A high stakes game of espionage in the best traditions of The Thirty-Nine Steps.
Spring 1912. Trainee solicitor, Alexander Templeman, boards the night-train north from London, feeling guilty at having left it so long since he last visited his godparents in the lowland hills of Scotland. Little does he know that his journey is taking him to the most terrifying experience of his life.
But when the challenge comes, will the inexperienced young man be up to the job or will he succumb to an unrelenting struggle with a cunning foe, that has as it’s prize not only his own life but the very future of the country he adores?
Chapter One – A Journey North
The story I am about to convey is one that I fear you, like any sane person, will find somewhat remarkable, perhaps even a little incredulous. I must make it clear, however, that it is, from beginning to end, entirely true, despite its most unusual nature.
It may, perhaps, remind you of some of those Boys Own adventures popular with the reading public for a good many years now, but I can assure you my tale is a faithful recounting, even if some of the more obscure details have become a little fuzzy with the passing of time.
Perhaps the years that have past and the momentous events that have occurred since my own modest adventure will make it a little easier for you, the reader, to accept the proposition that I present to you and not to think I am in possession of an unbalanced mind, capable of the most outrageous exaggerations.
As it is, I was for many years subject to the controls and strictures of His Majesty’s Government that prohibited me from saying a single word about my experiences, the subject matter being one considered too sensitive for public consumption. Indeed, before we proceed any further, I wish to make it clear that I am grateful for the recent lifting of these restrictions, since I would not otherwise have been able to share this tale with you now.
My story is set seven years ago, in the spring of 1912, though it remains so fresh in my mind that it could be less than a single year since. I should add, for the avoidance of confusion and muddle, that I lived then, as I do now, in a plain little house in Pimlico, London, and was at that time a single man of modest means, sufficient to keep body and soul together and to enjoy the occasional minor extravagance.
I had intended to pay a visit to my godparents on the occasion of their thirty-second wedding anniversary. It had been some time since I had seen them and, what with their being at home for the weekend and my not being committed to some other, inconveniently timed, engagement, I eagerly sent word that I would be with them on the Friday evening. Their encouragement of my visit was most wholehearted, with only a mild rebuke for my previous and rather extended lack of attention.
I have always been thankful to my parents for their fine choice of John and Susan Buchan as my godparents since they have, at all times, undertaken the role wonderfully well and, if truth be told, they have rather spoiled me at every opportunity. Their one and only child, a son, George, is eleven years older than me, and has been living, since the age of twenty-one, in South Africa. I sometimes suspect that the attention they would otherwise have showered on him, had he remained in the country, they have instead directed towards me, seeing how I am rather more readily to hand.
Since my visit was to be for a single weekend, I packed just the one small suitcase and a heavy coat, which any sensible person considers an essential item for a trip to Scotland, even in the spring. I also took with me a small bottle of my godmother’s favourite scent, Christiane, something by Guerlain, I recall. This my godmother finds frustratingly difficult to obtain in Scotland, it seemingly being unavailable anywhere outside of Edinburgh.
My little apartment in Warwick Square looked the picture of order and silent contentment as I picked up my coat and suitcase and stepped out into the cool, rather brightly-lit hallway. It was seven-thirty-eight in the evening and I was pleased to find myself seven minutes ahead of schedule; not something I am wholly accustomed to, since I am, on occasion, rather tardy where my time-keeping is concerned.
Euston railway station was rather quiet by normal standards. Nothing like the noisy, jostling crowds of people coming hither and thither that you find there earlier in the day and it made for rather a pleasant change; all the more so seeing how I had such a lengthy journey ahead of me. As there remained above an hour before my train was due to depart, I took temporary ownership of one of the tables at the dining rooms on platform six and ordered a strong coffee.
I picked up a copy of the afternoon’s newspaper, intending to while away the time perusing its pages. But it was a hopeless case and I found myself unable to do more than cast a roving eye over the headlines. My problem was that familiar little thrill of excitement one gets when about to set off on a long and eagerly anticipated journey, which began to grow inside me the moment I entered the railway station, and I wondered if I should be able to sleep at all on the overnight express. I was once again a schoolboy, setting off on a journey to some distant location with my parents, bursting at the seams with excitement.
I was not, however, left free to enjoy this happy state of burgeoning excitement for long. Barely ten minutes after sitting down, there was a firm tap on my shoulder. I looked around, startled from my daydream.
“Alexander Templeman, as I live and breathe. It is you.”
A familiar, round and somewhat blotchy face looked down at me, smiling broadly. It was one I had not seen for some years.
“George Latching. What a coincidence. How the devil are you?”
I jumped to my feet and we shook hands, both visibly delighted at such a fortunate and unexpected encounter.
“Can’t complain. Well, I probably could, but I’d be nit-picking. You travelling north or waiting for someone to arrive?”
“Travelling a long way north, as it happens. Scotland. Take a seat and let me get you something to drink,” I insisted, eager to catch up on old times.
“A cup of tea would do very nicely.”
George and I had attended the same school, Braunston Hall in Withering Dean, and although I’d kept in touch with a good number of the old boys, I’d not seen George for several years, after he’d moved to Nottingham to take up a position in the family firm. They were lace-makers and, I recalled, he was the fifth generation to take on the responsibility of managing the business. He’d put on a little weight, it seemed to me, his cheeks rather fuller than I remembered and his midriff perhaps somewhat more rounded. I wondered if I’d changed much myself, though found it hard to believe that I had.
The minutes flew by as we spoke eagerly about our school days, re-acquainting ourselves with friends and enemies, and revisiting deeds both happy and infamous. I found it hard to believe that my school days were already so far behind me, although I suppose eight years is not really a very great deal of time, in the great scheme of things.
Almost before we knew it, the time came for George to board the Nottingham-bound train and we shook hands warmly, having exchanged addresses and earnestly promised to visit each other at the first possible opportunity. As his train began to pull away, I looked again at my watch. There were only ten minutes remaining until my own was scheduled to depart. I picked up my bag, paid the bill and, with an added spring in my step after such a fortuitous meeting, boarded the Euston to Glasgow overnight express and made my way to my compartment.
It was a pleasantly warm evening, one that presented London at something of its best. The soft amber light of the setting sun had cast a most pleasing glow over the buildings I passed on my way to the station and the air retained just sufficient warmth to keep off a chill. I doubt I could have asked for a more pleasing evening for my departure.
Precisely on time, the train began to pull out of the station, crawling through a vast, swirling cloud of smoke, the wheels squealing as they bit against the steel rails. A handful of well-wishers waved off loved ones and, for a moment, I felt a pang of sadness as I was myself leaving someone behind. I had said farewell that afternoon to Caroline Carsons, to whom I hoped soon to become engaged, with a promise to return with one of Scotland’s finest tartan scarves as a present. Although not altogether convinced myself that it passed muster as a suitable gift, Caroline was adamant that was what she wanted and who was I to argue? Now, alone, with no one to wave me off, I re-affirmed my determination to speak to Caroline’s father about my desire to marry his daughter. It would be my most urgent business upon my return to London.
The train made good time and I retired to my compartment and bed a little before eleven, after enjoying a late supper and a glass or two of whiskey in the company of two most entertaining men of business, who were to alight at Rugby. So agreeable was their company that I rather regretted the fact they would not be there to talk to over an early breakfast in the buffet car.
I slept well, not being someone who finds their sleep interrupted by overnight travel, and, as a result, awakened early enough to be one of the first to be seated for breakfast. It’s a meal I never miss, not if I can help it. A good breakfast sets you up for the day, I do believe, and I’d rather forgo luncheon and dinner if I could have only the one meal in the course of a day.
By then we were already steaming through the open countryside north of Carlisle, so I returned to my compartment and packed away my few things ready for our arrival in Glasgow, my anticipation at staying with my godparents growing once again now that the longer leg of my journey was approaching its end. We pulled into the station at eight-fourteen, a mere four minutes late and a very commendable effort given the distance we had travelled.
As anyone who has been there could tell you, Glasgow Central station is large and impressive, considerable rebuilding work having been completed only as recently as 1905, and it was thronging with people setting about their daily business, a great cacophony of sound filling my ears as I stepped off the train. It might have been pleasant to linger a while to study the architecture, but I had little time for such luxuries as my connecting train departed only eleven minutes later and I had first to ascertain which platform I needed to make my way to.
After a near miss, which would have seen me boarding a train to the west coast, I found myself staring out the window of a local service as it pulled slowly out of the station. Before long, we were passing through the town of Kilmarnock, having already called at several smaller halts, and heading towards the stop at which I would alight, in the hamlet of New Cumnock.
As I gazed once more at the outside world, the green and brown hues that had predominated since we left Glasgow began to dissipate and, in places, disappear into a shifting whitewash of thickening cloud. It seemed a heavy spring fog was moving in from the sea, only a handful of miles away to the west. I ran a hand over my coat as it lay across my lap, thankful I had not succumbed to the temptation to think the weather during my stay might be only ever fine. I did, however, wonder how difficult a proposition it would be for me to locate my godparents’ rather isolated house in the thickening fog. How embarrassing it would be for me if they should find it necessary to send out a search party to rescue me, if I ended up wandering aimlessly in the fog.
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