After dinner, the ladies retired, either to their beds or the drawing room. The young lads headed out for the pub at Bucklebury; Frodo was about to accompany them, when Saradoc turned to him and said, "Frodo lad, it's been quite some time since we've had a talk. Why don't you join us for a pipe?"
Since old Rory Brandybuck's day, it had been a custom for the Master of the Hall and other adult males in the house to settle down to smoke and enjoy a glass of wine after dinner. While Frodo would have preferred to go out with Fatty and his other cousins--and walk over to Crickhollow before the evening grew too late--if he was going to do the job Merry had asked him to, he needed to be in his uncle's company. "Yes, thank you, Uncle. I will."
The children had always been forbidden to play in the master's study, and Frodo felt a little strange as he followed Merimac and Saradoc in. In spite of all the things he'd seen and done out in the greater world, this invitation from his uncle made him feel as if he were truly considered one of the grown-ups.
He'd only been called into this room full of musty books and ledgers before on serious matters: He and Merry had received scoldings and punishments for whatever mischief they'd gotten themselves into, and he had occasionally discussed business concerning the property his parents had left him. As Frodo's legal guardian, Saradoc had managed things for him before he'd come of age. It had been a point of pride for Saradoc to give scrupulous attention to the finances of the orphan in his care. No one could accuse him of mishandling the boy's affairs! Frodo recalled that his uncle had been especially proud to hand everything over to him on his 21st birthday in a better condition than it'd been in when he'd taken charge of it. That was the last time Frodo had been in this room, just before he'd gone to live with Bilbo.
He sank into one of the overstuffed leather chairs near the fire. His own pipe had been left upstairs with his baggage; Saradoc offered him one from the rack on the mantelpiece, then poured out three glasses of dark red wine from a decanter on the sideboard.
As he handed Frodo one of the wine glasses, Saradoc patted his shoulder. "It's times like this I'm sorry we let you go to old Bilbo Baggins and fall under his influence. Not that it hasn't provided for you nicely, my lad, but Bilbo was always a bit odd with his writing poetry, and running off on adventures with that wizard-friend of his and putting it into your head to go running off too. Well, he's paid for his oddities. At least, you've come back. As Merry tells it, I gather that you're a hero to the Big Folk."
"You're a friend to this new king," said Merimac with some appreciation.
"Merry and Pippin have also done some brave deeds," Frodo replied modestly. "They stand very high among the heroes of Gondor, and are great friends of King Aragorn themselves."
"Be that as it may, you're all home now." Saradoc was not as impressed by his son's and nephews' place in the Big Folk's world. "You've had your adventure and I daresay it was all great fun, but it's time to settle down and be respectable. Merry has to realize that. Your Aunt Esmeralda's told me that you've been to see him today."
"Yes, sir. Merry is very dear to me, you know. I intend to stand by him until he's been cleared of this awful charge against him. You don't think he's guilty, do you?" Frodo looked from one uncle to the other.
"I wouldn't like to say so in front of Esmeralda and the other ladies," said Merimac, "and I don't say Merry is responsible for my boy's death, but if he is, then hanging's too good for him."
"Oh, I'm sure it won't come to that. They won't hang a Brandybuck. There are a few things that look bad against Merry, but it'll all be cleared up soon enough," Saradoc answered confidently. "In my official capacity as magistrate, I have to see that this investigation is conducted properly, with no question of special favors. That's only fair. Justice must be seen to be done. The heir to the Hall shouldn't be treated differently from any common murder suspect."
"But to be shut up like a criminal on nothing but suspicions-" Frodo began.
"He'll come to no harm in the sherriffs' custody. And it'll be a lesson for the boy. Merry's always been too flighty."
"It's the Tookish nature," said Merimac. "He gets it from his mother's family. I told you there'd be trouble one day when you married a Took."
"Esmeralda was flighty in her youth," Saradoc admitted grudgingly, "but she's grown much steadier with age and I've never had any reason to complain about her conduct. Even at her most Tookish, she was never so wild as Merry's been."
"The boy should have been reined in," Merimac responded. "It may be too late for him now. It's certainly too late for my Berry."
"No, I think Merry still has a chance," Saradoc said, and turned to refill Frodo's glass. "You're a sensible young hobbit, Frodo. The Bagginses are good stock--"
"Nearly as solid as the Bolgers!" Merimac interjected.
"A little stodgy, but a decent, respectable family."
Frodo sipped his wine, and did not tell his uncles that the Bagginses had always attributed his peculiarities, especially his fondness for reading and his ability to swim, to his Brandybuck blood.
"Now that you're master of your own household, you know what responsibility is," Saradoc continued. "Can't you talk to Merry? Make him see reason."
Frodo had to smile. "Merry asked me to talk to you, Uncle. He told me of your- ah- quarrel."
"That's just the sort of thing I mean!" With a glance at his brother, Saradoc leaned closer to Frodo and spoke barely above a whisper. "I don't mind Pippin Took. He's not a bad lad, but he's not the best companion I could choose for Merry. He's too easily led. He lets Merry get away with too much, and there are limits to what decency will stand. The two of them setting up house together! And the stories I've heard about what goes on at that cottage! He's gone too far this time, Frodo, and it's got to stop."
"If Merry does agree to give up Pippin-" Frodo asked, although he was quite certain that Merry would never accept his father's terms, "will you tell the sherriffs to let him out, Uncle?"
"Oh, I couldn't do that without some proof of his innocence," said Saradoc, "but I would be glad to speak to them about reconsidering their case against him. Fair's fair."
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