Maisie met his gaze firmly. Here it comes, she thought, now he's going to tell me about his hard life.
"Despair, Miss Dobbs, is when your father dies in a pit accident when you're ten years old and you're the eldest of six. That's what despair is. Despair is what gives you a right good kick in the rump and sets you off to provide for your family when you're no' but a child."
Waite, who had slipped into broad Yorkshire, went on. "Despair, Miss Dobbs, is when you lose your mother and her youngest to consumption when you're fourteen. That, Miss Dobbs, is despair. Despair is just when you think you've got everyone taken care of, because you're working night and day to make something of yourself, and you lose another brother down the same pit that killed your father, because he took any job he could get to help out. That, Miss Dobbs, is despair. But you know about that yourself, don't you?" Waite leaned forward and ground his cigar into the ashtray.
Maisie realized that somewhere in his office Joseph Waite had a dossier on her that held as much information as she had acquired about him, if not more.
"Mr. Waite, I am well aware of life's challenges, but if I am to take on this case-and the choice is mine-I have a responsibility for the welfare of all parties. If this type of departure is something of a habit for your daughter and discord in the house is at the heart of her unsettled disposition, then clearly something must be done to alleviate the, let us say, pressure on all parties. I must have your commitment to further conversation with respect to the problem when we have found Charlotte."
Joseph Waite's lips became taut. He was not a man used to being challenged. Yet, as Maisie now knew, it was the similarity in their backgrounds that had led him to choose her for this task, and he would not draw back. He was a very intelligent as well as belligerent man and would appreciate that not a moment more could be lost.
"Mr. Waite, even if Charlotte has disappeared of her own volition, news of her disappearance will soon attract the attention of the press, just as you fear. Given your financial situation and these difficult times, there is a risk that you may be subjected to attempts at extortion. And though you seem sure that Charlotte is safe and merely hiding from you, of that we cannot be certain until she is found. You speak of prior disappearances. May I have the details?"
Waite leaned back in his chair shaking his head. "She runs away, to my mind, anytime she can't get what she wants. The first time was after I refused to allow her a motor car." He looked across the lawns and waved the cigar in the direction of what Maisie expected were the garages. "She can be taken by chauffeur anywhere she wants. I don't hold with women driving."
Maisie exchanged glances with Billy.
"So she ran to her mother's house, no doubt to complain about her terrible father. I tell you, where I come from, there's women who'd give their eye teeth to have someone to drive them instead of walking five miles to the shops pushing a pram with a baby inside, a couple of nippers on top, and the shopping bags hanging off the handle!"
"And the second time?"
"Oh, she was engaged to be married and wanted to get out of it. The one before this last one. Just upped and moved into The Ritz, if you please. Nice home here, and she wants to live at The Ritz. I went and got her back myself."
"I see." Maisie imagined the embarrassment of a woman being frog-marched out of The Ritz by her angry father. "So in your opinion Charlotte has a tendency to run away when she is faced with a confrontation."
"Aye, that's about the measure of it," replied Waite. "So what do you think of your little 'further conversation' when Charlotte returns now, eh, Miss Dobbs, considering the girl can't even look her own father in the eye?"
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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