have been defeated much sooner had he been set against an army of ladies.”

Frodo accepted the pie. Thrimidge was not exactly going to the plan he had formulated so carefully in his head when he lying, staring at his bedroom ceiling last night.

-0-

Hamfast was coming out of Number Three as Bell and the girls arrived. Blinking in surprise he held the door open for them. “Hello Daisy. Did you spill yer lemonade?”

Daisy stomped past him, sparing only a moment to shoot an evil look at her sister over her shoulder as she replied, tersely, “No.”

Ham would have upbraided his daughter for such insolence to her father, but Bell only shook her head. “Ye'd best go see to the youngsters. I'll sort out this one.” She leaned in to place a peck on his cheek. “I'll explain later.”

Giving her a quick squeeze her husband left, closing the door behind him. This was obviously women's business and he'd long since learned to stay out of it.

Daisy and May were standing in the kitchen, staring daggers at each other across the width of the kitchen table. Bell sighed. “Daisy, go change yer dress then bring it out here and put it in a bucket of cold water to soak.” When Daisy looked as though she would argue Bell only narrowed her eyes. “Now, Daisy. I'll speak to ye after I've had words with yer sister.”

Daisy flounced off and Bell gave her attention to May, who was looking unrepentant. Her mother decided it was time to change that. “Well? What was that about? As if I didn't know.”

May was not about to let go of her anger. “Daisy knew I was goin' to ask Frodo for the first prance. She'd no right to go and do that.”

Bell folded arms across her matronly bosom. “For goodness sake, lass. It were a dance. Nothin' more. Ye've got the whole day to dance with Master Frodo and any other lad that takes yer fancy.”

“Frodo is mine!” May blinked in alarm as though surprised that the words had slipped out.

Bell nodded. “Aye. This is part my fault. I knew the way the wind was blowin' but I hoped it would blow out with time. May, lass, Master Frodo is a sweet lad but he's not for the likes of us.” When May only looked mutinous Bell continued. “He's polite and he treats every lass, high born or low, like a lady. Now that can turn a lass' head if she's not careful, thinkin' she means somethin' to him. But he's a gentlehobbit and when he weds it needs to be to a lass that can stand up in high company.”

May's shoulders dropped. “But I know how to set a table for posh folks and I'm learnin' to read and write,” she pointed out with a little less conviction.

Bell wanted to wrap her up in her arms, knowing how harsh this was going to be, and wishing she could spare her daughter the pain. “I know, lass. But it takes more than that. Master Frodo is very book learned and he needs a life mate who can match him. Couples don't spend all the rest of their days kissin' an' canoodlin'. They talk sometimes. What would ye talk about? I know ye like to write but are ye fond of history, dwarves, elves and the like?”

From the size of their family, Bell secretly wondered if Dandy and Flora Bracegirdle did anything but canoodling but that was another pairing and another matter. Of course, Bell had seen many a good marriage between two opposing characters, grow and thrive. Whilst May could be relied upon to run a good home and raise children, Bell had other reasons for worrying whether any lass of the Shire would be able to keep Frodo Baggins happy over time.

Often, through the years, Bell had seen a far-away look in Bilbo Baggin’s eyes when he looked to the east, and recently Bell had surprised the same expression in Frodo’s eyes once or twice. It was a gaze that said he was thinking of places far beyond the safe boundaries of the Shire. Who was to say that, one day, he too would not run off after dwarves or elves? Bell had no doubt that Frodo was enough of a gentlehobbit not to run off and leave his wife and bairns unsupported, but he may just grow to resent them, and Bell was determined that such would not happen to her daughter.

May settled onto one of the benches flanking the table. “I suppose your right. I hadn't thought about that.”

Bell came to sit at her side. “No lass. I didn't think ye had. Yer young yet and the right lad for ye will come along one day. Don't ye fret. Dance with Master Frodo if ye've a mind to, but dance with other lads too. There's lots of ‘em out there and yer a fine catch yerself.” She tucked a strand of her daughter’s hair behind her ear.

May leaned in and Bell wrapped an arm about her. May made one last complaint, however. “Daisy was still bad to do what she did.”

Her mother sighed. “Ye know as well as me that yer sister is all bluster on the outside and soft as butter on the inside. She had her heart set on bein' Thrimidge Queen this year. She may not show it, but she was proper hurt when Ruby got the crown. Did ye happen to notice who was standing next to yer sister round that pole?”

Light dawned in May's eyes. “Ruby and Ortis.”

Bell was pleased that her daughter was seeing sense at last. “Exactly. She knew that Ruby, along with half the lasses in Hobbiton, wanted Frodo Baggins to be King. I expect Ortis was low on Ruby's list of hoped for partners.”

“Poor Ruby. And poor Daisy.” May raised watery eyes to her mother. “I was so wrapped up in my wants that I'd forgotten about Daisy.”

Bell gave her a quick squeeze. “Well don't be too sorry for yer sister. I've yet to talk to her. But I think she'd appreciate ye sayin' sorry about the dress. It was her best, after all.”

May gave a nod and fished in her pocket for a hanky to blow her nose. “I'll go speak to her now.”

She was stayed once more by her mother however. “Ye go back to the party, lass. Daisy needs to cool down a mite. Ye can say sorry later. I need a word with her first.” When May didn't move Bell stood. “Come on lass. Off ye go. Ye don't want to miss any more prances. I expect Master Frodo at least is wonderin' where ye are.”

May leaned in to kiss her mother's cheek before leaving and Bell let out an explosive sigh, before squaring her shoulders to go and beard the lioness in her den. As she expected, Daisy was sobbing into her pillow, her best dress in a screwed-up puddle on the floor. Bell collected the dress, pausing to assess the damage before sitting upon the edge of the bed. She knew that her eldest daughter’s tears were about much more than a spoiled skirt.

“Come on, lass. That's enough of that. Tis not the end of the world.” When Daisy sat up her mother held out a clean hanky. “Wipe yer eyes and blow yer nose. Snot and tears is not a good look on any lass.”

Daisy complied but she frowned at her mother. “I hope you gave May a good tellin' off. She's ruined my frock and made me look a proper fool in front of Mister Baggins.”

Bell's eyes widened. “Mister Baggins is it? Are ye sure it's not young Master Baggins yer meanin'?”

Daisy had the good grace not to deny that. “Well, she's still spoilt my frock.”

“And why do ye think she did that?” Bell asked.

Daisy studied the soggy hanky in her hands. “I'm sure I don't know.”

“Oh, I'm sure ye do. Didn't yer sister tell ye she was goin' to ask Master Frodo for the first prance?”

Daisy was not going to capitulate easily. “She may have mentioned it. I wasn't payin' attention. She's always talkin' about Master Frodo. It's all, 'Master Frodo says this' and 'Master Frodo says that'. I've given up listenin'.”

“And there's the rub. Ye weren't listenin' to her because ye were thinkin' about yer own wants and she weren't listenin' to ye because she was thinkin' about her wants.” When Daisy looked up in surprise Bell continued. “Ye wanted to be Queen and she wanted Master Frodo. I know yer disappointed and ye saw a way to get back at Ruby, but ye hurt yer sister in the doin' of it. I'm not sayin' what she did was right either, but are ye so surprised that she wanted to hurt ye back?”

Daisy met her mother's gaze at last. “No Ma. Is May awful hurt? Is she still in the kitchen? I'd best go say, 'sorry'.”

Bell nodded. “There's my good lass. No, she's gone to ask Master Frodo for the next prance, and if ye've a mind to prance with Bartimus Brockbank ye'd best wash yer face, change yer frock and follow her.”

A little of Daisy's old fire returned, to her mother's delight. “Why would I want to dance with that lass' big oaf of a brother?”

Bell chuckled as she bent to kiss her eldest on the brow. “Because ye've been makin' calf eyes at him fer the past three month. Don't ye deny it. I'm yer mother and tis my job to notice these things.”

Daisy grinned. “Mayhap I have. But I'll not let him know that.”

Bell swept from the room, Daisy's damp frock in hand. “Then how will ye ask him for a prance?” She left her daughter to consider that one.

They were calling for the next group of prancers when Frodo saw May returning. She had lost her pinched look and she smiled widely at him as she held out a hand. “Will you prance with me, Master Frodo?”

Frodo scrambled to his feet with a broad smile of his own. “I'd be honoured to, Miss May.”

When they kissed sweetly at the pole Frodo felt that something had changed, although he could not put his finger upon what it could be.

He never got to steal another kiss and May’s letters grew less frequent. As time went on, the daily events of life crowded out his feelings for May Gamgee and, for her part, May found new friends in Tuckborough.

 Bell’s relief was mixed with some sadness for, under other circumstances, she would have loved to see Bag End filled with the bairns of May and Frodo Baggins, but she wondered if Frodo would ever resolve the burgeoning wonder-lust in his heart. Would Hobbiton awake one day to find that he and Bilbo had disappeared over the river on some dangerous adventure? If he did follow his uncle would he return, and would he be the same when he did?



 




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