They arrived at Brandy Hall mud-covered, soaked, and bedraggled, Melilot weeping, Sam half-carrying Frodo, and the other two running ahead to bring news of Mentha.
The family's relief at seeing Merry home again quickly turned to bewilderment and sorrow at this new tragedy. At the sight of her mother, Melilot flew with fresh sobs to Melisaunte's arms. Saradoc welcomed his son and, grudgingly, Pippin too before calling for boats and sending messages to Bucklebury and the nearby farms to summon aid in searching the river.
Frodo was taken to his room, where Sam promptly got him out of his wet and muddy clothes, washed him up, and put him to bed. He was deeply upset and anxious to go out and join the search for Mentha, but he was also still coughing and wheezing from his near-drowning; Sam said he was close to a collapse and refused to let him get up. After a brief struggle, which ended when Sam pinned him easily, Frodo was forced to concede.
For the rest of the day, while the household was in a commotion around him, he lay abed with a cool, damp cloth on his brow and was fed soup and hot tea with honey. Esmeralda was at his bedside as often as Sam, and fussed over him nearly as much. She fussed over Merry too, but since both of "her boys" were at the Hall, she did not have to divide her attention between them.
Frodo remained in bed until noon the next day, when Sam was satisfied that he was fit for the journey home.
"And we'll go in slow, easy stages this time!" Sam insisted. "You've had a hard enough time of it without more tearing about. We won't go no farther than Whitfurrows today."
Frodo made his farewells to the family after luncheon. Few were at the table; most of the ladies had retreated to their rooms and the young lads were out. Esmeralda alone saw him off. They stood at the front door of the Hall while Sam strapped their bags onto their ponies, which Merry and Pippin had brought back from Crickhollow.
"It was wonderful having you here," his aunt said as she took his hands in hers. "I hope you'll visit again soon, under happier circumstances. You're always welcome, Frodo-" she paused, then added softly, "and so is your sweet friend, who looks after you."
Frodo stared at her in surprise. She had called Sam his 'friend,' not his servant. "You know... about me and Sam?" he ventured, the tips of his ears turning pink. He wondered if Sam had told her, as unlikely as that seemed. While the two had gotten on good terms by tending him together, Sam was still in awe of the lady; surely, he wouldn't confide in her on so delicate a subject.
"I can see how very fond he is of you," Esmeralda answered. "I didn't wish to embarrass him, so I asked Merry instead. I thought that if anyone else knew, he and Pippin would."
Of course. Esmeralda had a much more tolerant view of Merry's relationship with Pippin than her husband had. Would it be so odd if she understood his situation as well?
"Does Uncle Saradoc know?" he asked.
"No, I don't believe so," said Esmeralda, "but I think it's best if we don't tell him. Your uncle's had so much to trouble him lately, and after his difficulties with Merry, I'm afraid it will only distress him. We'll keep it our secret." She smiled and lay a gentle hand on one of his cheeks, then kissed the other. "Goodbye, dear. Have a safe journey."
Merry and Pippin were returning to their own cottage, and went with them as far as the lane to Crickhollow. As they rode, Merry spoke of his intention to come and visit Bag End.
"I thought you said we didn't have to go away?" asked Pippin.
"We're not leaving the Shire," Merry replied. "Why should we now Father's relented. Finding out what Berry was really like has come as a shock to him. He doesn't think I'm so awful anymore. Oh, he still wants to see me married off, but he's given up on pushing girls at me for the time being. Estella and Auntie Beryl are going back to Budgeford tomorrow. But Fatty was telling me last night that it might be good for us to get away from Buckland for awhile, and I think he's right. After this mess, I'd like to be somewhere else. Hobbiton will be nice and quiet--that is, if you don't mind giving us a room, Frodo."
"Not at all," Frodo said, somewhat distractedly. "We'll be happy to have you stay."
"We'll come in a week or two," Merry decided, "once you're feeling well enough, and- ah- things here have settled down. We ought to stay at least 'til Mentha's..."
He let the sentence trail off, for they had come to the crossroads; Frodo stopped and left his pony at the gate, then went through on the path to the river.
At the river's edge, he stood looking out at the swift-flowing golden-brown waters, tearing the heads off the tall flowers that grew on the banks and tossing them in one by one to watch them catch in the current and be swept away.
"They haven't found her yet, have they?" he asked his friends when they joined him.
Merry shook his head. "Father has every boat in Buckland out looking for her, and he's called for a search along the banks downriver. It's like Berry's death all over again."
"Except that this is my fault." When the others protested, Frodo insisted, "Yes, it is. Mentha's dead because of my meddling. I ought to have let well enough alone once you were free, Merry. I should have minded my own business. If I had, Mentha wouldn't have come here to throw herself in."
"You don't know that's so," Sam tried to console him. "Who knows what was in her mind?"
"Poor Mentha must've been unbalanced," said Pippin. "What she'd done to Berry--I suppose she couldn't live with it afterwards. It must have driven her mad."
"If her mind had turned, she would probably have done herself a harm sooner or later," Merry added. "The way she had Melly burn her things, it looks- well- like she was planning to do something of the kind even before we came. That was what you were afraid of, wasn't it, when you wanted to go to Ivysmial?"
Frodo nodded. "I'd hoped to stop her. I wanted..." he sighed and tossed in the last of the flowers in his hand. Tears welled in his eyes. "I only wanted to help."
"You did all you could, Frodo," his cousin came forward to put an arm around him. "Nobody blames you."
Frodo leaned against him. "Do they know-?" he asked. "The family at the Hall, do they know what really happened?"
"Some of them must've guessed the truth," said Merry, "but I expect they won't talk about it. We won't. Melly won't either."
"No," Frodo agreed. "No one will say a thing. Why create more of a scandal? The Brandybucks are a very close family. They stick together, protect each other. Everyone will say that Mentha went mad after the death of her lover. They'll call this another 'sad accident'." He left Merry and turned to Sam, who was standing close by; Frodo took his hand. "Let's go home."
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