The night was a long and unrestful one for most of the household. Frodo and Merry stayed up late talking, and they went down to breakfast the next morning later than the usual hour. Paladin was just coming out of the dining room as the two arrived, and his expression brightened at the sight of Frodo.
"Ah, Frodo lad," he said. "I want a word with you."
"Yes, Uncle." When Paladin took him by the arm, Frodo let himself be led down the hall to the Thain's study. Merry--since Paladin was not interested in speaking with him--went on to get his breakfast alone.
Once he had brought Frodo into the study, Paladin shut the door. "I've just been talking with your Aunt Esme," he began. "She tells me she's engaged you to look into this- ah- unfortunate incident."
"Not 'engaged,' precisely," Frodo answered. "She and Melly have asked for my help. They want to see that Everard isn't falsely accused of the other boy's death. I've agreed to do it for Melly's sake, and for Evvy's, and for the sake of the family."
"Ah, I'm pleased to hear that you look at it that way," Paladin said with keen appreciation. "It is indeed the family we have to think of, and not only Everard. After the scandal at Brandy Hall with Berilac's tragic accident and Merry's being arrested for it, I won't have the same repeated here in Tuckborough. I don't wish to speak slightingly of my sister's own husband, but anyone can see that Master Saradoc handled that whole business very badly and made matters worse than they had to be. I want no arrests made 'til we're certain we have the right culprit--and I want to be quite sure. I've had a word with Sherriff Thornbreak, and he's agreed to leave Everard free on my say-so. We'll keep an eye on him 'til the matter is cleared up. The lad was very upset last night. You saw how he was. Adelard tells me that Reginard sat up all night watching over him. They had to dose him with poppy syrup to make him sleep." He considered Frodo for a moment. "Well, to come to the point: Esme says you've done this before. You were the one who saw Merry out of his troubles, isn't that so? And you've been involved in one or two other odd problems. She seems to think you can do some good here too." He leaned closer to the young hobbit and asked in a lowered tone, almost as if it were an extremely personal inquiry, "Can you, Frodo? Do you see any way to learn who's responsible for what happened to Toby Clover?"
This was a strangely roundabout way of asking the question. "Isn't that for your sherriffs to investigate?" Frodo asked. "Can't they find out who killed Toby?"
"Oh, they'll do their best," said Paladin, "but they've never had a murder before. You've more experience in this sort of thing than they do."
Frodo had to concede that this was so.
He wondered at Paladin's odd, reticent manner. What, exactly, was his uncle asking him to do? Did he simply want the murderer found, or was there something more? Perhaps Paladin had some suspicions of his own about who had killed Toby, and wanted them confirmed--not by the sherriffs, for whom justice was the first priority, but by someone who was also considering 'the family.' Did he believe that one of the Tooks was responsible? "You don't think it's Everard, do you?"
"No, I don't," Paladin answered so promptly that Frodo was sure he was speaking the truth. "There are already some points in Everard's favor. You may have noticed them yourself."
"Yes, I think I have." He and Merry had discussed the scene of the murder at length the night before, comparing their observations. "For one thing, Toby had not just died."
"Exactly! The blood was already drying. Now, I've never seen a murdered hobbit before, but I've seen enough accidental cuts with knives and scythes and so on, and I know how quickly blood dries. Toby's shirt was stiff with it when we saw him last night. It was quite thick, not fresh. I'm sure Merry, with his vast experience of bodies on the battlefield, might tell you just the same."
Frodo had to smile. Merry had told him precisely that.
"I touched the poor lad's cheek myself, you remember, and he was growing cool then. They tell me that his body was quite cold and stiffening when they carried it in to be washed and laid out," Paladin went on. "I'll wager that Toby died a good half-hour before we saw him. And Everard was in the company of a number of people, yourself included, at that time. You all went out to the garden together, didn't you?"
"Yes, right after we finished our tea," Frodo confirmed. "Everard was with us all the time, until he got up and left..." To meet this boy, just as he'd done the night before? From what Frodo had overheard, it had sounded as if that last meeting was indeed their final one. But why else would Everard had gone there again? "That was at sunset, just before Melly came out and we began dancing."
"And how long after Everard left did we hear him scream?"
"I don't think it could have been more than ten minutes later."
"There, you see!" said Paladin. "It isn't possible for Everard to have done this. And then there's the knife."
Frodo nodded. "Evvy had none with him," he said. "He left his in the garden. There was no knife in the wound--I wondered if it might have fallen into the grass, but it was growing dark and I didn't see one anywhere. Has it been found?"
"No," Paladin answered. "The sherriffs are searching for it now it's daylight. They wanted to go out with their torches in the night, but I wouldn't have them risk setting the whole meadow afire. Mind you, I don't think they'll find it. It seems to me that someone must have taken it away."
"Do you have any idea who?" Frodo asked.
"That'll be something for you to find out!" Paladin gave Frodo a brisk pat on the shoulder, and opened the study door to guide him out. "Breakfast has been set out for those who want it. Why don't you get a bite to eat, lad, and then we'll begin this investigation of yours. You'll have all the assistance I can provide. I want to see this matter conducted properly."
Even though Paladin had mentioned speaking with Esmeralda, Frodo hadn't expected to find very many people in the dining room, but when he went in, a number of the family were there: Esmeralda had gone, but Hilda and Eglantine were still at breakfast, as were Pim and Peri. Great-Uncle Archambalt sat at the far end of the table, near the fire, and Merry was at the other end, nearest the sideboard where the platters of food were set out.
After missing their dinner, the ladies were ravenous, and as eager to talk about the death of the boy in the meadow as they'd been the night before. All were quite certain that Everard could have nothing to do with it. But who did? The initial shock had faded; none of them had known Toby Clover well, if they had known him at all, and their distress at his murder was more a feeling of general horror and astonishment than personal grief. As they so often repeated to each other over their breakfasts, to think that such a thing could happen in Tuckborough!
"Honestly," said Eglantine as she encouraged Frodo to help himself to bacon and eggs from the sideboard. "I don't know what we are coming to. It's as if all the odd goings-on outside the Shire have come in and made everyone behave in the most strange ways. Girls demanding that boys marry them-" At first, Frodo thought that the lady was referring to his cousin Angelica and her recent, hasty marriage to Lad Whitfoot, until Eglantine added in a lower, confidential tone, "Melilot wrote to Everard, you know, and told him to come for her, rather than wait for him to propose. Most forward, I call it, even for a Brandybuck. And boys-" She glanced at Merry and her face colored; she couldn't say it aloud, but Frodo understood very well what she was alluding to. So did Merry. "Not even in secret, but out in the open for everyone to talk about! And now there are these terrible murders! It'll be the end of decent hobbit society as we know it!"
Frodo was trying to think of a tactful reply, when Merry said, "I can't approve of the murders, Aunt Eggie, but I don't see anything wrong with the rest of it."
"You wouldn't, Merry Brandybuck!" Eglantine retorted. "But it's the end of the proper way of doing things. Who knows what will happen next?" And, having delivered this dire warning, she left the room.
Archambalt, who had been quiet, suddenly looked hard at Merry and announced, "I can tell you one thing--these fancy-lad doings of yours wouldn't have been allowed in my day."
"Oh, I'm sure it went on even then," Merry rejoined.
"It may have done, but we would've put a stop to it," Archambalt told him with fierce severity. "In my day, a young hobbit knew his responsibilities. He knew what was right--and if he didn't, his family saw to it he learned it soon enough!"
Another young hobbit might have been intimidated by Archambalt's ferocity, but Merry had met with enough disapproval this past year to feel equal to anything. "Then I'm very glad we aren't living in your day anymore."
The elderly hobbit glared at him, deliberately put down his fork on his unfinished plate of eggs, and left the room in disgust. The ladies looked extremely uncomfortable.
"Thank goodness that horrid old hobbit's leaving us this morning!" said Hilda. "Going back to his cottage, Eglantine tells me. It would be unbearable to sit at the same table with him for every meal, especially if he was always speaking that way to you or to Pippin."
"Where is Pip, by the way?" asked Merry. He and Frodo had knocked on Pippin's door before they'd come to breakfast, and there'd been no answer. "And where are the other lads?"
"Oh, they're helping the sherriffs," said Hilda, relieved to change the subject. "Your Uncle Paladin said he needed as many people as could be found to search the fields."
"Search the fields?"
"For the knife," Frodo said. "It hasn't been found yet."
"Yes, that's right," Pim agreed. "Pip was up much earlier than the two of you this morning. When he heard Father say the sherriffs needed assistance, he was eager to go. Dodi and Ilbie went too."
"You'd think they'd never want to be near that awful place again!" cried Hilda.
"Aunt Esme's gone out," said Pim.
Merry laughed. "Mother's joined in the search?"
"No, silly lad!" The girl laughed too, and so did her sister and Aunt Hilda. The discomfort caused by Archambalt's outburst was dissipating.
"Imagine," said Hilda, "the Mistress of Brandy Hall wandering the fields like a dairy maid! No, dear--Esmeralda said she wanted to watch the proceedings. I'm sure you'll find her in the garden. Melisaunte might be there too. She spent last night with Melly over at Adelard's house, you know. The poor girl's so terribly distressed by all of this, and who can blame her? We've been busy already this morning, sending notes to the wedding guests who wouldn't have heard the news yet. Esmeralda's written to your father, saying he needn't come."
"Have you heard?" Peri asked Frodo and Merry. "There's to be no wedding today. It's been put off."
"Postponed, Father's said," Pim added. "Melly and Evvy can't think of marrying while he's under this awful suspicion. They'll have to wait. Poor Melly."
"Poor Evvy!" said her sister.
Merry and Frodo had not heard this news officially, but both had assumed that the wedding would be cancelled or delayed under the circumstances.
The others finished their breakfasts and departed, presumably to watch the search from the garden themselves. Merry remained to wait for Frodo. "Shall we join the lads when you're done?" he suggested. "I don't know if we'll do better than anybody else in finding the knife, but it's as good a place as any to start if you're going to do as Mother asked."
"I'm going to do more than that," Frodo answered. "I've been given a special job: Uncle Paladin wants me to investigate Toby's murder as well... only, I'm not sure it's for the same reasons as Aunt Esme and Melly." He would have said more, but Paladin popped his head in at the door just then, and asked if Frodo was ready.
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