Winter 1918. Armistice Day has come and gone, but the nation is still reeling from the ravages of the First World War.
In a sweeping story of social and emotional conflict, female academic Alexandra Milton is ousted from a tranquil university to work in a small, post-war Scottish town. Her task is to archive a unique bequest of seventeenth-century Spanish documents, but she is attacked by a mysterious intruder. A thief, or is the incident linked to the eccentric benefactress and her mysterious past?
Meanwhile, demobbed soldiers pour back from France in their thousands, but there are no jobs. Town and city are fraught with tension and resentment, which Alexandra struggles to ignore. As she researches a rare volume of satirical interludes, censored at the time for provoking political and religious dissent, she finds eerie similarities with the harsh realities of post-war Britain. To aid her research, she seeks help from the local solicitor. She is drawn to him, but he seems plagued by his own demons and keeps his distance.
Soon convinced that the benefactress died in mysterious circumstances, Alexandra puts aside her personal misgivings and conflicting feelings and digs deeper, despite the fact that she suspects she is being watched. Using her wits to solve the strangest of puzzles, she is drawn back to Glasgow, but then the dockworkers vote to strike. Fearing a revolution as bloody as the recent violence in Russia and Germany, the nation holds its breath as battle lines are drawn. Flung out of her safe world into the turbulent city, Alexandra finds herself at the heart of the maelstrom and must rely on old friends and new allies to avert political disaster.
A door creaked and she turned quickly, catching sight of a tiny, bearded character, stooped with age, in the grey trousers and black jacket of a railway employee. Ninety if he was a day, she reckoned, feeling guilty about the amount of luggage.
“Excuse me?” she said, then tried again more loudly, as he started to walk in the opposite direction. “I need some help with my things. And transport into town?”
“Eh?” He cupped his hand at his ear, which sprouted a forest of grey hairs.
She repeated her requests.
“Well,” he said, face clearing after another attempt. “Why didn’t ye say?”
He disappeared and returned with a rusty trolley. Uttering a deep sigh, he began to load the boxes, one by one, with painful deliberation. She asked about transport again.
“Och, now then. You’ve missed the carriage for today. What with the delay and that.”
“But I need to get into town. Is there a taxi of some sort?”
“A taxi? One of yon motorised vehicles? Here? In Argyle?” His voice raised a tone with each rhetorical question and he laughed and shook his head. “No such thing, dearie. No call for them. And no-one to drive them, either. Now the other one’s gone, it’s Dougal with his horse and cart you’ll be needing.”
“I see,” she said, momentarily thrown. “And where is Dougal?”
He shrugged. “Only Dougal hisself knows. And the horse, of course.”
She wasn’t sure how to answer that.
“So, where exactly will you be heading?” the old porter continued, “assuming Dougal puts in an appearance today.”
Today? She ignored his pessimism. “The solicitors, Buchanan & Sinclair.”
He nodded. “Oh, aye. Posh place right in the middle of town on the High Street. This way.” The official reference seemed to vindicate her request for assistance. Pushing the trolley, its wheels squeaking in a dejected fashion, the veteran railway man led her out of the station to a small road and paused, awaiting his tip. She gave him sixpence. He didn’t seem to mind it was so little.
The porter offloaded the boxes with the same long-windedness and creaked off back into the station with his trolley. Alexandra sat on the trunk and glanced at the gathering clouds. The temperature began to drop.
“Dougal will be along in a moment,” she told herself, realising there was no guesthouse or hotel nearby. “It would be too awful otherwise.”
Half an hour went by. She huddled into her coat, her arms folded against the seeping chill. She began to walk up and down, stamping her feet and rubbing her hands, but to no avail. It started to rain, a light seeping drizzle that hinted of sleet. Which case contained her umbrella? She was just about to give up and see if there was another train out of the station that decade when an elderly horse clopped into sight. She jumped up, ecstatic with relief at what normally would have been the uninspiring sight of an ancient cart, and another ancient being with more whiskers than the decrepit porter.
Dougal, a thickset, smallish man with a shock of white hair and a rolling gait, was even more laconic than the porter and barely said a word as her luggage was moved once again. Still, it wasn’t too long before she was installed next to Dougal himself, as the old cart swayed off to town. For all his taciturnity, he seemed considerate enough, and offered her the use of his large, rather tattered, black umbrella. “Thank you. Most kind,” she said. He grunted in a companionable way, and clicked to the horse through the gaps in his teeth.
It was years since she’d travelled this way. Back at the university, everything she needed was within walking distance, or reachable by omnibus. If she ever went into Edinburgh, she used the tram.
The rain eased, but the breeze was keen. Alexandra buttoned her coat right to the top. Dougal, in old green tartan trousers and a brown corduroy jacket, seemed oblivious. He simply crammed his hat farther down about his head. It was made out of soft felt, and had long forgotten what shape it ought to have been.
Within a quarter of an hour, they passed a sign to Argyle, and plodded through the outskirts, past some dumpy grey houses with an institutional air. Some grander mid-Victorian villas came next, followed by a tree-lined avenue with some charming dormered sandstone houses. The horse scented home and began to speed up, turning into what must have been the main street, populated with half a dozen Georgian properties that wouldn’t have looked out of place in Edinburgh’s New Town.
Dougal coughed and tugged the reins. “Here we are.” They drew up outside a fine grey building that stood prime position in the middle of a row, with a shining brass sign—JAMES BUCHANAN & DAVID SINCLAIR, SOLICITORS. Above the wide door was an elaborate leaded fanlight. A blue and white Scottish flag fluttered from the roof above. On either side were long sash windows, and she could make out electric lights shining through each one. Thankfully, this time, thought Alexandra, it seemed the solicitor was in.
She climbed down. “Dougal? Would you care to wait? I’ll be requiring transport to my lodging shortly.”
He sucked his teeth.
“I’ll pay, of course.”
A curt nod. “I’ll away and feed the horse.”
She nodded, proud of her negotiation, and walked up to the door. As she pushed it open, a tall man in his early thirties barged out of a doorway, head down, shoulders hunched, coat flapping, and almost walked right into her. His head flicked up. “I am most terribly sorry,” he said, touching the brim of his dark trilby hat and standing to one side to let her by. His voice was pleasant, soft with West Coast vowels. The eyes were grey, and his intent face lean but striking, with high cheekbones and a firm jaw.
“That’s all right,” she said. “Excuse me. I have an appointment with Mr. Buchanan. Is he in?”