Early on Highday morning, the four hobbits from Bag End rode over to the Old Place, where Milo was waiting for them. Just as they were about to start out on their journey to Michel Delving, Angelica emerged from the house to hand Milo a note, folded carefully into a small paper square and sealed with red wax.
"Please," she asked, "give this to Lad when you see him?" There was an anxious look in her eyes that went to Frodo's heart.
"Of course, darling," Milo promised. "I'll see that he gets it." And, tucking the note into his waistcoat pocket, he gave his niece a kiss before climbing up into his saddle. Angelica remained at the garden gate as they rode away.
"There's nothing wrong between Lad and Jelly, is there?" asked Pippin once they had ridden away from the house. "They haven't quarreled, have they?"
"Not as far as I know," Milo answered, "but I have reason to believe that their wedding plans aren't going as smoothly as Angelica would like. I expect that they've been delayed."
"Delayed, why?" Pippin pursued. "What's happened?" His cousins threw him warning glances, but he ignored them. While Frodo and Merry preferred indirect means of gaining information, Pippin favored the direct approach; they had all agreed not to question Milo openly about Lad's activities, but as long as he was willing to talk, then Pippin was ready to encourage him. "Won't her parents give her permission to marry?"
"They haven't, but that wouldn't stop Angelica," Milo laughed. "She's known all along that unless she got her parents' blessing, she'd have to abide 'til October, when she comes of age. They couldn't stop her from doing as she wished then. No, I meant that she might have to wait beyond October. Lad's finances don't look as if he's in a position to support a wife right away."
Frodo was very much surprised to hear this. "Even with your pony's winnings?" he asked. "You said you'd paid him back."
"Yes, and that's what makes me think he's in need. He was so glad of the money I gave him. And, well, Angelica's been awfully upset about something for the past week or so. She's taken to her bed, but doesn't seem to be sleeping well. She tells Aunt Dora her tummy's giving her trouble, but I think the poor girl is simply unhappy." He patted his waistcoat pocket. "Let's hope that Lad's reply to this will cheer her up."
They arrived at Michel Delving late in the morning, leaving their ponies at the nearest inn and engaging rooms for the night before they walked over to the fair-field.
The field lay beyond the eastward edge of the city, where the rolling hills of the downs ended and the land lay flat and cleared of rocks and rubble for more than a mile. Fairs were held here each autumn at harvest time, and every seven years, hobbits from all over the Shire gathered to elect their mayor. In the summer months, the field was used for pony races, as the weather and the needs of the local farmers--who had other, more important work for their ponies--permitted. Flags were placed in the grass to mark out the race course.
Milo stabled his black-and-white pony--which Frodo learned was named Fleetfoot--at the inn rather than tire it by taking it back and forth from Hobbiton between races, but the grooms at the stable informed him that Lad had already taken the pony out. When they reached the fairgrounds, Milo went off to find his friend, leaving his cousins and Sam to locate a comfortable place to sit and watch the races.
The field was already occupied by dozens of hobbits and had the happy and excited atmosphere of a festival by the time the party from Hobbiton arrived. Blankets were spread on the grass; colorful umbrellas were opened to provide shade, and improvised tents of shawls and rugs hung from the trees that bordered the edge of the field nearest the road. Kegs of ale had been rolled out from the nearby pubs and farms to be tapped, and oaken baskets filled with food had been brought along to tide the racing fanciers over during the hours until dinner-time.
After Milo had gone, the other four hobbits made their way through the crowd along the fence until they found an unoccupied patch of grass near the eastern end of the field. Sam spread out the blanket he had brought with him, and they settled down.
"We'll have a good look at the finish from here," said Pippin, "and that's the best part." He climbed up onto the fence to improve his view of the course. "We can watch the races as usual, can't we?" he asked Frodo. "We're allowed to have fun?"
"Yes," answered Frodo, "but don't forget we are here on serious business. Have your fun and place whatever bets you like, but I want you to keep an eye out for Lad too. Look for anything unusual."
"Like Mr. Lad being short of money?" suggested Sam.
"Yes, exactly! That seems to me to be very odd." Frodo had been pondering this since they'd left Hobbiton, but this was the first opportunity he and his fellow investigators had to discuss it when Milo was not around to hear.
"Lad's never wanted for money before this," said Pippin. "He gets a good allowance from his father--more than my father sends me. What could he be spending it all on?"
"Some little hussy, no doubt," Merry joked.
"Do you know any hussies, Merry?" Frodo was skeptical. Hussies were not readily found in the Shire. As far as he knew, he had never seen one.
Merry grinned. "Just wait, and we'll show you!" He glanced up at Pippin. Both of them laughed, and Frodo realized that they were thinking of someone in particular.
"Who is it?" he asked eagerly. "And why didn't you tell me about her before? How is she mixed up with Lad?"
"She isn't, not that I've heard," Merry admitted, "but if he's tangled with somebody he shouldn't be, it just might be her. I honestly can't think of any other candidates."
"Is she here now?" Frodo stood up and scanned the faces in the crowd milling around them. There were plenty of women to be seen. Few ladies of the best families attended the races, but farm-wives and daughters were as keen enthusiasts as their menfolk. Any one of them might be Merry's 'hussy.'
He spotted Lad farther down the field. Before the races, the pony owners and riders paraded their champions for the crowd to look over. Lad, who was showing off the prized black-and-white pony, had stopped to speak to a woman and girl who were leading their own shaggy brown pony. He seemed on friendly terms with them. The girl couldn't be more than twenty--far too young--but the woman was only 10 or 15 years older than Lad and rather handsome-looking.
"What about her?" Frodo leaned over Merry's head to ask. "Is that the one?"
Merry rose up on his knees to have a look, then laughed again. "The woman talking to Lad? No, that's Mrs. Broombindle, and her daughter, Myrtle."
"We met them here last week," added Pippin. "Lad introduced us. She has a farm nearby."
"Mrs..." mused Frodo. Was that Lad's secret? Was he keeping company with a married woman?
"She's a widow," said Merry, following his thoughts. "It's not like that between them--at least, I don't think it is. They have a business sort of friendship. Mrs. Broombindle's got a good eye for a pony, and Lad's bought one or two from her."
Milo, who had been wandering through the crowds in search of Lad, shouted and waved when he finally saw him. As he joined Lad, Milo took Angelica's message from his pocket and gave it to his friend before looking over the pony. Lad broke the seal and unfolded the paper. Frodo watched his face as he read: Lad's mouth popped open and his cheeks turned bright red. Frodo could imagine the sort of language Angelica would use to reproach her wayward sweetheart!
When Milo turned back to him a moment later, Lad shoved the note into his coat pocket and climbed up onto the pony. The first race was called. The spectators began to disperse.
"If we're going to wager, we have to do it now," Pippin announced, and jumped down from the fence. "There's no use in gaming amongst ourselves--we'd all bet on Milo's pony, wouldn't we?"
"Yes, of course!" said Merry. "It's a good, safe bet, and it's always best to stick by your own family." He gave a handful of coins to his cousin. "Good luck in finding someone to take the wager before they start."
"What about you, Frodo? Sam?" Pippin turned to them.
Frodo was not here for the races, but his own sense of family loyalty, and the knowledge that he had not been entirely honest with Milo about why he had wanted to come today, prompted him to dig a couple of coins out of his pockets to give to Pippin. Sam followed suit.
"I've been thinking," Merry said as Pippin darted off and the riders brought their ponies into line at the flag-marked point at the end of the racing course. "Perhaps it's not a girl after all. Have you considered that, Frodo? If Lad's short of money, maybe he's taken a job to earn a little."
"But surely he wouldn't make such an effort to keep it secret?"
"He might, if it was something his father wouldn't approve of--oh, not anything disreputable," Merry added quickly, "but work that the mayor would consider beneath his son."
Frodo nodded, understanding. The Whitfoots were not a family of old prominence, like the Tooks and Brandybucks, but one that had come up only a couple of generations ago from their farming fore-fathers; people like the mayor, who remained aware of their humble beginnings, were often more sensitive to what was fitting for their place in society than even the best families. "That is possible. He might not want his father to know if he were mucking out stables like a farm-hand." he agreed. "Angelica wouldn't like that either. She has more ambitious plans for Lad. Do you suppose-"
"Hush now," Sam warned them. "Mr. Milo's headed this way."
Frodo and Merry fell silent as Milo came over to join them. "Have you made your wagers, lads?" he asked, and at their nods, smiled. "Good! You wanted to see my pony run, Frodo--Watch him now, and you'll see quite a sight!"
That same sense of family loyalty that had prompted Frodo to bet on Milo's pony would have made him cheer it on during the race no matter what, but he found that the small amount of money he'd wagered increased his interest in the race's outcome. The pony was remarkably fast, dashing out ahead of its competitors within yards of the starting point, and maintaining its lead right to the finish. Frodo was so delighted that he bet on the next two races Fleetfoot ran in that afternoon. The pony won its second race as well, but was beaten by a swifter contender in the third.
When Frodo tried to offer his consolations to Milo, his older cousin responded with surprising equanimity, "Oh, well, Fleet can't win every race. If he always came out ahead, no one would ever wager against him, and then where would we be? He's run his best, and done very well for us."
"Are we leaving?" Frodo asked. It was now late in the afternoon. He could see that a number of hobbits in the crowd were gathering up their things and preparing to depart. Several ponies were being led away, although a few remained on the field.
"We're finished for today," Milo answered. "I have to see Fleetfoot to the stables. You can come with me back to the inn if you're tired and want to rest before dinner, but I thought I'd return for the jumpers."
"Jumpers?" echoed Frodo. "Is that another sort of race?"
Milo nodded. "There's a special course laid out at the lower end of the field where some riders set their ponies at fences to jump over them. It's rather dangerous. I wouldn't risk breaking a pony's leg or my own bones at it, but some of the younger folk enjoy the sport. Lad says there's a new rider he particularly wants to watch, and I'm rather curious to see for myself."
Frodo glanced at Sam and his cousins; he was feeling a bit tired, but they all understood the importance of keeping an eye on Lad. If he stayed on, they would remain with him. "I'd like to have a look too," he decided.
While Milo was gone, the four made arrangements for keeping Lad at the inn that evening so they could watch and follow him during the night. When Milo returned, they went together to the bottom of the fair-field, where a winding course had been laid out to cross and recross a shallow, fast-flowing stream that had cut a gully into the ground. The ponies were obviously meant to leap over the water, and short pieces of wooden fence had also been raised and logs thrown across the path to provide further obstacles.
The jumping turned out to be a most interesting sport, although it was not a race in the usual sense of the word: The ponies did not run all at once, but one at a time, taking the obstacles on the track in turn. The contest was to see how well each performed. Milo had not exaggerated the risk involved, and Frodo was alarmed more than once that somebody had taken a dangerous tumble. Several riders did tumble; the remaining spectators cried out each time someone was tossed from his saddle during a tricky leap, but the riders always seemed to land with a splash in the stream, or to fall into a muddy patch of grass, and none were seriously harmed.
The most impressive jumper--who never missed a leap--was a young girl on a shaggy brown pony. Frodo had seen them both before. "That's Myrtle Broombindle."
"Terrific, isn't she?" This was spoken by Lad, who had only just joined them. He'd barely spoken a word to them all afternoon, spending the time between races tending to the pony and chatting with the other riders. Frodo kept an eye on him, but Lad had done nothing more suspicious than occasionally speak to Mrs. Broombindle. He had been with her when Milo's party arrived at the jumping course, and only left her once Myrtle began her run. Mrs. Broombindle now stood alone at the end of the course, watching her boldly leaping daughter with a combination of motherly anxiety and pride. "She's only seventeen. I've known her from a mere chit, and she's been riding since she was so small she had to be lifted up into the saddle. Keeps her seat marvelously well, doesn't she?"
He sounded rather proud himself; it was obvious that Myrtle was the rider he had wanted particularly to see. Frodo wondered why. The girl was too young for Lad to take a romantic interest in, and Lad was thirty-eight, hardly old enough to have fathered a seventeen-year-old.
"It must be awfully nice to have a daughter," Lad said wistfully as the girl finished her course to enthusiastic applause.
Was he on such good terms with Mrs. Broombindle that he intended to become Myrtle's stepfather?
"It's not usual, is it, for a girl to ride in competition?" asked Frodo. "And one so young."
"'Tisn't usual," Milo confirmed, "but a girl Myrtle's size doesn't burden her mount the way a grown hobbit would--that's how she clears her jumps so easily. I'm sure some think it unfair for a half-grown girl to race, but if my oldest boy Mosco could ride half as well as she does, I'd bring him along to ride Fleetfoot in your place, Lad. He's only twelve and can't weigh any more than Miss Myrtle!"
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