Royalist Rebel by Anita Seymour
I can hardly breathe as my gaze darts to the corridor from which come purposeful male voices, followed by heavy footsteps. Doors open and close, accompanied by shouts.
Her eyes bore into mine, and I know I must not appear weak. ‘Come with me?’ I ask through a dry throat.
Her skin flushes, but at her nod, I sweep from the room before I can summon a reason not to.
The man in the hall paces from the front door to the marble mantel and back again, tapping his thigh in an irregular rhythm with his whip. He looks impatient. Does he have other families to terrorise today? Or am I keeping him from a good meal? Not that he appears to need it. His black coat is stretched to its limits across bulky shoulders, and drops to massive knees encased in brown stockings that resemble tree trunks.
The face below sandy-coloured and thinning hair is exactly what I would expect on such a bloated frame, its features obscured by too much flesh. A misshapen nose above flabby bee-stung lips that sit clumsily above triple chins.
His eyes narrow when he sees me, almost disappearing into the folds of his cheeks, but his comical appearance does nothing to lessen the rapid beating of my heart. He may be a travesty of a man, but he could hold my future in his hands.
‘Mistress Catherine Murray?’ His voice is scratchy and uncertain. More folds of skin appear on his forehead as he looks Cousin Henderson over, only to dismiss her and settle his gaze on me. He is still not satisfied.
‘I am Mistress Elizabeth Murray.’ I fold my hands before me, my gaze steady, though my voice is higher than I wish. ‘My mother will be with you shortly.’ Heavy footsteps traverse the ceiling and I clench my jaw. ‘May I ask why your men wander at will around my house?’
‘Your house?’ He wipes his bulbous nose on the turned back cuff of his coat, and then clears his throat with a wet cough. ‘Not for much longer, Mistress.’
Cousin Henderson gives a sharp gasp, and I swing round in time to see her wrest a silver candlestick from the hands of a soldier who stands behind us.
The miscreant looks to be no more than a boy. Cousin Henderson’s hard look cows him enough to make him scurry, shame-faced, behind his comrade. My cousin returns the candlestick to the table with measured calm as if she had simply been dusting it.
There is still no sign of Mother.
‘You have documents to justify your insolence?’ I say, and hold out a hand that trembles, so I drop it again.
His brows lift into a low hairline, which gives him a moronic look. How does such a man elevate to a position of trust and responsibility? I would not employ him to feed my sows. He looks positively dull-witted.
At last, the Collector withdraws a sheaf of documents from his coat and hands them to me. To what avail I do not know, but I play for time, reading the words slowly. My hands shake so much, I cannot hold the page still, and the words jump and blur against the white paper.
‘You have ten days’ notice of possession,’ the Collector says, growing impatient.
He has yet to give me his name.
My head jerks upwards in shock. ‘Ten days?’ The parchment slips from my fingers and Cousin Henderson rescues it from falling to the floor. ‘We cannot pack our things and be away from here in so short a time. You cannot do this!’ Panic lends urgency to my voice.
A flash of uncertainty enters the Collector’s face, but is instantly gone. ‘I only deliver the orders, Mistress. I do not make them.’ He reverts to the adage of all dullards who excuse their outrages as the orders of another.
Cousin Henderson’s lips move as she scans the page. ‘No, wait, Elizabeth.’ Her hand closes on my forearm. ‘It says here their final decision to sequester the entire estate will be made in ten days. Not seized.’
Relief floods through me, followed by fury, and I whip round to face the Collector.
‘Is this a joke, you imbecile? Have you been sent here to torment us?’ I snatch the paper from my cousin’s grasp and wave it under his porcine face. ‘You bring your rabble of soldiers to rampage through my house with no more authority than that a decision is yet to be made?’
The man steps back in alarm, and behind him, the boy-soldier sniggers.
Contempt escalates my rage, though I am aware this is only a reprieve. How can I tell Mother she must pack her belongings and seek shelter amongst our friends? And what friends? Ten days! It is not long enough. What can we do in so short a time?
The Collector’s face twists in contempt. ‘I do not write the orders, Madam. I merely serve them. And you have been served.’
Anger seethes beneath my skin like a fever, and untouched by this implied threat, I turn to face the Collector again. ‘You have done your duty and delivered your document, now you and your men may leave. Immediately.’
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