A sub-genre of the short story is the club tale, a story told by a man in a gentleman’s club, usually in London. For example, a collection of short stories by Dorothy L. Sayers, Lord Peter Views the Body (1928), begins with one in which Lord Peter Wimsey and his valet, Bunter, take a corpse to “a dear old Catholic priest, . . . a very sensible and feeling old bird,” for burial. Probably Wimsey means Father Whittington, “a well-known slum padre” in The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club (1928), but given Sayers’s admiration for G. K. Chesterton, he could easily mean Father Brown.
In any case, the club tale often deals with the macabre. An older contemporary of Lord Peter and Father Brown is the equally fictional Major-General Sir Richard Hannay. Hannay is the most famous character created by John Buchan (1875-1940), and Hannay is best known from his debut in The Thirty-nine Steps (1915). That brisk adventure begins in May, 1914, when the fate of Europe hangs on the outcome of a tense situation in Greece. As a greater author assures us, “there is no new thing under the sun” (Eccl 1:9).
Buchan’s only short story featuring Hannay is a club tale: “The Green Wildebeest,” first published in 1927. Hannay had referred to it in passing in Mr. Standfast (1919), the context then being ghost stories, but here he relates it in full one evening at the mythical Runagates Club.
Before drawing some salient points from Hannay’s tale, a word about him and Buchan is in order. Buchan was a son of a Presbyterian minister in eastern Scotland and studied the ancient classics at Oxford and then studied law in London. His legal career waned as his literary career waxed.
A prolific writer, Buchan was also well-connected within the British establishment. From 1901 to 1903 he served as private secretary to Lord Milner, colonial administrator of South Africa, and in 1907 Buchan married Susan Charlotte Grosvenor, a cousin of the Duke of Westminster. Officiating at the wedding was Cosmo Gordon Lang, then Bishop of Stepney, later Archbishop of Canterbury. In 1911 Buchan was elected to Parliament, where he allied with a kindred spirit, Stanley Baldwin, long an admirer of Buchan’s novels. Buchan’s political life culminated in 1935 when he became Governor General of Canada and was made the first Baron Tweedsmuir. Buchan died in office in Canada.
As a fictional hero, Hannay stands between Allan Quatermain and James Bond. Like Quatermain, Hannay has adventures in southern Africa; like Bond, he engages in daring espionage against foreign megalomaniacs. Hannay comes on the scene in The Thirty-nine Steps as a mining engineer bored with London, and he sets the prototype of the innocent man on the run both from the bad guys and from the authorities. It was a theme that long haunted the creative genius of Alfred Hitchcock, and in 1935 he made a movie of The Thirty-nine Steps, some film critics arguing that he re-made it in 1942 as Saboteur and then in 1959 as North by Northwest.
What today would be called a prequel to The Thirty-nine Steps, Hannay’s story of the green wildebeest takes place in the early 1900s in south-eastern Africa, the Boer War having ended and post-war reconstruction being underway. A veteran of the war, Hannay seeks to resume his civilian life by looking for copper in the sheer hills along the Limpopo. Accompanying him is a young Afrikaner, Andrew Du Preez, at odds with his family’s rigorist faith of Dutch Calvinism. Hannay describes him as “a hard young sceptic,” a proud product of modern education.
On their long dry trek to the craggy hills they find a source of fresh water under the control of a local native priest. The priest is old and blind but graciously gives ample amounts of water to Hannay’s party. Andrew objects to one man doling out water, and he declares he is going to do something about it.
Hannay sees the danger in Andrew’s self-righteous impetuosity. “If you’re not civil to him,” he warns, “we’ll have to quit this country.” Hannay adds, “I make a point of respecting the gods of the heathen.” Andrew rejects this voice of experience: “All you English do,” and to Andrew’s way of thinking that respect is why the British Empire is in such a mess. To him the matter is unarguable: “This fellow is a businessman with a pretty notion of cornering public utilities.”
Later back at their camp Hannay finds Andrew smoking his pipe and trying to make sense of his disastrous confrontation with the old priest. Andrew, though unscathed, claims he was attacked by a green wildebeest. Hannay laughs it off, saying to his audience in the club, “A wildebeest is not ornamental at the best, but a green one must be a good recipe for the horrors.”
What stands out in Hannay’s tale is the contrast between a modern sceptic and an ancient faith. Hannay represents an older imperialist approach, to let the natives keep their own religion, provided it does not require the ritual murder of men like Hannay, while Andrew impatiently insists that the old cults must give way to the new scientific rationalism. Yet, as time wears on, Andrew feels compelled to exorcise the green wildebeest spiritually pursuing him, and the end is not a happy one.
Despite seeming to be a Christopher Dawson parable about mankind’s innate religiosity, Hannay tells the story to illustrate a proposition untenable today, namely “the persistence of race qualities,” so that for all Andrew’s formal secular schooling, his hereditary Dutch superstitions emerge. At the club, objection to this half-baked theory comes from “Peckwether, the historian,” who maintains that over time the ancestral stock transforms into something different, so that “the end [would] be as remote from the beginnings as . . . a ripe Gorgonzola from a bucket of new milk.”
For the sad fact remains that Buchan’s otherwise excellent and entertaining narratives at times make one wince, conveying here and there the racial prejudices of their era. One encounters those unpleasant attitudes in nearly all the English-language fiction of Buchan’s day, including the writings of Sayers and Chesterton. A healthy result, however, is the opportunity it gives for considering what current bigotries and inanities are passing unquestioned in even the best novels and short stories of our own day.
Daniel J. Heisey, O. S. B, is a Benedictine monk of Saint Vincent Archabbey, Latrobe, Pennsylvania, where he is known as Brother Bruno. He teaches Church History at Saint Vincent Seminary.