Strangers at Dawn

By: Elizabeth Thornton


Her indifference nettled him. It made him wonder what it would take to unnerve her. It made him want to lay his hands on her and give her a good shaking. Would she flinch? Would she glare? Would she struggle or remain passive? And how could he, Max Worthe, scion of a great and noble house, where chivalry was bred in his bones, even contemplate laying his hands in anger on a member of the weaker sex?

Maybe she wasn’t indifferent. Maybe she was confident of the verdict. Certainly, Sir Arthur’s proud boast in his opening address had come to nothing. Her leading counsel, Mr. Cole, had a reasonable explanation for every point the prosecution had tried to make.

But it didn’t wash, not with him. She was guilty of something. This wasn’t a rational decision based on the evidence. It was based on instinct, intuition, the sense that nothing was as it seemed except one thing: she knew more about William Neville’s fate than was contained in her written statement to the court.

There was a shuffling of feet as spectators shifted to ease their cramped muscles when the chief justice, Mr. Justice Stoner, began his summing up. Point by point, he sifted through the evidence, separating established fact from mere suspicion. There were no surprises here for Max. The most damning evidence was love letters written to the victim in Sara Carstairs’s own hand, letters that proved she’d had an affair with William Neville when he was married to her sister. But Mr. Justice Stoner discounted the letters. A lack of sexual purity in a woman was one thing, he said, and murder was something else entirely.

Max thought it rank stupidity that, under English law, the accused could not be put in the witness box. It would have given him a great deal of satisfaction to cross-examine her, though the questions he wanted to ask would never be allowed in a court of law. Were the rumors about her true? How many lovers had she taken to her bed before William Neville? Is that why her family had deserted her, because they were afraid she would corrupt the morals of her youngest sister? And how could someone so lovely have given herself to someone like Neville?

Max was acquainted to some degree with the Neville family, and he’d never taken to Sir Ivor’s heir. William Neville could be charming when he was sober, but when he was drunk, which was often, he became a different character. He became quarrelsome, cruel, foul-mouthed, and displayed a vicious temper. Except for his virility, he had nothing to recommend him to any female. The Carstairs women, in Max’s opinion, had demonstrated a deplorable lack of taste.

Faint color tinted Miss Carstairs’s cheeks, and Max gave his attention to the chief justice’s closing remarks to the jury, remarks that had obviously distressed the accused. So Miss Carstairs was human after all.

“Sexual depravity in a woman,” said Mr. Justice Stoner, scanning the rows of jurymen like an eagle among pigeons, “must disgust all decent people. But you must put your natural feelings of disgust aside as you consider your verdict. What is at issue here is the murder of Mr. William Neville. Whatever your suspicions against the accused, you must proceed on nothing you do not find established beyond doubt.”

There was more in this vein, and Max felt the tension that gripped him gradually slip away. The chief justice was practically telling the jury that the case against Sara Carstairs had not been proved.

When the jurymen had retired to consider their verdict and the court was adjourned, the spectators erupted into speech.

“What do you think the verdict will be, Lord Maxwell?”

The question came from Peter Fallon, the youngest and brightest reporter on the Courier, and Max’s employee. Fallon had made copious notes as the trial progressed, notes that he and Max used as a basis for the articles they composed and sent every other day by a relay of express riders to the Courier’s offices in London. As soon as the verdict was in, they would put the finishing touches to the piece they had already written for Monday’s paper.

The Courier wasn’t the only paper with reporters in attendance. Max had counted fifteen. Even Jameson of the prestigious Times was there. Murder, especially a murder such as this one, where the accused was young, beautiful, wealthy, and, above all, involved in a scandalous affair, could be counted on to double the circulation of any newspaper.

“You heard the judge,” replied Max. “I’ve no doubt that Sara Carstairs will walk out of here a free woman.”

He was searching the crowd for the tall, straight-backed figure of Sir Ivor. When he caught sight of him under the gallery, he raised his hand in salute. Sir Ivor, he knew, would not lower himself to converse with ordinary members of the press. But Lord Maxwell Worthe was in a different class, literally, and that made all the difference. Sir Ivor was highly conscious of his dignity.

“I wouldn’t be too sure of that,” said Fallon.

“What?” Max frowned.

“That Miss Carstairs will walk out of here a free woman. The men on that jury are local people. They’ve heard all the rumors that have been circulating about her, and some of those rumors are really damaging.”

“Such as?”

Fallon shrugged. “That she has had more lovers than we’ve had dinners.”