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.
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.
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."
Fallon shrugged. "That she has had more lovers than we've had dinners."
"Even if that were true," said Max, his voice tipped with frost, "it has nothing
to do with this case."
"I know. But juries are all too human."
Max brooded on that thought as he made his way to Sir Ivor.
Peter Fallon smiled to himself as he watched Max in conversation with Sir Ivor. Sir Prig, as the reporters had named Sir Ivor, had allowed his stiff upper lip to soften into something like a smile. He'd aroused a good deal of sympathy at first. Not only had his son disappeared, but his only other child, a young daughter, had died of lung fever some years before. He'd seemed like a tragic figure, but his air of superiority, his pride and arrogance, had soon dispelled that impression. He was more of an avenging angel than a grieving father.
"Prince Charming does have a way with him, does he not?"
Fallon recognized the drawl and grinned at the gentleman who had joined him. Jameson of the Times, fortyish, portly, sweating and crumpled, had a caustic wit that Fallon rather enjoyed.
"Prince Charming?" said Fallon.
"Lord Maxwell. He has Sir Prig tamed to his hand."
"Well, you know how it is with the aristocracy. They talk the same language."
"Oh, yes. I know how it is. Bluebloods must stick together."
Fallon laughed. "You sound envious."
"You're mistaken, Fallon. I'm not envious. I just wish Prince Charming would do what he's supposed to do."
"Marry a princess, carry her off to his castle, and live happily ever after. Then we lesser mortals might get the recognition we deserve."
Fallon laughed, but he was well aware that Jameson's remarks were prompted by pique. Though Lord Maxwell was too likable, too genuine a character to arouse real envy, it did seem unjust that a young man of thirty, a man who had everything to start with, should also possess more than his share of good luck.
Max Worthe was heir to his father, the Marquess of Lyndhurst. There really was a castle, only fifteen miles from Winchester. A castle, a house in town, a life of wealth and privilege--what more could a man want?
The fates had also blessed him with good looks. His fair hair was cropped short; his square jaw added a manly touch to a face that might have been considered too handsome. He was tall, an inch or so under six feet, and every trim inch was as solid as granite. It was no secret that Lord Maxwell's favorite pastime was boxing, and it showed.
Six months ago, he'd bought the Courier
when it was on the brink of bankruptcy. Everyone thought it was a joke, the whim of a bored aristocrat, and predicted the Courier
's demise within a matter of months. Fallon, himself, at four-and-twenty, and the youngest reporter on staff, was sure that his days on the Courier
were numbered, and he began looking around for another position. He'd listened to those who should know. Lord Maxwell was a novice, they said. He didn't know the first thing about producing a newspaper. It was true that he published a periodical, the London Review,
but that came out once a month and was devoted to literary works or essays by well-known wits. A newspaper was a different matter entirely. The competition was fierce. The Times
was firmly established as London's leading paper, and most of its competitors had gone to the wall.
Lord Maxwell, however, had not taken the Times
as his model. The first thing he did was take the parliamentary report off the front page and replace it with stories with a more popular appeal. Murders, tragedies, natural disasters, scandals--that's what sold papers. What the Courier
had lost in prestige, it had made up in a dramatic increase in circulation.
Peter Fallon was not one of those who begrudged Lord Maxwell his success. As the Courier
's fortunes had risen, so had his. He admired Lord Maxwell; he studied his manners, his habits, his preferences, and tried, as far as was in his power, to emulate his mentor.
Jameson said consideringly, "I suppose he eats like a bird?"
"Actually, he eats like a horse."
Jameson sucked in his stomach. "You know, Fallon, if I really put my mind to it, I think I could muster a thorough dislike of your Prince Charming. But let's not quibble. Tell me your impressions of Miss Carstairs."
Half an hour later, the jury room bell sounded, and there was a flurry of movement as spectators reclaimed their seats. Max could not ignore how tense he felt. His mouth was dry; his heart was pounding. He'd expected the jury to take longer to reach their verdict, and he didn't know whether their early return was a good or bad omen.
When the court had reassembled, Max turned to look at the dock. A moment later, Sara Carstairs emerged from the trapdoor and took her place. Nothing in her demeanor betrayed the least nervousness, yet, thought Max, she must know that if the verdict went against her, she would go to the gallows. If she didn't feel the gravity of her situation, he did.
Her gaze, once again, was fixed on one of the junior attorneys who assisted her leading counsel. A look passed between them, but it did not linger. The jurymen were filing in.
The next few minutes passed as though they were hours. The clerk of the court slowly called each juryman by name. When the foreman was asked to give the verdict, an expectant hush gripped the spectators.
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
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.
Excerpted from Strangers at Dawn by Elizabeth Thornton. Copyright © 1999 by Elizabeth Thornton. Excerpted by permission of Bantam, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.