When he returned to the Thain's Hall, Frodo found the Thain seated in the best drawing room with his wife, son, two daughters, their husbands, and Adelard. Merry was with them, standing by the large, circular window overlooking the garden. They weren't actually arguing when Frodo entered the room, but he felt certain that he'd interrupted a heated dispute. Merry looked stormy, Lady Eglantine indignant, Pippin unhappy, and the others in the room appeared extremely uncomfortable at being haplessly caught in the midst of it.
"Ah, Frodo!" Ferdi Took, who was married to Pippin's youngest sister Peri, leapt up to greet him with obvious relief. "I'd heard you were here. Uncle Paladin said you'd gone off with Chief Thornbreak to have a look at the- ah- cottage."
"You were gone quite awhile," said Adelard. "Did you find anything that would help Melly?"
"I'm quite sure now that she couldn't have committed these murders, not in the way Chief Shirriff Thornbreak believes she did," Frodo answered. Since the Thain's family were Everard's nearest relations, he refrained from providing details about drops of blood; he would share these pieces of information with Merry later. Instead, he continued, "With that in mind, I went to Tookbank to see if I could find anybody else who had reason for wanting either Tibby or Everard dead. I had an idea about why they were murdered, and I wanted to speak to Tansy Thursk."
"That girl hates us all," said Pearl, Pippin's eldest sister. "It wouldn't surprise me in the least if she claimed we had murdered her brother."
"She might've," Frodo agreed, "but she can't imagine that you'd want Evvy dead too. After I spoke with her, I went to the Bullroarer's. According to Mr. Brundle, Tibby had a way of making himself disliked long before he and Ev ran off together. He particularly mentioned the time Tibby attacked you, Pip--" he turned to give Pippin a small smile.
Pippin smiled tremulously in return. "And Di jumped on his back and thumped as hard as she could to make him stop."
"Yes, only Mr. Brundle still believes that Di was some Took 'lad' he didn't know." Miss Diantha Took was in fact now Pippin's betrothed; Brundle would be shocked to learn that the friendship between the future Thain and his presumptive Lady had begun during a brawl in his own tavern. The current Lady, Pippin's mother, wasn't pleased about it and frowned as Pippin spoke fondly of the willful young girl. "I gather that that wasn't the only brawl Mr. Brundle remembers, but he refused to give me what he calls 'the particulars' of any other fights Tibby had. According to him and Chief Thornbreak, all of Tookbank considered Tibby a bad lot."
"So he was," said Reginard, Pearl's husband and Everard's elder brother. "It was a bad day for us all when those Clovers came to live in Tookbank."
"Tansy agrees with you," Frodo told him. "Only, her family seems to have gotten the worst of it."
"The worst!" cried Reg. "You can say that, after I've lost a brother?"
"She's lost both of hers, Reg, and her father as well. Whatever the Clovers have done, they've paid dearly for it."
Reginard sputtered, but he couldn't deny that this was true. His father laid a hand on his arm and asked, "What was your idea, Frodo?"
"That Tibby is at the bottom of this. No one seems to have borne a grudge against Evvy." He was aware that the one person who might fit into this category was shut up in her bedroom in the smial next door, and that everyone else in the room was aware of it too. "In spite of the scandal, Tookbank speaks well of him. But someone might easily have had a reason to kill Tibby. What I saw at the cottage supports my idea: The murderer came for Tibby. Ev was abed in the other room. Either the murderer didn't know he was there, or thought that Ev was asleep so that he could kill Tibby without being seen. But Ev must've heard his friend being killed and came out to see what was going on. He saw Tibby's murderer, and had to be killed too." This theory didn't fit everything Frodo had observed at the cottage, but he was certain that it was closer to what had actually happened than Shirriff Thornbreak's theory about Melly going on a bloody rampage. "May I ask, have any of you been to the cottage?"
Peri let out a horrified squeak. "No! Not since- No, I couldn't bear it."
"I meant during the week or so after Ev and Tibby returned," Frodo explained gently. "Did any of you go and visit them while they were living there?"
"I did," Adelard volunteered. "I had to make the cottage ready for them, once Everard wrote to me that he was coming home and wanted a place where they could both stay. He knew that Tibby wouldn't wish to stay at my house and he didn't mean to be parted from Tibby. The cottage seemed the best solution. On the night they arrived, Everard called upon me to fetch the keys."
"Was Tibby with him, Uncle Addy?" asked Frodo.
"No- That is, Tibby had accompanied him, but he stayed out with their ponies at the stable. He refused to come into the house--whether because he felt he wouldn't be welcome, or because he couldn't stand to enter a Took's home, I couldn't say. Evvy didn't stop long regardless, but left once I'd given him the cottage keys. I called on them the next day to see how they were getting on. Ev gave me a letter he'd written to Melly, to let her know he was in the vicinity of Tuckborough. I saw Tibby then too, Frodo, but didn't speak very much to him. I went again three times after that, to bring Everard news and letters from Melly in reply to his, and- well- simply to see him. I'd missed him while he was away."
"He didn't seem ill to you, did he? On that last occasion, nor any time before?"
"No. A bit low in spirits, perhaps, but quite well."
"I went with Adelard on one occasion," said Paladin. "It was the day Melilot's second reply to Everard arrived, telling him that she and little Addy were coming. We rode out to deliver it to him. I was there when he gave it to the lad and saw Everard read it, but I never saw Tibby then nor at any other time since their return. Everard wasn't ill that day."
"I went once too," said Reg, "just after Ev came home. It must've been before your visit, Uncle Paladin. Ev was glad to see me, but Tibby glowered as if he wanted to push me out the door. Since I'd gone specifically to try and bring Ev to his senses and break off with the boy, I can't say his attitude wasn't a natural one for him to take. As if anything about that unnatural creature could be natural! Well, Ev couldn't be made to see sense, so Tibby had his way in the end. I left them there."
"I went," Pippin spoke next. "Ferdi and I rode down together. We thought that Ev ought to know we were still his friends and somebody was on his side."
"Tibby and his brother used to be friends of mine, years ago when Ev and I first met them," Ferdi added. "I would've been happy to make friends again, but Tibby wouldn't have it. He wasn't any more welcoming to us than he was to Reg."
"He hated all the Tooks, Frodo," Pippin concluded.
"He blamed us all for his brother's murder," said Pearl. "No Took had a hand in that, but he and his sister held us responsible."
Lady Eglantine had been frowning in disapproval for some minutes and had actually opened her mouth when her son spoke of being on Everard's side. Now, she announced, "Well, I never went near the place, nor would I hear of my daughters going. Much as we might've wished to see Everard again, we did our best not to acknowledge what was going on at that cottage. But why ask us these questions, Frodo? Surely, you can't suspect one of Everard's own family? Even the wretched Clover girl doesn't go so far as that."
"No, Aunt Eglantine," Frodo assured her, although he would be ready to do so if he saw any indication that one of the Tooks was implicated. "I'm only trying to form a picture of what happened between the time Ev and Tibby returned home from the north and when they died. Who they saw and talked with. What about Melly? Did she only go to the cottage that one time?"
Some of the Tooks looked uncomfortable at the question, but Adelard answered, "Yes, she'd just arrived the previous night. I sent a note to Ev after first breakfast, and we received his reply at little later that morning by way of one of the delivery boys who carried groceries to the cottage. Melly rode out to see him that afternoon."
"Melly only left Brandy Hall the morning before," said Merry. He'd begun to look less like a thundercloud since Frodo had come in, and was listening carefully to everything his cousin said. "She hardly had time to do anything at all."
"Did you accompany her from Brandy Hall?" Frodo asked him.
"No, Melly drove the trap herself. I only came here after Ev was killed. Pip wrote me that the Chief Sherriff was going to arrest Melly for murder, and I wrote you, then rode as fast as I could to see if I could put a stop to it. You see that I haven't yet."
Frodo turned to address the group in general. "I'd like to ask you all about Melly's activities that night," he announced. "She tells me that she saw Everard that afternoon and left the cottage shortly before tea time. Did she return in time for tea?"
"She did," said Pearl, and Adelard nodded to confirm this. "We had our tea in the garden parlor next door. Melly said that she meant to take little Addy to see his father the next day."
"She didn't appear nervous or upset in any way?" asked Frodo.
"Not that I observed," said Adelard.
"She wasn't when I saw her later," Pippin declared definitely.
"Was she wearing the same dress she'd had on when she'd gone to call on Evvy, or did she change her clothing before joining you for tea?"
"It was the same dress," said Pearl. "White, with dark blue flowers. She came straight from the stables into the house."
"Are you suggesting that she might've gotten blood on her clothes, Frodo?" Merry demanded.
"I'm sorry, but you know such questions must be asked," Frodo responded. "Even if it's Melly." He waited a moment, giving Merry time to accept this unpleasant fact, before he asked, "She didn't go out again that night?"
The Tooks, some eagerly, some reluctantly, confirmed that Melilot had not been out of sight of at least one person for more than a few minutes between her return from the cottage and the time she went to bed. She'd spent the hours between tea and dinner in the nursery with her son, where the other children and a nursery-maid were present, then had dined with her father-in-law, Pearl, and Reginard before they'd all come next door to join the Thain's family.
"Then she couldn't have gone back to the cottage before eleven o'clock, when she retired to her room," Frodo concluded. "Can anyone confirm that she stayed in her room all night, or did anyone see her leave it?"
No one had observed either, "But Chief Thornbreak seems to think that the murders occurred much earlier in the evening," said Adelard. "He claims that they must've been committed during her one visit to the cottage, not that she returned in the night. The- ah- bodies..."
The Thain took Frodo by the arm and drew him close enough to speak into his ear. "They were completely stiff and cold when they were discovered the next morning," he said softly, in order to avoid distressing Adelard and other members of his family who had cared for Everard with this grisly information. "If they'd been killed in the middle of the night, Thornbreak tells me, they wouldn't have been so far advanced in death."
"So even if Melly can't account for her whereabouts that night, it doesn't matter, Uncle? It's only the late afternoon and early evening hours that are of concern? From perhaps four in the afternoon until eight?"
"Yes, that's right."
Merry had also drawn closer to hear the Thain's murmured conversation with Frodo. At this point, he broke in with, "Now that you've heard what Frodo has to say, Uncle Paladin, will you change your mind?"
The Thain shook his head. "It's a promising beginning, but I need more than an idea of Frodo's before I can consider it. I must have some sort of proof, either that she couldn't possibly have committed this crime or someone else is guilty."
Frodo looked from one to the other. "Change your mind? About what? What were you talking about before I came in?"
"I want to take Melly and Aderic back to Buckland with me," Merry told him.
"And I can't allow it," the Thain added. "Until this matter is thoroughly cleared up, she must stay here."
"She belongs to Buckland," said Merry, in dogged tones that told Frodo this was something he'd already said at least once before. "She may have married a Took, but she lives at the Hall. She's a Brandybuck by birth--my kinswoman and one of my own people. I have a sworn duty to protect her." As head of the Brandybuck family and Master of the Hall, Merry held a position that was the equal, if not the superior, of a Thain and was as great a power within his own domain as his uncle was in Took lands. He might be in the Thain's domain now, but Merry didn't intend to be intimidated by the older hobbit nor behave as if he were begging for favors.
And Merry was not only defending someone he considered one of his Buckland subjects and a kinswoman naturally under his protection, but a young woman he'd grown up with from infancy in the Brandy Hall nursery. Like Frodo, he considered Melly almost a sister. The Brandybucks were always close and protective of each other; any one of them would fight for Melly as Merry was doing if they were present.
"I would rather she was safely out of Tuckborough," he continued. "She'll be in my custody. As Buckland's magistrate, I have that right over my own people. If Frodo happens to find any reason why she has to come back here, I'll escort her. I'll rely on his judgment. You know he's more impartial than any of us."
"Of course, you'd say that, Merry Brandybuck," said Eglantine. "By 'impartial,' you mean favorable to you and your family. Frodo's as much a Brandybuck as any who bear that name, and the two of you live in each other's pockets!"
"If you mean to imply that I'll conduct a dishonest investigation to favor my Brandybuck relatives, Aunt Eglantine, that isn't so," Frodo responded, trying not to be insulted by this slight upon his integrity. "I believe Melly's innocent of any crime. I've made no secret of that, and I hope to prove I'm right to Uncle Paladin's satisfaction. But if I do find anything that suggests I'm wrong and she might've killed Ev and Tibby after all, I won't suppress it simply because she's my cousin and I'm fond of her. I've suspected many people I'm fond of, and closer relations too."
"I'm sure she didn't mean it that way--did you, my dear?" Paladin turned to his wife. "We're all distressed by this tragedy and our feelings are overwrought. After the great service you've done for the Shire over these last few years, Frodo, no one could question your sense of duty to justice."
But Lady Eglantine felt she had more to say. Not only was the quarrel Frodo's entrance had interrupted bubbling up again, but older resentments were resurfacing. "Oh, I'm certain Frodo's successes are praised from one end of the Shire to the other. Has there ever been a hobbit more talked about for his adventures--and more besides! You think quite highly of yourselves, don't you, you and Merry Brandybuck and that gardener friend of yours? You go about meddling in other people's affairs whether you're invited to or not, digging up scandalous secrets and leading impressionable young hobbits astray. Well, I'm happy to say that that's none of my business, except that you've made it your business to mislead and corrupt my son."
Lady Eglantine was always the most reserved and refined of hobbits and normally could scarcely bear to allude to her son's relationship with Merry or any similar 'unpleasantness.' To hear her speak so bluntly came as a shock. Frodo was stunned. Pippin seemed more bewildered by this accusation than anything else. The other Tooks in the room looked acutely embarrassed.
"Mother," Pearl murmured reprovingly.
"I say, Mother Eg, that's a bit harsh," said Ferdi.
"Aunt Eglantine, you're mistaken," Frodo protested. "Pippin and I have never been more than friends." Pippin nodded emphatically to confirm this. "I've never touched him-"
"Oh, I don't mean that," the Lady said with a note of extreme distaste. "What you've done, Frodo Baggins, is far worse. You taught him that the sort of wild and adventurous life that the Tooks used to lead in Old Gerontius's day under the influence of that wizard-friend of yours was the life a modern, respectable Took ought to have. You took him out of the Shire on dangerous quests, sometimes for months on end so that we weren't certain if he was alive or dead. Because of you, he fought in battles that should've been of no concern to him. It's a wonder he did come home safely in the end. And you do it still! You encourage him to risk further danger by inviting him to join you on these investigations of yours. Every time you write him about the latest one, he dashes off. When you summoned him this midwinter past, he came home with terrible tales about running around in a stinking bog, chasing after monsters and murderers and pulling people out of the mire. What's worst of all, you've encouraged him to defy his family's wishes. You can't deny that you've done your best from the first to see him refuse Diamond and take up with that awful other north-Took girl."
"That was my own idea, Mother," Pippin spoke up. "Mine and Di's. I never wanted to marry Diamond and she didn't want to marry me. Frodo had nothing to do with it. He tried to talk Diamond out of marrying without her parents' permission."
"I suppose that Merry was the one truly behind that escapade," conceded his mother. "You knew you'd find a haven for your runaway friends at Brandy Hall. It's all a part of the lax attitudes the Brandybucks have instilled in their children. I shouldn't be astonished that neither Merry nor Melilot nor Frodo has turned out the way they have, given their upbringing."
There had always been a certain rivalry between the two great families, but feelings had been running particularly high the last few years. It had begun with Merry's relationship with Pippin. Melilot's and Everard's separation had only made matters worse. Then, just over a year ago, Pippin had helped his North-Took cousin Diamond, the girl his family had hoped he would marry, to elope with another boy. Pippin had taken the young couple to Brandy Hall, where the Brandybucks had not only sheltered them, but Merry himself had officiated at the wedding and given Diamond's new husband a job as land-agent. From his visit to the Long Cleeve to negotiate with Diamond's family for their consent to her marriage, Frodo knew that they considered these actions a declaration of open opposition to their own wishes. Their South-Took relations must feel the same. Lady Eglantine obviously did. This latest conflict over Everard's murder could spark even worse quarrels between the Brandybucks and Tooks. The resulting feud might last for generations.
Merry hadn't spoken to defend himself during Eglantine's outburst, but the implied insult to his mother and aunts at the Hall was too much for him to bear. "If you'd rather we not stay here to corrupt your son, Aunt Eglantine, Frodo and I can find lodging somewhere else," he said stiffly.
This was a blow to the Thain's sense of hospitality, but it was Pippin who looked as if he'd been slapped in the face.
"You lads don't need to go," said Paladin.
"I think you and your family would be more at ease if we didn't stay," Merry replied. "As long as we are at cross-purposes, it's for the best. All the same, I don't want to be too far away from Melly. She must know that her own family hasn't abandoned her. If I can't take her home as I'd like, will you allow me and Frodo to take her and Addy to the inn with us? The Bullroarer's Head isn't out of your domain, Uncle, and we'll both give our word that we won't run off to Buckland with her."
"If you give your word, I'll allow it," said Paladin. To Frodo, he added, "Go and tell Melilot that if she wishes to leave with you for the inn, she may."
"Thank you, Uncle," said Frodo. But the rift hadn't been healed.
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