Welcome to Part Nine of our latest Tale for Our Time, a thriller of international intrigue whose repercussions will echo through the chancelleries of Europe - as conjured by John Buchan in his 1916 novel Greenmantle. I was touched by this note from a first-day Founding Member of The Mark Steyn Club, Nancy Wenlock:
It is sheer joy to hear such a well-written story! Thank you for these!
Her fellow Club member Virginia Clinton adds:
I wonder how I missed John Buchan all these years; I've never read any of his books, so I took a slight detour and listened to The Thirty-Nine Steps first...so glad I did. I've just now started into the Tales of our Time, - what a treat - it reminds me so much of my mom's classic story records we used to listen to in the 50's.
Thanks for that, Virginia and Nancy. The Thirty-Nine Steps was one of our most popular serializations, and, as Nancy says, Buchan does, indeed, write beautifully - which more than gets you over the occasional plot contrivance, one of which crops up in tonight's episode. In the first days of January 1916, Richard Hannay is racing against time to keep his rendezvous in Constantinople and prevent an Islamic uprising:
Two mornings later we lay alongside the quays at Belgrade, and I took the opportunity of stretching my legs... We wandered among the battered riverside streets, and looked at the broken arches of the great railway bridge which the Germans were working at like beavers. There was a big temporary pontoon affair to take the railway across, but I calculated that the main bridge would be ready inside a month. It was a clear, cold, blue day, and as one looked south one saw ridge after ridge of snowy hills. The upper streets of the city were still fairly whole, and there were shops open where food could be got. I remember hearing English spoken, and seeing some Red Cross nurses in the custody of Austrian soldiers coming from the railway station.
It would have done me a lot of good to have had a word with them. I thought of the gallant people whose capital this had been, how three times they had flung the Austrians back over the Danube, and then had only been beaten by the black treachery of their so-called allies... It was our business to put a spoke in the wheel of this monstrous bloody Juggernaut that was crushing the life out of the little heroic nations.
Belgrade had fallen to the Central Powers less than three months before Hannay's arrival. The Red Cross nurses he refers to were American: in 1915 Serbia had suffered what remains the worst typhoid epidemic in world history. Between war and disease, by Armistice Day of 1918 one small European country had lost a quarter of its population - and 60 per cent of its male population. As the Bulgarian Prime Minister Vasil Radoslavov put it in the summer of 1917: "Serbia has ceased to exist."
There are "little heroic nations" still in Europe, but up against a slyer and suppler juggernaut this time, and subtler demographic challenges. Members of The Mark Steyn Club can hear Part Nine of our adventure simply by clicking here and logging-in. Earlier episodes can be found here.
If you've yet to hear any of our Tales for Our Time, you can do so by joining The Mark Steyn Club. Membership is available now - and, if you sign up, you'll be all set for Part Ten of Greenmantle this time tomorrow (and all the earlier episodes, of course). And, if you've a friend who likes classic fiction, don't forget our special Gift Membership.