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Dahlia bobbed a curtsey to Mistress Esmeralda. She wondered what the young Mistress wanted to speak to her about. Had she done something wrong? She'd only been in Brandy Hall a fortnight and still did not know everything. She tried not to show her nervousness. But surely if she was to be dismissed, it would be Mistress Brandybuck, Mistress Gilda as most of the staff called her, who would do that task.
The young Mistress smiled at her. "There is no need for you to be nervous, Dahlia. You have done nothing wrong."
Dahlia felt a great weight fall from her shoulders. It would have been horrid to have to return to Whitfurrow in disgrace. "Yes, ma'am," she said. Mistress Esmeralda had kind eyes--Tookish green, as some called them in the Shire, as it was among Tooks that such eyes most often belonged. Perhaps this would not be so bad, whatever it was.
"I understand that you have several younger siblings," Mistress Esmeralda continued.
Well, that was odd. Were they thinking of taking on one of her little brothers or sisters? But they were all too young yet to be sent so far from home, save the brother next over from her, and he was already apprenticed to a brewer in Frogmorton. "Yes, ma'am. I have four brothers and three sisters, all of 'em younger than me. My littlest sister is still a faunt."
"So would I be correct in thinking that you have experience taking care of little ones?"
"My mother-in-law has suggested to me that I might be wise to take on a nursemaid for little Meriadoc. Is that something you think you could do?"
Now that was a surprise! Why, she hadn't been here in Brandy Hall any time hardly! Surely there were others who deserved such a post more! But the Mistress asked could she do it, so she kept her thoughts to herself, and nodded. "I've taken care of my sibs since I weren't much more than a faunt myself. I know how to feed 'em, and change nappies, and clean up their scrapes, and to make 'em mind when they're of an age to know what they're a-doing."
Mistress Esmeralda smiled and nodded. "I was hoping that would be your answer, Dahlia. I have many duties as the daughter-in-law of the Master and wife of the Son of the Hall, so there are times when I may need to leave Merry in the charge of another adult. I've neglected things for the last several months since he was born, but now he's begun to take a bit of solid food and I've begun to wean him a little--he's down to two nursings a day now, and I no longer have to feed him in the middle of the night. Mother Gilda has not been feeling well lately, and I am going to have to take up helping run the Hall once more."
"I understand, Mistress Esmeralda," Dahlia said shyly. "If you think I can do a proper job, I'd be glad to try."
"Good. Let me show you about our quarters, and you can meet the children."
"Children? I thought little Master Merry was your one and only." Dahlia was surprised.
"We are also guardians for Saradoc's little cousin Frodo Baggins. He was orphaned by the River a couple of years ago. He's fourteen now."
"Oh! How sad! But it's good as he has kin to take him in."
Mistress Esmeralda rose. "Let me show you the nursery first, and then the rest of the apartment." She led Dahlia down a very short corridor; on the left a door was ajar, and she could hear a sweet child's voice singing.
The room was spacious, furnished with a regular bed, a cradle, a rocking chair, a washstand, a wardrobe, and several shelves built into the walls. There was also a cushioned windowseat beneath a low round window. On it sat a lad with a babe sitting in his lap. The lad had dark hair, but was very fair of skin. The babe had hair so light as to be almost golden, and the two of them made a wonderful sight that tugged at Dahlia's heart.
The lad stopped singing. "Aunt Esme! Merry's being so good! And I changed his nappy a few minutes ago. I put it in the pail with the vinegar."
"Very good, Frodo!" She went over and took little Meriadoc into her own arms, and Dahlia noticed that Frodo was reluctant to let go of him. "Frodo, I'd like you to meet Dahlia. She is going to be Merry's new nursemaid.”
"New nursemaid?" he asked.
Dahlia was surprised to see a look of almost fear in the lad's face. Why should he be afraid?
"I take good care of Merry," he added. "I do, Aunt Esme!"
"I know that you do. But Frodo, you are only fourteen; sometimes there are things only adults can do. Also, you cannot be by his side all the time, Frodo. You need to exercise and play and go to your lessons with Uncle Dinodas. You know that's so."
Frodo reached out his arms, and Esmeralda returned the baby to her little cousin.
He nodded reluctantly, and then looked over at Dahlia, and gave her a shy smile. "I'm glad to meet you, Dahlia," he said. He sat down in the window seat and returned his attention to Merry, jiggling his knee and making the baby giggle.
Esme gave Frodo a proud smile for his good manners. "Dahlia, the bed and chest will be for your use. Merry's cradle has been in our room up until today, but as we were hoping to engage you today, we moved it in here this morning."
"Doesn't Master Frodo stay in the nursery?" Dahlia asked quietly.
Esmeralda shook her head. "Let me show you the rest of our quarters." She led the new nursemaid out into the small hallway, and turned to open a door at the end. It was a bathing room, with a boiler and a copper tub, and shelves filled with linen towels and flannels and soaps. Next to the nursery was another door--behind it was a water closet. Directly across from the nursery was a large bedroom, clearly the room of the young Mistress and the Son of the Hall. The room had a large skylight, but no window. There was another door at the other side of the room, and Esme opened it. Inside was a lightless room. She lit a candle and held it up. It was small but comfortably furnished with a bed, washstand, wardrobe and small desk and chair. There were several lanterns in the room, as it had no window. "This room was meant to be a study or perhaps a sewing room or dressing room. When Frodo came to us, he did stay in the nursery at first, but he often would slip out at night and go wandering when he could not sleep, so we moved him over here to keep him safe. Saradoc offered to put a skylight in for him, but he did not want it."
Dahlia sighed. Poor little tyke! But she could understand why they gave him a room where he could not slip away so easily.
The young Mistress led her back to the sitting room and gestured for Dahlia to sit down, and then she sat down also. "I would like you to move in and start today, Dahlia. You are making two silver pennies a month as a kitchen maid, but as Merry's nursemaid, we will raise your wage to four silver pennies a month. You will have a half-day's leave on Highday, except the first Highday of the month when you will have an entire day. And if you can make arrangements for travel, you may return to visit your family for a week, over the Lithedays at Midsummer. Merry will be your primary responsibility, but when he is with me and not here, you will be expected do some light cleaning and mending, and if both Saradoc and I are absent, you may make use of the kitchen here to prepare simple meals for yourself and the children, or you can take them down to the common dining hall for meals. Is that acceptable to you?"
Overwhelmed, Dahlia nodded her head several times. She knew that she was already making a much more generous wage at Brandy Hall than she would have in service elsewhere: Master Rory was known as "Goldfather" by the Bucklanders, due to his generous wages and his widespread charity. But to have her pay doubled? That was more than she'd ever expected. And now the young Mistress was adding a whole day off once a month, and a chance to be away for a whole week once a year to see her folks was unexpected.
Mistress Esmeralda sent her down to the servant's quarters to fetch her things and bring them back. She was still shocked by her sudden good fortune, but by the time she had reached the small room she shared with another maidservant, joy had replaced the feeling of unreality. She carefully took out her few possessions, folding her clothing and packing it into the small bag she had used when she travelled to Buckland. She was tucking her caps and aprons in at the top when the door opened.
It was Yarrow, the lass who shared the room with her. "What are you doing, Dahlia? You didn't get dismissed, did you?" she asked in horror.
Dahlia grinned. "No. I'm moving upstairs to the Son of the Hall's quarters. They asked me to be little Master Merry's nursemaid!"
Yarrow squealed and immediately hugged Dahlia. "Lawks! Dahlia, that's so fine! Who'd've thought it!"
The two chattered excitedly as Yarrow asked for all the details of her interview with Mistress Esmeralda, though Yarrow said a bit wistfully, "I'm going to miss sharing a room with you."
But Dahlia did not tarry long, and soon she had returned to take up her new duties.
Over the next few days, Dahlia was able to settle into a routine with her new charge. She woke early, and took her small charge to the Mistress in her room. Merry was a year old now, and Mistress Esme had begun weaning him, but for his health she still suckled him twice a day, when he first wakened before first breakfast, and after tea. At meals, he was also spoonfed pap and mashed fruits and vegetables, as well as very tiny bites of the same food the rest of the family ate.
After breakfast, she would dress Merry, usually with the help of young Master Frodo. Frodo would play with Merry in the nursery until second breakfast, and afterward Dahlia would take both children outside for some fresh air and sunshine. Then the three of them went into the common dining hall for elevenses. Dahlia and Merry sat at a table set aside for the babes and faunts, with their minders. Two of the other minders were nursemaids like Dahlia, but most of the others were older sisters, aunties or cousins. Frodo ate at the table set aside for older children and younger teens. After they finished, Dahlia went back to their quarters with Merry and watched over him in the nursery. Frodo went off to do any of the many small jobs the older children were given to keep them out of mischief and to teach them how to do things.
If the Mistress was at home she would spend some time with Merry while Dahlia tidied the nursery and did a bit of mending. Then the Mistress would make a simple luncheon, and Frodo would return. After lunch, Frodo usually had lessons with his Uncle Dinodas, but on the days he did not, Mistress Esme shooed him out to play with his other cousins if the weather was fine. Otherwise he'd play with Merry or read to the babe.
Dahlia often had to shoo Frodo away when Merry needed tending; he would offer to change his little cousin's nappies or to feed him. Dahlia would sometimes let him do it, but much of the time she would have to chase him off. After all, those things were her job. She felt awful when she did that, because Master Frodo would look sad, but she was being paid four silver pennies to take care of Master Merry, and she wanted to make sure that the Brandybucks knew she was earning her wages, not just foisting off her duties on Master Frodo just because he was bored.
One day it was pouring down dismal rain, as only a rain in Solmath could be. The Master Saradoc and Mistress Esmeralda were spending the day with the Master and Mistress Gilda, entertaining guests from Tookland, and would not be back until after teatime. Frodo had no lessons that day, and Master Merry was teething and fractious, so they all remained in the quarters instead of going down to the common areas of the Hall.
Every time Master Merry needed changing or feeding or even whimpered, Master Frodo was right at her elbow trying to help. It was right after luncheon when Dahlia simply could not take it anymore. Merry was screaming. He had been changed and fed; Dahlia knew it had to be his poor swollen gums. She had rubbed them with oil of cloves. She had given him a rusk of twice-baked bread. She had given him his wooden teething ring, which he had thrown and hit her in the forehead. Nothing worked. And still he screamed.
Frodo picked up the teething ring. "Please, Dahlia, let me hold him! Maybe I can make him feel better!"
She turned on him, snapping. "MASTER FRODO! Let me do my job! I am the one being paid to take care of your cousin, not YOU!" She stopped as soon as the words were out of her mouth, horrified at herself. She could feel the blood drain from her face. What had she done?
Frodo looked up at her, stricken, his blue eyes filled with tears, and he bolted from the nursery. She heard the door of his own room slam shut.
And still Master Merry screamed, his little face red and hot. Dahlia stood there, holding the crying baby and jiggling him, all the while all she could see in her mind's eye was the poor lad's face after she had shouted at him. He loved his little cousin, he truly did. All he wanted was to help and she had been cruel to him.
At her wit's end, she placed Merry in his cradle, still crying, his screams sometimes interspersed with little hiccups. She went across the hall, through the Master bedroom and tapped on Frodo's door. She could hear the sounds of weeping beyond the door, not screams of pain like the baby's tears, but the soft sound of a broken heart. Her face flamed with shame; she had done that to him for no good reason at all.
She tapped again. "I'm sorry, Master Frodo. I should not've shouted at you." There was no response. "I really am sorry. You did not do anything wrong, sir. It wasn't my place to speak so to you." Her own eyes began to overflow, and she sniffled, and brushed the tears away brusquely. She could still hear Merry's pained cries, and knew she'd have to leave Frodo's door and go to tend her primary charge. But she still didn't know what else she could do. Once more she spoke. "I am so sorry, Master Frodo." She had turned and was about to leave when the door opened.
"I'm sorry, too, Dahlia," Frodo whispered. "I don't mean to take your job from you, really, it's just that...it's my Merry." His face turned towards the hallway and the nursery from which the cries were coming.
Dahlia bent down and gave Frodo a small hug. "Begging your pardon, young sir. But I should know. I used to feel the same about me little brothers and sisters." She stood up. "Do you think that you might be able to help?"
Frodo nodded, and led the way back to the nursery. He picked up the teething ring, and wiped it on his shirt, and then bent over the cradle. Ever so carefully he lifted the baby up. "Shush, Merry-mine! It will be all right."
Merry stopped crying immediately, though he still sniffled and hiccupped. Frodo placed the teething ring near his mouth, and the baby took it and began chewing it and suckling it.
Frodo carried his cousin over to the window seat and began to rock Merry back and forth, as he softly sang an old Shire lullaby:
Drop, drop, drop
As he sang, Merry dropped the teething ring. Frodo didn't stop, but gave Merry one of his fingers to chew on. He didn't even wince at the little bites from the two teeth Merry already had. After a while, Merry finally fell asleep with Frodo's finger still in his mouth, though the baby was suckling it instead of chewing on it.
Dahlia sat down in the rocking chair in the nursery, with her knitting, and watched over Frodo and Merry, realising that she had never really understood before how deep the love was between the two young cousins. Now she knew that Merry needed Frodo's comfort, but that Frodo needed to give that comfort even more. From now on, she would accept Frodo's willing assistance when he chose to give it. It really was a beautiful thing to see.
After a while, Merry stirred enough to release Frodo's finger, and Dahlia had Frodo put the sleeping baby into his cradle. Then she made a simple tea for the two of them of boiled eggs, scones and tea. The two of them sat in the sitting room, with the door to the nursery open, and Frodo told her amazing stories of his Uncle Bilbo's Adventures in the Wide World until the Master and Mistress came home.
Later that evening, after Frodo had gone to bed, Dahlia confessed her words to Frodo to her Mistress. "I know as it was wrong of me, Mistress Esmeralda, and if you want to dismiss me, I would understand. But I hope as you don't. I really love both them little ones, and if you'll have me I promise never to do such a thing ever again."
The young Mistress patted her on the hand. "You had a trying day, Dahlia. But you apologized, and Frodo has forgiven you. I am quite sure he would not want me to dismiss you now." She paused, and then added, "Until Merry came along we were at a loss as to what to do with Frodo, he was so sunk in grief. Merry finally brought a bit of sunshine back into his life."
That night, as Dahlia lay in her bed, she listened to Merry's soft breathing. The Hall healer had given Mistress Esmeralda a tincture of chamomile to rub on the baby's gums, and he was now sleeping easily. It had been a long hard day, but now it was better. Just as she was starting to drop off, she saw the door to the nursery crack open, and Frodo padded in silently. He went over to the cradle and looked in at Merry. Then he bent over and softly kissed the baby on top of his head. "Love you, Merry-mine," he whispered. "Have a nice sleep." He glanced over and saw Dahlia watching. "You too, Dahlia. Good night." Then he went out, closing the door behind him.
She did have a very nice sleep that night.
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