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Then the strange cabinet had vanished from sight with a strangulated, grating whine.
Cromwell sat in silence for a long while, teasing the ends of his spa.r.s.e grey hair with a finger.
'Are we losing our wits, John?' he said at last.
Thurloe shook his head. 'Mayhap they were sorcerers after all.'
Cromwell sighed and shook his head. 'A trying time.'
'Aye, General,' nodded Thurloe. 'I should not like to go through it again.'
Cromwell fixed him with his beady eyes. 'There must be no record of our... visitors. Nor of the attempt on my life.'
Thurloe shook his head. 'Naturally not, sir. I shall find a way of being... discreet about these matters.'
Cromwell grunted. 'Well, then. Let us get on with this terrible business.'
Thurloe opened the drawer of his desk and took out the death warrant for Thomas Culpeper.
Cromwell gazed at it as Thurloe smoothed it out over the desk.
'I can still hardly believe it,' he sighed. 'Culpeper! In league with those Royalists!'
Thurloe nodded sadly. 'Sir John Copper has confessed it all, sir. Culpeper pa.s.sed the information to his lover with the express purpose of leading you to your doom.'
Again Cromwell shook his head, thinking of the force with which young Tom had urged him to carry on with his Parliamentary business as though all were well. And now he knew the reason why.
With a heavy heart, Cromwell took up a quill and dipped it in a pot of ink. Then he scratched his signature on the bottom of the doc.u.ment and got to his feet.
He glanced at Thurloe and then walked slowly and sadly from the room.
Thurloe picked up the warrant and blew on it to make the ink dry.
His attention was caught momentarily by the picture of the a.s.sa.s.sinated Caesar above his mantel.
He shook his head. Politics was a dirty business indeed.
The morning of January the thirtieth 1649 was a cold one and Charles Stuart insisted upon wearing an extra shirt so that his enemies would not mistake his shivering for fear.
He stepped out through the windows of Inigo Jones's Banqueting House on to a specially built platform and faced the huge, expectant crowd.
In a calm, clear, dignified voice he announced that he was going from a 'corruptible to an incorruptible crown'.
'Then, after a short prayer, he laid his head upon the block and the axe fell, severing his head neatly from his body.
A tremendous groan went up from the crowd and then there was total silence. It blanketed the old city as effectively as any snowdrift.
Oliver Cromwell, the man who was soon to become Lord Protector of the Kingdom, stared into the bright winter morning as though gazing through time itself.