"It's a mystery to me, Mr. Baggins, but I daresay you could tell the heads and tails of it," said Tollo Threadnibble, Hobbiton's best tailor. He was a cheerful-faced hobbit of middle years, more lean and limber than most of his age. He sat cross-legged on the floor of the second-best parlor at Bag End with the tools of his trade spread neatly around him. He performed the task denoted by his name, nibbling gently on the frayed end of a length of thread until he had formed it into a sharp point, which he stabbed through the eye of a basting needle with a well-practiced, one-eyed squint. Then he opened the other eye and looked up at his client, who stood before him, arms outstretched to either side, and wearing the chalk-marked, tacked-together pieces of a pale blue velvet jacket and cloth-of-silver waistcoat.
"Why don't you tell me more about it?" Frodo invited him.
Mr. Threadnibble was happy to comply. "Well, you know as how I sell buttons, Mr. Baggins?" he began. "Silver, brass, carved bone--only the best for my gents as is lost a button or two off a coat or waistcoat, or wants a change. Well, Miss Potts- D'you know Miss Pachysandra Potts?"
"A maiden-lady of fifty or so who lives in Overhill?" said Frodo. He wasn't well-acquainted with the lady, but she was a neighbor of his cousins Ponto and Porto. He had seen her once or twice, and recalled her as a shy spinsterish-looking woman.
"That's her. Her father used to have all his clothes from me--even his best suit, that he was laid to rest in. Miss Potts used to sit in the parlor by when I went to call upon him for his fittings, and hand me my scissors or thread a needle if I was otherwise kept busy." The tailor rose from his seat on the floor and circled behind Frodo. "She'd come by the shop sometimes too, to help him pick out a cloth as was becoming for a new suit, or to pick up the finished article. There was nobody else in the family, you see. She had the care of him after her mother died when she was a lass, and she never looked for a husband of her own." With a few quick darts, he basted together the tuck at the back of Frodo's jacket, taking care how the seams lay at his shoulders. "You can put your arms down, Mr. Baggins, and we'll have that jacket off you in a trice so I can get at the waistcoat. I know how particular you are about the cut of your waistcoats."
The tailor resumed his story after Frodo had removed the jacket. "Now, I didn't see much o' Miss Potts after her father passed on last spring. There wasn't no reason, as I don't make ladies' garments. I'll say as much as I missed seeing her. A pleasant miss, she always was, and knew her sewing--not just buttons and hems and a bit o' embroidery, but the tricks o' the trade. Then one day a month or so back, she comes into my shop.
"'Mr. Threadnibble,' she says, 'I want to buy a set of buttons.'
"I've only gents' coat-buttons, I tell her, and naught suitable for a lady. But it's gents' buttons she wants. Well, it seems odd to me, as there's no gentleman in her house these days, but I bring out my trays o' buttons so she can look 'em over. And look she does.
"'It's so hard to decide,' she says to me. 'Which ones do you like best, Mr. Threadnibble?'
"That depends, I tell her, on what I'd like 'em for. The sort of coat they're to be put on, you see. You'll want silver buttons on this waistcoat I'm making for you, Mr. Baggins, and on that coat if it's to match, but silver won't suit on a black broadcloth or tweed." Mr. Threadnibble gave the waistcoat a light tug in the small of the back, and smoothed the fabric down before he fixed it in place with a pin. "No, won't do at all. I explain the same to Miss Potts, and ask her what sort o' coat she wants these buttons for.
"'A wedding-coat,' she answers me.
"'A wedding-coat?' says I, surprised as anything. I asks her, 'Are you getting married, Miss Potts?'
"And she answers back, 'I hope to be.'
"Well, now, I keep myself up on all the news in this part o' the Shire, Mr. Baggins. Gents'll gossip as much as ladies, and a tailor gets into some right interesting conversations while he's hemming a pair o' trousers. I heard tell from Mr. Milo Burrows the last time I was at the Old Place that your cousin, Miss Angelica that was, had a baby boy last month over to Michel Delving, and she and her husband Mr. Whitfoot named the little lad Adalmo. And it was old Mr. Falco Chubb-Baggins as told me how Chief Shirriff and Mrs. Gamgee named their new baby after you, and what talk it caused amongst the Bagginses, though I say it ought to be no surprise to anybody. But I never heard from nobody that Miss Potts was keeping company." There was another gentle tug, and another pin placed. "I thought as she might want these buttons for a present, to give the gent a push in the right direction, as you might say. So I picked out a nice set o' carved bone and made 'em up into a parcel for her. She pays for 'em and carries 'em off."
"It is curious," said Frodo, who didn't pay much attention to local gossip unless he was investigating a case. "But there might be a simple explanation for why no one's seen or heard of Miss Potts's suitor. Perhaps he lives elsewhere, in another part of the Shire some distance away. They may have been in correspondence with each other, perhaps for years, and they've courted through letters. If he's expected to come to her soon, she'd naturally want a present for him."
"Yes, that so, but you haven't heard the rest of this odd story, Mr. Baggins. It don't end with the buttons. A week or so afterwards, Miss Potts comes back to my shop with the same parcel in her hands. 'D'you want to return those?' I ask her, thinking as her plans to marry an't come off as she hoped, poor lass.
"'No,' she answers me. 'I want you to make a suit o' clothes to go with 'em.' Did you ever hear such a thing before, Mr. Baggins?" Mr. Threadnibble stepped around to Frodo to face him with a puzzled expression. "Me, make clothes for a gent I never measured, nor even set eyes on!"
"Perhaps she wants to wear the suit herself," Frodo suggested.
"A lady?" Mr. Threadnibble was scandalized.
"I've known ladies of the highest birth who've worn trousers."
"If you say so, Mr. Baggins." The tailor was polite, but doubtful. "I expect you've seen more o' the world 'n me and seen odder things 'n a lady wearing trousers, but I never seen the like here in Hobbiton or abouts. Miss Potts wouldn't--and if it was so, it'd have to fit her, wouldn't it?"
"Yes, I suppose so," said Frodo.
Mr. Threadnibble couched down in front of him and gave another gentle tug to the skirt of the waistcoat. "How's that feel, Mr. Baggins? Not too tight about the waist, is it? You've got such a small waist and like a trim fit, and it's too easy to pinch in on--not like some o' my gents with tums who likes their waistcoats loose-fitted."
"It's fine. Not pinched at all. Go on with your story, please."
"Well, I tell Miss Potts the same as I told you, that I never made a suit for a gent I never saw, and she says, it makes no matter. He's about my size, she tells me, and I can make a suit to my measurements."
At this, Frodo smiled. "And did you make the suit, Tollo?"
"That I did, just as Miss Potts asked. I helped her pick out a bolt o' the best black cloth, and a nice bit o' brocade for the facing, and started in to work on it. She comes by now and again to see how far I've got, and helps sometimes just as she used to."
"How did you fit it?"
"On my dressing model," said Mr. Threadnibble as he began to fix pins at the lower edge of the waistcoat, taking care to form the tapered points to a nicety. "It's not so good as a live hobbit to work on, but I can't wear it while I'm working on it. I couldn't get 'round to the back. It's all but finished now and I expect Miss Potts'll be by to take it any day. She wanted it afore Yule. It's my guess she intends to give it to her sweetheart then, but I've never seen head nor toe of him, and nobody I asked knows a thing about it. Now why can't he have his own tailor make his clothes for him, or come to me to have the work proper done? It's no fault o' mine if the suit don't fit--I've done my best. And why don't she ever put a name to him?" When he finished his task, he rose and began to gather up his things.
"Will you have this suit of mine ready by Yuletide?" asked Frodo as he carefully removed the pinned-up garment.
"That jacket won't be no trouble, Mr. Baggins. I've only to stitch it up proper, but that fancy-work you want on the waistcoat'll take a bit o' work."
"I was hoping to wear it on the second day," said Frodo. On the first night of Yule, at the close of the old year, hobbits traditionally wore worn-out clothes and costumes made of tattered rags to cast into a bonfire. On the second day, they liked to bring out their newest and best finery. "I'll make it worth your while, if you can have for me by then."
"I'll do my best, Mr. Baggins!" the tailor assured him. "And you can make it worthwhile by telling me what this odd business of Miss Potts's means."
"I can't tell you that," Frodo said, his eyes twinkling, "but I can tell you what to do when Miss Potts calls for her suit. Ask her if she wants you to wear it."
Mr. Threadnibble's mouth dropped open. "You don't mean to say...?"
Frodo smiled. "Ask her, and see if I'm not right."
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The Tailor's Tale by Kathryn Ramage
Story notes: This story takes place shortly before Yuletide, 1423-24 (S.R.).
The Frodo Investigates! series