Olivia Manning, OBE, was born in Portsmouth, Hampshire, spent much of her youth in Ireland and, as she put it, had ‘the usual Anglo-Irish sense of belonging nowhere’. She married just before the War and went abroad with her husband, R.D. Smith, a British Council lecturer in Bucharest. Her experiences there formed the basis of the work which makes up The Balkan Trilogy. As the Germans approached Athens, she and her husband evacuated to Egypt and ended up in Jerusalem, where her husband was put in charge of the Palestine Broadcasting Station. They returned to London in 1946 and lived there until her death in 1980.
The Spoilt City
One morning, while the city quivered like a mirage in the August heat, Harriet came face to face with Bella in the Calea Victoriei. Bella gave a smile and hurried into a shop. So she had not gone to Sinai after all, but had remained here, like everyone else, the prisoner of uncertainty and fear.
The Rome Conference had broken down. This time no one imagined that that was the end of the matter. There would be another conference. When it was announced, there was no stir and no more talk of defiance. The new Cabinet had announced complete fealty to the Führer and the Führer required a peaceful settlement. A settlement of any kind could only mean Rumania’s loss. Around the cafés and bars this fact was beginning to be accepted with a half-humorous resignation. What else was there to do? Yakimov, inspired by the tenor of conversation about him, had thought up a little joke. “Quel débâcle!” he said whenever opportunity arose: “As you walk cracks appear on the pavement,” and even Hadjimoscos had not the heart to snub him.
The young men still stood with their banners on the palace pavement, supported now by an admiring crowd. As for the King, having made his speech, his declaration of constancy, he had retired into silence, and a song was being sung which David did his best to put into English verse:
“They can have Bessarabia. We don’t
The last phrase “Eu nu abdic” was the slogan of the moment. Jokes were told and the point was “Eu nu abdic”. Riddles were asked and the answer was always “Eu nu abdic”. However recondite, it was the smartest retort to any request or inquiry. It always raised a laugh.
In the face of the threat to Transylvania, no one gave much thought to the southern Dobrudja, but the story went round that the old minister who had wept over Bessarabia, had wept—probably from habit—when the Bulgarian demand was received. He reminded the Cabinet that Queen Marie’s heart was buried in the palace at Balcic and the queen had believed her subjects would safeguard it with their lives. He stood up crying: “To arms, to arms,” but no one, not even the old man himself, could take this call seriously. The queen, though barely two years dead, symbolised an age of chivalry as outmoded as honour, as obsolete as truth.
The transfer of the southern Dobrudja was announced for September 7th.
That, Harriet thought, was one frontier problem peaceably settled, but when she made some comment of this sort to Galpin, he eyed her with the icy irony of one who has good cause to know better.
They had met on the pavement outside the Athénée Palace and Galpin was carrying a suitcase. “For my part,” he said, “I’m keeping a bag ready packed and my petrol-tank full.”
He crossed to his car and put the case into the boot, then remarked in a milder tone: “I thought it darn odd they were willing to settle for that mouldy bit in the south when they could grab the whole coast.”
“Do you mean they are grabbing the whole coast?”
“They and one other. I expect it was arranged months ago. When the Bulgars take the south, the old Russkies will occupy the north. Between them they’ll hold the whole coastal plain. It’s a Slav plot.”
When Harriet did not look as alarmed as he felt she should be, he said on a peevish note: “Don’t you see what it means? Rumania will be cut off from the sea. The Legation plan is to evacuate British subjects from Constanza. You’ll be one of the ones to suffer. There’ll be no escape route.”
“We can go to Belgrade.”
“My dear child, when the Germans march this way, they’ll take Yugoslavia en route.”
“Well, we can go by air.”
“What, the whole blessed British colony? I’d like to see it. And anyway, when there’s trouble the air service is the first thing to pack up. I’ve seen it time and again. Well, I’m taking no risk. When I get wind of the invasion, I’m into the flivver and off.”
“Ah, well,” said Harriet, attempting to lighten the situation, “perhaps you’ll take us with you?”
Galpin’s eyes bulged. “I don’t know about that. I’ve got baggage. I’ve got Wanda. The Austin’s old. The road over the Balkans is bad. If we broke a spring, we’d be done for.” Looking as though she had attempted to take an unfair advantage, he got into the car, slammed the door and drove away.
The Spoilt City
“Were you in England recently, sir?” Guy asked.
“Less than a month ago. You’d find it much changed, I think. Changed for the better, I mean.”
While Wheeler, with knotted brows, concentrated on the task of getting the car-key off the ring, Sir Brian talked in a leisurely way of a new sense of comradeship which he said was breaking down class-consciousness in England and drawing people together. “Your secretary calls you ‘Brian’ and the liftman says: ‘We’re all in it together.’ I like it. I like it very much.” Once or twice, while talking, he gave a slightly mischievous side-glance at Wheeler, so the others warmed to him, feeling he was one of them and on their side against the established prejudices of the Legation.
Wheeler, not listening, gave a sigh. The key had come off the ring. He gazed at it, perplexed, then set himself the more difficult task of getting it on again.
“After the war we shall see a new world,” Sir Brian said and smiled at the three young people, each of whom watched him with rapt, nostalgic gaze. “A classless world, I should like to think.”
Harriet thought how odd it was to be standing in this melancholy light, listening to this important person who had flown in that afternoon and would fly out again that night—an unreal visitant to a situation that must seem unreal to him. Yet, real or not, the other men would be left to the risk of imprisonment, torture and death.
Sir Brian suddenly interrupted his talk about England to say: “So it’s all over here, eh? Geography defeated us. The dice were loaded against us. No one to blame. These things can’t be helped.”
His tone was conclusive: he stood upright, preparing to depart.
David moved forward. “In my opinion,” he said, “this could have been helped.”
“Indeed!” The chairman paused in surprise.
“We lost this country months ago through a damn-fool policy of supporting Carol at no matter what cost to the rest of the community. The better elements here refused to serve under such a rule. Maniu and the other liberals would have been with us, but we had no use for them. We kept a pack of scoundrels in power. No wonder the country was divided against itself.”
“Ah!” Sir Brian was non-committal: a just man, he was prepared to hear all sides. “And what are the facts, as you see them?”
Wheeler rubbed his brow in a despairing way.
Speaking authoritatively, all diffidence gone now, David said: “A united Rumania—a Rumania, that is, who’d won the loyalty of her minorities by treating them fairly—could have stood up to Hungarian demands. She might even have stood up to Russia. If she’d remained firm, Yugoslavia and Greece would have joined with her; perhaps Bulgaria, too. A Balkan entente! Not much perhaps, but not to be sneezed at. With the country solid, enjoying a reasonable internal policy, the Iron Guard could never have regained itself. It could never have risen to power in this way.”
Sir Brian, hands together on his umbrella-handle as on a gun-butt, stood upright, head bowed at the neck in an attitude of mourning.
Wheeler cleared his throat, preparing to arrest this indictment, but David was not easily arrested. “And,” he persisted, “there were the peasants—a formidable force, if we’d chosen to organise them. They could have been trained to revolt at any suggestion of German infiltration. And, I can tell you, the Germans don’t want trouble on this front. They would not attempt to hold down an unwilling Rumania. As it is, the country has fallen to pieces, the Iron Guard is in power and the Germans have been invited to walk in at their convenience. In short, our policy has played straight into enemy hands.”
Sir Brian jerked up his head. He briskly asked: “So it’s now too late?”
“Too late,” David agreed.
The chairman gave Wheeler a glance, no longer mischievous. He had asked for facts but clearly felt the facts were getting out of hand. Wheeler, too, was losing patience. “I really think ...” he began.
“Dear me, yes.” Sir Brian shot out his hand to David, to Guy to Harriet, concluding the discussion. “It’s all been very interesting. Very interesting, indeed!” The charm was well sustained, but something had gone wrong with it. He led the way round the side of the house, the others followed. He was talking, affable again, but his affability was for Wheeler.
It was almost dark. There was no sign of light or life about the house, but the front door still stood open and through it Harriet glimpsed the white jacket of a servant whose keys clinked in his hand. He was waiting to lock up when they, the last of the British, had taken their departure.
While Wheeler opened his car-door, Sir Brian looked back at the three young people and lifted his umbrella-handle to his hatbrim before getting into the car. He did not smile. Wheeler said nothing at all but slammed the door furiously and made off. Watching the red tail-light draw away, Guy said: “We’re all in it together, are we? The bastard!”
David remained indulgent. “The duplicity of office! And Wheeler is a prize ass. He once said to me: ‘If diplomacy were as simple as it appears to the outsider, my dear Boyd, we’d never have wars at all.’”