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Chapter 6. Gathering and Sharing
“As usual” was more difficult than usual, when the morning light crept in through the windows. ‘Up, lads!’ called Hally with his usual cheerful tones. It took all of Estella’s considerable will to throw off her blankets and rise from her pallet by the fire. She had slept right through breakfast preparations, Hally stirring up the fire, putting the kettle on, and even his taking it off again.
‘Come along, sleepyheads!’ Rosemary carolled, belying the circles under her eyes that bespoke long effort into the wee hours. Enticing scents still hung in the air, but the table held only dishes and food enough for the family’s breakfast, and not the piles of fresh-baked goods that had been there when Estella sought her pillow.
The children, having splashed their hands and faces, took their places at table with wide and wondering eyes. There was ham! …and freshly fried hens’ eggs! …as well as a variety of breads (barley, sweet, and wholemeal) for the feasting. Rosemary kept urging them to ‘Eat up! It’s been a long, lean time, and there’s much work to be done… and who knows how long the food will remain here, before they come to gather it away?’ She laughed, as if it were a jest, but her eyes did not match her smile, to Estella’s thinking.
Estella felt a chill at this, but she ate heartily all the same, for this was the most food she’d seen since arriving at the forest Bolgers’ home, and Rosemary was certainly an inspired cook.
Just as they finished, there was a rapping at the door, and Hally jumped up from his place and hurried to the door. ‘Ah, Scar,’ they heard him say, and then Rosemary was on her feet, grabbing up several heavy-laden bags that rested near the door, and joining her husband.
‘My thanks, Scar,’ she said in a breathless way. ‘Why, it’s the first full meal we’ve had since…’
The ruffian’s gruff tones were to be heard, though he was hidden by the partly opened door. ‘Just wanted to check and see…’
‘Oh, yes,’ Rosemary broke in. ‘Quite! And for your kindness, if you would please accept just this small token, for you and for your men…?’ She thrust the bags through the door, evidently into the ruffian’s grasp, for she continued with, ‘Take care! Don’t drop them!’
‘Why, Missus,’ Scar was heard to say. ‘Smells delicious, I must say…’
‘Just a bit of baking,’ Rosemary said. ‘I had to try out all the new things, after all, give them a try and see how well they worked, for I’d hardly want to feed such to honoured guests if they didn’t work, if you take my meaning?’
Somehow, it seemed that Scar did.
‘That ought to hold you over until my regular baking day,’ Rosemary said. ‘At least, I hope that it will. Today is washing day, and tomorrow ironing, and after that the mending,’ she ticked each day off on a finger, but on the next, which would have been "market" she said only, "er" and then continued, ‘and the next day cleaning, and little enough time for baking until the morrow after, and I’d hate to have you come to the door, and me empty-handed as it were, so I did a little extra last night,’ -- a little, Estella thought with a twist to her mouth, that thankfully the ruffian did not see – ‘and I do hope it’ll suit.’
Market day under the ruffians had gone by the wayside, at least so far as the forest Bolgers were concerned. There was not much on offer at what passed for a market in Stock, and Rosemary faced only scowling faces and hostile looks when she did force herself to go, and so "market day" had become just another day in the week, a day for the usual household tasks, caring for smial and yard, animals and garden.
‘I’m sure that it will,’ Scar said, his voice even gruffer than it had been. As a matter of fact, he cleared his throat, as if Rosemary’s efforts had touched him somehow.
Hally seemed to find his tongue. ‘Well, then,’ the hobbit said. ‘I’m glad to hear that. It’s time for me to ply my axe, for the work’s never done, I find.’
Scar guffawed. ‘Never,’ he said. ‘Would you like us to keep an eye on your Missus and little’uns whilst you’re in the woods?’
‘You may if you like,’ Hally said in an offhanded tone, as if he cared little either way, ‘though it’s not really needful this day. I’ll be staying close by, to haul water for the washing as it needs hauling. I’ve dragged enough wood here that I’ll have plenty of chopping-up to do over the next day or two, no need to go far into the woods for more…’
Estella found she was holding her breath as Scar replied, ‘Well, that’s fine. We’ve a few other fish to fry, as it were, what with spending so much time in this neck o’ the woods the past few days. I’ll wish ye and yours a good day, and we’ll see you when baking day comes around, if not before.’
‘If not before,’ Hally said pleasantly, and Rosemary added her farewells. They stood in the doorway a while longer, as if watching the ruffian stalk away, and each raised a hand in farewell, as if the ruffian might have turned his head in his passing, for a final look or remark.
At last, Hally eased the door closed, and Rosemary slumped against him with a sigh.
‘Gone,’ he said. ‘A good morning’s work.’
‘A good middle night’s work, you mean,’ Rosemary said, straightening. She put her hands to her back and stretched.
‘That, too,’ Hally said. ‘They might sniff around a bit this morning, but I’ll wager they’ll be gone by noontide, and not back again until baking day, as usual.’
Suddenly “as usual” had a beautiful sound to Estella’s ears. She got up from her place, where she’d been frozen through the entire conversation, along with the little Bolgers, and began to clear the dishes away. What a difference a hearty breakfast made!
She threw herself into the morning chores with Robin, both of them using small hatchets to make kindling, tending the fire that Hally started under the great kettle used to heat water for bathing and washing, stirring laundry in the tub under Rosemary’s direction; and at the last Robin and Estella together carried each basket of washed and wrung-out laundry to the lines Hally had strung between nearby trees, ready for pegging out.
All the while, they could hear Hally’s cheerful whistling as he worked, whether hauling water or chopping wood, and Rosemary’s humming often harmonized with the tunes he chose. Altogether it was a happy, productive domestic scene. In between tasks, there was time for races, and spitting contests, while taking turns watching over the littlest Bolgers when their mother was occupied.
At last it was time to sit down to the noontide meal, another hearty meal of fresh-baked bread and bubbling hot stew, and no rush this time on Rosemary’s part, for the parents exchanged a look as they sat down, and Hally gave his wife a reassuring nod and whispered, ‘Been gone an hour or so already, or so I deem…’ (Which Estella took to mean that watching ruffians had taken themselves off an hour before, though she hadn’t seen them watching, and she certainly hadn’t seen them go. It seemed that Hally had developed a certain faculty for discerning ruffians’ hovering presence, perhaps because they visited on a regular basis, or something to do with their “as usual” practices and routines in bothering the local hobbits.)
In any event, after the noontide meal was over, but before they all lay themselves down for the nap that inevitably followed, Hally brought the cart he’d partly filled with neatly cut firewood before the door and dumped out the contents. Everyone, from largest to smallest Bolger (Estella included), who could carry the small sacks they’d filled in the night, one or more at a time, did. They brought the sacks from storeroom to cart, working as quickly as might be, and then they arranged the pieces of wood over all, with Hally making artistic adjustments until the cart looked as if it contained only firewood and nothing more.
‘Come, lads,’ he said then to Estella and Robin, as he moved between the poles of the cart and took them up. ‘You’ll push, and I’ll pull.’
‘But what about Nan?’ Estella said, before she thought.
Hally laughed. ‘It’s much too heavy for the goat!’ he said, ‘…all this firewood that I plan to trade to my brother, for a bit of his help in felling the next few trees, as usual.' (And it seemed that Hally winked, or perhaps he wiped at a speck in his eye.) 'Why risk poor Nan, when we’ve two fine, strong lads to push, and a woodcarver to pull it along, I ask you!’
Estella knew, from the whispered conversation at noontide, that Hally's brother Gundy would be able to distribute the foodstuffs to the more desperate of the neighbours, and no one the wiser, on Rosemary’s next baking day, when the ruffians would be clustered around Rosie’s door, greedily eating up the fruits of her labours.
And no one the wiser. The neighbours, while not knowing where Gundy obtained the supplies, would never think of Hally and Rosemary, who to all appearances were in league with the ruffians. That was all to the good. They’d maintain their hostile attitudes towards Hally and Rosemary, and the ruffians would continue to consider the Bolgers as friendly collaborators, making them free in their conversations and not wary of who might hear them, or what they might divulge, as they gobbled Rosie’s good cooking.
And one day soon, Ferdibrand would come to the Bolgers’ door in the dark of the night, to collect whatever news the Bolgers had gathered, to bring the same to the Thain. Only this next time, he’d collect somewhat more.
Estella hoped that he’d come soon. She was well-practiced, and ready. At least, she thought she must be. While she was growing used to "as usual" among the forest Bolgers, she looked forward to finding out what "usual" might be in the Tookland.
Would it feel odd, or natural, to resume her skirts and girlish ways once more?
And what would Merry Brandybuck think of her, to see her in her current guise?
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