They went next door to Adelard's house. When they entered through the garden door into Adelard's drawing room, they found that all three of Everard's sisters had arrived. Adelard had gone out to make the final arrangements for his son's funeral, but his surviving children and their spouses were seated together. They had just come from the adjoining parlor, where Everard was laid out. Frodo greeted his cousins warmly and expressed his sympathies for their loss.
Ada, the eldest sister, was normally a cheerful young woman, but she'd been crying since viewing her brother's body and only gave Frodo a wan smile half-covered by her handkerchief. Her husband, Filobard Banks-Took, was a distant cousin on Eglantine's side, a mild-tempered but stolid and unimaginative young hobbit. Frodo had never heard him express a thought that wasn't entirely conventional.
"It's a bad business all around," Filobard said to Frodo and Pippin. "But what else could be expected? A wife belongs with her husband, and contrariwise. No good ever came of married people living apart and you see how this has ended up. It's a tragedy for all concerned."
"I can't believe it of Melly," Ada said in a choked voice.
"I refuse to believe it," declared Isalda, the youngest and most sensible of the sisters.
Isalda and the middle sister Flora were in a position similar to Pippin's, caught between divided family loyalties. Flora's husband Fatty Bolger was a near relation of the Tooks--his mother and Ferdi's father had been sister and brother--but his home and his sympathies were nearer to the Brandybucks. He was also one of Frodo's closest friends. Isalda's husband Doderic Brandybuck had, like Frodo and Merry, known Melly since their days together in the Brandy Hall nursery; although two years younger than Melly, he had the same protective feelings for her as her older cousins did and loved her as dearly as his own sister.
Dodi wasn't in the room. When Frodo asked if he'd come from Buckland with her, Isalda explained that her husband had gone to see Melly immediately upon their arrival.
"Merry's up there too," Reg added sourly. "It's a Brandybuck conclave. I suppose you'll want to join them, Frodo."
"Eventually," Frodo answered. "I hope to give them some good news."
He would have said more, but at that moment he glimpsed a curious movement out of the corner of his eye--a dark object that was not part of any plant fluttering in the breeze--and turned to look through the garden door, left open when he and Pippin had come in. Through the shrubbery beyond the door, he could now see that the object was the black skirt of a woman's dress. She was climbing down the steep hillside escorted by a male companion--no, two. He couldn't see their faces, but he realized who they were before he recognized the familiar pattern of Merry's blue and gold waistcoat. The three Brandybucks had gone out through Melly's window and were descending into the garden behind the smials.
"I hope they aren't helping her to escape," said Fatty as he joined Frodo by the door to watch the trio emerge from the cover of the shrubbery and step out onto one of the pebbled paths between the flower beds. "It's just the sort of thing Dodi was saying he'd do."
"Merry too," Pippin said. "Frodo told him not to try it."
"I said it would be foolish and accomplish nothing," Frodo acknowledged.
"They seem to be determined to ignore such good advice," said Reg.
"If they were silly enough to try, they'd have gone over the top of the hill to the stable on the other side and we'd never have seen them," Frodo pointed out. "I expect that they just wanted to get out into the sunshine. Poor Melly's been shut up in her room for days."
"Is Melly-?" Flora hesitated. "Is she allowed out?"
"She hasn't officially been arrested," Pearl explained. "Father's waiting to see if Frodo finds out anything for or against her."
"I admit I feel much more hopeful about how this will turn out seeing that you're here, Frodo," Isalda told him. "If anyone can get to the bottom of this and find out who really killed poor Evvy, it's you."
"They do say you're the best investigator in the Shire. My brother Fragobard's always talking about that time you borrowed his name to solve a murder," said Filobard, but with a grudging note. Frodo had once adopted the name of Fragobard Banks-Took while conducting an investigation where he wished to keep his own identity secret; although the real Fragobard was thrilled at even being so marginally involved in one of the famous detective's adventures, Filobard thought this incredible impudence on Frodo's part. Like many a respectable hobbit, he didn't believe that prying into the sordid business of murder was a fit occupation for a gentleman.
As Dodi and Melly sat down on a bench in a bower at the end of the pebbled path, they noticed that they were being observed. Dodi said something to Merry, and Merry turned to wave at the group gathered at the drawing-room door. Pippin went out to him; when the two met, Pippin began to talk in a low but agitated voice. The others also went into the garden, breaking off into couples. Frodo headed for the bower. As he approached, Dodi rose to give him a hug.
Dodi's mood was similar to Merry's last night; he was angry about the Took's treatment of Melly and determined to help her. "I'll do whatever I can, Frodo. You've only to ask. Isalda won't mind--will you, darling?" Isalda had also come up the path toward the bower behind Frodo. "She's a friend of Melly's and doesn't believe a word said against her--no more than I do."
"I can't promise to do much to help myself," Isalda added as she took her husband's arm. "I see how the family feels, especially Reg, and I don't want to start arguments between us when we should all be remembering poor Ev. I'm here to bid my farewells to him, but as long as we're here, Dodi's free to do as he likes. Everyone knows he stands with Melly in any case and expects he'll want to help you, Frodo."
"There you are," said Dodi. "You can count on me."
"There isn't much you can do yet, Dodi. I've just begun to look for people who wished Everard or Tibby Clover harm. We've only discovered one interesting prospect so far." Frodo repeated Pippin's story. "I'm going to question Rudmer Thursk and see what he has to say. If there's anything in it, I'll inform Chief Thornbreak."
Dodi and Isalda were encouraged by this news, but Frodo observed that Melly wasn't as cheered as he'd hoped she would be. Seated in shadow beneath a tangle of climbing roses, her head was down and she swung her feet slightly so that her toes brushed the grass beneath the bench. She'd been listening to everything he'd said, but didn't appear to take an interest although it vitally concerned her.
"It's a very promising beginning, Melly," he told her after Isalda and Dodi had gone to spread this information to the others around the garden.
"Perhaps. You don't really think this hobbit's killed them, do you?" she asked. "His own wife's brother?"
"I can't yet say it's so, but he may have his reasons. I'll know more after I've spoken with him." Frodo sat down beside her. "You mustn't give up so easily, Melly. I will find the one who murdered Ev and Tibby--if not Mr. Thursk, then another. I won't be alone in this task either. You heard what Dodi had to say. You've seen how Merry's stood by you. And there are others too, Pippin and even his father."
Melly didn't answer immediately. After awhile, she looked up into his face. "I'm sorry, Frodo. I know I have friends around me and my case isn't entirely hopeless. All the same, I can't feel very hopeful. I don't seem to be able to feel much in the way of anything right now. I don't feel as frightened as I know I ought to be at my position. I can't grieve. Oh, I've wept, but not for Everard. Since I first heard that he was killed and I was suspected, it's as if I've stepped into utter darkness. There's nothing but black all around me and I'm standing near the edge of a bottomless pit. One wrong step, and I'll fall in. I can't see ahead. I can barely move."
At this further expression of Melly's despair, Frodo saw that he had to do something drastic to give her heart. "It may be hard for you to believe now, but this bleak feeling will pass," he said, and took her hand. "You'll come through the worst of it and be safe and even happy again one day. When this trouble is over, why don't you come to Bag End--you and Addy? Remember, we spoke of your visiting last summer."
This invitation brought a faint smile to her lips. "We did, didn't we? Yes, I think I'd like that. When this is done, if I am free, I don't think I could simply go home to Brandy Hall and carry on as if nothing had happened. I'd be glad of a quiet shelter somewhere away from the Tooks and Brandybucks for a little while."
Frodo went on, encouraged by the first signs he'd seen that she could look toward some future prospect that wasn't disastrous. "More than a little while, Melly, if you like Bag End and agree to stay." He'd been considering a similar proposal for some time, but these current, dire circumstances drew him to make an even more dramatic offer than the one he'd originally planned. "I can't give you much protection now, but when this is past and you are free, I hope you'll accept my home and whatever else I can provide for you there. If you want a quiet shelter, I can give it to you. If you want a pledge of my faith in you, then you have that as well. Melly..." He took a breath, then said, "I would consider it a great honor if you would marry me."
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