Strangers at DawnBy: Elizabeth Thornton
June 12, 1804
From our special correspondent.
Winchester County Assizes June, 1804
THE SENSATIONAL TRIAL OF SARA Carstairs, 21, for the murder of her brother-in-law, William Neville, opened today at Winchester County Assizes, Hampshire.
The Courier’s special correspondent reports that never, in his memory, has a murder trial aroused such a degree of interest. Indeed, who would not be curious about this astonishing story? The accused is young, beautiful, and stands to inherit her late father’s fortune when she turns twenty-five. Her background is respectable though not fashionable. The victim, whose body has never been found, is the son of Sir Ivor Neville, a prominent Tory supporter and personal friend of the Prime Minister.
The county town of Winchester is overwhelmed with visitors who are determined to take in the trial. Fops and dandies from London, as well as fashionable ladies, are very much in evidence. Outside the law courts, after the doors were opened this morning at eight o’clock, there was a near riot when people were turned away because the seats allotted to the public were all taken. Inside, spectators were sitting shoulder to shoulder. The heat was oppressive. Only the accused seemed unaffected by the heat or by the proceedings. Miss Carstairs, flanked in the dock by a prison matron and an officer of the court, appeared calm and detached throughout.
In his opening address, which took up the whole day, Sir Arthur Percy for the Crown outlined his case against the accused, as witnesses for the prosecution will present it to the court. To summarize: that while he was married to the accused’s sister, Mr. Neville embarked on a licentious love affair with Miss Carstairs; that Miss Carstairs wished to end the affair when her engagement to Mr. Francis Blamires was on the point of being announced; that when Mr. Neville threatened her with exposure, the accused did murder him on the night of April 27th or the early hours of April 28th and concealed his body to avoid detection.
Sir Arthur dwelt on the speculation and rumors respecting the disappearance of Mr. Neville. He would establish, he said, that Mr. Neville had had every intention of remaining in the area. A man in his position did not disappear into thin air. He reminded the court that in West Hampshire there are many dwellings with secret passages and rooms-a result of the Civil War-and with the wilderness of the downs close by, there was no shortage of places to conceal a body. It was quite possible that Mr. Neville’s body would never be found.
It would be, he said, a grave miscarriage of justice if murderers could escape the consequences of their crimes by disposing of their victims’ remains. He was confident that the evidence he would present would lead the court to the inevitable conclusion that the accused was guilty as charged.
There will be a special edition Of The Courier on Thursday devoted entirely to the trial. Our parliamentary correspondent’s report will appear, as usual, in Friday’s edition Of the paper.
The Courier wishes to announce that Sir Ivor is posting a reward of One Thousand Pounds for information leading to the discovery of his son’s body.
MAX WORTHE, OWNER AND PUBLISHER of the Courier, had been studying the woman in the dock for five days, and in that time, he’d gone from mild curiosity to something closely resembling fascination. She was young; she was beautiful; she was demurely dressed in a long-sleeved gray silk gown with a matching poke bonnet; the gloves on her hands were also gray; the whole effect was one of genteel respectability. And everyone in that courtroom knew that Sara Carstairs was a cold-blooded murderess.
All the same, no one wanted to see her pay the penalty for her crime. In the space of five days, the tide of public opinion had turned in her favor. Had she been an ugly old hag, he did not doubt that no one would have cared what happened to her.
She was, Max decided, studying her profile, a woman to attract men, not by beauty alone, but by something more subtle, an appealing blend of innocence and worldliness. Her complexion was fair; her features were finely sculpted. Her bottom lip was full and sensual. He did not know the color of her eyes or the color of her hair. She never looked out over the spectators, but kept her gaze averted, or fixed on her defense counsel and his attorneys, and every strand of hair was cunningly concealed by her bonnet. But if her complexion was anything to go by, then he would have to say that her hair would be fair, blond perhaps, and her eyes would be blue. A typical English rose, in fact, by all appearances. And how deceiving appearances could be.
His description of her in the Courier could not convey the oddness of her manner, The trial had been going on for five days, five grueling, suffocatingly hot summer days in that cramped courtroom, but Miss Carstairs seemed as unaffected by the heat as by the evidence that could send her to the gallows. It was as though she were indifferent to the outcome of her trial, as though what was going on had nothing to do with her.
Only once had he seen her falter, and that was when her sister, the victim’s widow, had given evidence. Anne Neville had not been a good witness. She’d tried to give her sister an alibi, but she’d become nervous and confused. She could hardly remember what day it was, let alone what had happened two months ago. She’d left the courtroom, never to return, on the arm of one of the defense counsel’s junior attorneys, and the spark of emotion on Sara Carstairs’s face had vanished with her.