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The Proposition  by Lindelea

Chapter 15.

‘He’s beautiful,’ Hally whispered, staring at the babe that he’d just laid in Rosemary’s arms, washed and freshly nappied and ready to nurse away the midnight hour.

‘He’s handsome, you mean,’ Rosemary corrected with a smile. ‘He’ll be a fine figure of a hobbit some day; he’s such a good eater already...’

Is a fine figure of a hobbit already, I’d say,’ the proud father said, and tenderly kissed his wife on her forehead before settling next to her on the bed, to watch the babe nurse. ‘So, what shall we call him? You said the next would be after your brother, for a change...’

‘Hmmm,’ Rosemary said. ‘That’s easier said than done, in this day. Too dangerous to name him outright.’

‘Change a letter?’ Hally said. ‘Would that be too obvious? Ferni, perhaps?’

‘Ferny,’ Rose said thoughtfully, and wrinkled her brow. After a moment’s thought, she shook her head. ‘No, too close. ‘Twould remind the little ones too well of their uncle, whose name we’ve forbidden them to speak… If one of them were to slip and call the babe “Ferdi” in a ruffian’s hearing, well… It’s a chance I wouldn’t want to take.’ She sighed. ‘Barry, then?’

But Hally, seeing the disappointment that she tried to hide, was thinking hard, and as he thought, he said aloud, ‘Ferdi… Ferni… Ferny… Fern… What d’you think of Bracken, then?’

Rosemary threw back her head and laughed, a quiet laugh that she not disturb the babe at his endeavours, nor the children from their sleep. ‘Bracken! Bracken, for my brother! How he shall laugh...’

‘Quietly, I hope, that no lurking Man might hear him...’ Hally said, and Rosemary sobered. Hoping to restore her smile, he said, ‘Bracken, then. A fine, Woodsy name for a lad born in the Wood’s End!’

‘We might as well call him Woody,’ Rosemary said.

‘We might as well call them all that,’ Hally agreed, ‘but then which would come when we called, do you think? Come one, come all?’ He stroked the downy head, and laid a soft kiss there. ‘Welcome, Bracken,’ he said. ‘We’re glad to have you with us at last.’

As he’d promised Violet, Hally did not go out to cut wood at all for more than a week. He did a little chopping and and a little carving, “to keep his hand in”, but for the most part he devoted himself to Rosemary’s usual work of keeping home and hearth and little ones. The children laughed to see him wrapped in one of their mother’s aprons, brandishing a spoon, but they soon got the spirit and donned aprons of their own -- Rosemary had several -- and took on some of their mother’s easier tasks in addition to their own. And if their efforts were fumbling and childish, well then, Hally took the time to show them easier ways, and praised their work to the skies until they glowed, and threw themselves into even more chores, finding the work more satisfying, somehow, than play, at least in this time of “helping Mama”.

The babe had been born early in the morning of the High Day -- He has a good sense already of how to celebrate! Hally said -- and no work to speak of had happened on Wash Day and Ironing Day that followed, and so even though it was properly Mending Day, Hally hauled out the tubs and filled them, the wash tub with heated water and soap, and the rinse tub with clear, clean water. With Robin and Parsley alternating as his helpers (one stirring the laundry in the tub with a long stick while the other watched over and played with the littler ones, all the time listening for Rosemary’s call), he took care of all the washing and hanging-to-dry, along with all the other household chores except for those the children performed (and those he inspected, and praised). Parsley swept and made the beds, Robin carried wood and water, Hally cooked and changed nappies and told stories at naptime as well as bedtime.

The ironing, Hally deemed, could be set aside for this week, at least, and perhaps next week as well. It wouldn’t hurt for them to wear wrinkled clothes -- and they wouldn’t be too terribly wrinkled, as there was a brisk wind that day, to flap the clothes smoother on the line than might be if they simply hung before the fire, or outside on a quieter day. The mending, too, Hally simply deposited in the basket by Rose’s chair, to wait for her to be ready to take up her needle once more in a week or two. Though he could mend harness or sew on a button with the best of them, he wasn’t much for darning holes or setting patches neatly enough to suit his wife.

The children were charmed by their littlest brother, with his perfect eyelashes and fingernails, and the tiny curls atop his little feet; and they were absolutely thrilled to have their father at home all through the day, whistling tunes and telling stories, making up jokes and encouraging them to do the same. It was also nice to have their mother free to give them all her attention (when she wasn’t sleeping, that is), and not busy about household duties.

Robin was carried away at one point, when all were gathered around the hearth, Rosemary sitting in her rocking chair, nursing the babe, and Hally telling the bedtime story. The little lad, full of the delights of the day, interrupted the story as his happiness overwhelmed him, and shouted, ‘We ought to have a new babe every day!’

Hally affected surprise, and scratched his head as if pondering the thought. ‘What a good idea!’ he answered, and the children stared at him in astonishment until he added, as if in sudden realisation, ‘...but wait! ...We do!’

Little Bracken opened his eyes wide at the general hilarity that resulted, and then settled to nursing once more.

On Market Day, the forest Bolgers stayed at home. They would have, in any event, even if the babe had not made his appearance, considering they’d spent all their savings the previous week. They were there in spirit, however -- being the topic of many conversations, that were taking place all around the market square, for Market Day was the best day to exchange gossip, of course, over everything that had happened since the previous Market. Everyone who was anyone was there, whether they had coin to spend or shopping to do, or not; walking the stalls, stopping to talk, bargaining or bartering, inviting someone to take tea at day’s end.

Quiet indignation was shared, as farmers and villagers compared notes; the ruffians had “shared and shared alike”, or rather gathered from all and sundry, without apparent discrimination. Rich and poor alike had found their larders lightened, their storerooms rifled, their belongings “cut down to proper size”, according to Lotho’s Men. Because of the Men loitering in shadowy corners and alleyways, the indignation had to be quiet, indeed, discreet, a matter of mutters and dark looks and hushings up if a ruffian seemed to be taking notice of a conversation.

Violet, of course, was quite in demand, with her story of Rosie’s travail amongst a rabble of ruffians. She was gratified by her listeners’ expressions of sympathy and horror on the Bolgers’ (and Violet’s) behalf. For great, blundering Men to intrude on such a delicate situation! Hulda, who had not yet entered her confinement, shuddered for her poor, dear friend. If only she were not so close to her time, she’d insist that her husband escort her to Rosie, to bring tea and consolation…! Sadly, she knew her husband would never agree to such an excursion.

Violet’s recounting of the curious behaviour of the ruffians, first gathering the Bolgers’ possessions, and then restoring them, received mixed reactions, however.

Some muttered darkly that it meant nothing good -- it wasn’t natural for friendship to spring up between the likes of them and the likes of us, or so it was spoken, albeit in low tones. Others countered that Hally and Rosie were good folk, too good for their own good, if one’s meaning might be taken -- too trusting by far, and likely to suffer for it, though at least for the time being, it seemed, the ruffians were letting them be. One could hardly credit that Lotho’s Men could act out of pity or compassion for Rosie’s suffering and Hally’s near loss -- for Rosie had suffered a close call, a very close call, by Violet’s account -- she’d feared she’d lose both mother and babe at more than one point in that dark, long night.

Hally’s brother Gundy, walking the market though he didn’t appear inclined to buy much of anything, merely shook his head and looked troubled when the subject of Hally and Rosie came up. No, he hadn’t visited his brother, to see the new babe. No, he wasn’t planning to go any time soon. He gave the impression that he and Hally had quarrelled over somewhat or another thing since so companionably leaving the Market the previous week, and those who knew them well shook their heads at the implications, and wondered how long it would be, before the brothers were once more on speaking terms. Pity poor Rose, already so isolated, living so far from town, and now Hally’s nearest relations weren’t relating!

Violet, when someone related this to her, nodded wisely and gave it to be understood that she was scarcely surprised. Soon it was all over the market that she’d measured Hally and found him wanting… And Gundy, when presented with this fact by some busybody or other, pronounced no heated denials. No, all he did was close his eyes in sorrow and turn away.

Something was dreadfully wrong with the forest Bolgers. Those who walked the Market that day were soon apprised of the situation, and looked forward to seeing Hally and Rose with their own eyes, next time the little family came to town. Those who were not there that day, soon heard the full story as the day’s gossip spread through the community. Rosie’s ordeal tempered the gossip, but those inclined to think ill of others still thought the worst of Hally (and,it must be said, Rose, by association), even though they kept such thoughts to themselves for the present.

And Gundy came home from the market, his heart sick within him (even as he grudgingly admired his brother’s cleverness and daring, and Rosie’s courage), gruffly ordered young Andy to see to the chores, went in and sat down at table where Cora had a nice tea waiting, and buried his face in his hands.

‘What is it, my love?’ Cora asked, alarmed. ‘Are you ill?’

‘No,’ Gundy said, then, ‘Yes.’

‘What is it?’ Cora said, rubbing at his shoulders and using her most sympathetic tone. ‘Head? Stomach? Are you hungry?’

Gundy shook his head and slapped his hands down on the table. ‘I couldn’t eat if you paid me to do so,’ he said. ‘I’m sorry, love.’

‘Stomach, then?’ Cora said. ‘Shall I brew some nice mint tea, to settle you?’ She pushed the teakettle over the brightest part of the fire, and started to measure dried mint leaves into one of the small linen bags she’d sewn to brew herbs in a teapot.

‘I’m fed up to here with hobbits and their gossip,’ Gundy said bitterly, holding one stiff, flat hand to his chin. ‘They make me sick!’

‘What gossip? What is it?’ Cora said, turning from her tea-making, alarmed at his tone. She couldn’t quite remember him railing against the hobbits of Stock in such a way before. ‘What’s happened?’

‘Nothing,’ Gundy said, and mystified his wife by adding, ‘Everything.’ He turned tear-filled eyes to her, startling her no end, and she hurried to him in worry and confusion. He circled her with his arms, held her tight, buried his face in her apron, and wept long and quietly.

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