"You're the last person I ever expected to call upon for help, Frodo Baggins, but since you've made a career for yourself by prying into other people's business, you may as well be of use. Someone has stolen my umbrella!"
Frodo was surprised when Lobelia Sackville-Baggins had come to visit him--that she should ask for his help was almost beyond belief. He and Lobelia had never been on good terms, not since Bilbo had adopted Frodo and made him his heir. None of the Sackville-Bagginses had ever forgiven Bilbo for leaving Bag End to him, believing that the property should by rights have gone to Lobelia's late husband Otho and son Lotho, who were nearer kin. Hostilities between them had only grown worse with Lotho's death; Lobelia had first accused Frodo of making away with her son, then had expected Frodo to clear Lotho's name. Frodo hadn't been able to do that--the truth about Lotho was more awful that any crime he'd been accused of. Lobelia, of course, was unaware of that truth and only knew that Frodo had failed her. Even though he disliked the old lady as heartily as she despised him, Frodo had always felt bad about that.
But here was a chance for reconciliation. "I'll do my best to recover it for you," he said.
"Your 'best' wasn't much good to my poor Lotho," Lobelia sniffed. "Let's see if you do better with this. Finding an umbrella shouldn't be too difficult a task."
Frodo disregarded the pointed jab in this reply. "When did you see it last, Aunt Lobelia?" he asked instead.
"The day before yesterday. I haven't been back in this part of the Shire since poor Lotho's death, but there are business matters connected to our property here that must be attended to. While I am here, I've paid calls on a few of my old neighbors. I'm sure it was stolen at one of their houses. I can say with certainty that I had it when I went into Prunella Proudfoot's house, and just as certain that it was nowhere to be found when I left Nettie Broadbelt's. Nettie was the one who suggested I come to you. She's got quite a high opinion of you, Frodo, since you found her mother's emeralds."
After this commendation, Frodo didn't dare suggest that the umbrella had been accidentally left behind somewhere. The people Lobelia had visited, however, suggested another possibility. "Who else did you visit in between," he asked, "and can you remember who was at each house?"
Lobelia's memory proved more than equal to the task. "Lila Muscote and Nettie's sister, Ruby Chubb, and her two little girls were at Nettie's house when I called," she began with her last visit, and worked backwards from there. "Before that, I was at your great aunt Prisca's--Dora and Peony and Ponto's wife Golda were there. Poppy Bolger and her husband Filibert were at her father's house when I called on old Falco. There was no one at the Proudfoots' except for Pru and Odo."
"What about their grandson?"
"That young rascal Sancho? Yes, he was about in the garden."
"And was Wilcome Chubb with his mother and sisters at Mrs. Broadbelt's?"
"I didn't see the Chubb boy." Lobelia's eyes narrowed. "You think it was the pair of them, Frodo?" Sancho and Wilcome were famous pranksters around Hobbiton.
"I think it's a good place to begin this investigation," Frodo answered.
"You may be right," Lobelia said grudgingly. "It wouldn't surprise me in the least to find those boys are behind this. The pair of them are more trouble than that wild Brandybuck cousin of yours and Peregrin Took!"
Peregrin Took, who came to Bag End later that same afternoon, had a good laugh when he heard about Lobelia's visit over dinner. "At least she can't accuse me of pinching her umbrella! I was in Tuckborough when it went missing."
Frodo was glad to see his cousin in much better spirits than he'd been the last time they'd seen each other a few weeks ago, just after Merry had left the Shire.
"Are you actually going to do as that nasty old biddy asks, Frodo?" Pippin wondered. "She's always been terribly rude to you. I think you'd've done better to tell her to go look for her old umbrella herself!"
"I wouldn't blame if you did, Frodo, after the way she spoke to you," Sam agreed. "She couldn't even ask for your help nice and polite! You shouldn't let her talk to you as she did." Sam hadn't been present during Frodo's conversation with Lobelia, but he had shown the old lady into the parlor when she'd demanded to see Frodo; he'd also lingered in the hallway outside, listening in in case Lobelia made too much of a nuisance of herself and he needed to come to Frodo's rescue.
"I know she's awful" Frodo admitted. "I don't like her any better than you do, but I can't help feeling sorry for her since Lotho died. I understand why she's so bitter and angry."
Sam rolled his eyes and Pippin grinned affectionately. It was just like Frodo to try and understand why horrible people behaved the way they did. As far as both young hobbits were concerned, there was no understanding Lobelia.
"Lotho was all she cared about," Frodo went on. "She always had grand ambitions to put him above the ordinary run of hobbits. She wanted everything for him, but she never got anything she was after in the end. Now she's lost Lotho too, and has nothing at all."
"Not even her umbrella," said Pippin with mock solemnity, and made Sam and Rosie laugh.
Frodo had to smile too. "At least, I can get that back for her."
"She won't be grateful for it if you do," his cousin pointed out.
"All the same, she's come to me and asked for my help. I mean to do what I can. Call it a gesture of goodwill on my part. Even if she wishes to carry on the battle, I don't want to go on quarreling with her for the rest of my life. This won't be a difficult case. I'm sure it's Sancho and Wilcome Chubb up to their usual tricks. You might be of help to me, Pippin, if you don't mind helping Lobelia too. I was thinking of having a word with Sancho tomorrow, but I've been invited to Aunt Dora's for a special birthday tea. I'm bringing presents for her and the Burrowses."
"And we're to have a special birthday supper tomorrow night for Mr. Frodo," Rosie told Pippin. "Nice and quiet, as he likes, just the four of us here."
"They'll be presents for all of you too," Frodo said. "Will you talk to Sancho, please, Pippin? He looks up to you as a master maker of mischiefs, and he might tell you all about it as long as he thinks you appreciate it as a good prank and doesn't realize you're helping me."
This appealed to Pippin's sense of humor. "Can you imagine Sancho's face when he finds out? That might be the best joke of all!" The thought of it made him laugh. "Very well, Frodo. I'll do it, even if it's for awful Auntie Lobelia."
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The Umbrella Thief by Kathryn Ramage
Story notes: This story takes place in September of 1421 (S.R.), around Frodo's 37th birthday.
The Frodo Investigates! series