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Excerpt from Act of Oblivion by Robert Harris, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Act of Oblivion by Robert Harris

Act of Oblivion

A Novel

by Robert Harris
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  • First Published:
  • Sep 13, 2022
  • Paperback:
  • Sep 2023
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Print Excerpt

'"Whereas Charles Stuart King of England is and stands convicted attainted and condemned of High Treason and other high crimes, and sentence upon Saturday last was pronounced against him by this Court to be put to death by the severing of his head from his body, of which sentence execution yet remains to be done, these are therefore to will and require you to see the said sentence executed in the open street before Whitehall upon the morrow being the thirtieth day of this month of January between the hour of ten in the morning and five in the afternoon of the same day with full effect ..."'

The awful, momentous words were thick in his throat. He had to cough and swallow before he could continue.

'"... and for so doing this shall be your sufficient warrant. And these are to require all officers and soldiers and the other good people of this nation of England to be assisting you in this service. Given under our hands and seals ..."' He stopped. 'And here are the names.' He scanned the fifty-odd signatures beneath the text, arranged in seven columns. Beside each man's name was a red wax seal. They spattered across the document like drops of blood.

'But my husband's name is not among them?'

His gaze travelled back over the signatories, lighting on a few here and there. Gregory Clements ... Edmund Ludlow ... Thomas Harrison ... William Goffe ...

'No. He did not sign.'

She let out her breath. 'You see – he told the truth. He was not one of the King's judges and nor did he put his hand to the death warrant.'

'No. But his name is here nonetheless. "To Colonel Francis Hacker, Colonel Huncks and Lieutenant Colonel Phayre."' He turned the parchment round and pointed. 'The warrant is in fact addressed to your husband first and foremost – the reason, I assume, why it's in his possession.'

'But only as a soldier,' she protested. 'As an officer obeying orders, not issuing them.'

'That will be for the court to decide.' He quickly pulled the warrant away in case she tried to snatch it back. Hacker had supervised the execution. His guilt was plain in black and white. She might just as well have handed him a noose to put around her husband's neck. She seemed suddenly to realise it, swaying in front of the desk, face as waxy as the candles. He was keen to be rid of her now. She had played her part. He wanted to study the warrant in peace. 'It's late, Mrs Hacker. You should retire.' He saw a couch in a corner of the room. 'I'll spend the night in here, with your permission, and leave at first light.'

She could not bring herself to accept this calamity. The abruptness of it, the cruelty. Two days on the road for this. 'But we have done what their lordships asked, Mr Nayler. That must count for something.'

'It's not my place to say. I suggest you withdraw for the night and pray for your husband.' His mouth twitched in a slight smile. 'Whatever happens next is God's will, after all.'

How many times had he heard that sanctimonious formula over the past eleven years? Let them see how they liked it now.

She continued to gaze at him, holding his eyes with hers. It was not enough for this man to hunt down, imprison and execute the King's enemies. He must mock their faith as well. But the Devil in his triumph was full of pride, and he did not flinch. He returned her stare until eventually she turned and walked unsteadily out of the study, up the stairs and into her bedroom, where she collapsed in a faint on the floor.

Despite his long day's travelling, Nayler felt neither hunger nor thirst. The warrant was sufficient meat and drink for him. He sat at the colonel's desk and read it again. The severing of his head from his body ... in the open street before Whitehall ... It still had the power to shock. He opened his jacket, unbuttoned his shirt, and bowed his head to remove the leather cord that had hung around his neck for the past eleven years. Attached to it was a small pouch. Inside the pouch was a tiny piece of bloodstained linen. He turned it over between his fingers.

Excerpted from Act of Oblivion by Robert Harris. Copyright © 2022 by Robert Harris. Excerpted by permission of Harper. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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