Astir with Crawling White Filaments

Just ahead of Episode Twelve of The Riddle of the Sands, I want to thank you for your kind comments about Tales for Our Time. Two years ago, when we launched this series of audio adventures, the whole thing was somewhat hastily thrown together and gotten into gear. So I’m enormously grateful for your appreciation of it. To mark our second birthday we reconfigured our Tales for Our Time home page in a friendlier Netflix-style tile format that we hope will make it easier to pick out a favorite yarn of an evening according to what you’re in the mood for – thriller, sci-fi, historical romance.

Our current tale is Erskine Childers’ prototype spy yarn and influential warning of German plots afoot on an exposed British flank in the years before the Great War. A Maryland member of The Mark Steyn Club, Tom Osterman, writes:

I’ve enjoyed the Tales with books I’ve heard of but never had the chance to read, like The Prisoner of Zenda, but it’s a real treat to hear stories I never knew existed, like The Riddle of the Sands (even if a story with that title should be set in the Sahara).

Not so, Tom. In tonight’s episode, Carruthers comes face to face, for the first time, with the shifting sands:

The yacht lay with a very slight heel (thanks to a pair of small bilge-keels on her bottom) in a sort of trough she had dug for herself, so that she was still ringed with a few inches of water, as it were with a moat.

For miles in every direction lay a desert of sand. To the north it touched the horizon, and was only broken by the blue dot of Neuerk Island and its lighthouse. To the east it seemed also to stretch to infinity, but the smoke of a steamer showed where it was pierced by the stream of the Elbe. To the south it ran up to the pencil-line of the Hanover shore. Only to the west was its outline broken by any vestiges of the sea it had risen from. There it was astir with crawling white filaments, knotted confusedly at one spot in the north-west, whence came a sibilant murmur like the hissing of many snakes. Desert as I call it, it was not entirely featureless. Its colour varied from light fawn, where the highest levels had dried in the wind, to brown or deep violet, where it was still wet, and slate-grey where patches of mud soiled its clean bosom. Here and there were pools of water, smitten into ripples by the impotent wind; here and there it was speckled by shells and seaweed. And close to us, beginning to bend away towards that hissing knot in the north-west, wound our poor little channel, mercilessly exposed as a stagnant, muddy ditch with scarcely a foot of water, not deep enough to hide our small kedge-anchor, which perked up one fluke in impudent mockery. The dull, hard sky, the wind moaning in the rigging as though crying in despair for a prey that had escaped it, made the scene inexpressibly forlorn.

A land that is sometimes desert, sometimes sea – and within striking distance of a careless people: A fellow who knew his way through those contradictions would have an unparalleled opportunity to strike at Britain. If you’re a member of The Mark Steyn Club you can hear Part Twelve of our serialization of The Riddle of the Sands simply by clicking here and logging-in. All previous episodes can be found here.

Here’s where the Dulcibella is, between the mouth of the Elbe and the easternmost Frisian Islands – near what Carruthers spells as “Neuerk” island. For fans of the BBC shipping forecast (assuming they still have that), we are in the south-eastern corner of the German Bight – a most evocative phrase for a nation partial to taking large bites out of its neighbors:

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Please join me tomorrow for Part Thirteen of The Riddle of the Sands.