Bell's Table by elwen of the hidden valley

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“Bilbo, should I wear the brown waistcoat or the red?”  Frodo stood in Bilbo’s bedroom doorway, holding up a waistcoat in each hand.

His uncle paused in his own sartorial primping to study the garments.  “The red one goes well with your black breeches but appears to be missing a button.”

Frodo examined the garment more closely.  A clump of loose threads and a small tear was evident where a brass button should have been.  He sighed.  “The brown it is, then” he stated with a philosophical air as he disappeared back to his own room. 

Bilbo hoped it was in order to brush his hair, which at present seemed to be sticking up in all directions.  He frowned for plain brown cord was not the most elegant for such a social event.  Still, it was clean and appeared to be unscathed by Frodo’s activities.  The lad seemed to have a knack for destroying clothes, whether by his extensive hiking or his writing.  Bilbo supposed that at some point he would have to take the lad to his tailor.

Half an hour later Bilbo was standing in the hall when Frodo reappeared, with a covered basket over his arm.  His uncle was pleased to note that the lad had brushed his hair, both that on his head and on his feet. He also smelled pleasantly of the scented oil Esmerelda had gifted him on his birthday last year.  His black breeches were pressed, the white shirt was freshly laundered and the waistcoat had been sponged to revive it.  In truth, Bilbo was rather impressed that Frodo had managed to do all that in such a short space of time.

Aware that he was being studied closely, Frodo grinned.  “Will I do?”

“I do believe you will.  Is that the cake?”

Frodo lifted the basket.  “Yes.  And the scones.  I have added flour to our shopping list for tomorrow.  We used the last on the cake.”

“Good lad.  Come on then.  Let’s go and join the revellers.”  He led the way out of the smial and down the lane.  “Remember what I told you about Hamfast’s home brew.  Stick with the cider instead.  I don’t want to have to carry you back up the hill.”

Walking in the dark, Frodo risked rolling his eyes.  “I remember, Uncle.  Cider only.”

Bilbo cleared his throat.  “There will be lots of lasses there of your own age.  Just you remember that you’re a Gentlehobbit and a Baggins.  I don’t want to have to explain a tweenage wedding to your uncle Saradoc.”

Once more Frodo was grateful for the cover of darkness for he could feel the blush climbing his face.  “Bilbo!  I do know about the birds and the bees.”

Bilbo’s sigh was audible.  “Good.  Just make sure you remember them when you’ve had a half or two of cider.”

By now they had reached the bottom of the hill and the Party Field.  The noise level was quite astonishing for everyone from miles around was celebrating the safe gathering of the harvest.  Anyone who helped with the harvest, even in the most minor capacity, was welcome at the Harvest Reel. It was the event of the year.

Gaffers gathered around tables with beer and pipes to discuss the relative merits of this year’s harvest against those of previous years.  Gammers sat in another corner, discussing the antics of absent family and neighbours.  Matrons wore their best skirts and crammed themselves into bodices with straining laces.  They were setting out the food on long trestle tables on the far side of the field, where awnings had been erected in case of rain.

A motley group of musicians were grabbing a few mouthfuls of cider while lines of lads and lasses were forming up for the next dance.  Amongst all this faunts ran in squealing trails, like butterflies dancing in a summer sky.  It was late for some and in a corner farthest from the band, beneath another awning, a small area had been set aside, spread with blankets and tended by some of the younger matrons.  There some bairns could already be seen, curled in little hummocks of sleep and oblivious to the noise and clamour around them.

Suddenly, May Gamgee appeared before Frodo.  Her sandy hair, with its usual riot of curls, was dressed with green ribbons and she wore a pretty bright green dress to match.  She smiled shyly up at him.  “Would you care to dance, Master Frodo?  The next one’s to be the Cotters Line.”  She gnawed at her bottom lip.  “I used to dance with Halfred but he’s not able to get home this year.”

Bilbo knew that Halfred always made a point of partnering his younger sisters for at least one dance at the Reel.  “Go on, Frodo.  I’ll take the basket.”

Frodo handed it over and then bowed low to the young lass.  “Miss May, would you do me the inestimable honour of accompanying me in the next dance?”

May’s brown eyes widened at such an invitation.  Halfred had always just said, “Come on, lass.”  She executed her very best curtsey and if it was a wee bit wobbly from lack of use Frodo made no comment.  “I’d like that very much, sir.”

Frodo took her hand to help her rise and then tucked it into the crook of his arm to lead her to the end of one of the lines of dancers.  Almost as though they had been waiting for that very last couple the band struck up and the dancers were off.

Bilbo watched as the lines of dancers drew together and parted, formed squares and cartwheels, skipped and pranced.  Some of the less experienced made missteps and were pushed good-naturedly to the correct position by their companions but Frodo led his partner through the figures faultlessly. 

Bilbo smiled as he wondered how many dancing lessons the lad had endured at the hands of his Aunt Esmeralda.  The torture was paying off now at least for many a lass was glancing his way as they endured the graceless leadings of their own partners.  Hobbiton lasses were not backward at coming forward, as Bell Gamgee would say.  No doubt Frodo would have a gaggle of lasses fluttering their lashes and swinging their skirts to gain his arm for the next set.

“Here you go, Mister Bilbo.  I saw you comin’ down the hill so I got this ready for you.”  Hamfast Gamgee held out a half pint tankard and Bilbo recognised the heady smell of Ham’s home brew.  He accepted it with a grin, along with the expectation of a thick head tomorrow.

“Thank you, Ham.  I’m just on my way to deliver my contribution to the ladies table.”  He took a careful sip and licked the foam from his lips appreciatively.  “My, but that’s a good brew.  You’ve excelled yourself this year.”

Ham followed him as they threaded the edge of the dance square.  “I was thinkin’ the same.  I think it’s the hops.  They was a good crop this year.”

Bilbo took another sip, making a mental note to pace himself or it would be Frodo carrying him up the hill at the end of the night.  “Here we are, Buttercup.”  He relinquished his basket to the gnarled hands of Buttercup Rumble who gave him a toothless grin.

“Thank ye, Mister Bilbo.  I hope there’s some of yer scones in here.”

“There are indeed, and a coffee cake.  There can never be too many cakes at a party.”  He looked down at a gentle tug on his coat tail, to find little Marigold Gamgee staring up at him with sleepy eyes.  “Can I have a danthe, Mithter Bilbo?” she asked artlessly.

Hamfast rolled his eyes and leaned in to whisper . . . at least it would have been a whisper but the noise level was such that he almost had to shout.  “She should be sleepin’ but she says she won’t go ‘til she has a dance with you.  I hope it’s not an imposition, sir.”

Bilbo smiled down at the faunt and handed off his beer to Hamfast.  “Of course you may have a dance.”  In a sudden movement, he swooped down to gather up Marigold, who squealed with delight as he began to prance about with her in his arms.

-0-

Two hours later the noise level had not reduced one jot, even though the children’s corner was now quite filled with little bundles of sleep.  Bilbo mused that the volume was probably due to the amount of beer and cider which had been dispensed by the now rather tipsy Ted Hoarfoot.  Beer and cider was provided free by the local farmers at this event but Ted undertook the job of unofficial bar tender every year, and was usually snoring under the table by the end of the night . . . at which point everyone just helped themselves anyway. 

Bilbo watched as a particularly lively reel began to wind down, noting that the dancers were growing more inventive as the night progressed and pleased to see that Frodo was still in control of his feet.  He was dancing with Ruby Brockbank at present and the lass was taking every opportunity to flounce her skirts to give Frodo a glimpse of her knees.  Bilbo smiled appreciatively for they were a very shapely pair of knees to be sure.

Something sharp suddenly jabbed him in the ribs and he glanced aside to find Bell Gamgee grinning at him.  “Ye just get that twinkle out yer eye.  Ruby Brockbank is young enough to be yer grandbairn.”

Bilbo snorted.  “I’m old, not dead.  And where have you been all evening?”

Bell settled upon the grass at his side with a relieved sigh.  “I’ve been servin’ at table most of the night.  Then there was nothin’ for it but Hamfast would have a dance.  By the time we’d done that I had to put down May and Sam.  Poor Sam was all but asleep on his feet but he would have it that he had to say goodnight to Master Frodo.  And as yer lad’s been on the dance square most of the evenin’ that weren’t easy to manage.”

Bilbo nodded to where the dancers were starting to break up.  His eyes followed Frodo assessingly as he escorted Ruby to the visit Ted Hoarfoot.  “Well he’s off the square now,” he murmured.

Next to him Bell grinned into her cider mug.  “He is that.  Looks like Ruby’s takin’ him off somewhere quiet to drink their cider.”

When Bilbo made to rise she dragged him down again.  “Leave ‘em be.  Yer lad has a good head on his shoulders and he’s been doin’ too much dancin’ to be in his cups.  He knows what’s what, and well enough to keep it in his breeches.”

Bilbo choked on his beer and Bell had to strike him firmly between the shoulders once or twice.  When he could breathe again Bell continued.

“Ruby Brockbank shakes her skirts a lot but that’s as far as it goes.  She’s a good lass at heart.”  She took a thoughtful sip of her cider.  “I expect it’s ‘cause she’s the only lass in the smial.  Her Ma died a few years back and she’s been lookin’ after her Da and three older brothers ever since.  I reckon getting’ the local lads a bit bothered now and again gives her a bit of power.”

Bell pointed out a taller, rather well-built hobbit threading his way through the crowds and into the shrubbery at the edge of the field in the general direction Ruby had taken Frodo.  “That’s Ruby’s brother, Bartimus.  Him and his brothers always keep an eye out fer Ruby.”

“Oh dear.  Will Frodo be alright.”

“Bless you, yes.  Bartimus wouldn’t hurt a fly.  He’s got his sister’s measure.  He’ll probably just crash around a bit in the bushes and call out fer her.”  Bell took another sip of her cider.

Sure enough, a few minutes later Ruby sashayed out from the bushes with her brother a few paces behind.  Bilbo continued to worry until Frodo appeared a little later.  The lad looked a little flushed but there were no signs of a black eye or a limp.  In fact Frodo looked rather pleased with himself, which Bilbo found even more worrying.  “You’re sure about Ruby?”

Bell laughed.  “I’m sure.  Although from the look of the lad Ruby’s given him a lesson or two in kissin’ and canoodlin’ he won’t forget in a hurry.”

-0-

Bell stood, arching her back to stretch out the kinks, and lifted the basket of weeds she had just grubbed up from the tiny flower bed outside number three Bagshot Row.

“Good afternoon, Bell.”  Bilbo Baggins leaned upon the garden wall.

“Hello there, Mister Bilbo.  How are ye today?”  She smiled warmly.

Bilbo grimaced.  “I think I had one too many of Hamfast’s home brew last night but I think I’ll survive.”

Bell chuckled.  “I reckon ye won’t be the only one sufferin’ today.  Harvest Reel is a good excuse to let loose and more than a few do just that.”  She spotted the basket by his feet.  “Are ye comin’ back from market?”

“Yes.  We just needed one or two bits.  How is Daisy today?  Every time I looked about last night she was dancing with one lad or another.  I felt tired just watching her.”

Bell shook her head.  “She’s been like a bear with a sore head all day.  Between you and me I think she had a mite too much cider between dances but she’ll not admit it, and I couldn’t keep an eye on her every minute of the evenin’.  Why don’t ye come in for a cup of tea?  Shoppin’ is thirsty work and so is weedin’.”

Bilbo grinned.  “I cannot disagree with that.  I’d love a cup of tea.  Thank you.”  He followed Bell into the wonderfully cool interior of the Gamgee kitchen.

“Ham’s gone down to help clear off the last of the tables and awnin’s in the field so settle yerself down in his chair.  It’s more comfortable than a bench.  Sam went with him.”  Bell shifted the big black kettle onto the hob and began to gather the accoutrements for tea.

Bilbo settled into the large cushioned seat with a sigh, the darker interior of the smial giving some relief to his sore eyes and pounding head.  “So, where is Daisy?”

“She’s gone down to help Buttercup Rumble with her laundry.  Butter don’t cope so well with scrubbin’ with her arthritis and May’s taken Marigold over the hill to play with Fern and Lilly Bracegirdle.  I’ve got the place to myself.”

Bilbo chuckled.  “I bet you don’t know what to do with yourself.”

“Oh, yes I do,” Bell asserted with a snort.  “Whatever I like.  What did Master Frodo make of the Reel?  Ye missed last years.”  She handed Bilbo a cup of strong tea and placed the honey within reach.

“I think Frodo enjoyed it very much.  He seemed to have no shortage of dancing partners.”

Bell settled in her rocking chair at the other side of the hearth.  “That’s no surprise.  He’s a polite way with him and when ye add in those big blue eyes I don’t reckon there’s a lass wouldn’t like his attention.  Did he say aught about Ruby Brownlock?”

“No, and I don’t think I want to ask.  I have to trust Frodo at some point, but it’s hard not to fret after the run in I had with Saradoc Brandybuck over his falling from that tree last year.  I think he may very well kill me if Frodo suddenly had to get wed!”

“Well, ye know my opinion on those folk over the river but I have to say that they seem to have done well by the lad when it comes to manners at least.  And with ye teachin’ him common sense he’s doin’ alright.  He’ll not get caught unless he’s ready to be and that’s not yet if I’m any judge.” Bell took a good swallow of her tea.  “I wouldn’t worry too much about Ruby.  She’s a nice enough lass but Master Frodo will be lookin’ fer more than a shapely leg.  Ruby’s likely not the one for him.”

“I confess I wonder if he’ll find a lass in Hobbiton.  I cannot see any of them discussing the finer points of elvish translation.”

“Well, now, I don’t know nothin’ about elvish and neither will they.  But there’s many a lass has a good sensible head on her shoulders too.  There’s more to runnin’ a house and raisin’ bairns than can be found in yer books, and I hope I don’t give no offense by sayin’ so.”

“No offence taken, Bell.  I suppose you’re right and one scholar is enough for any smial.  Maybe there’s something in the old adage that opposites attract.”

Bell looked about her cramped kitchen and her reply held a wistful note of envy.  “I’ve always thought it a shame that Bag End’s never held a big family.  There’s plenty of room for bairns to grow up in there.”

Bilbo took a good swallow of his cooling tea.  “Perhaps Frodo will raise a big family there one day.  I can remember having great fun as a faunt, sliding up and down that hall on a rug.  Indeed, when Frodo visited as a faunt I showed him how to do that . . . much to his mother’s annoyance I may add.”

Bell pursed her lips.  “Well, I don’t like to speak ill of the dead but Primula Brandybuck was a bit of a one fer the airs and graces.  She kept that poor bairn on a tight rein.”

Bilbo shrugged.  “She did like to keep him close.  She and Drogo had almost given up on the idea of having bairns when Frodo arrived so he was particularly precious to them.  I have to say that she wasn’t as fussy when they were in their own home.  I think she was worried he would damage the furniture or something in Bag End.  I’m afraid that fifty years ago I was much the same.”

“A lot of water under the bridge since then,” Bell commented, taking a sip of her tea.

“Indeed.  There’s nothing like being chased by a group of giant spiders to bring home to one the relative unimportance of grandma’s doilies.”  Bilbo smiled wistfully.  “I do hope that one day Frodo does teach his own faunt slide down that hallway.”

Bell grinned.  “With his winnin’ ways he’ll find the right lass and there’ll be plenty of  Harvest Reel’s to find her before he comes of age.”

 

 

 

 

 




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