"That wasn't so awful," Fatty said as the bier-bearers walked back toward the Hall together, trailing behind the others. "Except for poor Mentha."
"I was afraid Uncle Merimas would make a scene when it came his turn to speak," said Doderic. "I thought he might accuse Merry right there over his son's body. Could the family ever recover from that? As if we haven't provided enough scandal already to keep the Shire busy chattering for months! By the way, Frodo, what's this about Merry intending to leave the Shire once he's free?"
"How did you learn about that?" Frodo asked, startled.
"I overheard Uncle Saradoc telling Aunt Esme. Is it true?" All three cousins looked extremely interested.
"I don't know if he truly means it, but it's what Merry said when I saw him this morning. I had to tell Uncle Saradoc, in hopes it would make him change his mind."
"I hope it does, but it hasn't gotten Merry out of gaol yet," said Doderic. "We're working on that ourselves, you know."
"Yes, Pippin told me about your plans," Frodo answered. "I think it's wonderful the way you've all stood by them. They need their friends especially now."
"Why shouldn't we stick with them?" Doderic responded. "Merry's our cousin, so is Pip, and in spite of the fuss Uncle Saradoc's made about it, they haven't done anything we haven't all done too." He grinned. "With Merry around, I expect every one of us has been up to precisely the same games-"
"With Merry," his brother finished, and both of them and Fatty chuckled companionably.
Frodo understood their joke: In their 'tweens, before Merry had settled on Pippin, both brothers and Fatty had been among Merry's earlier playmates. It was only natural that they assumed he had played around the same way with Merry himself, since the two of them had always been particularly close friends; in fact, they would be surprised and disbelieving if he told them otherwise.
He wondered what they would say if they knew of his relationship with Sam. Games between cousins of the best hobbit-families was one thing, but a love-affair with one of the common folk, especially a servant, was quite another matter. It wouldn't be seen in the same amusing light as their own romps with Merry, but as a serious breach of gentlehobbit conduct similar to Berilac's reputed dalliances with housemaids.
"Nothing wrong in it," Ilberic concluded as the boys stifled their laughter, for Estella had left the company of the aunties and was headed in their direction. "The only difference is that Uncle Saradoc isn't so eager to see any of us married off right away." He smiled at Estella as she drew near, and she shyly smiled in return.
"It might be better if Merry and Pip did go away for awhile," Fatty said softly, so his sister would not overhear. "Not out of the Shire, of course, but away from Buckland once this unpleasantness is over and done with. It'd do them a world of good to get away from these Brandybucks- That is-" He paused, flustered. "I beg your pardon. I didn't mean-"
"Quite all right, Fatty." Doderic smiled. "We know we aren't the Brandybucks you're referring to, and anyway I agree with you."
"But Merry can't go away," said Estella, who had heard after all. "It wouldn't be fair, not if he's innocent as we all know he is." She looked appealingly from one lad to another. "You do believe he's innocent, don't you?"
"Of course we do," Ilberic answered. "Nobody in their right mind could think otherwise." He received another shy smile.
"It's ridiculous!" Doderic agreed. "Why, I've got as much reason to get rid of Berry as Merry did. With both him and Berry out of the way, I'd be next in line as heir to the Master of the Hall. Or it might've been Ilberic."
"Me!" cried his brother. "What reason would I have?"
"Once the way was clear, you'd only have to give me a good knock over the head to get rid of me too."
"Estella, dear," Beryl called her away from the group of boys.
"It's a pity Merry doesn't take an interest in girls," said Fatty as Estella returned to their aunt. "Stel's grown up rather nice, if I do say so as a brother. And she's so obviously sweet on him."
"Obviously," echoed Ilberic, and Fatty looked contrite again.
As they headed toward the Hall, Frodo spotted Sam standing beneath the row of willows along the river, half-hidden by the curtain of long leaves, and waving to draw his attention. He quietly left the group and headed toward the trees.
"I've just come from the boathouse," Sam announced once Frodo had ducked under the fringe of willow leaves to join him.
"What did you find out?"
In response, Sam took a small memoranda book out of the pocket of his jacket; Frodo smiled at the sight of it, and Sam explained, "You said we ought to be methodical, so I thought as I'd better write it all down to be sure I got it right.
"Now then," he opened the tiny book and read from his notes, "Mr. Berilac went to the boathouse right after first breakfast. The boatsmen say he was alone when he rowed off, and that was the last they saw of 'm. He didn't tell them where he was going. They said they told the sherriffs just the same the day after Mr. Berilac went missing, and didn't have more to add."
"What about Doderic?" asked Frodo. "Did he take a boat too?"
"Mr. Doderic took a boat out less than an hour after Mr. Berilac, but here's the curious thing: He didn't bring it back. His brother, Mr. Ilberic, did."
"Ilbie? Are they quite sure of that?"
"Well, they allow it's easy enough to get the two brothers mixed up, as they look so much alike, but one of the old boatsman, Tubby Ragwort, his name is, swears it was Ilberic Brandybuck that came back to the boathouse just before noon."
"Yes, I remember Old Tubby," said Frodo. "He's been with the family for years. He'd know one lad from the other. Ilbie said he slept late that morning, but he must have been lying. Did you look into that?"
"I did, and that makes what the boatsmen told me curiouser still." Sam turned back to the first page in his notebook. "I asked the housemaid that does the family's bedrooms when she came to see if we had any washing that needed doing. We had a nice, long chat while you were sleeping. She says Mr. Ilberic was snoring very loud when she went to straighten his room. She didn't try to go in then, but came back just before lunch, when he wasn't there. Earlier that morning, she was taking water up to your cousins' rooms as she does for 'em most days, but she says he was quiet then. She knocked on the door, but there was no answer."
"He must have been out earlier and come back to the house," Frodo mused. Under the cover of the trees, where no one could see them, he put an around Sam and leaned on him. "But why would he do that? It doesn't make sense. Why go out, then come back in for a nap, and then go out again at noon to return Dodi's boat? What could he and Dodi have been up to?" He watched the figures on the lawn, the last of the funeral party, going into the Hall via the front doors. "What about the others, Fatty and Melly?"
"Miss Melilot was out all day, and didn't come back 'til dinner-time with her sister, Miss Mentha," Sam reported.
"Yes, that fits with what Melly told me. She walked over to visit Mentha at her studio."
"And as far as anyone can say, Mr. Fatty didn't come to the Hall 'til yesterday morning."
"Budgeford's 25 miles away. I suppose it's possible that he could have ridden down here unseen, then gone home again... but I can't think of a reason why he would." Frodo laughed. "I find it hard to imagine Fatty Bolger riding hard through Buckland with murder on his mind, don't you?"
"It does make an odd picture," Sam agreed, "but there's one other person you didn't ask about that might've brought him down from Budgeford in a hurry: Miss 'Stella Bolger was missing for an hour or more that morning."
"She turned up again at lunch, right as rain, but Daffy said that her aunt, Miss Beryl, was making the biggest fuss, setting the whole house upside down looking for her."
"Yes, Aunt Beryl watches over Estella very closely. Would she have sent for Fatty if his sister were missing?" Frodo shook his head. "What a peculiar business this is! Ilberic, Doderic, possibly Fatty, and now Estella--was anyone where they said they were?"
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