Frodo would have been delighted to bring evidence of Melly's innocence to Thain Paladin under any circumstances, but to produce it when dozens of hobbits were present to witness it was an unabashed triumph. Only a few of the most prominent Tookbankers had accepted Adelard's invitation to take refreshment, but nearly all the Tooks who'd attended the funeral were there.
As Elvegar repeated his tale of having seen Everard and Tibby alive after Melly was supposed to have killed them, Frodo heard those murmurs rippling through the crowd again--first with tones of surprise, then doubt, then acceptance that it must indeed be true. Even those who believed that Frodo might lie for Melly's sake knew that Elvegar wouldn't. Like many of Everard's friends, he'd disliked Melly since she had gone home to Buckland. It was true. Melilot Took hadn't murdered her husband. She couldn't have done it.
Frodo hoped that this news would spread as swiftly as the gossip about him and Melly had.
"Will you inform the Chief Shirriff, Uncle?" he asked once Elvegar had finished.
"I'll send a message to him right away," Paladin agreed. "I expect that he'll want to question Elvegar himself, to be certain of his facts."
"But you believe him?"
"Yes, certainly. I see no reason why young Elve should lie, though I do wonder why he kept such important information to himself for so long." The Thain regarded Elvegar sternly, as if he knew precisely why Elvegar hadn't spoken to clear Melly earlier. "You won't mind if Chief Thornbreak asks you a few questions, will you, Elve?"
"No, sir," Elvegar mumbled. He knew he had no choice and was resigned to retelling his story as often as required.
"Then may I tell Merry and Melly that he can escort her home?" Frodo requested. The two hadn't emerged from Adelard's smial to face the crowd of Tooks in the garden, but remained indoors and out of sight.
Paladin smiled. "Yes, go and tell them that she's free to leave Tuckborough. Merry needn't wait any longer."
But Frodo couldn't go into the house immediately, for he was surrounded by hobbits who wished to praise him for his swift success.
"I'm so glad, Frodo!" Peri said.
"It's a relief to know that Melly couldn't have done something so terrible," added Ada.
"I never doubted she couldn't, not for an instant," said Isalda. "But all the same, it is wonderful to see it proved."
"They do say you're a very good detective," said Filobard.
Fatty was grinning and Dodi hugged him. Their congratulations were more enthusiastic than those he'd received over his plans to marry Melly. This was, after all, something that they had expected him to do.
Pearl also said that she was pleased things had turned out so well for Melly, but Reginard, Frodo noted, looked disappointed almost to the point of anger--as if his expectations had been thwarted. Was he upset because Melly couldn't be his brother's murderer, or because she had escaped a hoped-for punishment?
Then, most remarkable of all, Lady Eglantine came forward--not to offer congratulations, but to apologize. "I'm afraid I haven't been myself lately, and I've said some unpardonable things to you," she said quietly. "I do hope you will pardon them, Frodo."
"Yes, of course, Aunt Eglantine," Frodo replied graciously. "I quite understand."
"We all do, my dear. It's been a most trying time," said Paladin, and Pippin took his mother's hand.
When Frodo finally stole away from the garden, he entered Adelard's house through the study door and went to the nursery. It seemed the most likely place to find his Brandybuck cousins. When he peeked into the room, however, he found that the younger Took boys were taking a nap and Aderic and Peveril were playing quietly. Mamma and Uncle Merry, Aderic told Frodo, had gone to "watch the party."
Frodo looked through the adjacent rooms until he found his cousins at the window in one of the back parlors overlooking the garden where the funeral reception was being held. They must have heard the commotion outside and realized that something important had occurred.
"What's going on, Frodo?" Melly asked him as he came into the room. "Everyone looked so excited all of a sudden, but Uncle Paladin is smiling. Is it good news?"
"The best news." Frodo told them what happened, and had the pleasure of seeing Merry whoop out loud and jump in the air.
Melly threw her arms around his neck--Frodo half expected her to accept his proposal at that moment, but all she said was, "Thank you."
"I wish I could say it was my remarkable detective skills that accomplished this, but I hardly did anything," Frodo replied modestly as he took her by the arms to hold her slightly back from him. "It was Edegar who brought his brother to me."
"And Elve was happy to keep his mouth shut 'til then," said Merry, briefly reverting to his angry mood. "Frodo, could Elve have done it?"
"That's possible, of course. He was there at approximately the right time, though I couldn't guess at what reason he might have to murder them. I think that if he did kill them, his brother would never have forced him to admit he'd been to the cottage that night. As for his brother..." Frodo paused to consider Edegar's motivations.
"You sound as if you plan to go on investigating Evvy's murder," said Melly.
"Yes, if Uncle Paladin will allow it. I've done what Merry brought me here to do, but my business isn't quite finished. Even after what happened here today, there will always be people who will wonder if you didn't have something to do with it. The only way to silence them is to discover beyond all doubts who really is responsible. Besides, I want to know who killed Ev and Tibby. Don't you? If we leave it to Shirriff Thornbreak, we may never learn the truth."
Melly acknowledged that, yes, she wanted to find out who had murdered her husband. Merry also admitted to being curious.
"But that's no reason why the two of you should stay on here," said Frodo. "I know how badly you want to go home."
But Melly surprised both Frodo and Merry by answering, "No, I can't go home yet."
"You can't want to stay here?" Merry asked incredulously.
She shook her head. "I've no wish to stay here now that I'm free to leave. You know I didn't feel welcome, even before, and it'll only be more awkward now. But I don't want to go so far away as Buckland. My business here isn't finished either." She was looking at Frodo; Merry followed her glance and his eyebrows shot up beneath the curls on his brow.
"And you wouldn't join us at the Bullroarer's?" he asked.
Melly shook her head again. "Not after the people in Tookbank have been saying awful things about me. I never want to set foot in that town again and won't subject my Addy to it."
Merry fully sympathized with her feelings. While both were glad that the worst was past and she was free, neither was ready to forgive the Tooks nor the Tookbankers.
"What about the Green Hill Inn?" Frodo suggested. "If you leave Tuckborough right now, you'd have to stop there at any rate unless you mean to ride through the night, so why not take a room for Addy and yourself? Merry and I can ride over with you and we'll have dinner together. I won't be able to stay there--I have to remain at the Bullroarer's Head if I'm to carry on my work, but I'll bring you news whenever I have any."
Melly agreed that this was the best solution and hastened to her room to pack. By the time the after-funeral party had dispersed and the various Took families returned to their own smials, she and Aderic were prepared to go. While Merry went to the stables to have their ponies saddled and the trap brought around, Melly made brief farewells to Adelard and his family. Though polite words were exchanged, both sides were understandably reserved. Everard's family was no more ready to apologize for suspecting Melly of his murder than she was to forgive their suspicion. She didn't want to quarrel, only to be away from them, and they were relieved to see her leave. But not a word of this was said aloud.
"Good-bye, my dear," Adelard said to his daughter-in-law at the front door of his home while Frodo helped Merry put the baggage into the back of the trap. "I hope you'll allow little Addy to come and visit us sometime."
"Yes, of course, Father Addy," Melly replied. "Whenever you wish. Only let me know, and I'll make arrangements to send him here to you."
"Thank you. I'll write you at Brandy Hall or Bag End, wherever you make your home. I do wish you happiness, dear Melly." Adelard took her by the shoulders and she submitted her cheek for a kiss. Pearl also bestowed a cool kiss on the cheek as she said good-bye, and Dodi, Isalda, Flora, and Fatty promised that they would see her at the inn tomorrow when they stopped on their own way home.
The Green Hill Inn was only five miles from Tuckborough and they went swiftly along the curving road between the hills amid the deepening shadows of the late afternoon. Melly drove the trap, just as she'd driven to Tuckborough little more than a week before, and Frodo and Merry rode their ponies behind her. Pippin decided to come with them at the last minute; he would join them at the inn for dinner, but told his parents to expect him home for the night. It was his way of carefully dividing his time and loyalties between the two.
"However did your father convince your mother to apologize?" Frodo wondered. "It was kind of her, but I know she wouldn't have done it without his prompting."
"It was before the funeral," Pippin explained. "He reminded her--in that gentle way he has of talking to her when she's on a tear--that everybody in Tuckborough would be turning out to see Evvy's farewell and it wouldn't do to make a scene. When she's herself, there's nothing Mother dislikes more than making scenes. He didn't say 'So you'd better behave yourself,' but that's what he meant. And she took the hint that I was right and she'd made some bad scenes already about you. She began to feel she'd been wrong--not about what she said to you, exactly, but that she said it out loud. I don't know what's the matter with her. I'd never've guessed that Mother would take Evvy's death so hard. She didn't like him when he was alive, especially not after this business with the Clover lads."
Frodo said nothing.
They arrived at the Green Hill Inn at dusk. While Pippin and Merry took the ponies and trap around to the stable yard, Frodo took Aderic by the hand to escort the little boy and his mother in through the front entrance. Since the inn lay at the crossroads of two important routes for travelers north, south, east, and west, and sat near the eaves of the vast Green Hill Wood, it was the only place for miles around where the local farm-folk could gather for an evening. A number of hobbits were already gathered in the common room; Frodo could hear them laughing and talking as he walked with Melly into the front hall. There was no sign of the innkeeper, who was most likely at the bar, serving ale to his patrons.
"Hello!" Frodo called out. "Mr. Greenlee? Are you here?" Normally, he would've gone into the common room in search of the innkeeper, but he didn't like to take a newly-widowed lady and small child into the public room of a tavern.
Mr. Greenlee didn't appear in response to Frodo's summons, but Sam did. "Don't I know your voice, Fr-?" he began, but stopped when he saw who Frodo was with.
"Sam!" Frodo cried in surprise. "What are you doing here?"
"I was on my way down to Tuckborough and stopped to have a sip o' ale and let the pony catch his breath before I started my last leg," Sam answered. "Now, what's this about you getting married?"
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