In the morning, they returned to Brandy Hall in time for first breakfast. While Sam was up in the nursery with the children, Frodo sought out Merimac Brandybuck, the younger brother of Merry's father, Saradoc. Merimac despised his nephew and namesake, but a strong sense of family loyalty kept him at Brandy Hall, instructing Merry in the duties of a Master and aiding Merry in the management of Buckland just as he'd assisted his late brother. He knew everything about the Brandybucks--every patch of land they owned, the names of all their tenants, and the family history going back to the days of the first Master.
It was a peculiarity of the Brandybuck family that Frodo's grandparents, Gorbadoc and Mirabella, while they hadn't had a remarkably large number of children by hobbit standards, only seven, had a most unusual span of over twenty years between their firstborn and their last. Rorimac Brandybuck had been four-and-twenty when his youngest sister Primula was born, and was married with children of his own while Primula was still a child herself. Rory's sons Saradoc and Merimac were Frodo's first cousins, but a whole generation older than he; Frodo had always thought of them as his uncles and addressed them as such.
He found Merimac in the Master's study. Merry hadn't begun his daily duties concerning the management of Buckland yet, but his uncle had already settled down to writing in one of the enormous estate books. When Frodo rapped on the open study door, Merimac looked up, set down his ink-laden pen, and gave the visitor an unwelcoming frown.
"I hope I'm not interrupting your work, Uncle," Frodo said as he came in. "I want to ask a favor of you. I'm trying to find some information about my parents-"
"Yes, I heard about that from Esmeralda," Merimac spoke before Frodo had finished his request.
Frodo sat down in one of the overstuffed leather chairs that abounded in the smallish room. "What did Aunt Esme tell you?" Had she mentioned his mother's letter? He hadn't brought it with him today; it was still in his waistcoat pocket back at the cottage, and he didn't want to show it to anyone else until after he'd spoken to them.
"No, but I could see that something was troubling her after you left last night. Well, better you come to me about your parents than distress Esmeralda with questions." Merimac shifted in his own chair and regarded Frodo severely. "I must say this: you show a great deal of impertinence, Frodo Baggins, asking for favors after you've taken such enormous liberties."
"What have I done?" Frodo was baffled. Merimac wasn't fond of his sister-in-law either, for he considered her a flighty Took, but his family loyalty and a gentlemanly sense of chivalry made him rather protective of his female relatives even when he didn't approve of them. Nevertheless, his uncle's attitude seemed excessive,
"You know precisely what I refer to," Merimac replied. "Your bringing that 'friend' of yours here to Buckland."
Frodo winced at the sneering tone. Merimac didn't like him any better than he liked Merry, and for similar reasons. "Merry said he was happy to have us come and stay, Uncle," he answered evenly.
"Yes, I know. The Hall and every cottage on its grounds are his property, and I've no say in who he chooses to invite here. But I resent it on behalf of the good Brandybuck name. None of you lads has any sense of decency! I never thought you'd make such a public display of yourself, Frodo. When you and Merry were... together, you conducted yourself with a degree of discretion. But now you flaunt your relationship with this hobbit in front of our entire family, including the ladies. Your aunts! Your cousins! If you won't consider them, think of your own social position. You disgrace your class with these goings-on. A grandson of a Master consorting with his servant!"
"Sam is not my servant," Frodo responded. "It's true, he was once, but he's come up in the world since and has become a gentlehobbit in his own right." His uncle made a derisive sound of disbelief. "Servant or gentleman, he has always been my dearest friend, and I'm not in the least ashamed of having his friendship. It's been of greater value to me than you can imagine--and that's all I mean to say to you about it."
He had no intention of confirming nor denying these accusations, for he knew that they were merely the outpourings of Merimac's dislike for him. Due to the proximity of the children, he and Sam had lived blamelessly since their arrival in Buckland, until last night. There was no way Uncle Merry could know about that unless he'd followed them from the Hall and spied on them while they were making love in the meadow. Frodo doubted that his uncle was capable of doing such a thing. No, Uncle Merry could know nothing about him and Sam. He only made guesses, and he would very likely say the same vile things regardless of their true relationship.
"You ought to be glad that your mother and father aren't here to see how you turned out," Merimac told him.
"I'm sorry you feel that way, Uncle. I often wish they were here. I think I've done a few things they would be proud of, in spite of my faults. Will you tell me about them?" Frodo was angry, but he'd come here to find answers about his parents and he meant to get them before he left this room. "How well did you know them?"
Merimac was still regarding him with distaste, but he answered, "I fancy I knew your mother as well as any Brandybuck alive at Brandy Hall. She was my aunt--you know that as well as I do, Frodo--but I never thought of her as such. She was only fourteen years older than I, and more like a sister. You look something like her, but she was a charming girl. Grandfather's pet."
Here, at last, seemed to be a relative whom Uncle Merry liked. "And my father?" Frodo prompted. "When did you meet him?"
"Not until after Primula was betrothed to him. It was a surprising match. People had begun to say she would never marry, and then she chose one of the lesser Bagginses." Merimac shook his head. "I must confess, I never knew what she saw in him. He wasn't handsome, and he had a vulgar and common sense of humor."
Frodo took this description of his father for what it was worth. Being fond of Primula, Merimac would very naturally think Drogo Baggins not good enough for her. "I believe they both enjoyed reading books," he said.
"Yes, that's so," Merimac agreed, "but Drogo Baggins wasn't the clever hobbit you are, Frodo. That comes to you entirely through your mother. The Brandybucks have a long history of intellectuals and artists in the family. Except for old Uncle Bilbo, no one could say the same of the Bagginses, and he was peculiar with it. Adventuresome. I believe he got that from the Tooks. Well, Drogo may have been intelligent enough for a Baggins, but he never seemed to do much of anything, except attend meals regularly. You won't remember--he wasn't more fat than any other respectable hobbit when he first married Primula, but he took on a remarkable amount of weight by the time you were born." Merimac was himself a hobbit of impressive size. "I thought he and Primula meant to stay at the Hall only for their honeymoon, but we had him here as a houseguest for nearly fifteen years."
Merimac had had no say in that invitation either, Frodo surmised. Their mutual grandfather, Gorbadoc, had been Master in those days; he'd been past one hundred when his youngest daughter Primula had wed and lived a few years afterwards, dying when Frodo was small and the Baggins family well settled in Buckland. Frodo's grandmother Mirabella had lived somewhat longer, dying when he was in his teens. Rorimac, Merimac's father, had been Master next and must have made no objection to his sister, her husband, and their child staying on at Brandy Hall. It had in fact been Rorimac who'd taken Frodo in when his parents had died, but the Master of the Hall was by then an elderly widower, and he had left the day-to-day care of the orphan to his elder son Saradoc and daughter-in-law, Esmeralda. Old Uncle Rory had died when Frodo was nearly thirty; Frodo was living with Bilbo by that time, but they'd ridden together to Buckland for the funeral.
"It was the appeal of the Master's table," Merimac continued. "That must've been the reason. Drogo had a perfectly comfortable smial in Hobbiton. Primula would've been just as happy there, I think, as mistress of her own household even if she must contend with Drogo's sister and live far from her family. But here they remained until the end of their lives."
"It's the ending of their lives I'm most interested in, Uncle Merry. What can you tell me about the night of their accident? Do you remember?"
Merimac's jaw tightened, but not because of his feelings for Frodo. "Of course I remember," he answered tersely. "They'd gone out for a row on the river that evening. When they didn't show up for breakfast the next morning, Saradoc went down to the boathouse and learned that they'd never come back. He sent the boatsmen out to look for them, and they found the boat soon enough. It had overturned and was caught in the rushes just downriver of the Bucklebury Ferry on the far bank. We knew then that there'd been some sort of accident, but we still had hope that Primula, at least, had swum to safety. Father ordered a search up and down the river, and along both banks.
They were found near the evening, farther down, where the current had carried them."
Frodo had always remembered that he'd been told of his parents' drowning the morning afterwards. He realized now that it must actually have been the next day. The adult Brandybucks had kept the news of the accident from him until they'd discovered the worst. "Did you ever learn how it came about, how they drowned?"
Merimac shook his head. "No. There must've been some mishap. The boat was sound and Primula was a capable boatswoman as well as swimmer. Your father had learned to row competently while he lived here, although he was never so comfortable on the river as a native Bucklander. It was a still and clear night, without wind, fog, nor rain." He shook his head again. "The Brandywine can be treacherous for even the best boatsmen if they don't take care. Saradoc believed that your father tumbled out of the boat and Primula went in to save him, and the current was too much for her. That's as suitable an explanation as any I can give you."
"Thank you, Uncle," Frodo said sincerely. He could see that recalling the event had tapped into a depth of painful emotion long buried, and now brought back up to the surface as if it were fresh. "I won't trouble you too much longer. When did you see them last?"
"Alive, you mean? Why, at dinner that night. Drogo and Primula always had their dinner at the Master's table. It was the last time any of us saw them. As we were leaving the dining hall after having our desserts, Primula said it was such a lovely night that she thought they would go a-rowing. That wasn't remarkable. They often went out on the river on summer nights. Many couples do."
"And was there anything they said or did that night that struck you as odd?" Frodo asked next.
At the question, Merimac, who'd begun to lose himself in these sad memories, focused suddenly and sharply on Frodo. "What do you mean?"
"Did they--did my mother--show any sign that she was expecting an accident to happen?"
"No," Merimac answered, baffled and growing angry.
"Did she seem unhappy that night, worried or frightened? Could they have quarreled?"
"No!" his uncle bellowed again. "Frodo Baggins, what vile thoughts are you thinking?"
Frodo didn't answer this question, but he saw that he had worn Uncle Merry's patience to its end.
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