The Questioning was set to begin at noon beneath the great mallorn tree in the Party Field. Sam had ordered a long table brought out and set by the tree trunk. He still did not trust himself with the sole responsibility for determining Grig's fate. "Wouldn't be right, just old Sam Gamgee up there," he told Rose. "I'd feel a sight better knowing that better eyes than mine were upon him." After some thought, he had asked Paladin Took and old Will Whitfoot, the former Mayor, to sit with him in judgement. They had readily agreed, as it did not seem right that one Hobbit should decide the question alone.
The Hobbits began gathering as early as eleven. Nearly everyone in town had been affected by the fire in some way; if they themselves had not been hurt, they knew someone who had been hurt or killed. They had come partly out of a desire to see justice done, but also to lay eyes upon the one who had caused their hurt and to try to understand the outrage inflicted upon them.
Shortly before noon, Sam, Will Whitfoot and Paladin Took seated themselves at the long table. Sam gazed out over the throng of Hobbits. Merry and Fredegar Bolger sat in the front row with Elanor, as Sam had asked. Pippin sat between Diamond and Pimpernel. Rose was at home with Estella, who was not yet strong enough to attend the Questioning. Sam nervously watched the sun climb higher in the sky and hoped with all his might that he would be able to do the job he had to do.
The sun was at its peak. Sam tapped a small bell that had been placed on the table. In the silence that followed, he cleared his throat. "Bring him forward," he said.
With a hushed murmur, the crowd parted and made way for Pervinca Took and her young charge. Pervinca led Grig to the small open space before the table. He looked around, bewildered at the crowd staring at him and talking. Pervinca laid a comforting hand on his shoulder and whispered some encouraging words in his ear before retiring to sit next to Pimpernel.
Sam tapped his bell again. "This Questioning is to discover the true cause of the fire that struck the Free Fair," he said. "Grigory Brockhouse, you have been accused of setting this fire. What do you say to this charge?"
Grig looked wildly around, casting about for any support. He wriggled and stood on one foot and laced his fingers together. Finally, he mumbled something inaudible down his shirtfront.
"I'm sorry, I didn't quite hear that," Sam said. "Can you speak a little louder?"
Grig looked up. "I didn't mean to set the tent on fire," he said. "Didn't want to hurt no one." The three judges sat back and blinked in surprise. The crowd of Hobbits rumbled. They had expected malicious gloating, or an indignant protestation of innocence, not the frightened, confused lad who stood before them. Sam tapped the bell for silence. After a short, hushed conference with Paladin and Will, he straightened and leveled his gaze on Grig.
"I think we'll count that as not denyin' the charge," he announced. "Grig, you go and sit with Pervinca for a bit. I'll call you back when you're needed again." Grig scurried over to the safety of Pervinca's side. Sam addressed the assembled Hobbits.
"The first thing to prove is how we came by this charge," he said. "We'll ask Master Meriadoc Brandybuck to explain that."
Merry rose to stand before the table. "I went to Pervinca Took's orphanage," he began, "to give her word of her brother, who had been hurt in the fire. While I was there, Pervinca introduced me to her newest foundling."
"And who was that foundling?" Will Whitfoot asked.
"It was that lad over there, Grigory Brockhouse," Merry said, pointing. "He was in a sort of a trance at the time. Pervinca thought he'd been hurt in the fire. I sat down to have a smoke, and when I lit my pipe, he started shouting about how he hadn't meant to set the fire." At this, an excited murmur rose from the crowd. Merry waited for it to die down before continuing. "It was the first thing I'd heard about the very beginnings of the fire. I knew it had started over near the cordial barrels, but no one had seen it start. I lit a piece of straw and held it before his face and asked him about the fire."
"Why did you light the straw in his face?" Paladin asked. "Surely this isn't the polite way to ask someone a question."
"As I said, sir, he was in a trance," Merry explained. "He hadn't spoken at all before I lit my pipe. It was the sight of a flame that made him start talking again. I lit four or five straws to keep him talking, just enough to hear him say that he set fire to the Show Tent. He claimed Sharkey had ordered him to do it."
Another murmur swept through the crowd. Sam tapped his bell. "What happened then?" he asked slowly.
Merry sighed, but looked straight at Sam. "I hit him," he said. "I'm not proud of it, but I was so furious at the time, I couldn't stop myself. So I hit him. He went down yelling. I think Pimpernel came in then, but I don't' remember much more until I went outside."
"Thank you," Sam said. Merry nodded and sat down. Sam plunged forward. "Miss Pervinca Took," he said. "What do you have to say to what Mr. Merry just told us?"
Pervinca stood and folded her hands primly. "Everything he said is true, Mr. Mayor," she said calmly. "I watched him use those straws, and I heard what the lad had to say. And Merry did hit Grig afterward. I jumped on him pretty quick and pinned his arms so he wouldn't hit Grig anymore. Pimpernel ran in about then and calmed Grig down. Then Merry asked again about the fire and. . . and Grig confessed to setting it."
"I have a question," Will Whitfoot said. "Did it look as though Merry was trying to get Grig to confess to a fire he didn't set?"
"No, sir," Pervinca said softly. "I think Merry was just as surprised as I was by that. He kept asking Grig what he knew about the fire and if he knew who started it. I don't think either of us thought that Grig could have done it until he confessed."
The judges seemed satisfied with the answer, so Sam thanked Pervinca. Pervinca returned to her seat and buried her face in her hands. Pimpernel rubbed her back consolingly. Sam thought through the list of people he had wanted to question and remembered the next name on the list. "Mr. Fredegar Bolger, please stand," he said.
Fredegar handed Elanor off to Merry and rose to take his place before the table. "Yes, sir, Mr. Mayor," he said.
"I don't think there's anyone who doesn't have a bit of an idea, but would you tell us the full tale of the damage done by the fire?" Sam asked.
Fredegar pulled several crumpled sheets of paper from his jacket pocket. "I took the liberty of writing some of the figures down," he explained. "I thought they would be important later, and I didn't want to forget them. With your permission, I'll read those figures back for you."
"Go ahead," Paladin said.
Fredegar cleared his throat and nervously squinted at his notes. "Well, first off, begging your pardon, there's the sixty-seven Hobbits dead, friends or kin to all of us here, I'd wager. Then there's two hundred hurt, in body and in spirit. Some hurt permanently, I might add." He licked his lips and pulled out a second sheet of notes. "As to animals and property, I counted fifteen ponies killed, easily worth a good handful of silver pennies each, along with twenty sheep, eighteen goats, several cages full of rabbits and poultry, a selection of vegetables and cooked goods, fourteen barrels of beer and six barrels of cordial. And the tent, which was good oiled canvas that should have lasted many more years."
There was silence for a moment as the judges and spectators alike digested the slew of facts and figures. Most of those who had lost livestock in the fire had begun making discreet inquiries about compensation for their losses, but few had comprehended the total damage done until now. Sam thought of the Gaffer and all the wisdom and love that was gone forever. He glanced at Grig, and for a moment, he understood Merry's urge to beat the boy senseless. He reminded himself sternly that he must see the Questioning through to the end, with whatever wisdom and patience he had learned from his Gaffer.
"Thank you, Mr. Fredegar," Sam said slowly. "I'll collect those notes, if you please. They should be part of the official record of the fire." Fredegar rolled the notes, tied them with a cord and handed them to Sam. He gave a short half-bow and returned to his seat. Sam turned back to Grig.
"Grigory Brockhouse, you've now heard the charge in full. Have you anything else you wish to say to this charge? If you can explain yourself, now's the time."
"Go on," Pimpernel said, nudging Grig to stand before the judges. Grig gazed at them, horror and astonishment plain on his face.
"Didn't mean to do all that," he said at last, in a small voice. "I never wanted to hurt no ponies or rabbits or Hobbits. A little fire to make Sharkey go away. There was Sharkey, all the time, saying burn, burn, burn, in his big flapping robes of white. I'll burn, says I, I'll burn Sharkey to the ground and he won't say burn no more. And I burned. I burned Sharkey all up, but it was the tent instead, and all those ponies and rabbits and Hobbits inside. Been a bad Hobbit, I have, but I never meant harm by it, no I did not." And with that, he fled back to his bench and sat on the ground clutching at Pervinca's skirts.
Sam looked helplessly at Will and Paladin. "It's not much of an answer," he said. "Isn't there some way we could give him a better chance at it?"
Will thought for a moment, then nodded. He rose and addressed the crowd of spectators. "Is there anyone here who wishes to speak for the accused?" he asked. The assembled Hobbits blinked in surprise at the question. No one spoke for a moment. Then Pippin rose shakily to his feet.
"I'll speak for him," he said. Merry stared at him open-mouthed. Paladin nodded in approval. The crowd began to murmur in response, but Pippin spoke up again and they fell quiet. "He's just one lad, after all, and I won't see him go down without a fight."
"Are you well enough to do this?" Paladin asked his son, his voice carefully neutral.
Pippin nodded, though his face was noticeably pale, and he was gripping Diamond's shoulder for support. "I'll speak from here, if you don't mind," he said. "My knees are still a little shaky, and I don't think I could stand before you to speak."
"Speak from where you are, then," Sam said. "What have you got to tell us?"
Pippin stood as sturdily as he could and faced the judges. In a surprisingly clear voice, he began.
"Nine years ago," he said, "I returned home to a devastated land. The one thing I feared most in all the world had come to pass. The forces of evil, led by the wizard Saruman, had overrun the Shire. There was next to no food available, rules were everywhere, and friends and neighbors that I loved had been imprisoned just for speaking their minds. This land suffered a wound as grievous as any hurt sustained by a soldier on a battlefield. The next year, we set about to heal that wound, and we were able to do so. After the great harvest of 1420, we allowed ourselves to think that all would be as it was before. That thinking was false. Like any wound, Sharkey's occupation has left scars."
Pippin paused for a moment to allow that to sink in. The crowd seemed to be of two minds thus far. One faction had been slightly put off by what seemed to be Pippin's pointless dredging up of a past horror best forgotten. Others were intrigued by the opening and wished to know how their recent occupation could be tied to their present woe. Pippin flashed Pervinca a quick, distracted smile before continuing.
"I'm going to tell you the story of one of those scars, a scar that's still with us today, right here, as I speak to you. Nine years ago, there was a family. There was a Dad, and a Mamma, and a little lad, only seven years old. They'd never done anyone wrong in their lives. They just had the bad luck to own a little house that stood right where the Chief's forces wanted a new Shirriff-house built. They got rid of the house by burning it to the ground. The little lad escaped the fire, only to watch his beloved Mamma burn to death right before his eyes."
A gasp of horror and sympathy swept over the crowd. Several mothers, some with fresh burn scars of their own, hugged their children tightly. Elanor wiggled a little closer to Merry and watched Sam with enormous, frightened eyes. Pippin produced a small roll of paper from his coat pocket.
"The little lad and his Dad spent the winter hiding in sheds or in the forest," he went on. "They very nearly starved to death, but the Dad took good care of the lad, and they survived the winter. Spring and summer they spent on the run from Sharkey's forces, still living hand to mouth. Folk might have given them food, but there was none to give. You all know what happened in the fall. Sharkey's occupation was ended at the Battle of Bywater. Nineteen Hobbits were killed; you've all seen the roster." He unrolled the piece of paper, where the names of the participants in the Battle were written down. "One of those nineteen killed was Bilco Brockhouse. He was the Dad who had cared for the little lad who watched his Mamma burn. And the little lad is Grigory Brockhouse."
Here Pippin paused again, not for effect, but stunned by the force of the mass gaze suddenly turned on Grig. For an instant, nothing moved as the good folk of Hobbiton connected the hurt, frightened orphan with the instrument of their current disaster. They seemed to be weighing one against the other, and the outcome was far from clear. Pippin hardly dared breathe as he searched for the right words that would strengthen that tenuous bond and lessen the town's murderous rage against Grig.
"Grigory Brockhouse, that little lad, wandered off into the fields and hedgerows, all alone," he said. "He needed love and a home, but none found him. All he had for nine years was his grief and loneliness. In time, grief and loneliness led to madness. You've seen him. You heard what he had to say for himself. That lad lives all his life now in a world where nothing is what it seems. Wizards long dead haunt his dreams and whisper in his ears until he no longer knows where the dreams end and the world begins."
Pippin took a deep breath as he called up memories of his own that still stung. "I learned much traveling in the world," he said. "I learned that Hobbits can rise to greatness, and that even great Men can be struck down with grief. Even Lord Denethor, the last Ruling Steward of Gondor, fell into madness in his final despair. He would have killed his own son if Gandalf hadn't been there. I always regretted Denethor's death. I don't think it was a path he would have chosen willingly, with full mind, and he never had the chance to see that or try to make things right. But Grig had that chance. The same day that he did great evil, he also did good. Elanor Gamgee, come here, please."
Merry gave him a sharp questioning look, but Sam nodded to his daughter. Elanor hopped off her bench and trotted over to him.
"Elanor," Pippin asked, "how did you get out of the tent?"
"Crawled," Elanor answered.
"Me an' Merry-lad."
"And how did you know where to crawl?"
"Who showed you, love?"
Elanor twisted around. She looked solemnly at Grig and drew circles in the dust with her toe. Finally she pointed a finger at Grig. "Him."
Pippin smiled at her. "Thank you, love. You've been very helpful." Elanor smiled at him. Pippin put an arm around her and addressed the judges' table. "Grig couldn't stop what he did," he said. "He was too crazy for that. But he knew it was wrong, and he tried to make up for it. It doesn't balance at all -- sixty-seven killed and two Hobbit children saved -- but perhaps it might go a little way towards mercy." Suddenly, Pippin's knees felt like jelly, and he wobbled. Elanor gasped, and Diamond reached up to support him. "I don't think I can say any more," Pippin said softly, as he sat down next to Diamond.
"You've said plenty, Pippin. Thank you," Sam said evenly. He tapped his bell. "I think that's it. If no one else wants to speak, we three will go and think about the question. We'll come back when we've got an answer, and in the meantime, we are not to be disturbed." With that, Paladin, Will and Sam rose from their seats and marched off to the Post Office, which had been closed off that morning. Silence hung in the air for a few minutes after they left. No one seemed to know quite what to do. Finally, the natural sociability of Hobbits took over, and people began to talk to each other.
Merry elbowed his way through the crowd to Pippin. He stared at his cousin for a moment, confusion and disbelief plain on his face. "Why did you do that?" he blurted. "How could you speak for him that way? You know what he did. He killed the Gaffer, he hurt Estella, he nearly killed you! How can you speak for him after all that?"
Pippin suddenly felt very tired. He didn't want to talk any more, but he hated to have Merry angry with him. He opened his mouth to answer, then shut it again. He shook his head. "I don't know," he admitted. "It just didn't seem right for that poor crazy lad to have all those questions and no one to help him. It made me feel helpless for him, if you know what I mean. You used to defend me when I got into trouble as a lad."
"You never killed anyone, Pip," Merry said. "I'm going to Bag End to wait with Estella. Send someone to fetch me when they come back." He turned on his heel and walked away. Pippin put his head on Diamond's shoulder.
"Was it the right thing to do?" he asked. "It felt like something I ought to do, but I usually act first and think later. Was this right?"
"Yes," Diamond said. "It was right, and I'm so proud of you for it."
They waited there under the mallorn tree for several hours. All of Hobbiton sat together, as though time had ceased to flow. Slowly, the sun moved across the sky. Bright midday gave way to golden afternoon, and afternoon was fading into dusk when the postmaster puffed up the hill, saying that the judges had decided their questions and would be returning shortly. Pippin sent Elanor running back to Bag End, and she returned in short order with Merry and Rosie supporting Estella, wrapped in a shawl, between them.
When all were seated, Sam tapped his bell once more. "Grigory Brockhouse," he said calmly, "please come and stand before us." Pervinca nudged Grig, and he rose to stand before his judges, trembling just a little.
"We've given this matter quite a bit of thought," Sam said. "We haven't had such a crime in the Shire for years and years, and we weren't quite sure what to do with you. But I thought back on the best, bravest and wisest Hobbit I ever knew. I asked myself what Mr. Frodo Baggins would say to you now. He would most likely quote Mr. Gandalf the wizard about none being able to see the future, only he'd say it prettier. But I'll say this. Mr. Frodo had pity for a worse wretch than you, and his pity saved the world. And it's the least I can do to live up to that.
"Grigory Brockhouse, you set fire to a tent full of Hobbits who had done nothing more than to come and enjoy a day at the Free Fair. You killed sixty-seven and hurt hundreds more, and there's no getting around that. If you were in a great city like Minas Tirith, you'd most likely be killed for that. But now that I see you and your addled mind and wild ways, well, I haven't the heart to kill you. There's already enough death on your account. But you won't go free, neither. You're dangerous, and you can't run loose around here any more. I charge that Miss Pervinca Took, if she'll have you, is to keep you locked up in her orphanage until you come to your senses, if you ever do. And if you come to your senses, well, then we may see about punishing you further. Miss Took, will you take charge of this lad?"
Pervinca stood. "I will," she said clearly.
"All right, then. Take him away now. He's not to set foot outside the orphanage until he's in his right mind again. If he gives you trouble, you send word to Mr. Robin Smallburrow, and the Shirriffs will come and help you."
"Thank you," Pervinca said. She motioned to Pimpernel, and the two ladies led Grig away. The last the town saw of Grig was the look of hopeful bewilderment on his face.
"Well," said Sam, "I think that's that. It's time to go back to our lives and set things right, as is proper for Hobbits." The judges rose and left the clearing. The crowd began to discuss the trial immediately, and they did not stop for many weeks.
Supper that evening in Bag End was a fluttery, nervous affair. Sam and Paladin refused to talk about what had gone on between the judges in the Post Office, saying that some things should not be spoken of before outsiders. Diamond and Pippin told Rosie all about the afternoon's events. Rosie listened to them wide-eyed and praised both Pippin and Elanor for their bravery in speaking before the whole town.
Merry and Estella were not at the table. They had wanted to sit in the garden and watch the stars and talk together. Rosie had put some supper in a basket for them and warned Merry not to exhaust Estella. Pippin wanted to find Merry and try to make things right with his cousin, but Rosie stopped him.
"No, Pippin," she said. "It's not time. You'll know when it's time. Merry'll let you know." Pippin had returned to the table obediently, if somewhat disappointed. He was unusually quiet, and Paladin wondered privately if the effort of defending Grig had overtaxed his recovering son.
Eventually, the children began to yawn, and Rosie excused herself to put them to bed. Paladin left the table soon after, saying that, at his age, sleep was the best cure for a troublesome day. Diamond, Pippin and Sam remained. Pippin wrapped an arm around Diamond and took Sam's hand. "I want to make sure you two are still here, at least," he explained. They sat in silence for a while, each trying to sort out the mess of thoughts and emotions from the past week.
"Is this a private party, or can anyone join?" Merry asked suddenly from the doorway. Pippin, Diamond and Sam looked up. Merry and Estella had come in from the garden. The picnic basket hung over one of Merry's arms, and the other was around Estella. Estella looked much better than she had the previous day. Slowly, the color and life were returning to her face, and they did not doubt that she would heal.
Merry, on the other hand, was a mess. The strain and worry of the fire and its aftermath still echoed in his eyes. Pippin motioned to a stool at the table, and Merry sat on it heavily. Estella set the picnic basket down in a corner and came to sit next to Merry. He took her hand and held it like a precious amulet. "Pip," he said, "I want you to know . . . you spoke well today."
Pippin sat back, surprised. "I didn't think you were happy with it," he said. "Not at the time."
"I wasn't happy. Not at all. I'm still not exactly happy," Merry replied. "I don't agree with you, Pippin. I don't think that lad deserves any mercy at all, not after what he did. But still, you believe he does deserve mercy, and you spoke well for him. It was a brave thing to do, to speak for someone like that, and you did it well, and I have to admit that I'm proud of you."
Pippin brightened. He felt as if a great weight had been lifted from him. "Merry, I was so worried --" he began, then realized that he was feeling too many things to put into words. "Thank you," he settled.
Merry laughed, and reached across the table to ruffle Pippin's hair, as he had done when they were children. "Oh, Pip, you silly goose," he said. "You were afraid I wouldn't be your friend any more, right?"
Pippin smiled sheepishly. "Right after I stopped talking, I looked at you, and I was sure I had thrown you away without meaning to," he admitted. "I don't think I ever felt worse, but I couldn't take it back, and I didn't want to, either."
"It'll never happen," Merry said. "You'll always be my cousin and my best friend, whether we agree or no. Look, old Legolas and Gimli could manage it after a few months together, and we've got all our lives to fall back on."
"And Mistress Estella likely had a hand in it, too," Sam said, with a twinkle in his eye. Estella blushed.
"We had a long talk together, Merry and I," she said. "We talked about, well, about a lot of things. I don't think Grig deserves mercy, either, not after all those Hobbits dead and . . . and all the hurt he did." Her voice trailed off as she wrapped an arm around her abdomen. Then she shook herself and looked up again. "He doesn't deserve a bit of mercy. But I'm glad you thought he did anyway. There's been too much hurt already, and it's got to stop somewhere. It's a fine Hobbit that can find the strength to stop the hurting."
"That's why I did it, in the end," Sam said. "I thought, the only way to punish him would be to kill him, and if I killed him, well, I'd be just as bad as he is. I wouldn't be able to live with myself afterwards if I did. And that's what we need to do now. We need to live as well as we can."
They smiled at each other around the table for a moment. Then Pippin yawned. It was time to go to sleep and make an end to the long, hard day. Tomorrow the sun would rise again, and they would be able to go on with their lives at last.
My goodness, that turned out to be a long final chapter. Thank you all for sticking through this tale. I do hope you enjoyed it. I certainly enjoyed the reactions, the speculations and the astonishing amount of sympathy for the characters. It's interesting to see what parts of the story move people the most. Often, they're not the parts I would expect.
Because I know that someone will call me on this, a few words about the trial. Kids! Do not try this case at home! This case would not stand up in an American court of law. Tolkien's description of the Shire is of a somewhat utopian society with very little government or crime and, I am assuming, not much of a criminal justice system. He does mention the curious legal customs of the hobbits, but this is in reference to civil matters such as wills. The trial here is based partially on the inquisitorial justice system prevalent in continental Europe, where a panel of judges rather than a jury decides guilt or innocence. The verdict corresponds to the legal verdict "guilty but insane" which is in use in Ireland and some states in the United States. It acknowledges a person's culpability while directing his or her sentence towards psychiatric treatment rather than prison.
And finally, the bit you've been waiting for. As some of you have guessed, this story is based on the Hartford Circus Fire of 1944. Here is a brief overview of events. On July 6, 1944, the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus was playing a matinee in Hartford, CT, to a near-capacity crowd of about 9,000, when the tent caught fire. It had been waterproofed with a mixture of paraffin and gasoline, and burned like a candle. The tent, which was the size of a football field, burned completely to ash in under ten minutes, killing 167 people and injuring about 450. It remains one of the most impressive civil disasters in the area's history.
While the official cause of the fire is "undetermined," most Hartford residents and most students of the fire believe that it was set. The most likely suspect, who died in 1997, was a man by the name of Robert Segee. Segee had been a fourteen-year-old drifter at the time of the fire, and had worked for the circus briefly while it was in Hartford. He was apparently without a family and was emotionally disturbed. In Ohio in 1950, he confessed to setting the Hartford Circus Fire (along with a string of other fires) under the influence of a hallucination he called the Red Man. The state of Connecticut never took this confession seriously, but Segee remains a likely suspect and was hassled by the press until his death. If you want to read more about the Hartford Circus Fire, I would most heartily recommend a book by Stewart O'Nan called "The Circus Fire." O'Nan is a novelist who wrote this nonfiction history of the fire, and if I could write as grippingly and as compellingly as he does, I would die a happy woman.