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 two – lost in a great fog
New Cumnock is a village, a small one at that, and the railway station nothing more than a minor halt with a modest ticket office; but rarely can a sight have been more welcome, for it was my final stop. I was the only passenger to alight there and none, as far as I could see, boarded the southbound train.
I was greeted by almost complete silence, the still thickening fog nullifying any sounds that may have been there in the background. It was also distinctly chilly and I buttoned up my coat before making my way towards the ticket office, where the station master had some unwelcome news. The bus I had intended should take me most of the way to the house was out of service and a replacement was not available.
Ordinarily, my godfather would have met me at the station with his horse and buggy, but he was away on business, I knew, and not due back until later in the day. It seemed I faced the disconcerting prospect of having to make my way to the house on foot; a relatively easy enough task for someone like me with at least a basic knowledge of the area, but an altogether different matter in the thickening mass of white cloud.
The station master must have sensed my concern because I had not long stepped out on to the street and begun to steel myself for this last, unexpectedly challenging leg of my journey when he reappeared at my side. He informed me that a farm labourer with a horse-drawn cart, who had just dropped off some supplies at the station, had other stops to make and, if I cared to offer him a modest payment for his troubles, was willing to make a detour to my godparents’ house. The man also knew where this was located, so would have no need for me to make an attempt at providing directions.
There was something about the way the station master conveyed this news that I should have taken more notice of, but I was all too happy to accept the offer and made no attempt to identify what it was that lay behind the slight sense of reticence I detected. It seemed I had enjoyed a considerable degree of good fortune, since, if I had arrived in the village only a few minutes later, the farm labourer and his cart would have already departed.
The farm labourer, who went by the name of Fraser Brooke, was a surly looking fellow with a large, unkempt beard and eyes that shifted around disconcertingly, as if he never wanted to linger on anything or anyone for very long, and he had the most enormous hands I believe I’d ever seen.
As I clambered up on to the cart and took up station next to him, his stale, alcohol-laced breath took me by surprise and I had to turn my head away for a moment to recover. I suspected at once what had lain behind that sense of unease I’d noticed on the part of the station master, who had already made his way back to his office. I supposed beggars were not to be choosers and attempted to engage my new associate in conversation, but what few words he uttered in reply were barely comprehensible and I decided it was best thereafter to let him concentrate on his driving.
As we clattered away from the station, past several stone-built cottages that were typical in appearance of those in the region, I couldn’t help but notice the fog had now become so thick that I doubted we could see more than twenty yards in front of us. My sense of relief at finding someone to take me to the house grew more certain. By now, I wasn’t sure I’d even be able to find my own way out of the village, let alone to the road that would take me to my godparents. I tugged at my coat lapels, so as to bring them closer about my cheeks and sunk my head down into my shoulders, all the better to keep out the growing chill.
After twenty minutes or so, we turned off the main road and on to a bumpy dirt and stone track, over which the small, brown horse struggled for sure footing. It led us up a shallow incline, to a tumbledown farmhouse, where my still largely silent driver jumped off, hauled a sack of some unseen supplies from the back of the cart, and dropped it at the feet of the old woman who came to the door in response to his loud, heavy knock. He appeared to expend as few words on her as he had on me, which made me feel a little less unwelcome than I had up until that point.
We called at two further cottages after that, though quite where they were in relation to each other was hard to say, since I was by now completely befuddled by the fog which, it seemed to me, was already looking well set for a lengthy stay, with no whisper of a breeze to blow it away. It was as we left the first of these two cottages that I found it necessary to reproach my driver for the first time, though little good it did me. Before moving away, he pulled a small flask from an inner pocket of his heavy, leather jacket, unscrewed the lid and took a hearty draw on the contents. The smell left me in no doubt that it was alcohol he was drinking. Whiskey seemed most likely, given that we were in Scotland. Since he was obviously already under the influence and our journey was a hazardous one, I felt I couldn’t let this incident go unchallenged and suggested to the man that he ought to save his drink for the end of the day.
Rather than heed my practical advice, he looked at me for a time, his eyes brooding under dark, bushy brows, took another drink from his flask, then made himself very clear. “You can always take to your feet if you no like my company.”
The sudden and unexpected clarity of his speech caught me off balance and I dithered as to a response. He had the upper hand, after all, and I realised I stood little chance of finding my own way back to the village, let alone my godparents’ house, so I offered no resistance and we made our way back to the road in what was by now our customary silence.
I have no idea how far we had travelled, but I do know almost an hour had elapsed since we had left the railway station, and I supposed we could not have gone particularly far from the village as a result of our slow speed and the several stops. All the same, I began to grow increasingly restless for our arrival at Hillside House. My driver had resorted to his flask several times more since our last stop and was by now humming some odd, erratic tune I could not make out as we swayed from side-to-side, the reins light in his large, dirty hands. I must admit to some concern that he might, in fact, have no idea as to our whereabouts, nor give a care in the world about his passenger.
We had crested a gentle rise, where my hope of finding a break in the fog proved to be forlorn, then began to descend the other side. As we did so, my driver seemed content to let the horse pick up a little speed and you could almost say we ran on at a trot, despite the limited visibility, which caused me to grip with both hands the wooden bench on which we were seated.
I cannot be altogether sure of what happened next, but my recollection is that an animal of some sort, a fox perhaps, ran out in front of us, causing the horse to take fright. I supposed the poor horse must have been taken aback at the sudden appearance of this wild animal, whatever it was, and, spooked in the extreme, bolted forward without hesitation or warning. It was fortunate indeed that I was holding on to the seat, because I suspect that otherwise I would have been thrown clear and no doubt risked injury in landing on the uneven track.
Worse still, my driver allowed the reins to slip through his hands, no doubt a situation not helped by his inebriated condition, and, as he struggled to steady himself, groped ineffectually down by his feet in search of the reins.
“Good God, man,” I shouted, fear beginning to take command of me. “Take hold of those reins again before we’re hopelessly out of control.”
There was some mumbled reply that I could not make out, but already I was aware our speed was continuing to build and our path growing ever more erratic, as out of the fog a low stone wall loomed at my side of the cart before shrinking back into the cloud as we surged first to one side and then the other, leaving me desperately struggling to keep my seat.
“Slow, yer bugger,” came the command from my right, but the horse paid no heed.
My heart was now racing and my breathing rapid, every muscle in my body tensed for a sudden, violent impact. Deep, guttural oaths began to rain down on the terrified horse from its owner, who, I noticed, had by some miracle managed to lay one hand on the reins. But, at the very moment it seemed salvation was at hand, there was an especially violent lurch to the right. The world became a confused, swirling mass of blurred images, all blending one into another and a cacophony of screaming, grating sounds filled my ears.
I opened my right eye, a little at first, then fully, and saw… nothing. All was white; an odd, soft white that seemed not to be solid, but shifting, almost imperceptibly. For a while, as I stared into this void, I had absolutely no idea where I was or why, nor even, for that matter, who I was. It was a truly peculiar sensation; one that, I admit now with some embarrassment, caused me to think that perhaps I had left behind my earthly life and passed on into another realm. Though why that might have happened I could not explain.
Before I could develop these thoughts further, reality began to push in on me. My head was first to make itself known, with a terrible, throbbing pain that caused me to wince in discomfort, so much so that I felt nauseous. As I struggled to come to terms with my aching head, I became aware that the whole of my right side was cold and damp and, as I turned my head with care a little to the side, I realised I was lying on the ground. It was then that my memories came flooding back and I realised that the farm cart I had been travelling in had overturned, sending me crashing against the stone wall I had stared down on with such horror only moments before. The all-consuming whiteness into which I faced was the fog that had slowly but surely engulfed us since we left the railway station; it seemed undiminished by the passing of time.
That thought made me wonder how long I had been lying there in the road. Taking care, least I might have suffered further as yet unannounced injuries, I reached inside my jacket with my left hand, searching for my pocket watch. Having located it and lifted it into view, I brought my eyes to focus on its face. It was ten thirty-three. I had been unconscious for something like ten minutes, probably a little less. My head throbbed yet more at the effort required to focus and when I tested the most sensitive area with the fingers of one hand they came back sticky, coated with a thin layer of partially-congealed blood.
First checking my battered body for broken limbs or other serious injuries – of which there seemed to be none, thank God – I eased myself inch by painful inch back on to my feet, so unsteady at first that I had to reach out a hand to purchase support against the very wall that had done me damage. I stood for a moment and listened; the silence was total. The fog seemed to be even thicker than it was before we had crashed, visibility now little more than ten feet at best, or so I guessed.
As I stood there, nausea returned and I had to lean bodily against the dulled, damp edges of the stone wall for further support. It took some little while for the sensation to pass, whereupon I began to consider my situation.
In other circumstances, where the expectation of being found by some passing stranger might have been greater, I would have stayed where I was and waited for assistance, but there seemed so little likelihood of such an event, in so remote a place, that I made my mind up I would have to find my own way to some sort of help. A farmhouse, perhaps.
Rather than wander off aimlessly, I thought it best to first attempt to locate the farm labourer and the horse and cart, which I hoped to find intact, though it seemed somewhat unlikely. Still feeling groggy and uncertain on my feet, I staggered with care into the fog, not sure whether I was returning the way we had come or heading in the opposite direction; not that it seemed to make much difference. So slow was my progress that a child only recently able to walk would probably have passed me by with ease, but it was, for the time being, all I could manage.
I had made my painful way for perhaps two hundred yards, when I began to make out a blurred, possibly rectangular, shape in the fog ahead of me. As I closed a little further, I was able to see that it was the cart, now lying on one side, its contents spilled across the track. Perhaps the farm labourer had faired better than me in the crash and, seeing me lying there unconscious, gone off in search of help. If that appeared to be the case, I would change my plan and wait there for my rescuers to arrive.
Such hopes were, however, entirely dashed almost as soon as they arose. Barely had I reached the nearest end of the cart than I made out the form of a man sprawled upon the ground on the other side of the track, his face towards the sky. As I closed in on him, I began to fear the worst. His left arm was twisted underneath his body in a hideously unnatural position and a large pool of blood stained the ground around his head. I knelt down next to him and did my best to find a pulse, first at a temple, then on a wrist, but there appeared to be none. His eyes, when I lifted the lids, showed no signs of life. It did not escape my attention that, but for the grace of God, it could have been me lying there dead and the labourer searching for signs of life.
As I stood up, I noticed a face looking at me from out of the fog, only a few yards away. If the horse was feeling any sense of blame for what had happened, the beast didn’t show any sign of guilt, barely taking a moment to glance in my direction before dropping its head to the ground in an apparent search for food.
It occurred to me that I should attempt to locate my bag, in the hope it remained in one piece, and after the briefest of searches I found it, intact, lying on the track on the far side of the cart. However, my subsequent attempts at taking control of the horse in the hope I could ride it to safety were not so successful. Try as I might to approach it in a non-threatening manner, the beast repeatedly stepped back, away from me, with an insistent shake of the head. I would have tried dashing forward to take hold of the harness but my weakened condition and uncertain balance made that an impossibility and I suspected the horse knew it.
Since the repeated efforts at catching the animal had begun to make me feel weary, I decided not to expend any more energy on what appeared to be a hopeless task and gave thought to finding help on foot. As far as I could recall, we had not passed any buildings for some while prior to the accident, so it seemed the sensible thing to do was to continue forward, rather than double back. My mind made up, I hobbled off along the track, my headache no better and the cold, damp tendrils of the fog seeming to have reached into every part of my clothing.
I had been walking, if you can call it such, for thirty minutes, hopelessly lost and entirely disorientated, with my spirits as dampened as the weather, when I arrived at a fork in the road. My first thought was one of hope; hope that I would find a signpost and, thereby, a clear route to salvation. Even if it meant a further walk of some distance, I would at least have some certainty as to where I was heading. But a thorough search failed to reveal any such assistance and my hopes subsided once more.
Which way to go? I had nothing on which to base a decision and not even any notion as to how much difference it would in fact make. In an effort to garner some sort of basic information, I stumbled a little way down each leg of the fork, thinking perhaps I might find one of them tending to climb, as if it might be about to head up into the hills, which I considered not to be the best of options. But there was no discernable change in the incline in either case.
Still dithering, there came from the right-hand fork the sound of a sheep bleating. It was the first clear noise I had heard since the accident, so I took it as some sort of sign. Unscientific though it was, I continued my journey along the right fork. Of the sheep, there was subsequently no sign.
After another quarter of an hour, I found myself growing physically weak, a combination, I supposed, of my injuries and the relentless dampness in the air that had by now left my clothes sodden. I also found myself worrying more and more that I might suffer the effects of some hidden danger, perhaps stumbling over a sudden precipice and plunging to my death. It was, with hindsight, irrational, but the unnerving sense of danger grew upon me, little by little, until my nerves were in tatters. At one point I even stopped and sat on a section of stone wall so as to compose myself. For the first time on that hillside, alone, lost and beset by a growing sense of helplessness, I even began to wonder if I would make it back to civilisation alive. There were, after all, countless stories of lone walkers heading off on to a Scottish hillside, never to be seen or heard from again.
But as I began to contemplate the need for a second halt to pull myself together, a brief, though desperately welcome, gap opened up in the fog to my right. It was, in fact, more a series of small, irregular gaps, rather than one large one, but they were clustered close enough together to provide a reasonably clear view. And there, some way above me, was a house and one other building, quite likely a farm, I thought. It wasn’t possible to make out a track that would take me up the side of the hill, but I felt all I needed to do now was keep a sharp eye out for any kind of track or path running away to my right.
My spirits soared and energy flooded back into my aching and tired body. After what seemed like an eternity wandering in the fog, I finally had hope of rescue and I recommenced my stumbling, urged on by real purpose, ignoring the pain in my head and the tiredness in my damp limbs.
And I didn’t have far to go before I found a track leading off in generally the right direction through a break in the wall. It seemed moderately well used, shallow wheel ruts and hoof marks that looked fresh enough to be no more than a day old, which suggested there was a good chance of finding someone home. It seemed that at last my ordeal was over and I stepped on to the trackway filled with a sense of relief. But what happened between there and the farm buildings, I was not to know for some little while.
I had taken, perhaps, a dozen steps when the pain in my head became worse and my sense of balance began to fail me. The world started to veer wildly in all directions and my eyesight blurred to the point where I could make out nothing more than the general outline of trees and walls. The nausea in my nostrils and throat became intense and I realised I was falling into unconsciousness.
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