Frodo froze at the doorstep of the Bullroarer's Head the next morning just as he was about to step out into the high street. The voice hailing him was Chief Thornbreak's, but there was a certain note in it that Frodo dreaded to hear. He knew before he turned to face the Chief Shirriff that Thornbreak had heard Tansy's story.
"What's this I hear about Mrs. Took and Tad Toptree? You've heard it yourself," said Thornbreak.
Frodo nodded. "I'm certain it's all nonsense," he said with a dismissive air, although his heart was pounding hard in anticipation of the disaster that would follow if this story had indeed spread. Already, he could imagine the angry whispers, the hostile glares of the townsfolk, the demands that Melly be brought back to Tuckborough and placed under arrest. They would blame him for freeing Everard's murderess. "So you- you've heard it too? May I ask--did Mrs. Thursk come to you, or did you hear it from someone else? Is it generally talked of around Tookbank?"
"Tansy Thursk told me," Thornbreak answered. "She stopped by my house last night--just after she went to you. I reckon she was afraid you mightn't do anything about it, seeing as how you're about to marry Mrs. Took."
He was eyeing Frodo speculatively, and Frodo bristled at the insinuation. "I intend to do something about it," he responded. "I think it's all a filthy lie, but do mean to look into it. As a matter of fact, I'm on my way to see Uncle Paladin now, to find out what I can about Tadler Toptree. I must question him first."
Bringing up the Thain's name had just the effect on Thornbreak that Frodo hoped it would. As long as he had his uncle's favor and the authority to investigate, the shirriff must allow him to proceed as he liked. Thornbreak was also reassured that, by bringing the story to the Thain's attention, Frodo wasn't going to ignore it for Melly's sake.
"And you'll tell me what Tad has to say for himself?" Thornbreak asked.
"Yes, of course." Frodo still felt as if his heart were beating too fast; the danger had not yet passed. "You haven't spoken of this to anyone else?"
"No, Mr. Baggins. I thought I'd come by and see you first thing."
"Then it isn't being talked of in Tookbank yet." He had his own request to make in return. "Chief Thornbreak, I pray you--please--don't speak of it to anyone until I've had my chance to investigate. If there's nothing in it, as I'm sure there is, then it can do great damage to not only my cousin Melly, but to this other lad. You don't want to see an injustice done to them."
Thornbreak agreed that he wanted no injustice. He'd learned a lesson from his previous hasty jump to the wrong conclusions, and didn't want to be shown up again. He would wait until Frodo returned.
Frodo thanked him, and went to see the Thain.
"Tadler Toptree? Yes, of course I know him," Paladin said. Frodo had entered the Thain's study as surreptitiously as possible, in hopes that no other member of the Thain's family would know that he was there. "His father's been my head-groom for more than forty years. He worked here in the stables for some years himself."
"But he no longer works for you, Uncle?" asked Frodo.
"No, he took up the position of ostler for our cousins the Lowbottom-Tooks a couple of years ago. He lives there at Lowbottom, if you're looking for him." The Thain regarded Frodo curiously. "What's this about, Frodo? Why are you interested in Tad?"
"I heard something about him last night. I hope you'll confide in no one about it until I've investigated the matter thoroughly. I'd rather not have anyone distressed. It may be nothing but lies." Once the Thain had agreed to tell no one, Frodo repeated the story Tansy Thursk had brought him. The Thain listened in amazement, but by the time Frodo had finished, his expression was more incredulous than horrified.
"I find it difficult to believe, Frodo. I've known the lad since he was a boy! Tad commit murder? And at the behest of another?" Paladin shook his head. "What could induce a hobbit to do such a thing? Money?"
"Tansy says it was a mutual desire for revenge. But I've been thinking things over since I spoke to her last night, sir," Frodo said, encouraged by the Thain's reluctance to give the story credence. "The more I consider what Tansy told me, the more I doubt it. I wonder when this arrangement between Melly and Tadler was supposed to have been made. Melly arrived only the night before she went to the cottage. Where did they meet? When did they have an opportunity to make plans? Even if Tansy is right about Tadler's resentment toward Tibby, how would Melly come to know about it? How well did she know him when she lived here three years ago? Did they keep in correspondence during that time? Could she have written him from Buckland?"
"Tad can't read," said Paladin. "I do see what you mean, Frodo. It isn't in the least likely that these two should plot murder together."
"All the same, I must interview him. There must be some reason that Tadler Toptree's name has been conveyed to me, either by Tansy herself or through her. If he isn't working at Melly's behest, he may have done so for someone else. Or he may know where these rumors come from and that will give me the clue I need. At any rate, you understand why I can't ignore it."
"I understand perfectly," said the Thain. "And it pleases me greatly that you've come to me with it, Frodo. I knew that you could be relied upon to conduct your investigation with your usual devotion to the truth, in spite of certain- well- personal interests."
Frodo couldn't pretend to misunderstand this allusion. "You won't summon Melly back to Tuckborough, will you?" he requested. It was the Thain's right to do so if he believed that she was still implicated in his nephew's murder, but Frodo hoped that Paladin could be convinced not to take this calamitous step. "She and Merry are still at the Green Hill Inn and are quite comfortable there. I'm afraid if they hear of this, he'll fly back to Buckland with her immediately and you'll never bring them back. You know how he's been--hot-tempered from the beginning. He takes his duty to protect his people seriously, and he has a great affection for Melly."
"He's not the only one, is he?"
"No, sir," Frodo admitted. "But that's why I don't want her to leave while she's still under any shadow of suspicion. It would do her more harm if she were to return to Buckland before this is completely settled."
"I won't send for her unless there's something to this story after all," Paladin consented. "I can make you no fairer promise than that."
"Thank you, Uncle," Frodo said sincerely. "I know you've been working as hard as I have to put a stop to any rift between our two families. You don't want the Tooks and Brandybucks divided any more than I do. Too many people would be hurt by it, some of them very dear to both of us."
Paladin nodded. "I suppose that none of us can help taking a personal interest in this matter--it's in the family, and too close to us all for anyone to remain impartial. We can't avoid being grieved by what's happened to poor Ev, but it's my hope when all is done, we've suffered no harm so great that it's beyond repair." Whether he was referring to the ultimate solution to Everard's murder or the threat of a feud between the Took and Brandybuck families was unclear, until he added, "Tempers have run high because of this and some very harsh words have been spoken lately, but perhaps once this awful matter is settled and the murderer's been caught, all this unpleasantness can be forgotten. I'd hate to go to war against Buckland. It would put me against not only my short-tempered nephew, but my sister, at least two of my nieces, and very likely my son. All, as you say, very dear to me." The Thain spoke with a note of wry humor, but he had an important point he wished to make as well. "And it may be contrary to Lady Eglantine's views, Frodo, but I must tell you: I don't think you've been a bad influence on Pippin at all. I couldn't wish a better friend for him."
When Frodo left the Thain's study, he headed toward the front door of the house rather than go out through the garden. The sounds of children's laughter told him that the Tooks were spending another sunny morning out-of-doors, and he still hoped to avoid being seen.
As he emerged from the corridor that connected the study to the front hall, however, he ran into Pearl and Ada--almost literally.
"Why, Frodo!" cried Ada. "I didn't know you were here."
"Yes, I've been to see Uncle Paladin," Frodo explained.
"Have you brought news?" his cousin asked eagerly. "Have you found out who killed poor Evvy?"
"No, not yet. That still remains to be seen."
Pearl might never have told a lie, but years of looking after her younger brother had taught her when someone wasn't telling all the truth. The look she gave Frodo was sharp and inquiring, and made him quite uncomfortable. "I thought that yesterday you were looking into a promising prospect--Tansy Thursk's husband," she said.
"I'm afraid he wasn't so promising after all," Frodo told her.
"Pippin was at the inn 'til all hours last night with that friend of yours, asking questions. He came home quite tipsy, Mother says. She was upset about it, but I suppose that it's better he ask questions about the Tookbank folk than about our own family. Yesterday morning, he was asking Stally whether or not he was happy with a pony he'd purchased--although I can't imagine why that would be of interest to you, Frodo."
"It isn't any longer," he answered. "Stally isn't suspected."
"I'm glad. I'd hate to think that any one of the Tooks--even a distant cousin--had some part in this."
"So am I! We'd all be much happier if it was a stranger," said Ada. "So much more awful if it's somebody we know! I don't know if I could bear it."
"And have you no one else in mind, Frodo?" Pearl was still watching him carefully. "No Took or anyone else?"
"No," he replied. "Not at present. There are some matters I must look into first." He wasn't certain what meaning lay behind Pearl's remarks--was she trying to find out what he had come to her father about, or was she probing to see if he still suspected her husband or mother? He felt that if she kept pressing him, he was sure to give away some information that he'd rather keep to himself. With a hasty apology, he excused himself.
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