They agreed that they would talk about something besides murder over dinner, and when Melly and the freshly-scrubbed Addy joined them in the dining-room, Frodo asked them how they'd spent the day. Melly and Addy had gone for a long walk in the Green Hill Wood and gathered a number of pine cones. Merry had accompanied them to the Ferndingle farm, where Noddy Ferndingle was happy to show them around, tell them the tale of how a traveling circus had "haunted" the wood, and introduce Addy to his housekeeper's grandsons. They'd deliberately kept themselves away from the inn for most of the day to avoid overhearing the local gossip, but both Merry and Melly had sent letters home to Brandy Hall to let their family know the truth of what was happening.
"Did you tell them about my proposal?" Frodo asked.
"Melly nodded. "Yes, of course. They were bound to hear of it from Dodi and Isalda, so I thought it best that Mother and the aunties know exactly how you and I stood rather than let them jump to conclusions. You know how they are--they'll be making plans for my wedding dress before I'm out of mourning."
Merry laughed. "You remember how it was with Mrs. Underhill, Frodo? All of Buckland was ready to see me married to the mysterious widow simply because I called on her a few times. If they'd only known who they were so eager to match me to!"
Frodo chuckled as well, sharing this private joke, and Melly glanced from one to the other. "I hardly think my possible marriage would be considered as important as yours, Merry," said Frodo. "All of Buckland, as you say, expects a Master to wed a suitable lady and produce an heir. They haven't gotten used to idea that you simply don't intend to do it. It can't matter to anyone but my closest friends and family--and the lady herself--" he turned to give a smile to Melly, "how I choose to conduct my private affairs."
"You mightn't be as consequential as the Master of the Hall, my dear," Merry responded without conceit, "but you're either extraordinarily modest or extremely silly not to realize that you are an important hobbit. Modest as well as silly, if I know you. Nobody in the Shire is as famous as you've become these last few years, since you started taking on all these investigations and writing books about them. Everyone's heard of you. They'd naturally take an interest if you got married even if you went about it in the ordinary way. The way you've proposed to Melly only makes the news all the more exciting and romantic."
"I'm famous for more than investigating and writing, Merry," Frodo reminded his cousin. He couldn't say more, not with a little boy seated beside him. Fortunately, most of this conversation went over Addy's head and he appeared to be more interested in chasing the last of the peas around his plate than in what the grown-ups were talking about.
"And that only makes in more fascinating to them, Frodo," Merry replied with a grin. "They never give up hope that we'll change. After my experience with the widow, I know that better than anybody does!"
Addy had been promised by his Uncle Merry that they would go out once it was dark to try and catch some fireflies at the edge of the Wood. Once the child had cleared his dessert plate, Merry took him by the hand and the two of them left the dining-room, heading for the inn's back door. Melly walked arm-in-arm with Frodo toward the stables. There was to be no discussion of suspects over wine and pipeweed tonight; Merry and Frodo had gone over what little there was to consider before dinner, and Frodo wanted to be on his way back to Tookbank.
"I know Mr. Gamgee's waiting for you," Melly said, "but, Frodo, before you go, there's something I want to ask you. I couldn't before, not in front of Addy. It's rather personal."
"Yes, of course," Frodo answered with a note of trepidation.
"It has to do with that whole, strange business with Mrs. Underhill. The story that went around Buckland afterwards was that she was an imposter who'd tried to trick Merry into giving her some money, but there's still something very peculiar about it all. This isn't the first time I've heard Merry's make jokes about the widow, and Pippin's made some odd remarks too. I've heard enough from them to guess that you were involved in it somehow, but I didn't see until the two of you were laughing about it tonight." As they stopped at the stable-yard gate, she looked up at him with a curious expression. "Frodo, were you Merry's mysterious widow?"
Frodo nodded and blushed so hotly that the change in his face was visible to Melly even in the twilight.
Melly took a moment to consider this. "I want to understand. Was it some sort of- well- a game you and Merry were playing?"
"It was part of a case I was investigating at the time," Frodo explained. "I was obliged to leave Hobbiton without anyone knowing that I'd gone and had to hide somewhere else in disguise." One of the stable-lads emerged and gaped at them openly until Frodo ordered his pony saddled and brought out. "Only Sam knew where I was," he continued once the boy had gone. "Merry was helping by conveying messages between us--but then things quickly got beyond our control. He called upon me so often that it encouraged the most outlandish gossip, and once it'd begun, there was nothing poor Merry could do to put a stop to it. Even Pippin believed it."
Melly laughed. "Yes, I remember that very well!" She continued to gaze up at him, but now she was smiling. "Is that why you want to marry me, Frodo--for my wardrobe? I've got some lovely dresses, made by Mrs. Pinchley in Bucklebury, but I'm afraid they'd be too small for you."
"Then it's fortunate that I don't do that sort of thing anymore," Frodo answered, trying to match her joke, but it was the truth. He hadn't since Rosie's death. Marigold and May had taken most of Rosie's clothing, but even if any of her garments still remained at Bag End, Frodo felt it would be disrespectful, if not morbidly obscene, to dress up in things that had belonged to his lover's dead wife. He doubted Sam would find it appealing under the circumstances. "Your dresses are quite safe, if that's what's troubling you, dear Melly."
"I've a great deal to think about," Melly admitted. "Once all this awful business with Ev is behind us, I'll be able to see other things more clearly. I can't give you a better answer than that now, Frodo." The stable-lad was bringing the pony out. Not caring that she had this witness, Melly stood up on tip-toe to give Frodo a kiss; her lips just brushed the corner of his mouth. Her eyes flickered quickly over his face before she said, "Good-night." She left him at the stable-yard gate and went to find Merry and Addy.
Frodo rode back to Tookbank in a hopeful frame of mind. His list of suspects had diminished to nothing, but he felt sure that his personal prospects were going to work out. Sam had received the news of his intended marriage to Melly without the expected outburst of jealousy; he wasn't afraid of being supplanted by her and seemed to accept that she and Aderic would become part of their household. And Melly not only understood what sort of hobbit he was, she didn't seem to mind. Once this case was solved and Melly could give her mind fully to the question of a second marriage, he believed that she would see the advantages of it and accept his offer.
It was well after dark when he arrived at the Bullroarer's Head. As he made his way towards the inn door, a small figure with a shawl thrown over its head emerged from the shadows along the crooked high street. A woman's voice softly called out his name, "Mr. Baggins!"
Frodo turned, startled. "Why, it's Tansy- Mrs. Thursk. What you doing out here at this hour?"
"I've been waiting for you," she answered as she stepped closer. "Rudmer thinks I'm off calling on a friend, but I had to come say this to you."
"You have something to tell me?" If she'd stood out here in the street keeping watch for him, it must be important--and also secret, since she hadn't told her husband where she was going, nor gone into the inn to await his return.
"That's right, Mr. Baggins." The shawl-covered head nodded. "'Tis this--Does Mrs. Took know a lad called Tadler Toptree?"
"I couldn't say. Who is he?" Frodo recalled that the groom who oversaw the Took family stables was named Sadler Toptree. "Is he related to the Thain's groom?"
"Tad's his son. He worked at the Thain's stables with his dad when Mr. Everard and Missus were at Mr. Adelard's," Tansy hissed at him in a whisper. "Talk is he was a 'friend' to Mr. Everard before us Cottons came to Tookbank and he took up with my brothers. You know how he did, first with Toby, then Tibby. And Tadler took against it. What I come to tell you, Mr. Baggins, is that both Tad 'n' Mrs. Took had reason to hate my brother Tibby and want revenge on Mr. Everard."
"But you know she couldn't have done it," Frodo told her. "That's been proven. She left them hours before they were killed."
"I know that, Mr. Baggins. Everybody's saying so now, though they was as sure Mrs. Took killed both Tibby and her husband yesterday. I didn't think it was her, but once I heard tell of Tadler, I had to come to you. You oughter go talk to Tadler Toptree and see if he can prove the same. Ask 'm where he was that night. Ask 'm if Mrs. Took didn't send 'm to go and do it for her."
"Do you believe it, Frodo?" Sam asked very soon afterwards, once Frodo had gone to their room and repeated this astonishing information to his friend. Sam had gone to bed early and was eagerly awaiting Frodo's return--but this wasn't the reunion he'd been expecting. Frodo was too disturbed even to kiss him hello, let alone undress to join him.
"No, of course not!" said Frodo, pacing at the foot of the bed. "It's an absurd story. If Tansy didn't make it up herself for some reason, then someone else has. She was very coy when I asked her where this accusation had came from--said she'd heard Tadler's name the other day and remembered what she'd once heard about him from her brothers, so she's been turning the idea over in her mind since. I can't believe she'd hold back any honest information about who killed her brother. If someone has deliberately planted such an idea in her head, then it's a hobbit who hasn't given up hope of harming Melly through her husband's murder. I'd blame Reg or one of Ev's friends who dislikes her, but Tansy dislikes all the Tooks even more. She wouldn't work with any of them to revenge herself on Melly."
"Maybe it's meant to harm this Toptree lad, not Mrs. Took?" Sam suggested.
"Then why bring Melly into it?" Frodo stopped pacing and sat down on the bed near Sam's feet. "All the same, I can't ignore this story now that it's been brought to me. I must find and question Tadler Toptree."
"Are you going to tell anybody else about it?"
"I'll have to bring it to Uncle Paladin's attention. If I don't, he'll have every right to doubt my integrity and think I'm more interested in protecting Melly than I am in finding the murderer. But I'll do my best to keep it from reaching anybody else's ears--not only the other Tooks, but Merry and Melly."
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