A Looming Disaster by Kathryn Ramage

Mrs. Larksey turned out to be an elderly widow who lived in a tiny cottage on the far side of Oatbarton, upstream of the many mills. Her sons, who worked in the sawing mill, supported her, but she'd been a skilled weaver and spinner before her marriage. She had even worked for Old Mr. Spindlethrift in the days before his new-fangled loom.

"It's those new machines as caused all the trouble," she told Frodo when he called on her later that day to ask about her employment. "That's not the sort o' weaving I was taught to do when I was girl, and them hard-hearted Spindlethrift girls wouldn't hear o' doing things in the proper way. The old ways is always best, I say, and there's no need to change 'em. But they wouldn't listen to me. Those Spindlethrifts've got above themselves and think they know what's the best way to weave a piece o' cloth. That Miss Pris said I wasn't suited to the sort o' work they liked, and they had no need o' my services. Then she paid me my last wages and sent me off home."

While the old woman certainly seemed to bear the Spindlethrifts a grudge, Frodo doubted that she could be the one who had made the faulty cards. She obviously didn't have the technical skills nor sufficient understanding of how the looms worked to sabotage them; if she had, Pristina never would have dismissed her, and she would have no reason to wish the family ill.

Or would she? After he left the cottage and was walking along a path beside the stream back toward the heart of the town, Frodo reconsidered this point. Mrs. Larksey had known the Spindlethrifts for many years. She wasn't very much older than Mrs. Spindlethrift. Could the two women once have been rivals for their employers' son? If Mrs. Spindlethrift had triumphed over Mrs. Larksey in this respect, it could certainly cause long years of resentment. And Mrs. Larksey might have someone more clever to help her in seeking revenge...

While Frodo was turning this possibility over in his mind and wondering how he could broach such a delicate question to his client, he noticed a young couple standing amidst a cluster of trees beside the path ahead of him. He glimpsed the girl only from the back, but she was wearing a purple and yellow paisley kerchief over her hair, just like the one Lalina had been wearing when Mrs. Spindlethrift had led him through the dyeing room. Lalina had also been absent from the mill this morning. Frodo was sure that it must be she. He was equally certain that the fair-headed boy with her now was the lad her family didn't approve of.

As he drew closer to them, the boy noticed him, said something to the girl, and darted away in the opposite direction.

"Mr. Baggins!" Lalina whirled to face him. "What're you doing out here? I thought you'd be at the mill all day with Mum."

"I'm looking into some suspects, Miss Lalina--people who might wish harm to your family business." Frodo looked over her shoulder, but the boy had disappeared. The paper mill, he noted, was just on the other side of the copse. "By the way, who was that you were talking to?"

"A lad I know," she answered with a show of indifference. "His name's Comfrey Catswort."

"Is he the one-?"

"He is." Lalina regarded him more anxiously. "You won't tell, will you?"

"I won't tell," said Frodo, "unless it turns out that he has something to do with this problem with the looms."

"Well, he doesn't!"

"How can you be so sure, Miss Lalina?"

"Comfrey's no spy. If he was asking questions about weaving, it's only because we both had a hope that he might leave off pressing wet paper and come work at Spindlethrifts' with me once we were wed. Why-" she hesitated, then announced, "I'm more of a spy'n he is."

There was a defiant, even boastful, tone to this that made Frodo believe she was lying to shield her sweetheart. Nevertheless, he asked, "What do you mean? Who were you spying for?"

Her answer took him by surprise. "Them weavers as was here last month."

"The weavers from somewhere in the south?"

"That's right. Mum didn't tell you, Mr. Baggins? Them weavers came to call on us specially. They thought as we'd like to have a share in a mill they was starting down Michel-Delving way. We'd be partners, and they'd have looms just like ours, if we'd tell 'em how to build one. They told Mum that one of us could go and be their Mistress Weaver to show 'em how to weave just the way we do. They asked Pristy first, but she wouldn't leave Oatbarton. They didn't dare ask Jem, and Elfy and Mulby are too young and just learning the trade. So they asked me. I would've gone too. Me and Comfrey could've run off together and got married. And why not? I'm of age, and we'd be as happy in Michel Delving as anyplace else."

"Then why didn't you, Miss Lalina?" Frodo asked her.

At this question, Lalina abruptly lost her proud defiance. "I would've… only, I couldn't tell 'em what they wanted to know," she admitted.

"About the looms?"

Lalina nodded. "I don't know how they work. Comfrey doesn't either. If we run off in the end, it won't be over them looms."
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