For Dreamflower and others for their birthdays, and for Linda who again issued a challenge I couldn't resist.
A Nun in the Closet
It was quiet within Bag End as Pippin made his attack upon the second larder, where he knew that Cousin Bilbo had been stockpiling goodies for the party being planned for the Gaffer’s birthday in three days’ time. Frodo and Merry were down at the Water, swimming; Cousin Bilbo and Da were in the study discussing how best to approach the Thain regarding obtaining the new plow needed by the Whitwell farm for the coming year; Mum and the lasses were at the village market where they hoped to obtain some Dwarf-wrought pins needed for sewing and tatting, after which they were to have tea with Frodo’s aunts Dora and Iris at Iris and Ponto’s smial; and Aunt Esme and Uncle Sara weren’t due from Buckland for at least two more hours. That ought to be time and enough to enjoy some of the seed cakes and various biscuits put by for the old Hobbit’s party, Pippin thought. How he loved the cakes and biscuits Bilbo and Frodo baked! And there were at least two pots of May Gamgee’s currant jam in there, too, as well as one of Missus Rumble’s brambleberry preserves and one of Aunt Esme’s apple butter that Merry had brought with him.
In order to release the latch to the larder door he had to bring over the stool on which Frodo often sat, peeling taters into the dry sink while Bilbo kneaded dough on the stone slab on which bread was usually prepared in Bag End, allowing the two of them to work together and continue whatever discussion they’d been involved in for the day. Always before it was the sound of that stool being dragged across the tiled floor of the kitchen that had advised anyone in the rest of the smial that Pippin was trying to get into that larder; but now he had a fool-proof idea. He brought in lengths of toweling from the laundry basket in the little office where Bilbo’s mum used to do her accounts, and with great care he slid cloth between the brass-bound feet of the stool and the tiles, and then carefully pushed on the stool.
There was but a whisper of sound, and the stool moved far more easily across the green and gold ceramic tiles than it did usually. He smiled with triumph as he maneuvered the stool to the proper place where he could climb upon it and release the latch toward the top of the door, then he scrambled down and slid it out of the way so he could pull the door open, and in a trice he was inside, not really minding that it was swinging closed again as there was a tube carefully screened with bars and fine cloth that allowed fresh air and some light into the small storeroom from the top of the hill whilst deterring bugs and mice. The door would appear closed to anyone passing by, and he could sample goodies to his heart’s content!
Only he quickly realized he wasn’t alone in the room!
There was a Big Folk there already, sitting on the floor, one clad in a rather plain blue dress that must have reached her feet when she stood up but was now rucked up her legs to show she wore bulky knit garments of some sort on each foot under heavy black shoes that had thick, black laces. Pinned to the front of her dress was a white apron, and her hair was hidden under a starched, white cloth veil, carefully folded and held in place by a strap under her chin. She wore also a necklace of wooden beads, from which hung a strange shape made of two crossed lengths of wood, the upright one longer than the other.
Her face was long, narrow, and filled with creases. She must have been quite old, the young Hobbit realized. What in Middle Earth was she doing in Bag End’s second larder, and how had she come there?
Sitting on one hip as she was, she was at a proper height to look at the shelf where Bilbo had set the trays of cakes and biscuits, and she had a large pot of some kind of preserves beside her on the floor, the cloth and ribbon used to seal it carelessly discarded in the corner. There were traces of the dark preserves at the corners of her mouth, on her long, wrinkled fingers, and even on her white apron. Her ancient eyes were opened wide with surprise and alarm at being found so, until she’d had time to examine him as thoroughly as Pippin was examining her.
“What sprite is it that had joined me here, here in this room filled with delights?” she asked aloud. “Is it Puck, or perhaps one of his fellows? Peaseblossom, perhaps? Or Mustardseed! Tell me, manling, doest thou also seek sweet things to eat? Do join me! Here—I shall give way so that you, too, may take your ease as you eat. Would you like a biscuit? These here appear to be covered with colored sugar and are quite delectable!”
So saying, she handed him one of the fancy sugar biscuits Frodo and Merry had made that morning.
“I didn’t know that this room existed!” she added as she took a snickerdoodle from a different tray. She bit into it, and spoke on even though her mouth was now full. “There’s been this strange, small door at the back of the broom closet that has always intrigued me. I’ve always been certain Sister Evangelina has the key to it, and that this was where she puts those cakes sent back with her by some of the mothers she serves. So this morning when I went in to place her clean laundry upon her bed and I saw a key on a faded purple ribbon upon her shelf, I took it to try. And I was right! It opened into this room, which is absolutely filled with sweeties! And the preserves here—I don’t think I’ve tasted their equals ever! How has she managed to gather so much here?”
“Bilbo and Frodo made most of this,” Pippin explained. “It’s for the Gaffer’s birthday, you see. And if those are the brambleberry preserves, Missus Rumble from down on the Row made them.”
“She is a mistress of the art, then,” the strange woman said, and she dipped her hand into the jar and sucked the preserves off her fingers. Around the fingers she mumbled, “I remember when, as a child, I would go out from the Hall to the woods a half mile distant from our gates to gather berries with some of the girls from the village.” She swallowed, licked the last remains of the juice off her index finger, and continued. “My mother would be most upset when she realized I’d done this, however. The daughter of the Hall ought not to stoop to manual labor—this she sought to impress upon me by striking the backs of my hands with a ruler from the school room. But I was not to be deterred. Of that you may be certain! Ever I sought to fulfill the desires of my heart, which led me to befriend those beneath my station and to help others as I was able. Oh, it was considered admirable by my parents to provide charity, as long as one did not truly seek to be kind when it was offered, of course. My father, after all, was far too important to truly be part of the village’s life. He was a member of Parliament, you understand.”
Pippin didn’t understand at all. But then she straightened as if listening. “Sh!” she whispered. “Mrs. B. has come into the pantry behind me. I mustn’t be caught!”
In the distance he could hear a woman’s voice calling, “Sister Monica Joan? Are you in here? Oh, but where has she got to this time? Sister Julienne charged me to keep an eye on her today while she’s away to the church speaking with the Vicar.” A door closed somewhere, one that didn’t sound like any he was familiar with here in Bag End.
The old woman sighed. “She’s gone out and will be looking for me in the chapel, I suppose. I fear I must leave now, or she might come back and check in the broom closet and find the little door open. Then I shall be subjected to extensive lectures of correction from Sister Evangelina that would be most tiresome. Well, you remain here and enjoy the good things that fill this room with such abundance. I must return that key on the faded purple ribbon at once!”
With that the strange Big Person crawled backwards out through a small door Pippin had never seen before, one with long, straight sides and a narrow width. Never had the young Hobbit seen such a thing anywhere within the Shire! It looked as if it would be a good height for himself to go through, but far too small for this odd person to have walked through upright. He watched it close behind her and heard a key being turned in a lock, and knew that she must be hurrying out of the pantry of which she’d been speaking.
He ate several more biscuits and at least five of Bilbo’s seed cakes, and then lay on the floor upon his back, feeling the last of his corners must be satisfactorily filled before he closed his eyes—just for a minute, you understand—and fell asleep.
“So, this is where the young scamp is, then? I should have realized when I saw the tea towels under the feet of the stool!”
He awoke to find Bilbo, Merry, and Aunt Esme all three looking down at him.
“And he’s been into the brambleberry preserves,” Aunt Esme said in her tssking voice. “See how he’s thrown the cloth and ribbon into the corner?”
Merry was dragging Pippin to his feet. “I ought to have known when you said you’d not go swimming with Frodo and me that you had plans for such mischief,” he said.
Bilbo sighed as he reached down for the jar and cloth. “I don’t know how he reached the preserves,” he said. “I put the jar upon the top shelf. He must have climbed up them to get to it! I suppose we’re fortunate he didn’t break it as he brought it down again.” He looked inside and exclaimed, “Half the jar gone!”
“And see how many cakes and biscuits are missing!” Merry said, obviously distressed. “Frodo and I had thought we had enough for everyone who’s to come!”
“But we’d not taken into account one small Hobbit who nevertheless has a stomach of epic proportions!” Bilbo said. He leaned over to pick up the ribbon that had held the cloth over the preserves pot, but it wouldn’t come away easily. “What’s this? It appears to have gotten stuck under the trim, back here on this wall. Now, how on earth could that have happened?”
“It must have been dragged under the door as the strange Big Folk crawled out of it,” Pippin said.
But there was no door there, neither comfortably round or oddly straight and rectangular. Pippin was to continue searching for it for years, but he never saw it again.
The title is taken from a book by Dorothy Gilman, and the characters from "Call the Midwife." Blame Linda, who again sought to find ways to get me to combine our favorite series with Middle Earth.