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16
A Gift from Afar

A crossover with Mary Poppins and Nanny McPhee. A sequel of sorts to Why Mums and Dads Leave Home. For SpeedyHobbit and Dawn Felagund for their birthdays.


~~~

A Gift from Afar


The two women sat opposite one another in the parlor of Bag End, a narrow, high table between them on which was set a formal tea. Both were of indeterminate age, one with dark hair caught in a severe bun at the back of her head, her nose small and pointed, her mouth primly pinched; the other with light brown hair also caught in a bun, but a far looser, more friendly one, and her nose was finely sculpted—although there was a sensation that this particular nose just might have appeared differently in the past, and a mouth on which there was the hint of a smile. Against the stonework of the mantle leaned a gnarled cane with a silver tip and an umbrella with a parrot-head handle, and on the chest between the Master’s chair and that of the Mistress lay a flat-brimmed blue hat atop a worn carpetbag.

A handsome Hobbit lad entered from the kitchen, an overflowing platter in his hands. “Nanny McPhee, would you and Mistress Mary like some more scones and raspberry jam?”

Nanny McPhee smiled warmly. “We would be most pleased to have more, Frodo-lad. Thank you so much.”

Mistress Mary watched the lad set the platter on the table, check the teapot and carry it away. “And they have no cook?” she asked.

Nanny McPhee smiled. “They are Hobbits, Mary. I’ve not yet met any Hobbit who hadn’t begun learning to prepare food from the moment he could stand and reach.”

Mary gave a thoughtful nod as she stared at where Frodo had disappeared into the kitchen. “Interesting,” she commented, giving a small sniff. “I can’t imagine turning Jane or Michael loose in the Banks’ kitchen,” she added. “Mrs. Banks would have no idea as to how to supervise them.”

“I can appreciate that, Mary. But these are actually very capable children, I’ve learned.”

“Do they truly need you?”

Nanny McPhee’s brow furrowed slightly as she also turned her attention toward the kitchen door. “Perhaps they don’t need me now, but there is no question that they did when I arrived. Being capable does not mean that they were being respectful to one another, their parents, or their older sister. Originally it was planned that all of the children would accompany their parents to the King’s City, but all of these younger ones began getting into mischief one day, and having started just could not seem to stop again. And what they did to their older sister was simply unconscionable. Elanor is a dear girl—sorry, lass—and most unflappable in most cases. They had her reduced to tears! It was truly too bad.”

Mary sniffed primly. “That does not sound particularly good. But now they are better?”

“Oh, yes. They had to learn a few lessons, of course, but learned them and began applying them very nicely. I am certain that their parents will be most pleased when they return.”

“And when will that be?”

“Perhaps in two months’ time. They would have been home by now had their mother not proved to be expecting once they reached Minas Anor. She should be delivering at any time now.”

Mary’s eyes widened with interest. “So that makes a full dozen, then? My stars—they have been quite busy, the parents to these ten!”

“Not that the Bankses haven’t seen to it that the nursery at Number 17 Cherry Tree Lane is also full,” Nanny McPhee responded, her eyes twinkling. “Jane, Michael, Annabelle, the twins….”

“So,” Mary said, changing the subject, “just why did you invite me to bring the children here today of all days?”

“Well, it is the Birthday, you see, and usually Mayor Samwise and his family host quite a large party for their friends and the byrthings' relatives. But with the Mayor and the Master and the Thain and their wives and some of their children gone off to be with the King for the memorial celebrations last spring and not able to return until Mistress Rosie’s newest is safely born, the children needed someone with whom to celebrate the Birthday here. I did believe that the Banks children would enjoy themselves thoroughly, and certainly they can come to no harm in the kitchen of Bag End surrounded as they are by Master Sam and Mistress Rosie’s brood.”

“And which of the children is celebrating a birthday today?”

“These children? Why, none of them, although their littlest brother will bear that distinction. No, none of them was born on this day in years past. It’s their birthday.” And she pointed to two portraits that hung over the mantel, one of an older Hobbit with a decided sparkle in his eyes, and the other of a younger, dark haired Hobbit with a gentle smile and a most responsible mien. “It’s Lord Iorhael’s birthday today, his and Master Bilbo’s.”

Mary paused, her mouth open in an O of appreciation. “The Cormacolindo!” she whispered. “So, this is that Mayor Samwise, then.”

“Indeed! And it is the greatest of honors to remind his children of the place they hold in having been recognized as the nephews and nieces of Frodo Baggins, the Ringbearer. In Gondor and the rest of Arnor this is the Ring-day, when they remember that Bilbo Baggins found the Ring while Frodo Baggins, Samwise Gamgee, and Sméagol between them saw to Its destruction. But here in the Shire it’s remembered that Bilbo and Frodo Baggins shared the same birthday, and that each in his time was the Master of Bag End and the Hill before that responsibility was ceded to their father. And here within Bag End the children continue to honor this day. Now, the King sees to it that his friends within the Shire receive frequent gifts of luxuries such as citrus fruits, almonds, olives, and chocolate, and the children here have known great satisfaction in devising numerous recipes for the use of such things. The recipe book I asked you to bring this day is precisely what Lord Iorhael was saying recently he wished he could gift to Sam’s children, and it will be greatly prized.”

“Mary!”

They turned to see Michael and Jane Banks emerging from the kitchen with a large plate laden with chocolate biscuits between them, their eyes sparkling, their clothing liberally smudged with flour and dollops of chocolate cookie dough.

“Can you see what Michael and I baked, Mary?” asked Jane, her tone triumphant. “I never baked biscuits before. But Frodo and Rosie were right—it was really quite simple!”

“And they are very good,” Michael added as they set it carefully on the crowded table. “We all sampled one when they came out of the oven. Although I burnt my lip a bit.”

“Do say that you like them!” Jane begged.

“And neither of you thought to wear an apron?” noted Mary with a tone of disapproval.

Jane explained, “Well, the children didn’t have any that would fit us.”

Michael straightened, shaking his head. “They tried tying towels about us, but the towels would come undone!”

“Do try them, please, Mary!” Jane pleaded.

Raising her nose slightly, Mary reached out to take one from the plate and took a ladylike bite. Her eyes widened with pleased surprise. “I must admit, Jane, Michael, that they are indeed very good! Excellently done, children.”

Their eyes shone with delight at the unaccustomed praise, while the faces of the Mayor’s children displayed satisfaction as they followed Michael into the parlor, Frodo-lad now with one of the twins on his hip and Rosie-lass carrying the other, Ham leading Anabelle by the hand. Goldilocks carried the teapot covered with a beautifully embroidered tea cozy and settled it amongst the plates and platters, cups and saucers and spoons that already sat there. “The shepherd’s pie is baking now,” Frodo said, “and Rosie-lass has finished icing the cake. We will take dinner down by the mallorn tree. Perhaps our Sam-dad and Rosie-mum will be by the White Tree in the King’s City and Uncle Frodo by his on Tol Eressëa, and they’ll realize that we are celebrating the Birthday, too.”

Jane watched Goldilocks return to the settle where she took little Robin onto her lap. “Doesn’t she have the prettiest curls you ever saw, Mary?” she asked. “And she never has to use curling papers!”

“I still think it very queer for the ones who are having the birthday to give presents to their guests,” Michael said, reaching for a biscuit that he shared with Anabelle. “And their Uncle Frodo and his Uncle Bilbo aren’t even here, even though it’s their birthday!”

Mary was eyeing the twins critically, noting the chocolate liberally smeared around their mouths and the partial cookie each held. “I can see that all of you will need full baths tonight, and then, spit-spot right into bed with each one of you,” she said as she poured out another cup of tea for herself. “And would you like some more also, dear?” she asked her companion.

Frodo-lad wiped the face of the baby he held with its bib. “Well, old Mister Bilbo most likely wouldn’t still be here even if they’d stayed here in Hobbiton and Middle Earth,” he said absently. “Sam-dad doesn’t think he remained in Elvenhome more than a year and a half after they got there, actually.”

“Where did he go after that?” Michael asked.

Rosie-lass was shaking her head. “He was terrible old by that time,” she explained delicately. “I mean, he was a hundred and thirty when he and Uncle Frodo sailed away. But our da thinks that he stayed on there, probably for Uncle Frodo’s sake, for at least that long.”

“So, did you get a letter telling him that Mr. Bilbo died then?” Jane asked.

“We can’t get letters from Elvenhome,” Pippin-lad said, his tone indicating he was hard pressed not to tell her she’d asked quite a silly question. “We can send letters there, you see, by way of the ships that go that way. But we can only do that if we manage to meet with some of the Elves going to the Haven on their way to Elvenhome, too, who will agree to take the letters with them.”

Michael said, “But they never write back?”

Merry gave his curly head a shake. “You don’t understand—the ships that go there, they can’t come back again. Dad says that there are rules.”

Michael and Jane exchanged surprised looks. “That doesn’t sound quite fair,” Jane noted.

Frodo’s face had gone solemn. “As Dad tells us, life isn’t always fair. It certainly wasn’t fair for our Uncle Frodo.”

Nanny McPhee spoke up. “Unfortunately, that is all too true, Frodo Gamgee-Gardner,” she said gently. “Although I suspect that your Uncle Frodo is now glad that he did accept the Queen’s gift. I know he’d still rather he could have remained to know all of you, but he is now able to enjoy so much he could not have known had he remained here.” She turned her bright gaze on Jane and Michael. “And the rules, no matter how unfair they seem, have good reasons that you cannot begin to appreciate without knowing all that happened before they were made. Some very terrible things happened when people broke the old rules, so new ones had to be made and things had to be changed so that the new ones will always hold people from endangering themselves by trying to defy them.”

Michael’s face had gone stubborn, and it was plain he didn’t fully understand, but he left the subject alone. But now they heard wheels along the lane, and the children, Hobbits and the Bankses, all hurried out to greet the new arrivals.

There were greetings as Berilac Brandybuck arrived with his family and his cousin Merry’s children and his cousin Pippin’s daughter Wynnie. Others, Tooks, Brandybucks, Cottons, Smallburrows, Bolgers, Boffins, and others whose names couldn’t be remembered afterwards, poured into what the children called the Party Field where tables had already been set up. Piles of plates were carried down from the smial to the tables, along with cups into which forks, spoons, and knives were thrust. Each family arrived with baskets filled with food that they added to the feast.

There were buns and breads and scones; shepherd’s pie and bowls of taters boiled, baked, roasted, and mashed; there were salads and mayonnaises; tureens of mushrooms and soups; roasts and haunches, whole chickens and baked geese; there were salmon, trout, and perch; there were bowls of peas and beans and sprouts and various greens, turnips and squashes. There were wedges of various cheeses, fingers of celery and carrots. There were bowls of butter both sweet and salted, and jars of jam. Jellies shimmered on plates, and fruits of all kinds filled baskets and platters. And for afters there were cakes and sweet buns, puddings and biscuits—platters and platters of biscuits! Oh, Michael and Jane had never seen so many good things to eat at one meal in all their lives! And there were Hobbits everywhere, laughing, talking, singing, dancing, and (sorry to say) even quarreling some, although the quarrels were quickly sorted out so that soon those who’d been at odds with one another were now sitting at a different table sharing old stories about happenings long ago and laughing and nudging one another familiarly.

At one point Frodo Gamgee-Gardner rose and pounded upon the table with a spoon, and all went respectfully silent as he said a Few Appropriate Words, and all raised their glasses high in honor of the byrthings, Bilbo and Frodo Baggins. There had been small packages by each place, and at last when Mary decided that the Banks children had known far more excitement than was strictly good for them she indicated they needed to come away now, and they obediently moved to her side, each clutching his or her birthday present in his hand. As they started to leave the party field Primrose brought them a basket wrapped in a great handkerchief to take with them, and hugged Michael and Jane and Annabelle, and nuzzled at the twins’ ears, making them both giggle. “Thank you for coming,” she said. “We don’t ever get to see Big Folks’ children except when we go out to Bree or to Annúminas, you see, for usually Big Folks aren’t allowed to come into the Shire, although children are all right.”

Michael looked up at Mary, and then back at where Nanny McPhee was leading the smallest Gamgee children back into the smial to put them to bed. “But these two are Big Folks, aren’t they?”

Primrose gave Mary a wary look, and leaned in close to whisper to him and Jane, “It’s different for them. We think that they’re related to Gandalf, and so they aren’t really exactly Big Folks, either. Not like Lotho’s Big Men, you see, or the King’s people, or the folk of Bree. But we were glad to have you and hope that you enjoyed yourselves.”

“Oh, but we did!” Jane sought to assure her. And holding tightly to the basket, they came away home, where the twins played with their brightly painted yellow ducks in the bath they shared, and Michael carefully placed the carved red dragon he’d received on the headboard of his bed. As for Jane, she took the delicate dollies she and Annabelle had received and placed them on the mantel on either side of the Doulton bowl on which three boys played, the knee of one tied up in a scarf.

*******


Sam and Rosie sloughed off their traveling cloaks and gave them into the hands of Rosie-lass and Frodo-lad, while Goldilocks saw to helping Elanor shed her outer garb. Merry was holding little Tolman, his eyes alight as he examined his newest little brother. “And he was truly born on the Birthday?” he asked once more.

“Indeed he was,” Sam said, reaching out his hands to take the small, wriggling bundle into his arms once more. “And I can’t imagine a more wonderful Birthday Gift for us to have received.”

“We got another one,” Frodo said, sharing a look with Rosie-lass and Goldilocks. “One of Nanny McPhee’s friends came with the children she cares for, and they brought a present that Nanny McPhee said that she was certain that Uncle Frodo wished for us to have.”

He went and fetched it from the kitchen, and it proved to be a book—quite an odd book, in Sam’s estimation. The covers appeared to be pasteboard covered not with leather but with something that appeared to be somewhere between paper and cloth, and there was a thin paper sheet with its ends tucked inside the covers with the picture of a smiling woman upon it holding up a platter on which lay what appeared to be a particularly large turkey fully roasted!

“What is it?” asked his beloved Rose, coming close to see, too, and reaching to take her newest son from his father.

“It’s a cookery book,” Rosie-lass explained. “And Nanny McPhee said that the pictures on each page are done with some way of making them she called fo-to-graphs. Never heard such a word before, but she says that where the book was made they are very popular.”

“Such a funny way to wear her hair!” Elanor noted as she leaned forward to examine the picture on the front of the book for herself.

Sam took the book and began turning pages randomly, amazed by the colorful pictures of this dish or that one, glancing quickly at the receipts for a few of them. “Well, I never!” he grunted.

“Look inside the front cover,” Frodo-lad advised, so his father followed suit.

And there, in a familiar script, he saw inscribed:

To my beloved brother Samwise and his brood, with much love.


It wasn’t signed, but then it didn’t need to be.

-~0~-

Chocolate Shortbread Cookies


INGREDIENTS
• 1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, room temperature
• 3/4 cup all-purpose flour
• 1/2 cup confectioners' sugar
• 3 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
• Simple Icing

DIRECTIONS
1. STEP 1
Preheat oven to 300 degrees. With an electric mixer, beat butter until creamy. Add flour, sugar, and cocoa; mix just until combined. (Chill dough in the refrigerator 10 minutes if it is too soft to handle.)
2. STEP 2
Pat dough into an 8-inch round cake pan; press edges down with the tines of a floured fork. Bake until firm, 30 minutes. Immediately score into eight wedges; cool completely. Turn out of pan; break wedges apart. Decorate with icing .

SOURCE
Everyday Food, October 2005

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