“Bother this, nothing works!” The piece of stone pinged off the bath, prompting an angry shout...“Oi Miss, what ARE you doing in there?” Bess sighed as she retrieved the stone from the far side of the bathroom. “Nothing Ma, sorry”. Well, achieving nothing anyway. Try as she might her feet just wouldn’t come clean. Tenacious stuff this Hobbitton field dirt, but what was a lass to do? To get pie you have to have fruit and veg, and to get fruit and veg, you have to grow it…Not that being muddy would usually concern Bess. Not her. Nothing wrong with healthy Shire mud, and what’s the point of washing just to get covered again tomorrow… But today… today would determine whether or not she would be able to realise her dream. Well, at least whether she would be able to make a start on it.Despairing of ever getting her feet clean, Bess donned her one and only dress, praying that the long skirt would keep her feet concealed enough for the calluses and dirty marks to go un-noticed.As she strode out along the road to Bywater, Bess cursed her dress loudly, prompting amused glances and the occasional comment as she tried repeatedly to untangle her legs while keeping herself reasonably clean. Drat and bother the silly thing, how does anyone manage to walk wearing such a ridiculously impractical item of clothing? With a wry smile Bess remembered her Ma’s pleasure at seeing her in a dress, she herself was much more comfortable in her dirty, comfy, scruffy trousers, but they simply wouldn’t do today. Not today.Finally reaching Bywater village centre, Bess smoothed her hair and tried to rearrange her dress to hide the scuff marks where she had managed to step on and fall over the hem on her trip. Trip being the operative word half the time. Why am I so nervous. Come on Bess. Just open the door and get on with it you silly lass! Chiding herself for her nerves, Bess screwed up her courage in both hands and stepped into the Green Dragon, looking around anxiously. “Ahh hello young Miss, what’ll it be for you this fine day?” The Barkeeper hailed her loudly, making Bess jump. “Oh… umm… hello… I was looking for someone… a Mister Chubb? Petunia Greenhand sent me. Do you know him?”“Who, Old Aiken? He’s just round the back there, not sure he be wanting to see visitors though, he be busy with them pies he’m baking…”
Just what she wanted to hear, the hobbit on whom her entire future depended… and he was too busy to be bothered with her…The miserable look on her face must have stirred the elderly Barkeeper into some show of compassion. “There there Lass, don’t go leaking all over me bar. Just wait there and I’ll go and have a word with him for ‘ee. I surely wish a young lass would weep at the thought of not visiting me!”Bess couldn’t help smiling at the old hobbit’s words as she sat herself down, wiping her eyes with the back of her hand. All that preparation, and she didn’t even remember her handkerchief. Some impression she was making!“Ah-ha! Always a pleasure to meet a fellow cook, always a pleasure! We might swap a recipe or two and share a meal or three if you find your way to the Green Dragon more than this once!”Bess jumped at the voice behind her, and quickly stood up, hoping her tears and sniffles weren’t too obvious.“Oh… Hello Mr Chubb… I’m so sorry to bother you, but I was told you are the authority on pies around here, and well, I was wondering if you could…”Bess stuttered into silence as the old hobbit in front of her started to laugh.“Stop fretting lass, if Petunia sent you then you’re doing just fine. I'll be glad to help you with anything I can, of course! If you keep practicing, your dinners will get tastier and tastier and even more in demand! You just wait and see! I'll be waiting to speak with you when you've had a few more meals under your belt, both yours and cooked by others, I expect! Maybe then I can give you a little instruction on the finer points of simmering, boiling, tenderising, and roasting! But for now, I must be getting back to my own cooking. Take care lass, and keep up the good work!”Handing her an old recipe book, Aiken wandered off back to his oven, leaving Bess standing with a huge grin on her face. All the hours growing and baking, all that worry, all the cleaning and washing… she’d done it. She had DONE IT! Hugging the book to her as though it were the most precious thing in the world, Bess ran out of the inn, dancing and singing, with the proud words running through her head.“Me, Bess, Officially an Apprentice Cook. Bess, Apprentice Cook!!!”
He had the pie. As long as he had the pie everything would be alright. The pie was his opening gambit, his shield, and his secret weapon, all encased in a well-glazed lardy crust. How could he fail with such a pie, all crammed with frogmeat and beans? Surely no lady hobbit from these parts could resist such a delicacy, could they? What if nerves had prevented him from baking it to his usual standards? What if there was a bad frog in there? What if…?
‘Stifle those doubts, Pob lad’, he muttered to himself, ‘Concentrate on the pie.’
Pob trotted northwards along the Rushey Road towards Stock. His small farm was well behind him now. He’d left his son, Tob, in charge while he undertook this daring mission to the farm about a mile to the north. Tob was a good boy, and would be more than capable of looking after the cows and the beans in his father’s absence. Cows and beans, good Marish products both, had been in his family’s blood for generations.
Tulip Rushlight’s farm came into view as he crested a rise in the road. It looked resplendent as always in the late afternoon sun, with the Brandywine glittering alongside. Beyond he could just about make out Old Maggot’s holdings, which reminded him, it would soon be mushroom season again. How did it get to be September already?
‘Focus, Pob!’ he told himself sternly, ‘There’ll be plenty of time for thinking of mushrooms later. Keep your eye on the pie.’
As he approached the farm he spotted Tulip digging around in her vegetable field. She hadn’t seen him yet, so he ducked behind a large clump of marsh rushes to compose himself. This visit had been weeks in the planning, he’d rehearsed his lines countless times, but there was no harm in going over them one more time in his head before he took the plunge.
‘What are you doing, hiding behind those rushes, Pob Mossyfoot?’
His heart sank. This wasn’t part of the plan at all! Already his meticulous preparation was unravelling, and he hadn’t even begun. He still had the pie though. As long as he had the pie everything would be fine. Concentrate on the pie.
‘Tulip!’ he cried, stepping out from his inadequate hiding place, ‘I didn’t see you there. I thought I saw movement behind this clump here, so I went to investigate. Always on the lookout for frogs, that’s me!’ he chuckled nervously.
‘Do you often go hunting with a pie in your hands and your frogging poles still strapped to your back, Pob?’ asked Tulip.
‘Ahem, no. Not as a rule. I suppose I just can’t help myself when I spot one,’ Pob blushed, suddenly aware that this wasn’t part of the script. He thrust the pie under Tulip’s chin, ‘This is crammed full of ‘em! I baked it myself from my mother’s old recipe.’
He was back on track. The pie was the thing. Everything else would fall neatly into place after the pie. He’d delivered his opening gambit, he was safe behind the shield of a gift pie, now to follow through with some well placed conversational thrusts.
‘Why, thank you, Pob,’ said Tulip, not looking quite as impressed as he’d hoped she might, having just found herself one pie to the good. She turned the pie-dish around in her hands, inspecting his crust in a disconcertingly suspicious manner, ‘Is it all frogmeat inside?’
‘There’s some beans in there too. Fresh from my own farm,’ replied Pob enthusiastically, happy that the small talk was continuing on a pie-related theme. He was on safe ground here. ‘You must be making some fine pies of your own at the moment with all these vegetables. How’s the farm doing?’
‘Oh, Pob!’ sobbed Tulip, shattering Pob’s new found confidence. This wasn’t part of the plan either. A pie was a good thing, surely? A reason for joy and smiles, not inconsolable sobbing . There was nothing for it, he’d have to improvise.
‘There, there, Tulip my dear. Whatever is the matter?’ he ventured, even going so far as to put a tentative arm around the distraught hobbit. An opening is an opening, no matter how the opportunity arises. With the plan out of the window this was no time to be cautious.
‘It’s my beetroots!’ she wailed, ‘They’re ruined. One of the big folk came along and trampled all over them – him and his big horse. Come and look. I was trying to put a brave face on it when you happened along, you being so kind as to bring a pie too, but it’s no good. Pob, it was terrifying!’
Pob led her to the beetroot patch as gently as he knew how and surveyed the damage for himself, his pie all but forgotten. The raised beds were in total disarray with huge footprints interspersed with equally large hoof-prints, the tops of the vegetables lying broken or scattered all around. There was no salvaging this - the good folks of Rushey wouldn’t be enjoying Tulip’s pickled beetroot this year. A veritable disaster. More than that – an outrage!
‘This aint tolerable, not nearly!’ cried Pob, forgetting to talk his best for a moment, ‘Which way did this fellow head? He’ll pay for this, I’ll make sure ‘o’ that! We can’t have big folk dragging their horses all round the Shire ruining our beets. I wont ‘ave it! I’m going after him.’
‘He went towards Stock, no doubt back to the main road, he’ll be long gone by now. And besides, what do you reckon you could do even if you did catch him? He was strange one, all dressed in black, with a hood over his face. You don’t want to be confronting a villain like that, there’s no telling what he’d do. Don’t go, Pob!’ she begged.
Pob was dimly aware that Tulip was begging him to stay, and that that was a Good Thing, especially considering how far he’d deviated from the plan. But some things are more important to a hobbit than the prospect of a little companionship and the inevitable fine foodstuffs that come with such an arrangement. Pob was angry, and Pob wanted justice.
‘Please, Pob! Don’t leave me here all alone and frightened. Let’s go inside and share this pie of yours. I’m sure it’s lovely. I’ve waited so long for you to finally pluck up the courage to come here to see me – don’t spoil it now,’ she grabbed his arm, pleadingly.
‘What sort of hobbit would I be if I let someone do this to a widow’s beetroots and get away with it?’ asked Pob, ‘No, Tulip, I can’t let this go unanswered. You’ll be fine here while I go and apprehend the culprit. Justice must be done, and I won’t stop until I find this rogue, even if I have to follow him to the ends of the Shire and beyond! You get yourself indoors and wait for my return.’
Gripped by a sudden rush of heroic confidence, Pob grabbed Tulip and planted a clumsy kiss full on the startled hobbit’s lips, before striding off purposefully in the direction of Stock, the pie and the plan utterly forgotten.
‘You’re a fool, Pob Mossyfoot! You’re going to get yourself killed!’ yelled Tulip angrily from behind him. Pob waved distractedly over his shoulder as he marched onwards in the fading light of the evening.
A short while later, with night and mist closing in around him, Pob sat by the side of the road considering his predicament. Now that he’d cooled off, his rash promises to Tulip seemed vaguely ridiculous, and definitely regrettable. ‘Damn fool!’ he muttered to himself, ‘Should’ve focused on the pie, instead of going off all heroic like that.’
Sighing, he stood up and stared back down the misty road towards Tulip’s farm, and Rushey beyond. There was no hope of him catching up with a mounted Big Person with a head start, even if he knew where the ruffian was headed. The sensible thing, he knew, would be to swallow his pride and walk back to Tulip and apologise for running off like that.
Turning, he saw the Stock road run away to his left, while the road to the ferry fell away to his right. Perhaps it was the night playing tricks on him, but he was sure he could hear the sound of hooves coming from the direction of the river. Grimly, he set off down the hill towards the ferry, peering through the mist as it clung to the river. The sound was becoming quite distinct now, though the mist made it hard to gauge just how close he was to its source. He drew a sharp frogging pole from his back, just in case.
Just as he was thinking to himself that there was a distinct wagon rattle amongst the hoof-beats, the vehicle itself hove into view through the mist, barely giving him time to throw himself into the long grass at the side of the road. He sat up, fully intending to give the hobbit at the reins an earful for driving at speed on a night such as this, but the wagon had already raced away up the hill.
‘What’s a hobbit doing abroad in a wagon at this time of night anyhow?’ muttered Pob, as he made his way back onto the road, ‘Perhaps he’s just off the ferry. S’pose I’d better check that the fella’ I’m after hasn’t been waiting at this end to get across.’
The Bucklebury Ferry was midway across the Brandywine as Pob came to the stage on his side of the river. Hanging back in the shadows so as not to be spotted should his quarry be on the ferry, he could just make out the forms of four hobbits poling their way across the slow moving current. ‘Queerer and queerer,’ he whispered to himself.
He was about to make his way back up the road, and onward eventually to Tulip’s house with tail betwixt legs, when a sudden chill came over him. A horse was approaching. Quickly, he scuttled as far up the grassy bank as he could manage, away from both river and road, before throwing himself down on his belly. Through a creeping terror he was dimly aware of a black bundle shuffling onto the ferry stage, snuffling as a dog might in the vicinity of a fresh bone. After an eternity the figure turned and shuffled back towards the road where its horse was waiting.
Despite the horrendous fear that gripped him, Pob had the presence of mind to notice something clinging to the horse’s left rear shoe as the black figure mounted and rode off up the hill.
‘Those were beetroot leaves!’ he murmured angrily, though it was several minutes before he plucked up the courage to chase after the rider up the Stock Road.