The other boys came in from the meadow at midday, when Paladin called an end to the unsuccessful search. Frodo, returning from Adelard's house after his confrontation with Reginard, met Merry and Pippin entering the Thain's Hall, and the three went to wash up and to have a brief, private conference in the bathroom across the hallway from Pippin's room. They had neither the time nor the hot water to take a full bath before lunch, but the two younger hobbits stripped to the waist and splashed themselves with cool water from the basins on the washstands.
"You've had a much easier job this morning than we had," said Pippin as he shook droplets of water from his hair and reached for a towel. "I hope it was more successful."
"It was a beginning," said Frodo. Since he wasn't as dirty and sweaty as his cousins, he sat in a basket chair between the empty tubs and towel rack while the other two washed.
"We're going to work with you this time, aren't we?"
"Yes, of course," Frodo promised him. "I couldn't manage without you." But he felt a sad little pang when he realized that this would be the first time he'd conducted an investigation without Sam. "You'll be the greatest help in figuring out who's the most likely person to have done this. We've got quite a list! If Uncle Paladin is right and one of the family is involved, then there's only a small group that's completely exempt from suspicion: Dodi and Ilbie, Ferdi, and the five girls, since we were all in the garden together. I think we can also exclude the Brandybucks and the other guests who have only come to Tuckborough for the wedding. They've no reason to murder Toby Clover. I doubt that any of them even knew he existed before last night. Now, who among the Tooks might have wanted Toby dead?"
Merry considered the question while he dried himself off. "Aside from Evvy, I suppose Uncle Adelard and Reg would be the ones most interested in seeing Toby gone for good. Their family reputation was at stake. I don't say they did it deliberately--they might've only wanted to prevent Toby making a scene at the wedding, and then it went wrong."
"I can't see Uncle Addy doing it," said Pippin. "He's the most sweet-tempered hobbit I know."
"Reg does seem more likely," Frodo agreed. "We know he was at the grove. He says he followed Everard... but what if he actually went on ahead? He knew that the two would be meeting there--he admitted as much. He had only to find Toby waiting, kill him, then slip out of sight before Evvy arrived."
"But would he do that to his brother, let poor Ev stumble on his friend's body?" Merry wondered. "You saw how upset Everard was. I know how I would feel if it was me."
"I don't see how he could avoid it without giving himself away. He's done his best to look out for Evvy and protect him since then. And it only makes sense that if Uncle Paladin suspects Reg, he'd want to shield him--his daughter's husband, father to his grandchild."
"Do you think he knows it's Reg, or somebody else?"
"No," said Frodo. "If he knew who'd killed Toby--if he were certain of it--I think he'd prefer to take care of it himself. He'd want the matter cleared up, and hushed up. No, he only suspects. He's afraid, and I think he wants to find out if what he's afraid of is true."
"Have you considered it might be Uncle Paladin himself?" Merry ventured. "The family reputation means as much to him as Reg and Uncle Adelard, if not more. He'd go to great lengths to protect it."
"It's possible," Frodo admitted. "I'm certain he knows... well, more than he's told me about this business, but I don't think he's responsible for it. He wouldn't have brought me in to investigate if he did."
"Maybe he had no choice," countered Merry. "Once he knew that Mother had asked you to look into things, he might've thought it looked less suspicious to help you than to stand in your way. That way, he can keep an eye on what you find out, and know how much you know."
They both were suddenly aware that Pippin stood staring at them, clutching his towel to his damp chest, and they felt ashamed of themselves for their tactlessness. They were, after all, discussing his father.
"Pip," Merry began. "It's only guessing games."
"Father might do it for me," said Pippin, "but I really don't think he'd do it for Evvy." Then he added, joking, "If you were stabbed, Merry, I'm sure Father and Mother would be at the top of our list. Besides, there are other people more likely. What about that other boy you said has gone missing? Could he be the murderer? That'd explain why he ran off the same night as Toby was killed."
"I don't know," Frodo admitted. "I don't know a thing about him, except that he's gone. He might have killed Toby, or perhaps he's dead too, as the Chief Sherriff believes. Perhaps he saw something that made him a danger to Toby's killer. Or perhaps he's simply run off and it's only a coincidence. I'd rather leave that mystery for the sherriffs to dig into. I don't want to intrude into their jurisdiction more than I have to and make a nuisance of myself. Uncle Paladin's asked me to look into Toby's death because of the family, and that's where I mean to concentrate my attention."
"If Ferdi hadn't been with us, I'd say he might've wanted Toby out of the way," Pippin suggested.
"Ferdi?" asked Merry. "Why him?"
"Well, he's Evvy's best friend. Maybe he was jealous."
"Of Toby? But Ferdi likes girls."
"So he says," Pippin responded, "but I know Ev and Ferdi better than either of you do, and I can tell you that they used to play about with each other before this Toby came around. Whether he likes girls better or not, Ferdi must've been a little jealous when Ev started playing with someone else, don't you think?"
"Maybe he was--but it isn't possible. Ferdi was never out of our sight all afternoon." Merry paused, then added, "But Melly wasn't. I don't like to think of it, but there it is. And you must admit that she had very good reasons for wanting rid of Toby."
Frodo nodded solemnly. "We must consider it," he agreed. "You know what Sam would say: we have to look at everyone, like it or not. And, for the same reason, we have to consider Aunt Melisaunte. I don't think she knew about Toby, but if she did, the last thing she would want is her daughter's wedding day spoiled by scandal."
"Melly's and Evvy's marriage is spoiled just the same. We heard about that when we came in," Merry said darkly. He was very fond of Melilot, and didn't like her being subjected to such a brutal public humiliation.
"Everard has to bear responsibility for that," said Frodo, also thinking of how stricken Melilot had looked. "But I promised her I'd do my best for him, just the same."
"Where do we begin?" asked Pippin.
"We must learn where everyone else was between tea-time and the time Everard left us to go and meet Toby. Can you find out where they were? Merry, can you inquire about the ladies? Your mother will be happy to help. Pippin, I want to know more about Reg. We know where he was, or at least where he says he was. Can you verify that? Perhaps Pearl or Uncle Adelard saw him on the terrace. They mightn't tell me--especially not Reg--but they might tell you. And see if you can confirm that Melly was in her room."
Pippin nodded solemnly at this last injunction.
There was a rap on the door, and Dodi called out, "Can we get in? You're not the only ones a grubby mess from crawling in the grass half the morning, you know!"
"We're almost done!" Merry called back, and picked up the clean shirt he had brought in with him. He was buttoning up as his cousins came in.
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