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 three – a foreign doctor
There was a time in my childhood when I fell out of a tree. It wasn’t an especially big tree and I didn’t fall a great way, but being only five years old at the time, the fall was far enough to do me harm. We had been playing hide and seek, had my younger sister and I, along with two of our cousins, who were staying with us during that summer week. I had dreamed up a plan that would, I thought, allow me to remain out of sight for the entire day, if I so desired. My thinking was that no one would ever guess to look up, into the trees. I was pleased to find that, for a while, it worked, but when trying to reach what I thought to be a better hiding place on a higher branch, I lost first my footing then my grip and plunged to the ground.
I can remember even now the sound of voices, but for some odd reason they didn’t seem to be those of my sister and cousins. Instead, they seemed foreign, a peculiar language that I had never heard before, and there were many of them, chattering away in great excitement. They stopped without warning, before resuming much closer to me in low, careful tones, as if trying not to wake me.
On that occasion, the voices left me and I awoke to find myself laid out on one of the sofa in our drawing room. Faces peered down at me, filled with concern, their lips moving but no sound reaching my ears. I soon drifted back into a state of unconsciousness, from which I awoke, I was subsequently told, over an hour later. My parents had been horrified by the whole affair and, said my sister with some relish, genuinely worried I might die. A bump on the head can, I learned later, be a very bad thing indeed.
Now it appeared the same scene was being played out all over again, different only in its particulars. Voices came to me in the darkness, swirling around me, snatches of words all that I could make out; never enough to make any sense. Then a great roar filled my head and I drifted back into the void.
It was the ticking of a clock that I heard next. Rhythmic and certain, it felt familiar and calming, easing me gently back into the world from which I had, until then, been absent. There were no voices this time, just the endlessly soothing ticking of the clock, calling me back from wherever it was I had been.
My eyes opened with a start, then shut just as quickly, as they were swamped with light so bright it made them hurt. My heart began to thump with alarm and it took me some moments to calm myself down. When I then felt up to the effort, I opened one eye just a little, allowing it time to adapt to the brightness, before I repeated the exercise with the other one.
There was, I observed, no more fog. Instead, I found myself looking up at a ceiling, white and uneven, where a small spider was busy spinning silk round what I took to be a fly. I watched it for a while, curious to see it work with such precision and speed. No doubt it had waited some time for its next victim to come along and now it had absolutely no intention of allowing it to escape from its clutches.
After a while, curiosity caused me to lower my gaze and I found I was in a small, square room, sparsely furnished with a plain chest of drawers, a matching wardrobe and a single wicker chair that had seen better days. As for myself, I discovered that I was in a bed, my head propped up just a little on pillows that felt too soft for my liking. A collection of bed sheets and eiderdowns weighed down on my chest, almost pinning me in place. I managed, with a discomforting amount of effort, to wriggle myself partially free from their embrace.
I could only conclude, in the absence of any kind of confirmation, that I had collapsed on the track outside the farmhouse, where someone had discovered me and brought me inside. Of one thing I was sure: I was not in any of the bedrooms in my godparents’ house. I wondered if word had been sent for them to come fetch me.
I was still contemplating my situation when a figure appeared in the open doorway. It was that of a man, so tall that he had to bend down a little to see fully into the room, and so wide as to fill most of the space where the door would otherwise have been. My eyes, still not yet fully accustomed to their new surroundings, struggled to make out any details of this new arrival and when I attempted to speak to him, nothing but a dry, hopeless croak could be heard, my mouth too parched to manage anything more. I coughed and when I looked back towards the doorway, the figure had gone.
My attempt to then sit up caused the pain in my head to flare up and I immediately eased myself back down in response. Perhaps it would be better to remain patient and wait for my rescuer to return. The spider, I noticed, had stopped spinning and was, instead, busy pulling the tidy bundle that was the encased fly up towards the little dent in the ceiling that I took for its lair.
Several minutes must have passed when the sound of footsteps on the stairs and of voices – two men, I thought – brought an end to my contemplation. I was keen to find out something about my hosts, to whom I owed my considerable thanks, and I looked towards the doorway with a growing sense of anticipation.
I was correct in identifying there were two men approaching the room, but the one who entered first was not the giant I had seen minutes before. He wasn’t as tall, for one thing. He had black, curly hair, greying a little at the sides, and a large, thick moustache that didn’t suit him. He was dressed much more smartly than the other man. As he entered the room, with the giant close behind, the thinner man paused, pushed his wire-framed glasses into place and spoke the first words I had heard since regaining consciousness.
“Ah, I see you are back in the land of the wakeful.” I attempted to prop myself up again, the better to effect an introduction, but he wasn’t happy for me to do so. “No, no. Please, you must not strain yourself. You need to rest. That is quite a blow you have taken to your head.”
I put an end to my efforts to sit up, not without some sense of relief, and settled back on the soft pillows. As I did so, the smaller man picked up the lone chair in the room and put it next to the bed.
“You are no doubt wondering what on earth has happened and you most likely have a good many questions, so allow me to introduce myself. I am Dr Jens Sneijder and you are here in my home and surgery.”
I reached out with my right hand, which the Doctor shook, his grip firm and confident.
“Alexander Templeman. I am very happy indeed to make your acquaintance, Doctor, though the circumstances are somewhat out of the ordinary.” The words did not come easily, for my mouth remained dry.
My host turned towards the larger man, who passed him a half-filled glass.
“Please, try drinking some water,” said the Doctor, leaning across the bed and gently easing my head forward a little so that I could sip at the cool liquid. I’m not sure that a drop of water had ever been so welcome to me.
“The circumstances of our meeting are indeed somewhat unusual,” continued the Doctor, placing the glass on the bedside cabinet. “My man here, Selkman, found you lying on the ground on the driveway. You were unconscious and covered in a good many cuts and bruises. Most peculiar. It was fortunate Selkman found you when he did. Much longer and the exposure may well have been your undoing.”
I tilted my head towards the giant. “Thank you, Mr Selkman. It seems I owe a debt to you.”
The giant remained impassive and silent.
“After examining you,” continued Sneijder, “I diagnosed that you had received a concussion. There is a very large bump on the right side of your head, which you should take care not to bang again.”
I raised my right hand to the area of my head referred to by the Doctor and dabbed with my fingertips at a large swelling that throbbed to the touch.
“No wonder I had such a terrible pain in my head,” I observed, relieved at my good fortune to come upon a house occupied by a Doctor. After the misfortune that had brought me to the house, it made for a most welcome change in my luck.
“Do you recall how you acquired that bump, Mr Templeman?”
“Yes, I do. We were travelling in a farm cart when…” It was then that the full memory of what had happened came back to me with a start.
“Mr Templeman, are you alright?”
“Yes. Quite so. But there was another man,” I blurted out.
“Yes, the farm labourer driving the cart. There was an accident. The horse lost its nerve when something ran across the road and we crashed. I can’t recall the details. But the labourer, Doctor. He’s still there, lying in the road. How long have I been unconscious?”
My alarm concerned the Doctor, who held up a hand. “Careful, Mr Templeman. You must not excite yourself. It could cause complications. Now then, I would say you have been with us for a little over an hour. Of course, I cannot say how long you were lying on the drive. Where is this other man?”
I tried to piece together the journey I had made from the site of the accident to the farmhouse, but the truth was I could remember only fragments. Being lost as I was in the fog for so long, it left me feeling helpless.
“I don’t know, Doctor. I know it sounds ridiculous, but it was the fog, you see. We made several stops for deliveries and we seemed to take such a convoluted route that I have no idea where we went or even where I am now. But it can’t be far, I’m sure of that. My injuries, they stopped me from walking with any real speed.”
I paused, recalling that I had tried and failed to find a pulse on the labourer.
“There is something more that you can now recall?” The Doctor spoke gently, seeming to know there was something terrible on my mind.
“There is. I tried to find a pulse on the man. I couldn’t. And there was much blood on the road from a wound to his head.”
“You fear the worst, I take it, Mr Templeman?”
“I do, I’m afraid.”
“Well, let us see if we can’t find this labourer.”
Sneijder turned to face the giant and issued instructions for him to search the surrounding roads at once. I offered the only other piece of helpful information I could, informing them I had approached the house from the left as you left the drive. Without a word, Selkman went to carry out his mission.
“It can’t be far,” I repeated. “The fog, it was so heavy I could hardly see my feet.”
“Indeed. The fogs here can be like those in Holland. So solid you could almost cut through them with a sharp knife. The fog has yet to lift and I fear it will not make Selkman’s job an easy one, but he is a good man. I am sure he will find your friend.”
The effort required to concentrate and converse began, even after so short a time, to cause me to feel tired. It must have shown on my face because Dr Sneijder stepped closer to the bed and held a hand against my forehead.
“We must be careful not to tax you too heavily, Mr Templeman.” He retrieved the glass of water and brought it again to my lips. “Here, we need to ensure you consume sufficient fluids, otherwise your condition will only worsen.”
I swallowed most of the water this time, eager to quench my thirst. The cool liquid felt good as it slipped down my throat and left me a little refreshed. The Doctor, however, was not to be persuaded to any other course of action than further rest for his unexpected patient.
“Now then, you must continue your rest,” he went on, peering over the top of his glasses in the way only a Doctor or a teacher does. “Perhaps after a little more sleep we can think about helping you downstairs, so you can join me in the sitting room.”
“But, I’m sure I can manage the stairs now,” I began to say, only to find myself cut off at the pass.
“No, no, Mr Templeman. It is a common mistake to believe one has recovered from a concussion sooner than is, in fact, the case. It most often leads to complications; sometimes even death. You rest some more and when Selkman returns we can hear together his report.”
I had barely dropped my head back on to the pillow and yet was already feeling drowsy. Perhaps the Doctor was right; I really wasn’t anywhere near as well recovered as I had thought. As the Doctor picked up the empty glass and got to his feet, I closed my eyes and in what must have been mere seconds drifted off to sleep.
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