Frodo and Merry came down the slope above the smallest smials, those belonging to lesser members of the Took family, with front doors opening directly onto the western side of the garden. Once in the garden, they walked toward the group of Tooks and their visitors. The Thain, Ferdi, and Peri had joined the couples who'd been strolling around when Frodo had left, but Melly was no longer in sight. Everyone regarded Frodo expectantly.
"Is it true, Frodo--what they're saying about you and Melly?" asked Ferdi.
"Didn't Melly tell you herself?" Frodo asked back. "Where is she, by the way?"
"She went into the nursery to see little Addy before she went back to her room," Pearl informed him. "I think she wanted to consult him about having a step-father so soon." There was a slight note of disapproval in her voice at this unseemly haste, but she also watched Frodo with curiosity.
"It isn't as if the poor boy knew his own father," Flora protested.
"We only came out after she'd gone in. It is true then?" Peri asked Frodo. "You've proposed to her?"
Frodo acknowledged that it was true, but added that matters between them weren't settled yet.
"Well!" said Ferdi in amazement. "I thought that Pippin was only making it up as a joke."
"I thought it was odd when I saw how you and Melly were sitting so close together last night," said Pearl, "but I never imagined-! If it were anyone but you, Frodo, I might've assumed that something of the sort was in the air, but you..." She hesitated, feeling that she'd stumbled into an awkward topic.
Her husband, however, felt no such delicacy. "You must admit that it's certainly unexpected, Frodo. What do you want a wife for?" Reg wondered. "According to the stories we've been hearing from Hobbiton lately, you already have a husband."
Some of the others looked embarrassed at this crude remark, but Pippin said, "Well, why shouldn't he? If I can get betrothed to a girl, there's no reason why Frodo can't too."
"No reason at all!" Fatty agreed with sudden heartiness, following Pippin's lead, and gave Frodo a firm pat on the shoulder. "If Melly accepts, then I'd say she's made an excellent choice."
Dodi and Ferdi hastened to offer their own conditional congratulations. Isalda kissed Frodo on the cheek and the prospect of a wedding moved Ada to smile for the first time since viewing her brother. But Frodo could see that they were all bewildered. His lack of romantic interest in any woman was well known; none of his friends had ever expected him to marry. They must be wondering why he'd chosen to propose to Melly now.
"Of course you have my best wishes for your future happiness as well, Frodo," the Thain spoke carefully, "but don't you think you've put yourself in a peculiar position? Won't your interests be divided if you propose marriage in the midst of investigating a murder when the lady is your chief suspect?"
Frodo had expected someone to make this point and, unlike the obnoxious personal question put to him by Reginard, he was ready to answer it. "No, sir. If I had any true reason to suspect her, I wouldn't have done it. I've made no secret of my belief in her innocence from the first, and you may take this as my declaration of how certain I am about it now. There are other suspects I'm considering."
"Ah!" Thain Paladin seized upon this last remark. "You've questioned Rudmer Thursk? What did he say?" He wasn't the only one eager to hear what Frodo's report.
"Mr. Thursk didn't confess to the murders," Frodo told them, "but he does admit to having a fight with Tibby, just as Pippin described."
"He'd have to admit it, since half the town heard them. What'll you do next?" asked Pippin. "Will you go to Chief Thornbreak?"
Frodo shook his head. "Not yet, when there's only a fight to tell him about. Since it's been talked over at the Bullroarer's Head, I'm certain he's heard of it already and doesn't attach particular importance to it."
"He thinks he's already got his murderer and doesn't need to look for anyone else," Merry grumbled.
"Mr. Thursk denies that he ever saw Tibby again after their fight," Frodo continued. "He told me that he'd never been near the cottage. It seems to me that the next thing to be done is catch him in a lie."
"You mean, find someone who saw him going there, or coming back?" Dodi asked.
"That's right. That will be a tale to tell the Chief Shirriff."
"If he went that way on the night Ev was killed, somebody might've seen him. I'll help you find them," said Pippin, and Dodi also offered his services. Those who had never doubted Melly's innocence seemed relieved at even so small a prospect.
Merry looked hopefully toward the Thain, but Paladin showed no sign of relenting. He was sympathetic, but wouldn't budge from his original conditions: Melly wouldn't be free to leave until Frodo provided clear proof of her innocence or another's guilt. As the local magistrate, he was concerned with justice, but he was even more aware than Mr. Brundle of the local feelings about Everard's murder and his wife's part in it.
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