Strangers at Dawn

By: Elizabeth Thornton

“Not guilty.”

An instantaneous burst of applause erupted throughout the courtroom. Sara Carstairs looked frozen, as though this was the last thing she expected. The prison matron took one of her hands and openly wept.

What in the name Of Hades is the matter with the woman? thought Max irritably. The prison matron was weeping; spectators were cheering; he was shaking; and Sara Carstairs sat there like a cold, unfeeling block of marble.

The applause subsided only when the irate chief justice ordered two wildly enthusiastic young men to be taken into custody. When the court was adjourned, the reporters in the crush elbowed their way toward the exits. They would be chasing Miss Carstairs down, soliciting a comment for the next edition of their respective newspapers. Max was in no hurry. Peter Fallon had been one of the first out the door, and if Miss Carstairs was willing to give a statement, which Max doubted, Fallon would take care of it.

The verdict left him feeling less than satisfied. He’d wanted her to be acquitted for only one reason: He believed that capital punishment was a barbarous practice, and he could not condone it under any circumstances. Now that she’d been acquitted, however, and could not be tried again for the murder of William Neville, he intended to use the considerable means at his disposal to get at the truth, no matter how many witnesses had to be interviewed or how long it took.

But only Sara Carstairs could lead him to William Neville’s final resting place. That’s what he wanted, of course. To be ahead of the pack. To be the first to print the whole story. He was a newspaperman now, and made no apology for it.

It had taken him by surprise, this fascination with the Courier. He’d taken it on because he liked a challenge, and people said it couldn’t be done. In proving them wrong, he’d become caught up in the excitement of the thing. The newspapers of the day were deadly dull and were mostly read by an educated minority of men. His mother had pointed him in the right direction. She never picked up a newspaper, she said, because there was nothing in it to interest her. What she wanted were stories about real people, and that was only to be found in the tawdry broadsheets that his father would not permit in the house.

So, without sacrificing integrity, he’d changed the Courier’s direction to appeal to his mother, and in so doing, he’d turned the Courier around.

Now he had his eye on his next challenge, the Manchester Post.

When he came outside, he found that the crowds who had been waiting patiently to hear the verdict had gone wild with excitement. People were shouting, dancing, throwing their hats in the air. Only a week ago, they’d wanted to see Sara Carstairs hang. Her youth and beauty, thought Max cynically, had served her well.

Peter Fallon pushed his way through to Max. He was short of breath. “No one knows where she is,” he said. “They stopped her carriage, but the woman who was wearing her clothes was not Miss Carstairs. She could be anywhere.”

Max chuckled. “I bet that junior attorney set things up for her. It’s what I would do in his place. No need to look so glum, Peter. She’ll turn up, and when she does, I have it in my mind to make the acquaintance of Miss Sara Carstairs. Now let’s go back to the hotel and get that article in shape. We may not have a quote from Miss Carstairs, but Sir Ivor gave me an earful. That ought to keep our readers happy-‘The grieving father’-you know what I mean.”

IN THE NEXT EDITION, THE COURIER DOUBLED Sir Ivor’s reward, but no one came forward to claim it. Max had no luck with Sara Carstairs either. She had gone into hiding and, as he soon discovered, all the means at his disposal failed to find a trace of her.


London, three years later.

SOMETIMES, WHEN SHE GAZED OUT OVER HYDE Park from her upstairs parlor window, Sara could almost believe that she was in the country. She didn’t care for London. It was all paved streets and cobblestones, and great stone houses that stood shoulder-to-shoulder, as though the citizens were determined that no blade of grass or ray of sunlight should penetrate the fortress they had built for themselves. But the view from her window over the park was glorious.

It was June, and at this time of the morning, few people were about. There were nursemaids with infants, and the odd carriage and rider, but the smart set, the hordes of promenaders and fashionables in their open carriages, would not appear until five o’clock.

And that was the time of day she stayed indoors. She could never forget that at her trial three years before, the smart set from London had arrived in Winchester in droves. They’d packed the courtroom, shoulder-to-shoulder, just like their houses in town, and their eyes had fastened on her as though she were a freak in a country fair.

She’d never wanted to live in London for fear she’d be recognized, but circumstances had changed, and she felt safer here than she did in any of the small country towns where she’d resided since the trial. There were watchmen who patrolled the streets at night, and magistrates and constables close by. A fortress was exactly what she wanted at this point in time.

Her gaze chanced on a small boy who came racing out from under a stand of leafy plane trees. He was no more than four or five years old, and his whoop of delight as he pounced on the ball he was chasing carried to her open window. A gentleman she took to be his father strolled after his son. There was no sign of a nursemaid or a mother, and Sara thought how fortunate that small boy was to have a father who would take the time to play with him.