Death on the Brandywine by Kathryn Ramage

They parted on the front lawn; Sam went around to the southern side of the hill, and Frodo went into the Hall. The funeral party had gone on to partake of the offered refreshments and the front hall was empty. The door to the Master's study was ajar and, as Frodo went past, he could hear his uncles arguing within:

"-'til you know the truth of the matter, it's only just!" Merimac was saying, his voice rising with emotion. "That's all I ask for, Saradoc--justice for my son."

"What about my son? It's hard on the boy if he's innocent, harder than I thought it'd be if he's talking of leaving Buckland rather than give in."

"If he's innocent, there'll be proof of it. And if you're afraid of Merry's running off, then keeping him locked up's the best way to see he stays right where he is."

Saradoc sighed. "Yes, I suppose you're right..."

Frodo's heart sank at this exchange, and he stole quietly past the door and down the corridor to the best drawing room, where the rest of the family and guests had gathered. Esmeralda was serving tea with small cakes and sandwiches to refresh the party and sustain them until dinner. The drawing room was large and well-furnished, full of comfortable chairs, plump tuffets, and settees, but very crowded today. Since Frodo was late coming in, there were no empty seats; once he'd been given his tea, he found a place to stand at the mantelpiece, beneath a large portrait of Aunt Esme. From this vantage point, he could keep an eye on Doderic and Ilberic, who were at the other end of the room, wedged in behind the chair their mother was sitting in. He meant to speak to them first about the curious things Sam had told him, if only he could catch them alone.

Melisaunte and her daughters were absent, but their absence made them a prime topic of conversation. There were some disapproving murmurs among the guests about Mentha's behavior. Tears were expected at a funeral--indeed, they were a proper show of mourning--but so public an exhibition of deep, personal grief was shocking. Someone suggested that it was even in bad taste.

"Questionable taste it may have been, but I can't blame the poor child. I feel quite sorry for her," Hilda declared. "It's a terrible thing to happen to a young girl. It's bad enough to be widowed, but at least then you've had your years with your husband, and your children together." She looked fondly up at her own sons and newlywed daughter. "But to lose your betrothed-!" Hilda shook her head sadly. "Poor Mentha won't even have memories of happier times, and it will be so much harder for her to give her heart to another lad after this tragedy."

Other widowed ladies in the room were likewise sympathetic, but there was still some disagreement about the correctness of Mentha's conduct, broken heart or no broken heart. The question might have become an argument, if it had not ended abruptly when Melilot came in.

"How is your sister, dear?" Esmeralda asked her.

"She's calmer now, Aunt Esme. We've put her to bed and Mother's sitting by her." Melilot accepted the cup of tea her aunt offered. Her brother, who was seated nearby, gave her his place. "Mentha wants to go back to her cottage as soon she's fit, and I'm going with her to look after her. She can have quiet there, and it will do her good to be among her own things."

"It might also do her good to return to her work," said Esme. "It will help to take her mind off her sorrows."

"Yes, I think so too," Melly agreed, "and so does Mother."

"A girl so artistic as your Mentha must be very sensitive," one of the guests observed. "Is she still painting her pictures?" Mentha's paintings were a noteworthy peculiarity even among the peculiar Brandybucks.

"Yes, she is. She's really rather talented, you know," Merimas informed them. "She mostly paints pictures of gardens, flowers, ivy-covered cottages and such-like, but she does portraits too."

"She did a lovely picture of Merimas and Celie to commemorate their wedding," Hilda added proudly. "And she painted that." She indicated the portrait of Esmeralda. Those visitors who had not been in the drawing room to see this portrait before expressed their appreciation of it. "It's very beautiful work, isn't it? An excellent likeness."

"Mentha promised me one of Saradoc, to match it," said Esmeralda. "Perhaps she will paint it, once she's sufficiently recovered from her loss."

Frodo sipped his tea and continued to watch Doderic and Ilberic. He paid little attention to what was being said, for his thoughts were scattered in other directions.

What had the two been up to on the river that day? And was Estella Bolger part of it, or was her disappearance due to some other matter entirely? For an instant, Frodo considered the possibility that she might be the girl seen in Berry's boat, then he dismissed the idea. Estella could never be described as 'dark-haired,' and she was too innocent a young girl for such goings-on with the likes of Berry... wasn't she?

Also, he couldn't help thinking of that ridiculous joke Doderic had made on the walk back from the funeral. He would have taken it as nothing more than Dodi's usual nonsense, if Merry hadn't said nearly the same thing. Frodo had first considered Dodi's mysterious actions that day in connection with Celie, but he doubted now that Celie was involved in this at all. Did Dodi have a more selfish reason for wanting rid of Berry? An absurd idea had occurred to him: Now that Berry was dead, what if Merry were hanged for his murder or fled the Shire forever? Doderic would become the next Master of the Hall. Was that reason enough to kill one cousin and keep silent while another was accused of the crime? And would his brother assist him?

No, it was too ridiculous. Frodo couldn't believe it, not of Dodi and Ilbie.

At last, Doderic made his excuses and squeezed out from behind his mother's chair. Ilberic slipped out after him. They left the drawing room. Frodo left his teacup on the mantelpiece, and followed them.

He caught up with the pair in the spiraling hallway going up to the bedrooms and took Doderic by the arm. "Dodi, wait a moment. I want to talk to you--to both of you." Ilberic stopped a few feet farther along the corridor. "I wanted to ask you some questions about what you said at dinner last night. Dodi, didn't you tell everyone that you went fishing at Standelf pool the morning Berry was killed?"

Both boys looked curious at the question. Doderic nodded. "Yes, that's right."

"Pippin says you were at Crickhollow. Which is it?"

"Crickhollow," his cousin answered after a hesitation. "Once I learned what Merry's quarrel with his father was about, I wanted to give my support to him and Pip, so I went to see them. Merry wasn't in, but Pippin and I had a talk instead. Why do you ask?"

"Because you were out on the river when Berry was killed," Frodo pursued. "If you went to see Merry and Pippin, you must have gone upstream just as Berry did, and landed your boat at the same place on the bank. Were you there when he was? Did you see him? I want the truth."

Doderic laughed at first, then stared at him in astonishment. "Frodo Baggins, what are you thinking of? Are you actually asking if I had something to do with Berry's death?"

"No..." Frodo blushed in spite of himself. Hadn't he been thinking just that? "But you lied about your whereabouts, and I want to know why. It was such a silly lie. Honestly, Dodi, you should have at least asked Pippin to keep his mouth shut."

"I wasn't trying to hide the truth from you, Frodo. It was Uncle Saradoc I didn't want to know! There's no chance that he'd talk to Pippin with things as they are now."

"Then why did you bring it up at the table last night, when you might have easily said nothing?"

"Well, I am on Merry's side, you know, and I thought I had to say something on his behalf. Where I really was didn't alter my point about Merry's being arrested on no more than trumped-up suspicions. Besides," Dodi lowered his voice, "last night, I said my position was no better than Merry's. You can see now that, except for that quarrel with his father, it's nearly the same. If the sherriffs thought I had a reason to want rid of Berilac, I could be in Merry's place!"

"Your position is worse than that," Frodo told him. "What were you and Ilbie up to when you played that trick with the boat?"

The question took both brothers completely by surprise. "You know about that too?" asked Ilberic.

"I asked the boatmen," said Frodo. "You're lucky that no one else has. If the sherriffs weren't so set on Merry, the two of you might be in serious trouble." He looked from one boy to the other. "What were you doing? Please, tell me."

Doderic looked at his brother; Ilberic nodded, giving him permission to speak. "If you must know, Ilbie wanted to get away for awhile and not have anyone know about it. He's awfully sweet on her."

"Who?" Frodo asked. Then, in a flash of comprehension, he understood. "Estella Bolger?"

"It's a secret," said Ilberic. "Uncle Saradoc and Estella's Aunt Beryl wouldn't approve it. They'd rather see her matched to Merry."

"Is that why she was asked here?" asked Frodo.

"You didn't see how Uncle Saradoc was pushing the poor girl at Merry when she arrived last week. Merry tried to be kind to her, but he wasn't going to let himself be married off no matter who his father picked out for him. Well, you know how that turned out."

"It's not that Merry objected to 'Stella in particular," Doderic added. "It's just that after all the others, she was the final straw."

Frodo remembered what Merry had told him about 'half a dozen girl-cousins' being paraded before him as prospective brides. "There were a lot of others, weren't there?"

"Just about any available girl of a respectable family!" said Doderic. "Right after Merry came home, Uncle Saradoc started off by talking to him about Melly, then Dina or Della Burrows, then Araminda Banks. He's got a grudge against the Tooks right now because of Pippin, but last winter he thought that Merry might agree to marry one of Pip's sisters--as if it would be the next best thing! But Merry didn't like that idea either. Then Uncle Saradoc invited Estella."

"I've spent a lot of time with 'Stella since she came here," Ilberic continued. "She's a very sweet girl. I wanted to protect her."

"From Berry," Doderic explained. "He was always around Estella too, but that was mainly because he knew she was meant for Merry, and he could never resist trying his charms on a pretty girl."

"Auntie Beryl didn't mind him, though," said Ilberic. "Since Berry was courting Mentha, she didn't see any harm in it. But once she saw that I was taking too much interest in her precious chick, she started whisking 'Stella off whenever I tried to talk to her. You've seen how Aunt Beryl watches over her. There's no chance to speak to the girl alone. I hoped that if I could get 'Stella away from the Hall and her aunt for awhile, I might be able to tell her that if Merry didn't care for her, I did. And if it turned out that she liked me too, we could keep quiet 'til this trouble with Merry was past. Maybe once Uncle Saradoc got over his disappointment, he wouldn't mind having a nephew married to a nice girl with a modest fortune instead of his son."

"What did you do, exactly?" Frodo asked. "Where did you go?"

The brothers exchanged a quizzical look. Doderic answered first. "I didn't go up the river, Frodo. I never saw Berry after breakfast that morning. After I got the boat, I took it downstream a few hundred yards from the boathouse and hid it in the willows that hang over the river, where Ilbie and I had planned. I waited 'til Ilbie came down to the spot with 'Stella, and they got into the boat and rowed off. Once I saw them off, I went back to the Hall, and up the side of the hill to climb in Ilbie's bedroom window."

"I'd gone out the same way," Ilberic added, "and left it unlatched for Dodi to get in."

"I was going to pretend to be Ilbie, in case anyone went looking for him once Aunt Beryl noticed Estella was missing," Dodi explained. "And there was an awful fuss when she did, but whenever I heard someone coming, I snored as loud as I could 'til they went away."

"Dodi, that sounds like a ridiculous plan," Frodo observed.

"Well, it worked, didn't it? Ilbie and Estella got off for a couple of hours by themselves, and no one knows where they were."

"Then you went to Crickhollow?"

Doderic nodded. "When it got to be quiet and I thought I'd been there long enough so that everyone would believe Ilbie was in his room sleeping and hadn't gone running off with 'Stella, I went out the window again. I walked over the top of Buck Hill to Bucklebury and went to visit Merry and Pip. I was never near the river once I came back to the Hall. Does that satisfy your curiosity, Frodo?"

"Yes, thank you. And what about you, Ilbie?" Frodo turned to his other cousin. "Where did you go?"

"Surely you don't think I had anything to do with Berry's death?" Ilberic protested. "Not with 'Stella in the boat with me--or do you think she's in on it too?"

"I think he's gone quite mad," said Doderic. "Suspecting us!" He didn't sound as indignant as his brother, but puzzled by this questioning and somewhat concerned.

"I haven't gone mad," Frodo tried to assure them. "I only want to help Merry by finding out what really happened that day. I'm sorry if I sound suspicious, but you must admit that your comings-and-goings looked a little strange. It was a mystery that had to be cleared up."

Thus appealed to, Ilbie was placated enough to answer, "Well, if you must know, Estella and I let the current carry us down nearly to Standelf, and then we had to row back furiously to be home in time for luncheon. I left her off under the willow trees before I took the boat back."

"Does Fatty know about this adventure of yours?"

"Yes, of course!" said Ilberic. "We told him when he arrived and heard how 'Stella had gone missing. I wanted him to know there was no cause for alarm, that she was perfectly safe the whole time."

"Did you tell him that Berry was paying attentions to Estella?" Frodo still found it difficult to imagine sturdy, even-tempered Fatty in a murderous rage, but if Berry had trifled with his young sister, that might be just the thing to do it!

"No," said Doderic. "Why should we? Berry was dead by then. You aren't suspecting Fatty now, are you?"

"No--I only thought I'd ask." It occurred to Frodo then that it might have been Ilbie and Estella, dark-haired or not, who'd been seen rowing on the river--not Berilac and some other girl at all. His best theory was crushed. "How did it turn out?" he asked Ilbie. "Do you and 'Stella have an understanding now?"

"No, it's just as Fatty said: she's sweet on Merry," Ilbie answered sulkily. "Poor 'Stella was broken-hearted when she understood why he didn't want to marry her. She told me I was very kind to think of her, and perhaps someday she might think of me the same way, but she couldn't right now. I left it at that. It didn't seem fair to go on courting her after Merry was arrested. This false accusation and imprisonment have only made him more attractive to her. Unless Uncle Saradoc changes his mind and lets Merry out..."

"He won't," Frodo said. "Uncle Merimac's talked him out of it."

Doderic scowled at this news. "Then it looks like we'll have to do it ourselves."

"That's what I'm trying to do." It seemed improbable, but Frodo thought he ought to ask one last question, just to be sure. "I don't suppose either of you know if Estella had a brooch or clasp made up of silver leaves, with garnets?"

Was it his imagination, or was there a look of complicity between the two brothers?

"I don't think so," said Ilberic. "Not 'Stella-"

"No," Doderic spoke more decisively. "Certainly not."
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