A Looming Disaster by Kathryn Ramage

Frodo had dinner with the Spindlethrifts again that evening, but the atmosphere had changed. Last night, he'd been welcomed as a famous gentlehobbit who had come to help them; tonight, everyone was aware that his attention was focused on one among their family rather than some disgruntled mill-worker or outsider. Frodo didn't know what precisely Mrs. Spindlethrift had said to her daughters and sons-in-law before he'd arrived, but he was certain that, following their afternoon's conversation, his client hadn't been able to keep her own suspicions to herself. Jemina and Pristina cast frequent doubtful glances at the Nutley brothers, and even Nardo's and Nondillo's wives seemed unsure of them. The two brothers wore an air of stubborn defiance. The three younger girls were plainly nervous. Lalina was afraid that Frodo would tell her family about her but meeting with Comfrey. Mulbina had obviously wept again since Frodo had seen her last, and Elfina was even more shy than usual.

The one person who seemed oblivious to the tension around him was Jacimbo, who came in late. As the elderly hobbit joined the others at the dinner table, he announced triumphantly that he'd finally discovered the missing replacement cards.

"They were on the table all the time," he told Frodo, "under some piles o' paper and my cutting tools. If that lass Mulby had only looked about a bit more, they woulda turned up and saved us this trouble." He gave the girl a scornful glance. "I put 'em all in their proper places myself before I come here, rather'n leave the task to her, and the sets'll be fit to run tomorrow. I promise you, Mr. Baggins, she won't be getting her hands on none o' my cards again."

Fresh tears welled in Mulbina's already red-rimmed eyes at this termination of her apprenticeship. Frodo's heart went out to her. While she was the one who'd put the false cards into the sets for the looms, he doubted that she'd been anything but a dupe in this. But whose?

"That's all very well, Mr. Spindlethrift," he answered, "but it doesn't explain where those other cards came from, or who made them."

"'Twas only some piece o' mischief," Jacimbo replied. "Mischief 'n' foolishness, I won't say whose." It was plain who he was referring to, for his eyes were still on his former apprentice. "I always said it'd come to no good end, having a lass learn how to make the cards. I won't have another, Minna. I'll wait 'til one of the dyers' little lads is grown, if I don't give up working before then."

Mulbina sobbed. Elfina, Frodo noted, also looked abashed.

In light of the number of Spindlethrifts already in a state of distress, and not wishing to reawaken his client's strong feelings about the Michel Delving weavers, Frodo didn't ask Jacimbo about them at that time. He waited until they'd left Mrs. Spindlethrift's home and were walking together back toward the center of town. Jacimbo lived in a small cottage near the mill, where he and his late brother had been brought up before their father had become a great success.

Once they were alone, he tentatively broached the subject, "I didn't have the chance to ask you before, Mr. Spindlethrift, but I've heard several accounts of those visiting weavers from the south seeking information about your looms from members of the family. They didn't speak to you, did they?"

Jacimbo huffed indignantly. "Are you saying I'd spy for these folk, Mr. Baggins?"

"No, I only ask. I've asked all the others and, as I say, learned that these weavers did invite several of them to come and work in Michel Delving-"

"Well, they never asked me to come away! As if I'd leave my home after all these years to go traipsing half-way down the Shire!" The elderly hobbit grew more agitated. "Going 'round asking such tom-fool questions--you don't know nothing! I told Minna she was wrong to bring outsiders in to poke about 'n' get underfoot. If she'd left well enough alone, this trouble would've sorted itself out right enough without you raising more trouble by prying in where it's no business o' yours to be."

Jacimbo turned and, with one parting huff, hastened off toward the footpath that led to his home. Frodo didn't pursue him, but went down the Oatbarton high street to the inn.

As he entered the crowded public rooms at the front of the inn, the innkeeper called out to him, "Mr. Baggins! Ye've a visitor come calling, the one you waiting for. I sent him to his dinner while he was a-waiting you."

At this news, Frodo went immediately to the private dining room. He grinned at the sight of the familiar and well-beloved figure seated at the table. Sam had finally arrived.

"Sam!" Frodo gave his friend a swift hug around the shoulders and kissed his cheek. "How delightful to see you! I'm so glad you came." He took a seat in the chair next to Sam's. "I've been longing for someone to discuss this case with. Talking about my ideas always helps to lay them out more clearly in my mind, and I'm afraid right now that all my ideas are in a terrible muddle."

While Sam finished eating, Frodo described the Spindlethrift family and his thoughts about each of them. "There are seven daughters, Sam. Of the eldest four, two are married and the other two unmarried and have no intention ever to wed. Miss Jemina says so plainly and Miss Pristina feels the same as far as I can tell. They are dedicated to the family business and will be happy to take charge of it after their mother passes on. But it's the children of the married sisters who will probably inherit the mill in the end. I wonder if there isn't some resentment there, on one side or the other, but I can't see either pair of sisters wishing to damage the family's livelihood. They all seem fiercely loyal to their mother. The two married sisters' husbands, on the other hand, are certainly resentful of their mother-in-law. They're brothers named Nardo and Nondillo Nutley, and they worked for Mrs. Spindlethrift as dyers before they married her daughters. They're dyers still. She's kept them firmly in their place and won't let them take a greater part in the management of the mill. They might be happy to see it fail as Spindlethrifts', in hopes of raising it up again as Nutleys'.

"Then there are the three younger girls. Lalina is eager to run off with a lad her family doesn't approve of. They claim that the lad is only courting her to spy on them, but Lalina refuses to believe it. If he isn't behind this, I suppose she might want to sabotage things out of spite for their trying to spoil her love-affair. She works with the dyers and says she knows nothing about the looms, but that's an easy thing to lie about. Mulbina is the one who works with her uncle on the looms, so she has good opportunities to start the sort of trouble that's been happening at the mill." Frodo remained mindful of his promise to Mrs. Spindlethrift to keep the use of the weavers' cards a secret, even from Sam, and was deliberate vague about what this trouble was. "But all the same, I don't believe she did. That is, Mulbina is responsible for the part of the problem that brought her mother to me--I've learned that much--but her involvement otherwise seems to be purely an accident."

"And what about the last one?" asked Sam, who had been keeping count.

"That's Elfina, the youngest daughter. She tells me that she also knows something about the looms. She's a curious girl, Sam. I suspect she's clever, but she's quiet. You know how those quiet girls are: you never can tell what they're thinking, and they astonish you with it when they do speak out. It occurred to me only this evening that she might've done some mischief to play a mean trick on Mulbina and put an end to her sister's apprenticeship under their uncle--which has indeed happened."

"Now why would she do that?"

"To take her sister's place," Frodo explained. "Well, if that was her intention, her hopes have been dashed. Their uncle Jacimbo declares that he won't take another female apprentice. I haven't yet told you about Jacimbo Spindlethrift. He's Mrs. Spindlethrift's brother-in-law. She doesn't like him, and he doesn't seem to like her or any of her daughters very much. He hasn't a very high opinion of women's abilities at all. I'm sure he's spiteful enough to act against Mrs. Spindlethrift if he had some reason."

"Has he got a reason?" Sam asked.

"Not that I've discovered. He manages the looms and actually makes the important pieces that have been tampered with, so he's in the best position of anyone to spoil the weavers' work. He could also have played the trick on Mulbina. But why would he? The mill is his business as much as Mrs. Spindlethrift's, and he has as much to lose if it goes awry. Nevertheless, I've noticed one or two peculiar things about him. They could simply be the vagaries of a grumpy old hobbit who dislikes an 'outsider' prying into his family affairs, but all the same, I must wonder… By the way, Sam, did you have the inn-keeper bring your baggage to my room, or should I send someone to fetch it now before we settle in for the night?"

They had left the dining room while Frodo was talking and, hand-in-hand, were now walking away from the public rooms at the front of the inn and down the corridor toward the bed-chambers at the back. At the door to his room, Frodo stopped.

"I had him carry it in before I got something to eat," Sam answered the question. "He told me you were having supper over at Mrs. Spindlethrift's and didn't know when you'd be back. It didn't seem right for me to go out looking for you and inviting myself, you might say, into a house where I wasn't asked."

"Mrs. Spindlethrift would've welcomed you, but her daughters and sons-in-law were already suspicious and uncomfortable with one investigator in their midst tonight," Frodo replied with a laugh as they went into the room. "Another calling unexpectedly might've sent them into a flutter for good or ill--either made someone slip up and tell the truth, or else shut them all up tightly. I'll bring you to the mill with me to introduce you tomorrow and we'll see what they do then." He shut the door and flung his arms around Sam's neck to give him a kiss. "I am glad you're here with me," he repeated, this time giving the words a more personal significance. "I missed being away from you, even if only for a day. It's wonderful that you were able to come so quickly after all."

"I did like you said, and sent your note to your cousin Peony after you left," Sam told him as they began to prepare for bed. "She wrote back she'd be glad to look after the twins, so I took 'em over to the Old Place yesterday. I meant to leave Nel and little Frodo at home with Fern, but I expect they'll be spending most of the day over at the Old Place too."

Frodo sat down at the foot of the bed as he undid his shirt buttons. "Why?"

"Angelica's there with her two little uns." Angelica's daughter Willa was just a year older than Elanor, and her son and little Frodo were only a few weeks apart; the children had naturally become close friends. "You know how they all want to play together whenever 'Gelica brings 'em to Hobbiton. I told 'Gelica she could come and call for Nel and Frodo at Bag End while we were out." Sam was undressing before the fireplace, carefully placing his clothes over a nearby wooden chair. When he finished, he dispensed with the nightshirt in his traveling pack and joined Frodo on the bed. "Here's a funny thing, Frodo," he said after another kiss. "When I told Angelica you'd gone to help Mrs. Spindlethrift, she said there was news in Michel Delving about some weavers that're going to have patterns like Spindlethrifts' soon."

At the words "Michel Delving," Frodo became alert. "Did she say how they plan to do that?"

"She heard tell that they're building a special loom of their own." Sam could see that this information had completely captured Frodo's attention. "D'you think they could?"

"What one hobbit with a mechanical turn of mind can invent, so can another, but it's interesting that they should be making such an announcement now." These weavers must surely be the same ones who had visited Oatbarton and tried to lure members of the Spindlethrift family away into partnership with them. No Spindlethrifts taken up this offer, but one of them must have provided the necessary information about how to make and work their looms. The other weavers now had it, or were shortly expecting to receive it. But what did all of this have to do with the false loom-cards, which could only be made by the hole-punching machine in Jacimbo's workshop? How did the two connect? Surely, they must connect. It couldn't be coincidence that they should happen at the same time.

While Frodo was considering this question, Sam snuggled down beside him under the quilt and pulled him close. He pushed the problem to the back of his mind and gave Sam his attention. This was, after all, why he'd invited Sam to join him in Oatbarton. They were miles from Bag End, sad memories of Rosie, and all the cares and worries of home. For at least this night, and perhaps one or two after it, they could think only of themselves. They could remember the many happy hours they'd spent together in each other's arms in other inns like this.

They were beginning to make love, when Frodo suddenly cried out, "That's it!" He scrambled free of Sam's embrace and leapt out of bed. "Sam, I've got it!"

"Got what?" Sam echoed, bewildered.

"The answer to this mystery." Frodo pulled on his dressing-gown and searched through the pockets of the jacket he'd been wearing earlier in the day. When he found the key to the bottom drawer of the wardrobe, he crouched down to unlock it and took out the packet of cards.

"What're those?" Sam asked as he watched Frodo open the packet and hold the cards up to the firelight one by one.

"The most important part of this mystery, and the part that didn't make sense to me, until now," Frodo replied as he laid the cards out on the floor. "See the holes? According to knowledgeable hobbits, they don't form a weaver's pattern, yet I'm certain that they aren't nonsense, Sam. They have a purpose. These holes mean something. If my idea is right, they were punched in this manner to convey something other than a pattern for weaving. I can guess what, but I must find out how."

Frodo settled down to work, his mind entirely focused on the pieces of the puzzle spread out before him. Sam was still dumbfounded and a bit disappointed by the strange and abrupt turn the evening had taken--but then, he was used to strange and abrupt turns where Frodo was concerned. With his head resting in the crook of one arm, he shut his eyes and settled down to wait.

Some hours later, Sam woke when Frodo laughed out loud. He opened his eyes to find Frodo still seated on the floor in his dressing-gown. The cards were no longer scattered all around him, but arranged into neat rows or stacked into little piles. Frodo's head was down; he had a piece of paper on his knee and was writing with Sam's slate pencil.

"You figured it out?" Sam asked sleepily.

"As a matter of fact, I have," Frodo answered. "It is a code, and very simple to read once you know how. It's all plain numbers and letters--one hole for A, two for B, and so on. There are no spaces between the words, nor punctuation, but I feel rather foolish that it took me so long to understand it. I noticed right away that all the rows of holes started at the left-hand end, but it took me an everlasting time to realize that no row had more than six-and-twenty holes."

Sam was too drowsy to want to hear more about the code. "Are you coming back to bed?"

"In a moment, my dear. I want to finish writing out this message."
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