"I have a question to ask you, Master Dyers," Frodo began once he'd returned to the Spindlethrift mill, and sought out the two brothers in the dyeing room. "There were some rivals weavers who called here in September--Mrs. Spindlethrift mentioned them last night. Before they left Oatbarton, did they ask you or your wives to come and work with them in Michel Delving?" The question had occurred to Frodo on his walk back up along the stream into town. Surely young Lalina wasn't the only member of the family they'd spoken to.
"Now how'd you'd find out about that, Mr. Baggins?" Nardo asked in response, confirming Frodo's suspicion.
"It's my work to find out such things, Mr. Nutley. Was it you alone they made their offer to, or your brother-" he nodded in the direction of Nondillo, who was gaping at him in surprise, "or to the Mrs. Nutleys?"
"To all o' us," Nardo answered. "'Twas the day after Ma Spindlethrift showed 'em off the premises here at the mill, saying she didn't want to be partners. Before they went back to where they belonged, they called at our house up on the hill first thing in the morning. Now, my Carina and Dillo's Dosina turned 'em down without hearing 'em out, same as their mum did, but they walked down the road with us and asked if that was the last answer we'd give."
"They said they wanted a good manager," Nondillo added. "Now you heard last night, Mr. Baggins, how Ma Spindlethrift is about not letting us take a hand in anything, and her girls all stand by her on it, even Dosy and Carina. We was ready to say we'd go..." he glanced at his brother for confirmation.
"But you didn't," concluded Frodo. After his conversation with Lalina, he could also guess why. "They wanted someone who could tell them all about the Spindlethrift looms."
"That's right, Mr. Baggins!" said Nardo, impressed all the more deeply by Frodo's detective skills. "It was them looms they wanted a manager for, one that could tell 'em how the contraptions worked."
"And you couldn't tell them?"
Both brothers shook their heads. "Besides," said Nondillo, "if we did know, our wives'd smother us in our beds if we gave away a family secret like that."
When he left the Nutleys, Frodo found Mrs. Spindlethrift in a small office off the weaving room, instructing Elfina on the important task of how to choose which patterns the weavers were to work on. Some more of the faulty cards had turned up while he was out, and Mrs. Spindlethrift gave these to him before asking about his interview with Mrs. Larksey.
When Frodo broached his idea about the elderly woman's long-standing grudge against the family, Mrs. Spindlethrift dismissed it with a laugh. The subject wasn't a delicate one for her at all; Mrs. Larksey had never been her rival, but had left the mill to marry before she'd begun to work there. "If she ever had an eye on my husband, Mr. Baggins, it was all over and done with long before I ever set eyes on him."
Frodo then asked her about the weavers who had visited in September. Was she aware that they'd tried to recruit a manager for their mill from among her family?
"I knew they wanted my Jem or Pristy to go down to Michel Delving," Mrs. Spindlethrift answered. "They said so right out, and Pristy came the next day and told me that they came back and asked her again, private-like, after I said I didn't want to be partners with anybody." She gave him that sharp, knowing look again. "Who else did they ask, Mr. Baggins?"
"Nearly all your family, as far as I can tell. I haven't asked Mr. Spindlethrift yet."
"Oh, the deceitful wretches!" Mrs. Spindlethrift slapped her thigh and rose from her chair. "I told 'em 'No' once, and that ought've been the end of it. Instead, there's all this sneaking about behind my back, hoping to steal one o' my girls away. Are they at the back o' this trouble?"
"If they are, I'm not sure what their purpose is," Frodo answered. He was still trying to puzzle out just what the false cards were intended to do. "If they're after the secret of your looms, what can they hope to accomplish by ruining your weavers' work? They aren't here in Oatbarton anymore, so if they are behind this, then they must have someone working with them at the mill to make the false loom-cards. They've asked several members of your family to join them in Michel Delving. If one is in league with these weavers, why didn't they simply go to Michel Delving with them? Why try to ruin the family business? You might forgive them going away, but they'd gain nothing by betraying you."
"That's true enough," Mrs. Spindlethrift agreed. "If a daughter o' mine'd do such a thing, then she'd be no true daughter. And her sisters'd feel the same. She might as well change her name to sommat else."
At that moment, Pristina summoned her mother away the weaving room; another false card had turned up. Elfina remained seated with Frodo, and regarded him shyly.
"You knew about it, didn't you, Miss Elfina?" Frodo asked her. "You knew that these other weavers spoke to your sister." He didn't specify which of her many sisters he meant, but he'd perceived that she and Lalina were close and probably in each others' confidence.
Elfina seemed to understand, and nodded.
"Did they ask you as well?"
"No, Mr. Baggins," Elfina answered softly. "I never spoke to 'em, though I know sommat about the looms. Uncle Jacco almost picked me to teach about the cards instead o' Mulby. I expect I know as much as she does. But I'm not yet of age and Mum would never let me go so far off from home to work, even if I was of a mind to."
Before he left the mill, Frodo tried to find out if the Michel Delving weavers had also asked Jacimbo to join them, but when he reached the old hobbit's workroom, he found the door shut and locked. But Jacimbo was certainly within; the sounds of furniture scraping as it was moved across the floor and paper rustling could be heard, and Mulbina sat just outside with teary eyes.
"Uncle Jacco's looking for the proper cards that went missing," she explained. "He says I was the one who lost 'em, Mr. Baggins, and it's up to him to put things right. He says he won't ever have me set foot in his workshop again."
Tapping on the door provoked no response but a shouted, "Go away, girl!" Even after Frodo made several attempts to establish that he wasn't Mulbina and that he only wanted to ask Mr. Spindlethrift a few questions, the door remained shut.
There was only one other person left to ask. Mulbina was also underage, but she had information about the mechanics of the Spindlethrift looms that the rival weavers desired. Had they made their offer to her?
When Frodo asked her, the girl shook her head fiercely and said, "No, Mr. Baggins! They never did, and I never would. I'm in enough trouble over them cards already!"
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