Maisie took a breath and opened her mouth to reply but was prevented from doing so.
"I'll get directly to the point, Miss Dobbs. My daughter, Charlotte, is missing from home. I'm a busy man, so I will tell you straight, I do not want to involve the police because I don't for one minute think that this is a police matter. And I don't want them turning this place upside down while they waste time speculating about this and that, and drawing every bored press man to my gates while they're about it."
Maisie once again drew breath and opened her mouth to speak, but Waite held his hand up from the table, his palm facing her. She noticed a large gold ring on his little finger, and as he placed his hand on the table, she saw that it was encrusted with diamonds. She stole a sideways look at Billy, who raised an eyebrow.
"It's not a police matter because this is not the first time she's left my house. You are to find her, Miss Dobbs, and bring her back before word gets out. A man in my position can't have a daughter running around and turning up in the newspapers. I don't have to tell you that these are difficult times for a man of commerce, but Waite's is trimming its sails accordingly and doing very nicely, thank you. It's got to stay that way. Now then." Waite consulted his watch yet again. "You've got twenty minutes of my time, so ask any questions you want. I won't 'old back."
Maisie perceived that although Waite had worked hard to eliminate a strong Yorkshire accent, the occasional revealing long vowel and the odd dropped h, unlike that of the London dialect, broke through.
"I'd like some details about your daughter." Maisie reached for the blank index cards that Billy handed her. "First of all, how old is Charlotte?"
"Thirty-two. About your age."
"And with about half the gumption!"
"I beg your pardon, Mr. Waite?"
"I'll make no bones about it; Charlotte is her mother's daughter. A wilting lily, I call her. A good day's work wouldn't do her any harm at all, but of course the daughter of a man in my position has no need. More's the pity."
"Indeed. Perhaps you could tell us something about what happened on the day Charlotte disappeared. When was she last seen?"
"Two days ago. Saturday. Morning. At breakfast. I was down in the dining room, and Charlotte came in, full of the joys of spring, and sat down at the other end of the table. One minute she seemed as right as rain, eating a bit of toast, drinking a cup of tea, then all of a sudden she starts with the tears, sobs a bit, and runs from the room."
"Did you go after her?"
The man sighed and reached for an ashtray, into which he tapped the smoldering end of his cigar, leaving a circle of pungent ash. He drew deeply on the cigar again and exhaled.
"No, I didn't. I finished my breakfast. Charlotte is a bit of a Sarah Bernhardt, Miss Dobbs. An actress-should've been on the stage, like her mother. Nothing is ever good enough for her. I thought she'd've made a suitable marriage by now, but no, in fact-you should write it down there-" He waved his cigar toward Maisie's index card. "She was jilted by her fiancé a couple of months ago. Even with my money she can't get a husband!"
"Mr. Waite, the behavior you describe suggests that your daughter may have been in a state of despair."
"'Despair'? 'Despair'? She's always had fine food in her belly, clothes-and very good clothes, I might add-on her back. I've given her a good education, in Switzerland, if you please. And she had a proper coming out ball. You could've fed a family for a year with what I spent on the frock alone. That girl's had the very best, so don't tell me about despair, Miss Dobbs. That girl's got no right to despair."
From Birds of a Feather by Jacqueline Winspear. Copyright Jacqueline Winspear 2004. All rights reserved. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Soho Press.
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