Bell's Table by elwen of the hidden valley

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“Mr Bilbo! Mr Bilbo! There's dwarves, sir! Dwarves!”

Bilbo swore roundly as his quill splayed, spattering a great blue lake right in the middle of the piece of elvish translation that he had been copying so meticulously for the past hour. He took a second to throw a sheet of blotting paper onto it before looking up and trying to fix a pleasant smile on his face. It was a fine summer afternoon so the window to his study stood open to let in the lavender laden air. Frodo popped his head around the door, grinning as he saw young Sam Gamgee hopping from foot to foot in the garden beyond the casement.

Bilbo set down his now ruined quill. “Of course there are dwarves, Samwise Gamgee. It is Mid Year's Day tomorrow. They've come for the Lithe market fair, as they come every year.”

Sam slowed his jig. “But I was only little last time they came. Do they really come every year?”

Despite his ruined manuscript Bilbo grinned and, leaning against the door jamb, Frodo tried to hide his own amusement by taking another bite of his slice of toast. Sam was but a faunt and he found that he envied him, his childish excitement.

A large figure loomed behind little Sam. “Aye, they do, Sam lad. And if you don't give me a hand lifting the taters we'll have none to sell at market tomorrow. And that won't please your Ma 'cause she's wantin' some new cloth to make shirts.” Hamfast Gamgee touched his forehead in greeting to Mister Bilbo. “I'm sorry he disturbed you, sir. He was off afore I could stop him.” He shooed Sam before him, back to Number three's vegetable plot.

Bilbo shook his head, tentatively lifting a corner of the blotting paper, and sighing as the full extent of the disaster was revealed. “I shall have to start this all over again.” He examined the shattered point of his quill. “I don't suppose you have any spare goose quills? This was my last and it's beyond sharpening.”

Frodo nodded. “I think I have a spare. Maybe that's something we need to add to tomorrow's market list.”

“Market? I usually get my quills from Clover Mugwort.”

“She had to kill her goose last month, Bilbo. Remember? It got caught up in a fence and broke its wing. We'll have to buy them from now on.”

“Did she not keep any of the feathers?” Bilbo asked with some exasperation.

“She sold the down and finer ones to Mistress Chubb, who needed some to finish stuffing a pillow. And I'm afraid she took all the quills to market.” Frodo raised his brows. “Mistress Mugwart did ask you at the time whether you would like a few but you said you had enough.”

“I don't remember that,” Bilbo replied a little sourly.

Long used to his uncle's quixotic moods Frodo only smiled. “To be fair, I think you were deep in a translation at the time.”

Bilbo sniffed. “That would account for it.”

Frodo giggled as he left to fetch his uncle the spare quill while Bilbo pulled out a fresh sheet of paper and began to prick out the lines.

-0-

Mid Year's Day dawned bright and clear and, looking down the hill whilst drinking his second cup of tea, Frodo watched wagons being emptied and awnings raised on the party field. Nobody knew when the field had gained its appellation, but Bilbo said that the folk of Hobbiton had used it to hold parties and fairs since before even he was born. Sheep were grazed on it for most of the year, ensuring that the grass remained cropped short but the flock was now returned to Farmer Cotton's land and Frodo had joined all the other youngsters in raking clean the grass a few days earlier.

Frodo's gaze was drawn back repeatedly to two brightly painted covered wagons set a little apart from the rest. He was not the only one. Hobbits throughout the field were watching with interest, some covertly, some of the younger ones less so. A tall dwarf jumped down from the tailgate of the larger wagon and someone began throwing items to him from inside. Frodo marvelled as the blue hatted figure caught everything nimbly, whatever its shape or size.

All around the wagon hobbits stilled, as fascinated as Frodo, as the heap in his arms grew taller and taller, until it was clearly impossible for the bearer to see over the top of it. Staggering a little, the dwarf took half a dozen steps and then lowered the heap to the grass, losing not one single item. Straightening and finding himself the centre of attention, he swept off his hat and gave a low bow, before plonking it back on his dark head with a wide grin. His assembled audience clapped and laughed, before turning back to their own work.

“Show off,” Bilbo muttered good naturedly from behind Frodo. He held two mugs, swapping Frodo's empty one for one of the freshly filled ones in his hands. “I suspect that's Donnet. He's always been a brash one. Young dwarves tend to be a bit showy in my experience.”

Frodo absorbed that piece of information silently. He had lived in Hobbiton for a few years now but had always celebrated Lithe with family at Tookborough or Buckland, so this was his first experience of this travelling group of traders. In his opinion this tall person, with his almost black hair and beard, would stand out in any hobbit company, regardless of how un-brashly he behaved.

“Do the same dwarves come every year? I've only ever seen them from a distance, on the road from Buckland.” Frodo sipped his tea, judging it to have stood a little too long in the pot.

“Mostly. The main group remains the same, although occasionally a youngster travels with them, for the experience.”

“Are they the same dwarves you travelled with?”

Bilbo's face clouded for a moment. “Some of those are no longer with us. Of the others, most are now leaders of their people and have no time for trading trips. No. This group travels from the Lonely Mountain, through Rivendell or Rohan, on to Bree and then to the Shire, sometimes even as far as the Grey Havens on the coast. They have been making the trip, twice yearly, for as long as I can remember.”

“Even before your adventure?” Frodo tried not to grimace as he took another sip of his thick tea.

“Bless you, yes! Dwarves have been trading with hobbits since before we settled in the Shire. You could say that they moved west with us, for Master Elrond tells me that hobbits originally came from the other side of the Misty Mountains too.” Bilbo took a large swallow from his own cup and shuddered. “This tea is stewed. Let's go inside and have second breakfast. Then we can brew a fresh pot.”

-0-

By noon the party field was thronged with folk. Some had come by pony and cart, some dragged hand carts behind them and others had resorted to bringing wheelbarrows to carry their purchases home. In one corner the owner of the Ivy Bush had set up trestle tables under an awning and was dispensing ale. A hog had been roasting over the firepit next to him for several hours and there was now a queue of folk waiting to purchase a slice . . . or two. Other hobbits had taken this arrangement as a signal that this was the picnic area and so several families and groups had spread blankets and cloths upon the sweet grass for luncheon.

Living as close as they did, Bilbo and Frodo could have eaten at home but Bell and Hamfast Gamgee had sent their usual invitation to join their family, after first begin' their pardon at takin' such a liberty an' all. And Bilbo had made his usual reply that they were taking no liberty at all and he and Frodo would be leased to accept. Deciding that they would enjoy some convivial company on this Midsummer's day, Frodo and Bilbo had packed an enormous picnic basket and were now searching the merry throng for their hosts.

Bilbo looked down at a little tug on his coat tails. Marigold Gamgee gave a gap-toothed grin from beneath her ginger mop and lisped, “Ma's thith way.” Bilbo smiled down at her. “Lead the way, little Miss Marigold,” he instructed with a small bow. Marigold's shy smile widened as she slipped a slightly sticky hand in his and began to tug toward an area by the hedge. There the Gamgee household were arranged at their ease around a huge red and white chequered tablecloth. Not that there was much cloth visible for Bell had been cooking and preparing for days. As the occupants of Bag End drew near the family made to rise but Bilbo waved them down at once.

“We don't stand on ceremony today. My goodness, Bell, but have been busy. But just in case, we brought some more to add to the feast. I hope you won't be offended.” He and Frodo lowered their basket and began to remove their offerings.

Bell only bent to kiss little Marigold's curls as she settled at her mother's side. “Bless ye, sir. With two growing bairns to fill I'll welcome any food ye bring. Although ye needn't have bothered. We would have managed.”

“It's no bother.” Sam and Marigold's eyes grew wide and everyone began to lick their lips as Frodo made room on the cloth for Bilbo to set out their contribution to the Lithe feast.

Knowing that sugar was an expensive commodity and salad vegetables easy enough for the Gamgees to provide, Bilbo and Frodo had set too, making deserts. To the salads, pies, sandwiches, crusty bread, cheese, and fruit scones that Bell had brought the Baggins' added a strawberry flan, complete with a bowl of whipped cream, a sponge cake, oozing cream and raspberry jam, a moist carrot cake, decorated with tiny marzipan carrots and layered with buttercream. Last of all came a huge bowl of trifle, with it's carefully constructed layers of fruit, sponge cake, jelly, custard, and cream. This had taken Frodo the best part of yesterday to create, with the whipped cream added just this morning. He had even thought to pack several small bowls and spoons to dispense it into.

Bell grinned. “Well now, aint that just the perfect finish to the meal. Everyone help yerselves to whatever ye fancy. There's plenty for all.” When Sam's hand began to creep toward a marzipan carrot she tapped it firmly however. “Let’s start with some sandwiches and salad,” she suggested pointedly. Sam soon forgot any resentment as his Ma piled a plate for him, with egg sandwiches, tomatoes, pork pie and spring onions while Da poured lemonade for everyone.

While Bell filled a smaller plate for Marigold, Frodo began selecting for his own. “Did you sell all your potatoes, Master Gamgee?” he asked as he helped himself to some cold, minted potatoes from a bowl.

“I did that, Young Master, and some beetroot and broad beans too. Made a pretty penny,” Hamfast beamed proudly.

“What with the coin we got saved and that from the taters, I'll be able to get cloth for new shirts for my Ham and little Sam, with some left over to make an apron for Daisy if I cut it right,” Bell added around a mouthful of pie.

Frodo frowned. “Where is Daisy?” He had seen little of Daisy Gamgee since Thrimidge. Not that he found that any great matter of distress, but it was only polite to ask. Daisy, the Gamgee's eldest lass, had been tormenting him ever since he arrived in Hobbiton. He was under no illusion that she had designs upon his hand in marriage. She just liked practising her wiles upon him.

Hamfast grinned. “She's been helpin' out at the widow Goodbody's three days a week. Pansy don't cope so well, with her arthritis, and now the lads and our May are away from home, Bell can manage without her a bit more. I told Pansy Goodbody that we don't need payin' but she insisted on givin' her a couple of coppers a week and Daisy's been savin' for some cloth for a new party frock.” Then he added in a mutter, “What’s wrong with the old one I don’t know.”

His wife rolled her eyes. “It’s got a lemonade stain on it, remember?”

Ham winked at Frodo, who ducked his head before asking, “But where is she today?”

“She's yonder, with the Bracegirdles, down by the dance square. They invited her for the day and some of the Bracegirdle lads and lasses are about the same age as our Daisy. No doubt they're makin' a lot of noise and silly gigglin',” Hamfast replied with a chuckle. “And if anyone were to ask me, they're welcome to make as much noise and gigglin' as they like, as long as they keep it over yonder side of the field.”

Bilbo raised his cup in mock salute to Hamfast and Bell cuffed her husband's arm playfully.

“You've not bought your cloth yet, then, Bell?” Bilbo asked as he helped himself to another sandwich.

“I've not had time. Although there's a trader come all the way from Michel Delving with some nice quality stuff.” She pointed with the slender green stem of a spring onion. “Next to them dwarves.”

Bilbo followed her direction. The dwarves were easily discovered for they had set up stalls outside their fancy covered wagons, stretching brightly coloured awnings to protect their wares. Next to them was a smaller open wagon, loaded with bolts of bright cloth. Bilbo even spotted the sheen of fine silk. A sign painted along the side of the wagon declared, “Hardeband Bentwhistle, Purveyor of Fine Fabrics To The Discerning Gentlehobbit, Michel Delving, The Shire.”

“Isn't he the one who tailors your clothes, Bilbo?” Frodo asked. Bilbo had been threatening to take Frodo to his tailor for some time now and they had an appointment with Master Bentwhistle next week. The tween had recently undergone a growth spurt and all his clothes were coming up a little too short for comfort. They'd let down the braces as far as possible, but Bilbo had spotted Frodo wince upon occasion when bending to sit.

“My tailor is Bressingbard Bentwhistle. Hardeband is Bressingbard's brother. He does carry a nice line in fine patterned waistcoat silk. Elvish stuff, some of it.” He studied Frodo's now rather skimpy waistcoat. “I think we'll have a stroll over there after luncheon. You could do with a new suit for the Harvest Reel in a few months. If there's anything suitable we can pay for it and have Hardeband pass it on to his brother for our visit next week.”

Frodo grimaced. “Are you sure we could not just arrange a visit to Brandy Hall so that Aunt Buttercup could make one for me? She always managed quite well in the past.”

“Nonsense!” Bilbo pronounced firmly. “You are now a young gentlehobbit, needing to be fitted by a proper tailor, and Bressingbard Bentwhistle is the best in the Shire.”

Bell sent Frodo a commiseratory half smile. The step from lad to young master was not always an easy one, especially as heir to Bilbo Baggins. Bilbo liked his fine clothes, always had, but Frodo still wanted to climb trees and tickle trout in the stream. His uncle sometimes forgot how great a difference there was in their ages. Still, Bell had to concede that with Frodo's slender figure, any tailoring tricks that could be found to make him look like a properly rounded hobbit would be welcome.

“Ma, can I have some of Mr Frodo's trifle now? I've eaten some sandwiches,” Sam asked plaintively.

-0-

“Good day to you Mister Baggins. It has been some months since you last graced my establishment.” Hardeband Bentwhistle was a small, very rotund hobbit of middle years, wearing a full, tailored suit of deep green velvet, a fine gold silk waistcoat and a pale green, intricately tied cravat. The result of all this finery on a warm summer day was that he was perspiring profusely, using one hand to raise a large gold silk handkerchief to his brow, and the other to push a pair of gold wire rimmed spectacles up the not inconsequential slope of his nose.

“Hello, Hardeband. How is your lady wife nowadays?” Bilbo, fine damask waistcoat flapping open and his cravat long since tucked into his pocket, looked and sounded as cool as a cucumber.

Hardeband smiled ingratiatingly. “Nettle is very well indeed, although she does not care to travel to these events.”

Bilbo noticed a gleam in Hardeband's eye. It was well known that Nettle Bentwhistle tended to live up to her name and as a consequence, Hardeband did as much traveling as he could. Bilbo played along with the game however by stating, “I am sorry to hear that. You must miss her. Please give your good lady my regards when you return home.”

“I will, indeed. Now what can I do for you today, sir? I have some very nice elven silk that would make fine pocket handkerchiefs.”

Hardeband impressed Frodo by managing to arrest the slide of his glasses with the finger of one hand whilst, at the same time, mopping his brow with the other. The lad wondered if that was akin to patting your stomach and rubbing your head . . . or was that the other way around?

“Let me introduce my nephew, Frodo. He and I have appointments with your brother next week and I was thinking that we could perhaps choose our fabrics now, as you are here.”

Hardeband assessed Frodo from down the long slope of his nose, taking in the breeches that only just covered the lad's knees, the waistcoat that was straining at the buttons and the ink spattered cuffs of the slightly grey shirt.

“Indeed. What sort of material were you considering? I have a nice serviceable wool and hemp mix here.” Obviously deciding that this must be some poor relation, he directed Bilbo's gaze to a roll of dark grey stuff that was little better than that used to make potato sacks. Even Bell Gamgee, standing to one side examining some pretty floral dress fabric, turned up her nose at it.

Frodo was relieved to see his uncle wave it aside. “Oh, no, no. That won't do. As my heir Frodo is expected to keep up a certain standard of appearance you understand. No. We shall be ordering at least two suits, a new winter cloak, three or four waistcoats, a couple of pairs of additional breeches and half a dozen shirts.” He pointed to a large roll of fine, wine coloured tweed. “How about that for one suit?”

Hardeband's bushy brows had been climbing higher and higher as Bilbo enumerated Frodo's requirements and he beamed as Bilbo pointed to one of the most expensive worsted wool suitings in his collection, only recently arrived from Rohan. Frodo suspected, had he the spare hands to do so, Master Bentwhistle would have been rubbing them with glee.

“You have a good eye, Mister Baggins. That is a fine cloth that will make up very well. It will also suit the young masters colouring. May I suggest a waistcoat of this brown velvet, with perhaps even a touch of the same fabric on the jacket collar?” He signaled to a pimply lad, barely into his tweens, who immediately placed the two rolls of fabric side by side to demonstrate their compatibility. Hardeband Bentwhistle had his failings but even Frodo had to admit that the red-brown velvet was a perfect foil for the warm wine of the wool, not just in colour but also in texture.

Bilbo turned to his nephew. “Well, Frodo? That would be very serviceable for the Harvest Reel, don't you think?”

Frodo blushed as the eyes of Hardeband, Bilbo, Bell, the assistant and several onlookers all turned to him. He tried to hide his ink stained cuffs behind his back. “Erm . . . yes. I'm sure it would, although perhaps it would be a bit expensive for Hobbiton?” he suggested.

“Nonsense, lad!” Bilbo scoffed. “A gentlehobbit always dresses well, wherever he may be. You never know what's around the corner.”

Frodo had to concede that, if anyone would know what may be around the corner, it was Bilbo Baggins but he settled for, “Then I'm sure it will be very nice.”

Bilbo shook his head before moving on to select several other fabrics to fulfill Frodo's sartorial obligations as the heir to Bag End. He decided that it would save a great deal of time if he simply made the decisions for Frodo on this occasion, or it would take all afternoon and Bilbo had a great deal more eating to do before nightfall.

Finally, they moved to the lighter fabrics and chose some white and some pale beige to make Frodo's shirts. Bell Gamgee had been waiting patiently to be served all this time and Frodo felt rather guilty. Hardeband pointedly ignored her, in favour of the larger sale, but now he found himself selecting the very same bolt of fabric that Bell was examining. Hardeband brushed her hand aside dismissively, so that his apprentice could cut the required length for Frodo's shirts and the young gentlehobbit cringed at such poor manners.

Until that moment Bilbo had been so wrapped up in his own selection that he had not even noticed Bell. Now he stiffened and scowled at Hardeband as Bell narrowed her eyes and stepped back. “Were you wanting some of this too, Mistress Gamgee?” Bilbo asked pointedly, indicating that she should precede him. “I do apologise for monopolising Mister Bentwistle all this time.”

Now Bell straightened. “Tis no bother, Mr Bilbo. I can wait. I was only wantin' some of this white to make a couple of shirts.” She sniffed. “If tis a fair price of course.”

Hardeband bristled and covered it by moving swiftly to stop his glasses escaping the end of his nose. “I always charge a fair price, madam. Of course, my wares are a cut above the usual stuffs one finds in these local markets and that is reflected in the price, but they wear so much better and I always feel that justifies the cost in the long run.”

Frodo noted silently that the cost would also probably preclude Bell Gamgee from being able to afford the fine white shirting, and he glanced aside in time to see her eyes drop to the small purse in her hand. No doubt she was already doing some rapid mental calculations.

Bilbo noticed too however, and offered a smile to Hardeband so sweet that it made Frodo's teeth wince, even as he lifted the bolt of fabric and handed it over to the apprentice. “I should like to purchase this. What price for the entire bolt. I am certain that we can come to some arrangement for such a large purchase.”

“Oh yes, indeed, sir. For the whole bolt I would be willing to make a substantial discount.” He named a figure that made Frodo gasp but Bilbo only nodded.

“Excellent. Deliver it to your brother, Hardeband. Tell him we will need two shirts for me and two for Frodo. I shall bring the rest home after our fittings and Mistress Gamgee can have the larger part of the bolt.” Here Bilbo's smile widened even further. “She and I will negotiate a fair price. If Mistress Gamgee has no objections to waiting for the fabric that is?” He turned to bow to Bell, who's eyes were now dancing with amusement at Hardeband's discomfort. Both she and Hardeband realised that Bell Gamgee would now be getting her fabric at a much lower price than Master Bentwistle would have charged her.

“None at all, Mister Bilbo, and I thank ye kindly.” Frodo stifled a giggle as Bell dropped Bilbo a very proper courtesy.

“No, thank you for your patience, Bell dear.” Bilbo bowed again, and Frodo developed a sudden cough as his uncle gallantly offered his arm to Bell. Mistress Gamgee stuck her nose in the air and strolled off with Bilbo in a sashay that set her full skirts swaying in a way that would have done credit to her tweenage daughter, Daisy. As they departed Bilbo called back over his shoulder, “Send me the bill when you're ready, Hardeband, there's a good chap.”

 

 

 

 




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