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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


The martyr's blood had dried over the years to a faded rusty colour. Perhaps one day it would disappear. But as long as it existed, Nayler had vowed to do all in his power to avenge the events of that January day. He kissed it, folded the linen carefully, returned it to his pouch and retied the cord around his neck so that the relic lay close to his heart.

It was dark in the study now, apart from the flickering pool of candlelight. Beyond the window, the birds had ceased to sing.

He counted the signatures on the death warrant, and made it fifty-nine. Some of the names were famous, some obscure, but all had become familiar to him over the past ten weeks as he had tracked their footprints through the dusty records of the King's trial. Yet it was one thing to know that such-and-such a man had sat in judgement on Charles Stuart in Westminster Hall on such-and-such a day; it was quite another to prove that he had actually dipped his hand in blood. What the warrant provided at last was incontrovertible proof of guilt. The slippery Colonel Ingoldsby, for example, had already confessed to signing, but had insisted he was held down by violence and that Cromwell, laughing at his squeamishness, had thrust the pen between his fingers and guided his hand by force. Yet here was Ingoldsby's signature in the fifth column, clear and true and unhurried, with his seal placed neat beside it.

He transferred his attention to the names at the head of the initial column. The first signature was that of John Bradshaw, the jobbing lawyer promoted to be president of the court, so fearful of assassination that throughout the hearings he had worn a suit of armour beneath his robes and a bulletproof hat of beaver fur lined with steel: luckily for him, he had been dead for nearly a year, so he would escape retribution. The second signature belonged to Thomas Grey – Lord Grey of Groby, 'the Leveller Lord' – a man too radical even for Cromwell, who had eventually had him thrown in jail: he too was dead. The third signatory was Cromwell himself, the true architect of the entire diabolical procedure – dead, of course, and burning in hell. But the fourth signature, directly beneath Cromwell's, belonged to a man who was still alive as far as Nayler was aware – a man whom he had cause to know well.

He must make a new list.

He took a sheet of paper from Hacker's desk, dipped his pen in the inkpot, and wrote, in his careful hand, Col. Edw. Whalley.

Chapter Three

THE THREE GOOKIN boys shared a room at the back of the house. It looked out over the village of Cambridge, and beyond it to the looming roofs and broad chimneys and thin spire of Harvard College, gilded like a lance by the late-afternoon sun. When Mary hurried in, Colonel Whalley and Colonel Goffe were standing at the window, studying the view and being studied in their turn by Daniel, Sam and Nathaniel. At the soldiers' feet were what looked like their old army bags. She registered the scratched leather, stitched and patched. Scant luggage, she thought, for a voyage halfway across the world. They must have left in a hurry.

'Boys, go downstairs and leave the gentlemen in peace.'

'But Mama—'

'Downstairs!'

They descended the steps in a chattering, tumbling continuous thump.

Mary said, 'The boys have had this room since birth. Whatever Mr Gookin might have promised – forgive me – I believe it would be best for them to keep it.'

'They're fine lads,' said Colonel Whalley. 'They remind me of my own at that age.' He turned from the window, and for the first time she got a good look at his face close up. A strong nose, dark eyes, a grey beard streaked with black. 'We wouldn't ask them to give up their beds to us.'

'I don't wish to seem inhospitable ...'

'Think nothing of it.' He glanced up. 'What's above? An attic?'

'Oh, that is merely a servant's room.'

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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