The Umbrella Thief by Kathryn Ramage

In the final week of September, autumn came into the Shire in full force. The days that followed Frodo's birthday were cool and cloudy, with frequent spatters of rain, though nothing like that first night's downpour.

With the aid of his cousins and the Gamgees, Frodo compiled a list of people who had recently lost their umbrellas: there were sixteen in all, primarily elderly ladies and a few aged gentlemen. To Frodo, such people were obviously the most likely target for this unusual thief. As Peony had noted, old hobbits liked to keep their umbrellas at hand even on sunny days--not only because "you never know when it might rain," but also because a folded umbrella served as a cane, a place to store small objects, and a prod to drive insolent young hobbits out of one's way. Elderly hobbits were also most likely to leave unattended umbrellas leaning against a wall in a front hall when they visited their neighbors, or against a shop counter, easy for a thief to carry away.

The wet weather kept many of the umbrella-less indoors during that week. Lobelia, however, was undeterred. On a soggy afternoon four days after her first visit, she returned to Bag End and demanded to see Frodo.

"Where is my umbrella, Frodo Baggins?" she asked as soon as Sam let her in. "Haven't you found it yet?"

"No, not yet," Frodo admitted. "But yours is not the only umbrella that's gone missing, Aunt Lobelia. There've been a rash of thefts in Hobbiton lately."

"So I've heard," she responded, "but that's nothing to me. I didn't engage you to find other people's missing property--I only want mine returned."

Frodo refrained from pointing out that Lobelia had not actually 'engaged' him: she hadn't paid him a penny for his work, nor even thanked him. He had agreed to do this as a kindness to her, and would regret it now if it hadn't turned up such an interesting puzzle. "I'm doing what I can," he told her with patient politeness. "But it seems to me that all these thefts must be connected. If I find one stolen umbrella, I'm certain I'll find them all, yours included, Auntie."

This explanation did not satisfy Lobelia. "If you intend to dawdle and chase after other people's umbrellas, Frodo, and hope mine will be part of the parcel, that's your business. I don't see that it does me much good. If you're no help, then it's my business to take matters into my own hands. I should've done so from the first. Sancho Proudfoot is the scoundrel, is he?"

"We don't know that for certain, Aunt Lobelia." When he and Pippin had gone to speak to Sancho again, the boy had denied knowing anything about the missing umbrellas; neither he nor Pippin believed their young cousin was telling the truth, but Sancho would not be budged.

"Well, you mayn't know, but I'll soon find out the truth of it." Lobelia rose from the chair she had taken and headed for the front hall. "I'll talk to the unruly young rascal myself--and get my umbrella out of him if he's got it!" She went out the door.

With a sigh of exasperation, Frodo grabbed his tweed coat and went after her--not to try and stop her, but to see that Sancho came to no harm and also to see if the boy would say more once Lobelia put some fear into him, as only she could.

They went around the foot of the Hill to the Proudfoot smial, which was next to Lobelia's. Sancho was in the garden, and looked alarmed as Lobelia came in through the gate. "You there, boy!" she shot out at him. "Where is it?"

"I don't know what you mean, Ma'am," Sancho answered. He looked to Frodo for assistance, but Frodo did not come to his aid.

"You know very well!" Lobelia responded. "I'll have no nonsense from you. What have you done with my umbrella?" She looked very fierce; if she'd had her umbrella with her, she would have jabbed at Sancho with it.

As the boy stammered for an answer, Prunella came out to see what all the commotion was about. "What is this? Lobelia, what are you doing, going after my Sancho?" She put an arm protectively around her grandson while Frodo tried to explain and Lobelia made her accusations, then asked the boy, "Sancho, dearest, did you take Mrs. Sackville-Baggins's umbrella?"

"I didn't, Gran," the boy replied, gazing up at her with innocently wide, blue eyes.

"Then that's that," said Prunella.

Lobelia snorted disdainfully. "You believe him?"

"Yes, of course I do."

"You were always too trusting, Pru. That boy gets around you, and he'll no doubt come to a bad end for it."

"I daresay you brought up your Lotho better-" Prunella retorted. This was an extremely sharp blow, and Lobelia felt it. With a cry of frustrated fury, she whirled out of the gate and went down the lane to her own smial; a moment later, they heard the door slam.

Once Lobelia had gone, Prunella asked Frodo, "So, you're looking into this?"

"Yes, Aunt Pru."

"Well, that's good news! There've been quite a lot of umbrellas missing lately, and someone ought to do something about it. And Lobelia thinks my Sancho..." Prunella turned back to her grandson, "Sancho, did you take her umbrella?"

"No, Gran!"

"If you do, you'd best speak now," Frodo warned the boy. "Your grandmother can't keep Lobelia off you forever, you know. As long as she thinks you have her umbrella, she'll be watching for you every time you go outdoors, and lay in wait behind the hedgerows."

Sancho looked alarmed again at this prospect, but he insisted, "I don't have it, Frodo--honestly! I never touched her old umbrella, and I don't know where it is."
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