The Umbrella Thief by Kathryn Ramage

The next day, they continued their investigation by visiting the latest victims of the umbrella thief: Pippin went to see Mrs. Muscote and Sam called on the Widow Rumble, who lived next door to the Gaffer, in Number 4 Bagshot Row; both ladies had joined the list the day before. Frodo returned to the Old Baggins Place.

Taking advantage of a brief patch of sunlight that afternoon, Dora had gone out on calls she hadn't dared to on the rainy days. When Frodo arrived, Peony laid out tea in the little side yard where Milo liked to smoke, since Dora wouldn't have it in the house, and the couple settled down to hear what Frodo had learned.

"There's a distinct pattern to these thefts," Frodo told Milo and Peony over their tea. "Our thief seems to prey upon the elderly. The curious thing is that you're a noteworthy exception, Peony."

She smiled. "You mean, I'm not an old lady?"

"Not yet at the umbrella-carrying age," her husband added, also smiling.

"Precisely," said Frodo. "Your umbrella only goes out when it rains. You wouldn't leave it lying about for anyone to take."

"Mine was shut up in the cloak-closet," said Peony. "I'm quite sure of that."

"Which suggests to me that someone had to go into the house and go digging for it--but they must have already had an idea of where to find it. The only other lady like you in this respect is Ruby Chubb."

Peony nodded eagerly. "Yes, that's so. Ruby didn't even know her umbrella was gone until I asked her to look for it."

"The whole thing's absurd," said Milo. "Who would want to steal eighteen umbrellas? It must be a prank of the lads."

"That's what I thought too. I've suspected Sancho Proudfoot..." Frodo gazed out at the meadow beyond the Old Place, where Peony's and Milo's seven-year-old daughter was gathering daisies with the two Chubb girls; as he watched them, an idea came to him. "Peony, do your children often play with the Chubbs?"

"Yes, of course." She followed his gaze in the direction of the three little girls. "Ruby's daughters are darlings, perfectly suitable playmates for our Myrtle."

"What about Mosco? Is he a friend of Wilcome's?" Mosco, their eldest son, was thirteen--four years younger than Sancho and Wilcome, but the difference in their ages was no more marked than between Merry and Pippin, who had been about the same ages when they'd begun to run around together in search of mischief.

"He has been playing with Will lately," Milo admitted, "more than we like, but boys will be boys."

"Oh, Frodo," Peony said in dismay, "you don't think our Mosco has a part in this?"

"I don't like to accuse anyone without proof, but Sancho and Will couldn't have done this all themselves. Where is Mosco?"

"He's been hanging about the house all morning," said Milo, "which is odd, since the wet weather's kept everyone indoors this past week. You'd think he'd want to run about in the sun while he has the chance, like the other children."

"Maybe he's been waiting for someone to come here to him," said Frodo. "They can't go carrying a load of umbrellas through the streets unnoticed. Look, there." He lifted his chin to indicate a movement in the underbrush on the hillside above the Old Place: someone was creeping through the brush toward the back of the smial, where the children's rooms were.

All three set down their tea cups at once and went to look for Mosco.

The boy was in his bedroom, handing a long, slender bundle wrapped in a blanket out the window to someone who stood outside. As the door behind him opened, Mosco turned, startled, and dropped the bundle on the floor, where it clattered loudly. At the noise, the other persons outside darted away too quickly for their faces to be seen, but one of them had notable, bright copper-colored hair.

Mosco stood gaping at his parents and Frodo, aghast. At his feet, fallen loose from the blanket he had wrapped them in, were two umbrellas.

"I presume that those belong to Mrs. Muscote and the Widow Rumble," said Frodo.

Milo took his son by the shoulders and said solemnly, "The truth now, Mosco-lad. You've been caught red-handed, and the only honorable thing to do is own up. You'll have to take those back to their owners and apologize, and the rest as well. Where are they?"

"Who put you up to this?" asked Peony. "Was it Sancho and Wilcome? We've already guessed as much, so you might as well tell us."

"I couldn't tattle on my friends," Mosco answered reluctantly.

"They aren't good friends if they've misled you into trouble," said Peony. "And stealing from old people--not to mention your own mother!--puts you into a great deal of trouble."

"Tell us," Milo repeated more firmly, "or you won't set a foot out of this house for a month, nor have a bite of dessert until next spring."

Mosco, who was not a hardened mischief-maker nor an accomplished liar, crumbled at these threats and reproaches; his eyes grew large and his lower lip quivered. "It was Will and Sancho who asked me to do it," he confessed. "They give me a farthing for every one I can get."

"Why?" asked Peony. "What do they do with them?"

"They're for the old hobbit."

"Old hobbit?" Frodo was immediately alert. "Who? What's his name?"

"I don't know," said Mosco. "That's who Sancho says they give 'em to."

Frodo left the Burrowses to give their son a good talking-to and decide on a fitting punishment for his part in the theft, and went to the Proudfoot smial to wait for Sancho. Both Odo and Prunella were at home, and Frodo had ample time to tell them how Mosco had been caught and confessed before their grandson returned.

When Sancho came in, and found Frodo there ahead of him, and his grandparents regarding him with dour expressions, he knew that the game was up.

"Mosco told his parents all he knows," said Frodo. "You lied to us yesterday, Sancho."

"I did not," the boy replied. "I never touched Old Lobelia's umbrella. I don't know where it is, just as I said! Mosco pinched it when they were at his great-aunt's, and gave it to Will. I never saw it."

"But you saw some of the others? You took your grandmother's, didn't you?"

"Nobody asked me that! I told you all the truth as you asked it."

Odo rolled his eyes. "Sancho Proudfoot, that is the worst sort of lie, and you know it! What are we going to do with you?"

"I despair of the boy," said Prunella. "Lobelia was right--and now I'll have to apologize to her!" Her tone and the reproachful gaze she gave her errant grandchild suggested that this was the one thing she would not forgive Sancho for. "I'm afraid you'll come to a bad end."

"I must know, Sancho," said Frodo. "Mosco couldn't tell me the name of the old hobbit you've been gathering these umbrellas for. Who is it?" He already had a suspicion, which Sancho's answer only confirmed.

"His name's Mr. Pettygrow."

"Pum Pettygrow?" Odo said, surprised. "I'd heard he'd come back, but what on Middle-earth does he want so many umbrellas for?"

Sancho shrugged. "He said it was an experiment. We didn't care--he gave us a penny for each one we brought him."

"And you only gave Mosco a farthing each, instead of a third share?" said Frodo. "That's hardly fair. I'm sure your grandmother's right, and you'll come to a bad end. I wouldn't be at all surprised if you turned out as badly as Lotho."

He returned home to meet Sam and Pippin and tell them what he'd learned. Sam repeated Odo's question: "What would Mr. Pumelo want with a lot of umbrellas?"

"I haven't the faintest idea," Frodo admitted. "Sancho mentioned 'an experiment,' but I don't see how umbrellas fit in with Mr. Pettygrow's tinkering with gears and wheels. Their only similarity is that they're made of metal. Maybe he's changed his line of experiments."

"Maybe he's gone dotty with old age," Pippin suggested.

"Whatever the reason is," said Frodo, "we'll find it out when we visit him to get the stolen umbrellas back." He went from the sitting room to the entry hall and took down his tweed coat.

"It looks like we're in for another storm," Sam observed, gazing warily out the open front at the dark and lowering clouds that were beginning to gather and put an end to the sunny afternoon.

"This won't wait. We ought to go and see him right away."

While Frodo put on and buttoned up his coat, Sam looked through the cloaks and outdoor wear on the pegs in the hall for Frodo's umbrella. After a search, he looked up and announced, "It's not here!"

They stared at each other, wide-eyed, and then Frodo went back into the sitting room to call to the kitchen, "Rosie, did anyone come by the house while we were out?"

"That's right, Mr. Frodo," Rosie called back. "An old gent came to the door and asked for you. He said he was a friend of old Mr. Bilbo's."
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