Much of the past year had been difficult within the confines of Bag End, what with twelve children from faunts to young tweens, and Rosie and Sam had on more than one occasion found themselves wondering why in Middle Earth they’d ever thought they’d wanted twelve. Elanor and Frodo-lad had finally given up raiding gardens and farms, but Merry and Pippin-lads and Rosie were just getting well into it; young Goldilocks appeared to think the entire Shire should stop and stare in wonder at her beauty as she walked by; Hamfast, Daisy, and Primrose seemed willing to do almost anything to get attention; while Bilbo, Ruby, and Robin, being faunts, truly needed to be watched constantly.
The pressure on Elanor was often great, being the eldest and a daughter; and often she swore that she’d give almost anything not to have to be the one to be responsible all the time.
Their mum and dad had spoken several times of going to Gondor once more to visit Minas Tirith and Uncle Strider and the Lady Arwen, and all the middle children were certain they’d all be included. After all, they each had a pony, all the way down to Primrose, that is; and they were accustomed to riding to at least Michel Delving and back, and even to Buckland on occasion. Going to Gondor shouldn’t be all that difficult, they’d decided; and they’d often sit about the garden or in the orchard or out in the Party Field with the ponies about them discussing what each of them would take with them when that momentous day came.
Uncle Strider hoped they’d come down the coming spring, they knew, for there was a new monument he hoped their dad would help unveil on the Field of Cormallen. The children were thrilled. They’d get to see where it was their dad and Uncle Frodo had awakened after their terrible trip through Mordor, and Hamfast was obsessed with the idea of going all the way to the wastelands before where the Black Gates had stood to look on the place where Pippin-lad’s namefather had fought against the forces of Mordor and had killed his troll. “I know what I’d of done if I’d been there,” he declared, grabbing up his dad’s largest garden trowel, “I’d of stood like this--” he took a stance; “--and I would of faced that troll--here, Pippin, you play the troll.”
“But I’m Pippin and I oughta get to be Uncle Pippin,” his brother objected.
“But I thought of the game this time, and you usually get to play Pippin,” Hamfast reasoned. “It’s your turn to be the troll this time. After all, you’re bigger’n me, like the troll was to Uncle Pippin.”
“But you’re too young to play Uncle Pippin, and Dad won’t like it if you blunt his trowel.”
“But I want to play Pippin this time. It’s only fair I don’t have to be the troll every time.”
“You don’t have to do it every time--sometimes Merry plays it.”
“You do it.”
“I don’t want to. I want to be Uncle Pippin.” So saying, the older lad grabbed the trowel from his younger brother.
Their voices were getting louder, and Elanor came out to see what the difficulty was just in time to get hit with a clod of dirt Ham had aimed at his older brother. Pippin-lad, however, had anticipated just such a tactic and had slipped sideways just in time to avoid getting hit, leaving his unwary sister to take the earthen missile right in the center of her chest.
“Mother!” she cried as she saw her new bodice she was just trying on for the first time covered in dirt.
Rosie, however, wasn’t exactly free to come to her daughter’s side, for it appeared young Ruby had managed to find her sister’s thread scissors in her sewing bag and had begun experimenting to see what all could be cut with them. So far she’d managed to add an unwanted fringe to the hem of Goldilock’s skirt and had cut the tassels off the runner atop the dresser She now approached Primrose from the rear where she sat reading on a cushion on the floor in the dining room, intent on seeing what the scissors could do to hair when their mother, walking by the door and glancing in, saw her smallest lass with scissors in her hand and stopped, anticipating where this was likely to lead. “Ruby, no!” she called out, and the bairn stopped, turning her head to look behind her, but still holding out the scissors.
But Primrose was turning, too, and still being young, while seated her face was much on a level with her little sister’s outstretched hand. Immediately she was pulling back, crying out in shock and pain and anger. “Mummy! My eye! My eye! She jabbed me in my eye! Oh, Mummy! Ow! Ow! Ow!”
And before she could quite get to her youngest daughter to remove the scissors from her grasp she could hear a most angry Goldilocks crying out in fury, “Elanor! What have you done? You left your sewing bag where the bairn could get at it, and look what she’s done to my dress!”
Meanwhile, from the parlor she heard a crash, followed by Merry yelling, “Bilbo! What are you doing? Oh, stalks and leaves--Da’s going to be furious--you broke his favorite mug!” Then he made a squawk. “Daisy, what have you done to your face?”
At that moment she heard a pounding at the door. She saw no signs of blood on Primmie’s face and decided that the hurt most likely wasn’t life threatening, so once she’d snatched the scissors from Ruby she hurried out to find her youngest sitting on the floor with a box of sweets that Rosie-lass had bought the previous day in Bywater, Robin’s face smeared with caramel. Daisy had blue ink all over her hands, face, and dressfront from spilling a bottle in her dad’s study where she’d hoped to write a letter to Cousin Wynnie; Ruby was now roaring with fury at having had her toy removed from her hand; and apparently Merry had picked up Bilbo and had administered a couple of paddles to his sit-down, so his cries were added to the general bedlam.
She opened the door to find outside her brother, his face deathly grim, herding Rosie-lass and Frodo-lad before him. “I just caught these two,” Tom Cotton said, “raidin’ the glass house, and they’d eaten the strawberries as was spoken for by the Thain hisself. What am I supposed to deliver to him next week, I wonder?”
She searched her son’s eyes. “Fro? What in the name of all gardens have you been doin’? You’re supposed to be beyond such things!” At least he had the grace to look thoroughly ashamed.
By the time Sam got home from Michel Delving that night things had gotten, if possible, worse. Having realized they needed to avoid their mother’s ire at all costs, the children were turning to their older sister, the only one not totally in disfavor at the moment, and at last Rosie had ordered them all to bed. Frodo-lad had taken over the younger ones and given Bilbo and Robin their third bath for the day before settling them in their cots; Rosie-lass saw to the next younger ones and finally disappeared behind her own door with Goldi and her skirt to consider how they might salvage it; Primrose, after at least fifteen assurances that she had only the tiniest of cuts just below her brow and there was no danger of her going blind, had taken Ruby into her own bed and was comforting her after having spent much of the late afternoon yelling at her; Daisy, much of her face and hands still blue, had curled up in the middle of her own bed, unwilling to let anyone see her looking like that; and Merry, Pippin, and Hamfast had all disappeared into the guest room where Uncle Pippin and Aunt Diamond usually slept when they visited to comfort one another.
Sam stood just inside the door, startled at how unnaturally quiet it was, noting how his eldest and his wife were sitting together on the narrow sofa beside the fireplace, each with a mug of tea in her hands, Elanor’s face white with strain. He came toward them, and Elanor, carefully setting her cup down on the table beside her, rose and came to him, holding out her arms for reassurance. “Daddy,” she said in a small voice as he took her in his arms, “they were all horrible today--all of them! They’ve been fighting and Ruby was cutting things with my scissors--she crawled on top of my dresser to get into my sewing bag, and she broke my glass cat! And Frodo and Rosie-lass got caught eating the strawberries for the Thain, and then Rosie had a fit because Robin found her caramels, and Primmie’s been going blind all evening, and Daisy’s ashamed because she’s blue--never mind she spilled ink over everything and it won’t wash off and I don’t know if we can get the stain out of the carpet, and my new bodice is all over dirt, and....” She couldn’t go on, just rested in his arms, shaking, tears flowing down her face.
Sam looked from his eldest to his wife. “They’ve been right awful all day, and no mistake; and Tom’s fit to be tied, he is. I don’t know as what come over Frodo-lad to go over there with his sister--he’s too old to be raidin’ glass houses! As for Ham and Pip--the two’ve been arguin’ since this afternoon as to who ought to play the troll, and Merry-lad’s just been eggin’ them on. I don’t know as to what to do with a one of them!”
Sam sat himself down beside his wife, drawing Elanor onto his lap. “I’ve been thinkin’ on this trip to see Strider, lasses--I suspect as it would be best not to take them all. I mean, we’re to be there for a few months--it’d be too much to take all twelve and force them on the staff at the Citadel. Master Balstador--he’d be ready to throw us all out double quick, the way they’ve been actin’ lately, don’t you agree?”
Rosie nodded solemnly.
Elanor, calming down rapidly now that her father was home and was holding her much as he’d done when she was younger, looked up into his face. “But you’d take Frodo and me, wouldn’t you, Sam-dad?” she asked.
“After what he did today? No, I think he needs to stay home and keep the garden up--maybe if he has somethin’ to do every day he’ll start thinkin’ afore he acts. Sunshine and shadow--sometimes I wonder if any of’em save you’ll ever truly grow up, my Elanorellë? What do you say--shall we run away from home and go see Uncle Strider for a time, do you think?”
The rest of the children were all shocked the next morning when they learned the only one of them who’d be going after all was Elanor, and by afternoon their fury was palpable. All of a sudden if their oldest sister entered the room they’d all turn their backs on her; if she spoke they wouldn’t answer her; if she offered something they’d pretend they didn’t see it.
After a week of this Sam had had enough. “I’d almost thought to agree to take you all anyway, but not now,” he said very clearly. “I’m about ashamed to have to admit as you’re all my children. Can’t you see as how you’re hurtin’ your sister?”
But things didn’t truly get any better over the next few months. Elanor found her bed short-sheeted, her scent bottle filled with stinkweed sap, syrup poured on her hairbrush, and glue spread on the edges of her favorite book.
Only in the last week before their parents and Elanor were to leave did it begin to hit home that no matter what they did, Elanor was going to get to go and the rest were not. Finally Frodo-lad asked, “Am I going to be left in charge, Da, Mum?”
Sam shook his head. “It was you as put oatmeal under your sister’s sheets four days ago,” he said. “I think as you’ve shown as you’re not exactly one as we can trust right at the moment.”
Rosie-lass and Primrose, who was sitting with Ruby in her lap, looked at one another. Daisy, fiddling with Bilbo’s hair, was sitting on the floor in front of the parlor fender, her lower lip trembling. As usual Merry and Pippin were sitting side by side, glaring at their parents. Goldi had Robin in her arms, sitting in her mother’s wing chair. Hamfast was standing before his oldest brother, Fro’s hands resting on his shoulders. “Then who’s going to take care of us?” Goldi asked.
“I’ve been advised as there’ll be a nanny to watch over you while we’re gone,” Sam informed them all. “She’s one as is trained special to see to it as children as thinks they don’t have to behave learn to do so. She’ll be here about the time as we’re ready to go.”
So it was that they awaited the knock at the door that would herald their keeper while their parents and oldest sister were away. It came the morning of the day of the departure. Bags and chests were sitting in the hall, ready to be loaded onto the wagon they’d be taking; cloaks, bonnets, and their dad’s saggy hat he admitted Rosie had made for him years ago and that had been found stuffed in the corner of a dresser in Crickhollow lay waiting to be taken up. Their parents were in the kitchen, adding the last-minute items to the food chest when the bell rang.
They all stood in the passageway, looking warily at the door and at one another. After the bell rang the third time Frodo-lad took a deep, tremulous breath. “I suppose as I ought to see who it is,” he said, straightening and raising his chin. He advanced slowly, reached toward the brass knob and pulled back, then with decision placed his hand on it and turned it, pulling the door open decisively.
She stood looking down the garden path, and they could see how bulbous her nose was, her double chin, how thick her eyebrow was. She drew her attention away from the nasturtiums and sunflowers, and slowly turned to face and examine them, one by one. There was one brown wart on the side of her nose, and another on her chin, and one front tooth was so prominent it hung over her lower lip. But her eyes were particularly, unnervingly bright and clear and fine, and each child found himself or herself caught by that gaze. She leaned forward slightly on her twisted walking stick as she worked through the older children in order of age, finally ending with her eyes fixed on Robin. “So,” she said slowly, “you are the Gamgee children, are you?”
“Gardner,” Merry corrected her. “Or,” he amended, “they call us that as often as they do Gamgee, if not more.”
“I see,” she said, looking him over carefully.
“Did they send you from Missus Fiddly’s agency?” Goldilocks asked.
The corners of her mouth raised only slightly. “Oh, I don’t work for any agency,” she explained. “I’m a government nanny. I take only special cases, and for Lord Perhael it was decided only the best would do.”
At the use of their father’s special title and name the eleven of them looked at one another. Finally Primrose looked up at her. “Government nanny?” she wondered. “What’s a government nanny?”
Hamfast was examining her two warts with grave interest. “And you will be staying with us while our parents and Elanor are gone?”
Daisy, twisting one of her brother’s curls about her finger, asked, “What’s your name?”
“Well, I am Nanny McPhee.”
Again they exchanged glances. It appeared that the months of their parents’ absence were likely to be--unusual.