Frodo went down to join the family as they were gathering for dinner. To his surprise, his second cousins Fatty and Estella Bolger were standing just outside the dining-room door with their Aunt Beryl, who was also Berilac's aunt on the Bolger side.
"Frodo, hello!" Fatty cried out in his own surprise and delight as he gave Frodo an enthusiastic hug. "I didn't know you were here!"
"I just arrived. What about you? How long have you been in Buckland?" The Bolgers' home was Budgeford in the Eastfarthing, but as close relations to the Brandybucks, they were frequent visitors at the Hall.
"I came the day before yesterday," Fatty answered, "but Aunt Beryl and 'Stella here-" he nodded his head to indicate his sister, "have been at the Hall this past week. Uncle Saradoc invited them special... before all this trouble began." He lowered his voice at these last words.
Estella, mousy-haired and apple-cheeked like her brother, came forward shyly to greet Frodo. She'd been a little girl the last time he'd seen her, but was nearly of age now. He then received a kiss from Aunt Beryl, and murmured his sympathies about the tragic loss of her other nephew.
They went into the dining room, which was a large, round room at the heart of Brandy Hall. The dining table was likewise large and circular, its head distinguished by a chair more elaborately carved than the others, and by its proximity to the sideboard.
Saradoc Brandybuck, Master of the Hall, was already seated in this chair, waiting for the rest of the family to take their places around the table. He was as prosperous-looking a hobbit as could be found in the Shire: fat, florid, and fair-haired, what Merry might be in 40 years given a sedentary life and six square meals a day. Merimac, the Master's younger brother and Berilac's father, was like Saradoc in looks, but shorter and sandy-haired. Also at the table were Aunt Hilda and her sons Doderic and Ilberic--the boys were two years apart, but enough alike to be twins--and Aunt Melisaunte, arriving late with her younger daughter Melilot. Melilot was a plump, pretty girl with a riot of brunette ringlets. Frodo remembered her dancing at Bilbo's birthday party. She looked wan today, and rather strained; there were circles under her large brown eyes.
"Mentha is not well," Melisaunte apologized for the absence of her elder daughter as she took her seat. "She prefers to stay in her room tonight."
The dinner conversation was focused at first on Frodo and his unexpected arrival. Once everyone had expressed their surprise and offered their heart-felt greetings, they insisted on hearing the news from Hobbiton. Frodo was glad to oblige, but he noticed that when they told him in turn of the doings in Buckland, no one spoke of the incidents which must be foremost on all their minds. Whether it was grief over Berilac or worry for Merry, the depth of distress felt during this family tragedy was indicated primarily by how little appetite anyone had. The womenfolk especially passed over course after course untouched, but even Saradoc was seen to push away his plate.
The talk turned to the recent marriage of Hilda's daughter Celandine and Melisaunte's son Merimas, neither of whom was present that night.
"You missed the wedding, of course," Hilda told Frodo. "It was last autumn, before you returned home. I'm sorry you weren't here for it. It was the grandest celebration we've had in years. Celie and Merimas are the first children of the Hall to marry."
"It's a very good match," said Saradoc. "The sort of thing we hope to see from all you young people now you're old enough."
"Do you have any plans for marriage yourself, Frodo?" Beryl asked him. "Is there some nice girl around Hobbiton you've got an eye on?"
"No- No one in particular," Frodo answered, blushing more than the innocent question warranted. "And where is the- ah- young couple now?"
"They've taken a cottage up the river," said Melisaunte. "They only meant to spend their honeymoon there, but it's turned out that they like having their own household so much that they've stayed on these last six months."
"You'll see them tomorrow," added Hilda. "They'll be here for the funeral."
There was an awkward silence.
Now that the taboo had been breached, the subject could be discussed. Melilot was the first to speak. "What will happen to Merry?" she asked tentatively.
"The official penalty for murder is death by hanging-" said Saradoc.
Esmeralda made a small, choked sound.
"You needn't be frightened for the boy's ultimate fate, my dear," her husband hastened to reassure her. "I don't know if it's ever actually been done. Has there ever been a murder in Buckland before? Anywhere in the Shire?"
The question went around the table, but no one could think of one example of a murder happening in the last hundred years. There were some tragic accidents and one or two mysterious disappearances, like old Bilbo's, but one hobbit deliberately killing another-? No. There had never been a trial for murder that anyone could recall. Crime in the Shire was rarely more serious than a drunken quarrel coming to blows, or the theft of farm produce.
"The sherriffs must be mistaken," said Melisaunte. "There can be nothing in these terrible suspicions against Merry. I'm positive that some outsider must have done it--something... strange lurking in the Old Forest came through the Hedge, or one of those nasty-looking Big Folk or dwarves."
"It can't be true," Estella agreed softly. "Not Merry."
"I don't believe it was murder at all," said Fatty. "We'll find that this was an accident, I'm sure of it. Boats are dangerous things." Fatty was not a native Bucklander, and only went boating reluctantly. "To go out on the river alone and tell no one where you're going, the way Berilac did, is asking for trouble."
"As I see it, the difficulty is that Merry can't prove he was somewhere else when poor Berry was drowned," said Doderic. "That's why the sherriffs have arrested him, isn't it, Uncle Saradoc? But what's in that? Who can ever account for their time, as if we knew in advance that something horrible was going to happen, and we must always be prepared to defend ourselves against accusations? Can anyone here say where they were that morning?" He looked at the others around the table. "If the sherriffs had asked me, I couldn't have given them a better answer than Merry's. No, mine is even more suspicious, for I was out on the river too, fishing down at the Standelf pool." His gaze landed on his brother and, with a note of teasing, he asked, "And where were you, Ilbie?"
"You know I was up in my bedroom," Ilberic answered with a little huff. "I slept in rather late. Can I prove it? I don't suppose so, not unless someone heard me snoring. Did anyone, Dodi?"
"I'm sure I couldn't say," his brother replied, "but you do snore rather loudly. Someone must have heard! Now, what about the rest of you?"
"I was out for a walk," said Melilot.
Estella opened her mouth as if she wanted to say something, but a glance from Aunt Beryl stopped her; she blushed in confusion and began to rearrange the vegetables on her plate with her fork.
"I wasn't here at all," Fatty contributed. "I was in Budgeford."
"Not good enough, Fatty!" said Doderic. "You might easily have ridden over-"
"I don't like this game of yours," Merimac said darkly. "I don't find it at all funny."
Doderic immediately looked contrite. "I am sorry, Uncle. It wasn't meant to be a game. I only wanted to show that any one of us might be suspected as easily as Merry, and for reasons just as flimsy. If the sherriffs have nothing better than that to hold Merry for, then I've no doubt they'll have to let him go in the end."
"It couldn't have been Merry," said Aunt Beryl. "It certainly couldn't have been any one of our people."
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