The next morning, Frodo announced his intention to visit Crickhollow on his way to see Merry at Newbury. Sam, as always, accompanied him.
Instead of taking the back road around the foot of Buck Hill past Bucklebury--the way they had ridden to the Hall the night before--Frodo headed down the main road to the point where it intersected with the lane eastward to Crickhollow; stopping at a wooden gate on the western side of the road, he went through it toward the river. There, a footpath bordered by tall grass and long-stemmed blue and white asters ran atop a raised earthwork embankment and, below it, a grassy slope went down to the water. Rushes grew close to the bank, except for one broad, flat muddy area that had been cleared to provide a boat landing.
Frodo climbed up onto the embankment and stood looking out over the wide, golden-brown river glittering in the sun.
"I thought we were going to see Mr. Pippin," Sam said when he caught up.
"We are," answered Frodo, "but I wanted to come here first. I wanted to see where Merry and Pippin found Berilac's boat. If I'm going to investigate this matter myself, it seems like the best place to start." He continued to look out on the water as he spoke. "This isn't very far from where my parents drowned."
Sam understood the odd look that had crossed Frodo's face when Merry had described this place.
Frodo rarely spoke of the incident, but Sam had heard the old rumors about how Frodo's parents had died; he could still hear Ted Sandyman's jeering voice: "I heard tell she pushed him in, and he pulled her in after him." The Gaffer had quashed these stories whenever he heard them, saying that boats were dangerous enough without any pushing and pulling, and Sam was inclined to agree. He'd had some experience of boats now, and had nearly drowned once himself. It wasn't a way of dying that he liked to think much about.
"Were you there when it happened?" he asked.
Frodo shook his head. "They had gone out after dinner for a row in the moonlight. I was up at the Hall, playing with Merry and the other children in the nursery. I didn't hear about it 'til the next morning, when Aunt Esme took me aside and told me she had some bad news, and I must be very brave.
"It's a treacherous part of the river, even without foul play. Because of the mud, you can't see the bottom, and it drops very suddenly from the shallows, where the rushes are, to the deeps. The currents are strong out there. You can be pulled under..." He took his eyes from the water and looked down at the bank immediately below where he was standing to find a long, flat scrape in the mud. "The boat was drawn up there." He pointed. "Berilac's body was found much farther downriver, but he must have gone into the water near this spot. Why do you suppose he got out here?"
"Maybe he was visiting someone," Sam suggested.
"Who?" Both hobbits turned to consider the hill-like hummocks of cottages visible along the winding lane that led away through the trees on the far side of the road. "Merry and Pip? It's possible. He might have intended to go to Crickhollow to see them after the quarrel--to offer his condolences, or to gloat--but I don't think they were expecting him to call. Merry would have said so if they had, and they would've guessed who the boat belonged to when they found it."
"Does anybody else live out this way?"
"Two of my cousins were just married and have set up house in one of the cottages. Berry might have meant to visit them, but I can't imagine that they had any part in this. A newlywed pair of murderers doesn't sound very likely. Perhaps they saw or heard something. And there are others who keep cottages out here. Old Uncle Dinodas retires to his cottage whenever the Hall becomes too noisy and crowded for him, and my cousin Mentha used to have a studio, and still does for all I know."
"Studio?" Sam echoed.
"She paints." All around the scraped area where the boat had landed was a churn of multiple bare heel- and toe-prints; Frodo scrambled down the slope and crouched to examine these more closely. "I wish I could tell something by the footprints, but there are so many of them. It looks like half of Buckland has been trampling here!"
"If Strider was here, he could look at that muddle and say who each of those feet belonged to, how long ago they were here, and what they were up to," Sam said as he came down to join Frodo at the water's edge.
"Unfortunately, Strider's too busy being king, so we'll have to puzzle this out ourselves. I'd be happy if we knew at least what Berilac was up to. If he wasn't visiting one of the family cottages, perhaps he intended to meet with some girl from Newbury or one of the neighboring farms, although it's an odd place to come ashore for that." Frodo rose from his crouched position and walked slowly along the river's edge with his eyes on the ground; he had not gone five yards from the place where the boat had been when he spotted a metallic glint in the muddy water. "Here, what's that?"
Sam watched anxiously as Frodo waded out into the shallows amid the rushes. The water only washed around Frodo's calves, but he had spoken mere minutes ago of how treacherous this part of the river was. "Don't go out no deeper!" Sam warned him. "You know I can't swim if you fall in."
"I won't." Frodo bent over and reached down into the mud; he brought up something that glittered in the sunlight and swished it around in the water to rinse it off.
"What'd you find?" asked Sam.
Frodo waded back to the shore to show him: an ornamental fragment made up of three swirls of silver shaped like leaves intertwined, two of them broken at one end, distorted and elongated, as if they'd been pulled away from other, missing swirls. Within each curl of silver was set a red garnet. "It looks like part of a cloak pin, or perhaps a lady's brooch. So a woman was here!" he said with growing excitement as his imagination took flight. "Do you suppose this belongs to the mysterious girl your cook's brother claims he saw in the boat with Berry? Who could she have been? And what happened to her?"
"That might've fallen there at any time," Sam pointed out. "You said yourself that too many people've been on this spot since Mr. Berilac's boat was found. Anybody could've dropped it, before or afterwards."
"It can't have been in the water for very long," Frodo countered. "The silver isn't tarnished."
"But if it fell before, why didn't the sherriffs find it?"
"They may not have been looking for it," Frodo answered after giving the question some thought. "They thought that Berilac's death was an accident at first, and if they lit upon Merry soon after they found the body downriver, they mayn't have come back to this spot to look for clues. It wouldn't mean anything to them. They haven't heard the story about the mysterious girl." Then he sighed. "Well, you're probably right, Sam. It may have nothing to do with the murder, but maybe..." He tucked the scrap of silver into his waistcoat pocket. "It can't hurt to keep hold of it and ask."
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