Too Many Tooks by Kathryn Ramage

Lunch was a more subdued meal than that morning's breakfast. The death of a boy that none of them knew well had been alarming, but exciting; the cancelled wedding and the painful scene they had witnessed between Melilot and Everard was more personally distressing to the families of both. The foods set on the table, meant for the wedding feast, were an additional reminder of what today should have been. No one wanted to talk about it and conversation between the Thain's family and their Brandybuck guests faltered, until Melisaunte arrived late to join them.

"I've gotten Melly to rest," she reported as she took a seat at the table. "The poor girl's so terribly distraught, she couldn't think of eating, but we ought to send a tray up to Esme. She's been so kind to sit with Melly and let me come to eat. Eglantine, can you please see that Melly's things are brought over from Adelard's house and put in my room? I won't have her staying another night in the same house as Everard Took, not after this."

"You mayn't have heard that Everard's been cleared of suspicion," said Paladin. "He couldn't possibly have killed that boy."

"Yes, I know. I don't mean that. Everard has behaved like a beast to my daughter today. He mayn't be a murderer, but he's indisputably done that! We were all there to see it." Melisaunte stabbed a fork angrily into the food on the plate set before her. "Well, he was quite right about one thing: Melly's had a lucky escape. If I'd known what that horrid boy was truly like, I would never have let her come here to him, whether she was of an age or not. Filthy, I call it. Disgraceful."

There was an awkward silence; several people at the table cast embarrassed glances in Merry's or Pippin's direction. "Melisaunte, dear," Hilda murmured gently. "You forget..."

"I beg your pardon," Melisaunte apologized to Merry. "I hope you don't think I meant you lads. I can't approve of your behavior, but at least you haven't lied and sneaked, and promised yourself to some poor girl to pretend to be something you're not. Your refusal to marry might be unpleasant for the family, but you've always been truthful about it. If Everard had been half as honest before today, when he couldn't hide the truth any longer, my daughter wouldn't be crying her eyes out on what was meant to be her wedding day. Can you imagine--he meant to marry poor Melly, and go on seeing that boy behind her back!"

"Everard told me that he had broken with Toby before he became betrothed to Melly," said Frodo. "He meant to end it."

"Then what was he doing running off to meet this boy the night before his wedding?" asked Melisaunte. "And I've heard he'd been seeing the boy all summer, since Melly came here. Say what you like about his intentions, but Everard's actions declare themselves beyond a doubt."

Pim looked around the table at her brother and Brandybuck cousins in wonderment, and asked them frankly, "Do all boys carry on like that?" Pippin was not the only Took who believed in asking direct questions.

"Pimmy!" her mother cried, shocked. The boys went scarlet.

"Young girls shouldn't ask such questions," Diamanta chided. "You shouldn't know about such things at all."

"Well, I don't know, but I want to," the girl protested. "Why shouldn't I? After there's been so much fuss about Pip and Merry, and now Ev and Toby Clover, I can't help wondering! I think Aunt Melisaunte is right: it's better to be honest. If I'm going to marry one day, I'd rather know beforehand what to expect. I don't mean to share my husband with anybody else, boy or girl."

"Pimpernel Took!" Eglantine insisted. "That's quite enough."

"Did you hear any gossip about Everard and Toby Clover before today?" Frodo asked the Tooks. He had been trying to think of a delicate way to broach the question, but since Pim had brought the subject up already, this seemed like the best time to ask. "Did you know that they met in the grove?"

"This is hardly a fit conversation for the dining table," observed Diamanta.

"I don't see why we shouldn't answer," Paladin supported Frodo. "I had heard something about it, yes."

"I knew Evvy was friends with Toby Clover--everyone knew that," said Peri. "We used to see Ev go off into the meadow of an evening all the time, but I never guessed there was anything... wrong to it."

"I did," said Pim. "I mean, I guessed. After all the talk about Pip and Merry, I began to wonder if it mightn't be the same thing. And still no one will tell me!"

Eglantine gave her daughter another sharp look, but the struggle to maintain a standard of decorum had already been lost. "I certainly hadn't the least idea of it," she proclaimed. "Such thoughts have never entered my head unbidden. We used not to acknowledge that such goings-on even existed, and now we not only permit them, we speak of them openly. What is the Shire coming to?"

"It's progress, Auntie," Merry answered. "Nothing to be alarmed about."

Toward the end of the meal, Paladin was called away from the table when the Chief Shirriff arrived to report on his progress. At Paladin's insistence, Frodo went with him. They met with Shirriff Thornbreak in the Thain's study.

"We've been asking questions in Tookbank," the Sherriff reported. "To find out who Toby's friends were, and if he had any enemies. I've had a word myself with the Clovers. They had- ah- one or two things to say, but naught we can take account of."

He was deliberately vague, but both Paladin and Frodo understood: the Clovers had accused Everard, or the Tooks in general.

Paladin nodded. "I understand that Mr. Clover must naturally be extremely upset at losing his son."

"Yes, sir, that he is!" Shirriff Thornbreak agreed. "It near broke my heart to see a great, hearty hobbit such as our butcher struck down by grief when he heard the news. And the younger lad and girl are little better."

"Have you found the missing lad, Fenny, yet?"

"No, sir. I've set a pair of shirriffs out to search for him."

After the Chief Shirriff had gone, Paladin turned to Frodo and asked, "And what about you, my lad? Have you turned up anything interesting?"

"I've only just begun, Uncle," Frodo answered. "I've spoken to Evvy, and we're trying to find out where everyone was when Toby was killed."


"Pippin and Merry are assisting me."

"Are they?" Paladin seemed surprised.

"They've done so before, and been of enormous help," Frodo told him. "They're really very good at finding things out. Since we are inquiring about everyone, Uncle Paladin, if you don't mind, can I ask: Where were you?"

Paladin was not offended, but chuckled at the question. "I was with Adelard, in his study next door. We were discussing Everard, as a matter of fact, and his infatuation with Toby."

"Uncle Adelard knew about Ev and Toby?"

"Oh, yes. We've both known about it for quite some time. Since Everard became betrothed, the problem has troubled his father deeply."

Interesting as this piece of information was, Frodo noted that both hobbits' whereabouts were accounted for. "Have you thought," he tentatively put forward his theory, "that Reginard might be involved in this?"

"Reginard?" Paladin looked interested.

"He was there ahead of the rest of us, at Everard's side when we found them. You noticed that too."

"Yes, I noticed."

"He says that he followed Everard out to the grove, to try and prevent him from seeing Toby again."

"But you doubt that?"

"I... wonder," Frodo admitted, but did not dare to go further until he knew what his uncle thought about it. Was Reginard the one that Paladin suspected? "I understand why you wouldn't wish to consider him, as close a relation as he is."

"I hadn't thought of it, but you're right." Paladin left the chair he'd been sitting in and began to pace. "I hope it isn't true. It would crush Pearl! And poor Addy would be heartbroken..."

He seemed sincerely disturbed at the idea of Reginard's guilt; Frodo was certain that Paladin hadn't considered it before. Reg wasn't the one he suspected. Then who was he thinking of?

When he finished his lunch, Merry took a tray up to his mother. He tapped lightly on the door to Melisaunte's room, and pushed it open to find Esmeralda sitting in a chair at the bedside. Melilot lay on the bed, her arm flung over her eyes.

"I've brought you some food," he said in a whisper as he set the tray on a nearby table. "Aunt Melisaunte thought you'd be hungry. There's enough for you too, Melly," he added, not certain if his cousin were sleeping or awake.

"Thank you, Merry." Melly lowered her arm and lifted her head from the pillow. "But I couldn't..." Then she looked over the tray of honey-cakes, jam-and-bread, apple and gooseberry tartlets, and other dainties, reconsidered, sat up, and took a tartlet. Esmeralda also had something to eat.

"When you're done, Mother, I'd like to talk to you," Merry requested. "I want to ask a few questions, if you don't mind."

Esmeralda smiled. "Is this part of Frodo's investigation?"

"Yes, it is. Pip and I are helping him. We always do."

"If you're worried about troubling me with your talk, you can leave me," said Melly. "I'll be all right by myself, Aunt Esme, honestly."

They went next door to Esmeralda's room. "What would you like to know?" the Lady asked as she sat down on the settee at the foot of the bed.

Merry sat down beside her. "Can you tell me where the ladies were yesterday afternoon after tea--particularly Pippin's mother, Aunt Di, and Aunt Melisaunte?"

"But not Hilda nor me? Well, it makes no difference. We were in the drawing-room, every one of us. All the ladies you've asked after, and Ferdi's mother too. We never left it after tea. We watched you children through the window, until it began to get dark."

"No one left the drawing-room?"

"No. We sat and talked until we heard the commotion outside, and the others came in. Pippin told us what had happened."

The ladies were unlikely murderers, but Merry was relieved to hear that they could be excluded from suspicion. "And what about Uncles Paladin or Adelard? Were they with you?"

Esmeralda laughed. "Goodness, no! There are certain things, Merry my dear, that ladies simply can't speak openly of when gentlemen are present. It would only shock and embarrass them."

"What on earth did you talk about?" Merry wondered if he would regret asking the question, but he was curious.

"You, dear," his mother told him. "You and Pippin. Eglantine is very worried about Pippin, you know. She and Di were discussing what to do about him all yesterday morning, and after you children and the gentlemen had gone out, they turned to me for advice."

Merry grinned. His mother had missed the lunch conversation, where some of the ladies had been very frank in front of gentlemen. It also seemed that Pippin had been perfectly right about his mother worrying over 'the problem'; Eglantine and Diamanta apparently had no qualms about the propriety of discussing these delicate subjects in the company of other ladies alone. "They wanted your advice? About Pip?"

"They wanted to know what I meant to do about you. Eglantine seems to think this is all your fault. Well, you know you've always been able to convince Pippin to do whatever mischief you had in mind, and she sees this as just one of your pranks that's gone too far."

"What did you tell her?"

"Oh, that you boys are young yet, but if you are considered old enough to be thinking of love and marriage and all that entails, then we had to accept that you were also old enough to know your own minds," Esmeralda reported. "I said that it'd do no good to push girls at you if you aren't interested in looking at them. After all, that didn't work when your father tried it. We can only wait, and if you never choose to marry.. ." She sighed. "It isn't an end to the Shire, or even the Took or Brandybuck families. I'm sure this has happened many times before to other hobbit boys, and even girls, only they weren't so unabashed about it as you and Pippin have been. They all lived quietly, in secret."

"That wasn't my idea!" protested Merry. "I would've been happy living quietly with Pip at Crickhollow, minding our own business and not bothering anyone. But once our secrets got dragged out for everyone to talk about, the only thing we could do was stand up for ourselves." It was his way of doing battle; when faced with disapproval, he put up his banners, met the enemy head-on, and refused to retreat an inch. "What else could I do? I won't try to hide, as if I were ashamed of loving Pippin. I'm not."

He had never imagined having such a conversation with his mother--and yet, here they were. And it wasn't just his mother. This visit to Tuckborough was not as horrible as he'd expected it to be. Since he and Pippin had come here among their families, everyone acknowledged their relationship and, with a few notable exceptions, accepted it as a fact even if they didn't approve. Six months ago, when they'd first become a public scandal, what they'd done was considered so shameful that it wasn't to be spoken of by decent hobbits except in whispers. But that had been months ago and hobbits, being eminently practical creatures, couldn't go on being scandalized indefinitely. As he and Pippin went on openly together, they ceased to be shocking. They would not change, and so the Shire had adjusted to them. It was progress, just as he'd told Aunt Eglantine, and it was no bad thing. It gave him hope.

He asked tentatively, "Are you ashamed of me, Mother?"

"Oh, darling, no!" Esmeralda reached out to place one hand lightly on her son's cheek. "You're not a conventional hobbit, my love. Neither is Pippin, nor Frodo for that matter. But we Tooks are used to having unconventional hobbits in our family from time to time. Two of my great-uncles went off on adventures, you know, one to sea, and the other never came home again. I think they must have been a lot like you. You've been out in the Big Folks' world, and done so many brave and wonderful things. This is just one more thing to be brave about."
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