The Umbrella Thief by Kathryn Ramage

The rain was coming down hard by the time they reached Mr. Pettygrow's cottage on the northern end of Overhill. Rumbles of thunder were heard and lightning flashed over the hills, rapidly coming closer. The storm would soon be overhead. Frodo knocked on the door of the cottage; there was no answer. They were about to go around the cottage to look in at the windows, when Sam noticed an old hobbit standing in a nearby field, his hair blowing every which way and his open coat flapping in the wind.

"Mr. Pettygrew!" Frodo shouted to him.

Hearing his name, the old hobbit turned and grabbed a handful of wet, white hair that had blown over his eyes to pull it up and peer at the three young hobbits crossing the field toward him. As they came closer, he smiled and said pleasantly to Frodo, "Why, you're Bilbo Baggins's nephew, aren't you? I've heard about you--they say you take after your uncle. I heard you were looking for the umbrellas. That's why I came 'round to see you."

"Why? To explain?" wondered Frodo.

"I thought you'd understand."

"But you took our umbrella!" Sam protested. "Where is it?"

"Where are they all?" Pippin asked.

"There!" Mr. Pettygrow pointed to the crest of the hill above them, where the skeletal remains of seventeen stolen umbrellas--the metal frames stripped of their cloth canopies--stood rattling in the high winds, but did not blow down. They'd been skewered firmly, deeply, into the earth, with their ferules pointed skyward so that they looked like an orchard of tiny, bare trees of brass and iron. "I needed as many as I could get!"

Sam started toward the hill to get them, when a tingle ran through the soles of all their bare feet against the ground and made the hair on their toes stand on end, warning them that a lightning bolt was about to strike nearby. There was no shelter except beneath the trees--never a good idea in a thunderstorm!--so the young hobbits threw themselves down flat. A blinding light flashed over their heads, accompanied by an ear-splitting blast.

"Look, lads!" Mr. Pettygrow shouted. He had not thrown himself down, but stood over them in the pouring rain, jumping from one foot to the other, hooting with joy as he continued to point at the hill-top.

The lightning bolt had struck the umbrellas on the hill: glimmers of blue light leapt between the metal frames and there was an angry, sputtering hiss and sparks flew up from the wet grass as the lightning ran down what they now saw was a thin wire tied around the base of each umbrella; the other end, at the bottom of the hill, was fastened to an iron house-key suspended inside a very large and heavy glass jar. The key began to jerk and leap at its end of the string, and glowed with a light of its own. For a few marvelous seconds, it filled the jar with a brilliance that made the hobbits gasp and feel afraid that the glass would burst apart. Then the glow faded.

"I'll capture it yet!" cried Mr. Pettygrow.

"Capture what?" asked Frodo. "The lightning?"

"Yes! Yes!" The old hobbit was still laughing delightedly. "I've been waiting for weeks for a good storm to catch it!" The storm was passing over now, going as swiftly as it had come. They went over to the jar; Mr. Pettygrow detached the wire, which passed through a cork stopper, and carried the jar inside. "There won't be another strike tonight. Come inside, lads, and I'll tell you about it."

Mr. Pettygrow led them back to the cottage and into the kitchen. The shelves on the walls, the table, and the floor were cluttered with glass and earthenware jars, metal scraps, and less easily defined rubbish. A battered tin kettle was boiling over the fire; their host set the jar down, took up the kettle and poured the water into a teapot, which sat ready on the table amid the clutter. "You must be soaked to the bones, lads, and in need of a nice, hot cup. I always am myself when I've been out in a rainstorm."

"I fancy you've been out in quite a few lately, if this is the sort of experiment you're conducting these days," said Frodo as he gratefully accepted a mug of tea.

"That was an incredible trick!" said Pippin. "What sort of magic was that?"

"Oh, it's no magic, but a force of Nature, pure and simple," Mr. Pettygrow replied. "You've see the power of lightning--how it blasts living trees and sets them afire, and how it'll kill a hobbit where he stands."

"If he's fool enough to stand outside in a storm," said Sam, and Mr. Pettygrow chuckled.

"I daresay you're right, lad, but the risk is worthwhile. It seemed to me that such an awesome power might be put to better uses. Who knows what marvels could be produced if I could only hold that power and harness it! And so I've set about trying to catch it. Here, watch." The old hobbit opened the large glass jar and reached inside; as his fingers drew near the key, the delicate white hairs on the back of his hand and his forearm began to rise. There was a sudden, crackling sound: a spark like a tiny bolt of lightning leapt between the key and his fingertips. "There, you see! I've caught it. It's quite harmless now, but I can never keep it long. I'll learn the secret of it one day."

Pippin was enthralled, while Sam remained suspicious, as he was of all new and mechanical things, but Frodo had not forgotten their reason for coming here. "It is extremely interesting," he said, "but why umbrellas?"

"They're the perfect shape and material to draw the lightning," Mr. Pettygrow explained. "I've tried other things, in other places--tied to the tops of the tallest trees or up on rocky hills--but it must be metal. Copper is best, then iron."

"But they weren't yours to use. You stole them from other people." Frodo knew he should be angry, but Mr. Pettygrow was so cheerfully good-humored that it was impossible. He felt as if he were scolding the elderly hobbit just as Milo and Peony had scolded Mosco; Mr. Pettygrow seemed as childlike in his enthusiasm and utter disregard for the consequences of his experiment. Perhaps he had gone dotty. "You can't restore the damaged property-" When his toes touched a hard, cylindrical object on the floor, Frodo glanced down to see the familiar, knobby pine handle of Lobelia's treasured umbrella. Other umbrella handles lay nearby: the curved, carved-horn swan's head of Aunt Dora's, Falco's falcon, and his own dark, polished cherrywood hook with Bilbo's initials on it. "But you must compensate the owners."

Mr. Pettygrow chuckled again. "Lad, if I could pay for so many umbrellas, do you think I'd have to steal them? Pennies for the lads who helped me was about all my purse could stand."

"We'll have to tell the umbrellas' owners what became of them," said Frodo. "Lobelia Sackville-Baggins is certain to pay you a call. I wouldn't wish to see what'll to you happen then, but you have my sympathy. The sherriffs may also take an interest--you won't be able to carry on your experiment here."

"Oh, I'm quite used to that," said Mr. Pettygrow. "It's always the way. Give me 'til the morning, and I'll be gone, and needn't face Lobelia's wrath! I hope no one minds if I take the umbrella frames with me when I go?"

"You might as well keep them," Frodo consented. The lightning-blasted frames were beyond repair, and as long as he had them, Mr. Pettygrow wouldn't steal more from other hobbits wherever he went. "But we can at least return these." He knelt to gather up the handles, which could be refitted to new umbrellas.

As he and his friends filled their coat pockets, Mr. Pettygrow asked Frodo, "Is your uncle Bilbo still about, lad?"

"No... He's left the Shire. He went to stay with the Elves a few years ago."

"Did he? I'm sorry he's not here to see this. I think he would have enjoyed it."

Frodo had to acknowledge the truth of this. "Yes, I believe he would."

When they left the cottage, they found that the rain had passed and a cool, misty twilight was settling over the Shire. Frodo shivered and leaned closer to Sam for warmth. "Tomorrow," he said, "we'll have to go shopping for some new umbrellas."

"Will you buy one for Lobelia?" asked Pippin.

"I think I'd better, as a peace offering. We'll never have any peace otherwise."
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