Next morning Fatty was down at Pip's house early, longing to tell the others how surprised and puzzled Mr. Goon and the gardener had been when they had found all the "false" clues. Larry and Daisy arrived about the same time as Buster and Fatty, and soon the children were giggling over Fatty's story.
"Clear-Orf asked Tupping if Luke smoked cigars," said Fatty with a chuckle. "I almost fell out of the tree trying not to laugh!"
"We've whistled lots of times to Luke this morning," said Pip, "but he hasn't answered us, or come to the wall either. Do you think he is too frightened to?"
"Perhaps he is," said Fatty. "Well, we simply must talk to him, and tell him about the whistle we found in the cats' cage, and all the clues we put there ourselves. I'll go and whistle awfully loudly."
But not even Fatty's loudest and most vigorous whistling brought any answer. So the children decided to wait at the gate about one o'clock. That was the time when Luke went home to his dinner.
So they waited at the gate. But no Luke appeared. The children waited until ten minutes past one, and then had to rush off to their own meal.
"Perhaps he's got the sack," said Fatty, the idea occuring to him for the first time. "Perhaps he won't come next door any more."
"Oh," said Bets in dismay, "poor Luke! Do you think Lady Candling gave him notice then, and said he wasn't to come any more?"
"How shall we find out?" said Larry.
"We could ask Tupping," said Daisy doubtfully. The others looked at her scornfully.
"As if we'd go and ask Tupping anything!" said Larry. They all stood and thought for a moment.
"I know," said Pip. "Lady Candling said I could take Bets in to see her. So I will, this afternoon. And I could ask Lady Candling herself about Luke, couldn't I?"
"Good idea, Pip," said Fatty. "I was just thinking the same thing myself. And also you could take the chance of finding out where Lady Candling was between four and five o'clock perhaps. I mean, find out whether she had any chance of slipping off down to the cats herself, to steal her own Dark Queen away."
"Well, I'm sure she didn't," said Pip at once. "You've only got to look at her to know she couldn't even think of doing such a thing! Anyway, I thought we had decided that it wasn't worth while questioning our Suspects, seeing that Luke was by the cat-house all the time during that hour and would have seen anyone there."
"Well, I suppose it isn't really," said Fatty. "I don't see that it's any way possible for the thief to have stolen the cat right under old Luke's nose. He said that he hadn't left the spot for even half a minute."
"There's our dinner-bell again," said Bets. "Come on, Pip, we shall get into an awful row. Come back afterwards, ~with others, and we'll tell you how Pip and I get on this afternoon."
At half-past three Pip and Bets thought they would go and see Lady Candling.
"I think it would be more polite to Lady Candling if you went looking clean," said Daisy. So poor Pip and Bets went into the house to wash and put on clean clothes.
Soon they were walking sedately down the drive, out of the gate, and up Lady Candling's drive. They passed Tupping on the way. He was cutting the hedges there. He scowled at them as they passed.
"Good afternoon, Tupping, what a beautiful day it is!" said Pip, in an imitation of his mother's politeness. "I really think we shall have a little rain before long, though, don't you? Still, the vegetable garden needs it, I'm sure!"
Tupping gave a growl, and snipped viciously at the hedge. Pip felt sure he would like to have snipped at him and Bets. He grinned and went on his way.
The two children went to the front door and rang the bell. A trim little maid came to the door and smiled at the children.
"Please, is Lady Candling in?" asked Pip.
"I think she's in the garden," said the maid. "I'll take you out to the verandah, and you can go and look for her if you like. She may be picking roses."
"Have they found the cat yet?" asked Pip as he and Bets followed the maid out to a sunny verandah.
"No," said the maid. "Miss Harmer's in a great state about her. It's a funny business, isn't it? I'm afraid it must have been Luke. After all, he was the only one near the cats between four and five o'clock."
"Didn't you hear or see anyone strange at all yesterday afternoon?" asked Pip, thinking that he might as well ask a few questions.
"Nobody," said the maid. "You see, Lady Candling had quite a tea-party yesterday — nine or ten people altogether — and Cook and I were busy all the time. We didn't go down the garden at all between four and five o'clock, we had such a lot to do. If we had slipped down, we might have seen the thief at his work. Ah! it was a good day for the thief — with Miss Harmer out, and Tupping out, and Cook and me busy, and Lady Candling up here at the house with her friends!"
"It was," said Pip. "It looks as if the thief must have known all that too, to arrange his theft so neatly."
"That's why we think it must be Luke," said the girl. "Though I always liked Luke. A bit simple, but always very kind. And that Tupping's a perfect horror to him."
"Don't you like Tupping either?" said Bets eagerly.
"He's a rude, bad-tempered old man!" said the girl. "But don't you say I said so. Cook and me wish it had been him that took the cat. Well, I mustn't talk to you any more. You go out and find her ladyship."
Pip and Bets went into the sunny garden. "From what the maid says it's quite clear that we can cross Lady Candling, the parlourmaid, and the cook off our list of Suspects," said Pip. "Hallo! there's Miss Trimble."
Miss Trimble advanced to meet them. Bets spoke to Pip in a whisper.
"Pip! Let's count how many times her glasses fall off! They keep on doing it."
"Well, children!" said Miss Trimble in her bird-like voice, giving them a wide and toothy smile. "Are you looking for Lady Candling? I think I have seen this little girl before, haven't I? Aren't you the little girl that the strawberry runners ran away with? Oh, what a joke, ha, ha!"
She laughed, and her glasses fell off, dangling on their little chain. She put them on again.
"Yes, I'm the little girl," said Bets. "And we have come to see Lady Candling."
"Oh, what a pity! She's just gone out!" said Miss Trimble. "I'm afraid you'll have to put up with poor old me!"
She laughed again, and her glasses fell off. "Twice," said Bets, under her breath.
"Do you know where Luke is?" said Pip, thinking it would be a good idea to go and find him if he was anywhere about.
"No, I don't," said Miss Trimble. "He didn't turn up today. Tupping was very annoyed about it."
"Did Lady Candling give Luke the sack, Miss Tremble?" asked Bets.
"My name is Trimble, not Tremble," said Miss Trimble.
"No, Lady Candling didn't give him notice. At least, I don't think so. Wasn't it a pity about that lovely cat? I saw her at four o'clock, you know."
"Yes, you were with my mother," said Pip. "I suppose you didn't see anyone near the cat-house except Luke?"
"No, nobody," said Miss Trimble. "Luke was there, of course, digging hard all the time. Your mother and I were only there a minute or two, then I had to hurry back to the tea-table, because there was a lot for me to do there. I didn't have a moment to myself until after the party."
"Then you couldn't have stolen the cat!" said Pip, with a laugh. Miss Trimble jumped, and her glasses fell off. Her nose went even redder than it already was.
"What a funny joke!" she said, and she tried to disentangle her glasses from her lace collar. "The very idea of stealing anything makes me go hot and cold!"
"Could we go and see the cats, Miss Tremble?" asked Bets.
"I should think so," said Miss Trimble. "My name is Trimble, not Tremble. Do try and remember. Miss Harmer is with the cats. We'll go and see her. Come along, dears."
She tripped along in front of them, her glasses on her nose once more. They fell off going down a few steps, and Bets counted out loud.
"That's four times."
"Four times what, dear?" said Miss Trimble, turning round and smiling sweetly. She put up her hand to stop her glasses from falling.
"Don't stop them," said Bets. "I'm counting how many times they fall off."
"Oh, what a funny little girl!" said Miss Trimble, looking rather cross. She held her glasses on with her hand, and Bets was sorry. She felt that wasn't fair!
They came to the cat-house. Miss Harmer was there, mixing some food. She looked up. Her plump, jolly face looked worried.
"Hallo!" she said. "Come to see my cats?"
"Yes, please," said Bets. "Miss Harmer, wasn't it awful Dark Queen being stolen whilst you were away?"
"Yes," said the kennel-girl, stirring the food in the pan. "I wish I hadn't gone. I should only have taken half a day, really; but Mr. Tupping offered to look after the cats for me if I'd like the whole day — so I thanked him and went. But I've reproached myself ever since."
"Mr. Tupping offered to look after the cats, did you say?" said Pip, full of amazement at the thought of Tupping offering to do anyone a kindness. "Golly! that's not like him."
"No, it isn't," said the girl, with a laugh. "But I badly wanted to go home, and I can't unless I have a whole day, because my home is so far away. Do you collect railway tickets? Because the collector didn't take my ticket when I got back to the station last night. You can have it if you like."
Pip did collect railway tickets. He took the return-half that Miss Harmer held out to him. "Thanks," he said, "I'd like it." He put it into his pocket, thinking how envious Larry would be, for he collected railway tickets too.
"Do you think Luke stole the cat, Miss Harmer?" said Pip.
"No, I don't," said Miss Harmer. "He's a bit silly, but he's honest enough. But I tell you who might have taken the cat — that circus friend of Luke's! What's his name now — Jake, I think it is."
This was news to the two children. Luke had never told them about Jake. A circus friend! How exciting! Why had Luke never mentioned him?
"Does Jake live near here?" asked Pip.
"Oh no, but the circus he belongs to is performing in the next town — in Farring," said Miss Harmer. "So I suppose he's somewhere near. You know, Dark Queen would be marvellous in a circus. I had already taught her to do a few tricks."
Miss Trimble was getting impatient, for it was near her tea-time. She gave three or four polite little coughs, and her glasses promptly fell off.
"We'd better go," said Pip. "Thanks for showing us the cats. You needn't bother to show us out, Miss Tremble. We'll go over the wall."
"My name is Trimble, not Tremble," said Miss Trimble, losing her smile for a moment. "I wish you would try and remember. And surely you should not go over the wall? Let me take you down the drive."
"Tupping's there," said Bets. Miss Trimble's glasses fell off at once at the mention of the surly gardener.
"Oh well, if you really want to get over the wall, I won't stop you!" she said. "Good-bye, dear children. I'll tell Lady Candling you came."
"They fell off eight times," said Bets in a pleased tone as the two of them climbed over the wall. "I say. Pip, isn't it funny that Luke never told us about Jake?"