The Unconquerable (1)
By: Helen MacInnes | Categories: Adventure, Fiction

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HiLoBooks is pleased to serialize Helen MacInnes’s 1944 novel The Unconquerable (later reissued as While We Still Live), an espionage adventure that pits an innocent English woman against both Nazis and resistance fighters in occupied Poland. MacInnes, it’s worth noting, was married to a British intelligence agent, which may explain what one hears is the amazing accuracy of her story’s details. Under the editorship of HiLobrow’s Joshua Glenn, the Save the Adventure book club will reissue The Unconquerable as an e-book for the first time ever. Enjoy!

ALL INSTALLMENTS SO FAR

***

Poland has not yet perished
While still we live!

These are the opening words of the Song of the Polish Legions. It was first sung in the black year of 1797, when Poland had been divided between the three empires of Russia, Prussia, and Austria, and her exiled sons were fighting in the Legions under the gallant General Dombrowski. Thereafter, during the nineteenth century, with the Poles’ incessant bloody revolts against foreign tyranny, the Song of the Legions spread secretly all over Poland, giving encouragement and hope to all those who were willing to sacrifice themselves for the future freedom of their country. Such was its power and so glorious was its history that it became the national anthem of liberated Poland; and even under new oppressors it is still sung by the Polish people, who refuse to become slaves. The noble truth of its words has been proven by history, past and present: no nation, no cause, will ever die if it breeds the kind of man who is willing to sacrifice everything for it, even his life.

Chapter 1: End of a Summer

The blinding directness of the sun had gone, but its heat remained. In front of the house the island of uncut grass baked into brown hay. The pink roses were bleached white. Only the plot of scarlet flowers still held its bright colour. The heavy scent of ripening plants was in the air.

Sheila stood for a moment beside the open window. The truth was, she kept repeating to herself, she hadn’t wanted to leave. There was no use in blaming her irritation on the heat; or on this last-minute packing, too long delayed; or on Uncle Matthews’ latest telegram, which pinpricked her conscience every time she looked towards it and the dressing-table. Even now, when she should be elbow-deep in a suitcase, she was still standing at this window, listening to the precise pattern of the Scarlatti sonata which struck clearly up from the little music-room. Teresa was playing it well to-day. Sheila half smiled as she imagined the child sitting so very upright, so very serious before the piano, while her mother, Madame Aleksander, counted silently and patiently beside her. The difficult passage was due any moment now. Sheila found herself waiting for it and breathed with relief when it came. Madame Aleksander would be smiling too. Teresa had managed it.

“Now,” said Sheila, “I can get on with my packing.” But she still stood at the window, her eyes on the drive which entirely circled the long grass. Thick dust lay white on its rough surface. A flourish of poplars, erect and richly green against the brown harvested fields, formed the entrance-gate to the house. There the drive ended and the road to the village began. Across the road there was nothing but plain, stretching out towards the blue sky. Here and there the woods made thick dark patches, beside which other villages, other manor-houses, sheltered. But above all, the feeling was one of space and unlimited sky. Unlimited sky… Sheila thought suddenly of bombing planes. She turned back into the room. The smile, which had stayed on her lips since Teresa’s triumph over difficult fingering, now vanished. She began to pack. It was baffling how clothes seemed to multiply merely by hanging in a wardrobe.

The music lesson was over. The house was silent. And then, downstairs in the entrance-hall, the ’phone bell rang harshly. Sheila, by a process of ruthless jamming and forcing, had managed to close the last suitcase. She was locking it, with no small feeling of personal triumph, when Barbara’s light footsteps came running up the staircase, through the square landing which was called Madame Aleksander’s ‘sewing-room,’ through Barbara’s own bedroom, and then halted abruptly at the doorway of the guest-room. Sheila finished untwisting the key before she looked up. Barbara had been waiting for this look. She came into the bedroom slowly, dramatically. Her wide eyes were larger than ever with the news she brought.

“Actually finished,” Sheila said, and searched in the pocket of her blouse for a cigarette.

Barbara said, “Sheila, that was Uncle Edward ’phoning.” She spoke in English, her voice stumbling in its eagerness through the foreign language.

“Was it?” Sheila was now looking for the perpetually disappearing matches.

“Sheila, you know quite well that something has happened,” Barbara said reproachfully. Her face showed her disappointment; her excitement was waning in spite of itself.

Sheila relented and laughed. “All right, Barbara. What’s your news?”

“Uncle Edward.”

“What about Uncle Edward?” Sheila thought of the quiet, forgetting rather than forgetful Professor Edward Korytowski, who was Madame Aleksander’s brother.

“He has just ’phoned from Warsaw.” Barbara was walking about the room now, straightening the pile of books and magazines, arranging the vase on top of the dressing-table. She broke into French in order to speak more quickly. “He’s worried about you, and he must be very worried to drag himself away from the library and his books. He even suggested he was coming here to fetch you, if we didn’t get you away to-night.”

“But the news has been bad for weeks…” Weeks? Months, rather. Even years.

“Well, it must be worse. Uncle Edward has friends, you know, who are in the Government. Before he was a professor he was active in politics himself. It looks as if some one had managed to get him away from his manuscript long enough to wake him up again. Certainly he is very worried. He made me fetch Mother from the kitchen, where she had gone after the piano lesson to attend to something or other. He made me bring her to the ’phone when she was in the middle of preparing a sauce. And now she is so worried that she even forgot to be angry about the sauce. She is coming up to see you as soon as she can get away from the kitchen.”

Sheila found it wasn’t so easy after all to pretend that everything was normal. There was no use getting excited, but on the other hand there was no use disregarding Uncle Edward. He was far from being a sensationalist.

“What did Uncle Edward say, exactly?”

“To me he said, ‘Is Sheila Matthews still there? In heaven’s name, why? Didn’t I advise her to leave last week at the latest? If she doesn’t leave to-night I’ll come down and get her and see her on that train myself.’ And then he told me to bring Mother to the ’phone and grumbled about a pack of women losing all count of time.”

Sheila looked towards the open window with its square of blue sky and green tree-tops, watched a large black bee hovering with its sleepy murmur over the window-sill. Yes, one lost all count of time, all sense of urgency here. That was one of the things she had enjoyed most at Korytów.

“Is the wireless-set working yet?” Sheila asked.

Barbara’s pretty mouth smiled. “Stefan thinks he has found out what is wrong. Don’t you hear that crackling coming from his room?”

“Peculiar noises are always coming from Stefan’s room.” Sheila gave an answering smile. She had a particular fondness for Barbara’s fourteen-year-old brother Stefan the great inventor. The wireless-set had been having its monthly overhaul. The result, so far, had been a strong sound of frying at each turn of the dial.

The two girls heard Madame Aleksander’s footsteps now. They had halted for a moment in her sewing-room before she came through Barbara’s room.

Barbara and Sheila exchanged quick glances. Madame Aleksander’s footsteps told them so much. The underlying worry of the last month, with all its alarms and false reports, was now plain in their eyes.

Madame Aleksander hesitated a moment at the doorway of the guest-room, as if she were tired, depressed, loath to give them the news she had brought. The fair hair, fading to platinum, was smoothly braided round the neat head. The bright blue eyes under the straight eyebrows were desperately worried. There was a droop to the corner of her mouth. And then, as she saw the girls watching her so silently, there was the beginning of a smile. It was a good effort, Sheila decided appraisingly, and offered Madame Aleksander the solitary chair.

“I’m afraid we shall have to miss our late afternoon talk to-day,” Madame Aleksander said. It was the custom of this house for all the members of the family to gather in Madame Aleksander’s sewing-room, and there, in the little white-panelled room with its polished floor and faded brown velvet chairs, with its soft green porcelain stove and its long window looking out between the front pillars of the house, they’d drink a glass of coffee and talk. There was no dearth of conversation in this house. Aunt Marta, who managed the farm lands as her sister looked after the household, would arrive from the fields or her office. Barbara would leave the books she was reading for the autumn examinations at Warsaw University. Teresa would clatter up the staircase until her mother’s quiet but firm voice reduced her speed to a polite walk. Teresa had been to see her friend Wanda, the little goose-girl, or had rushed round to the stables to see her friend Felix, or had talked with her friend Kazia, coming back from the market at Lowicz. It was Teresa who brought the news of the day. “My friend Wanda,” or “My friend Felix,” she would begin half-way up the staircase, and then would follow a rambling, breathless story. There was a new baby in the village. There was to be a wedding, but not a proper one; there would be no four days of dancing and fun, because the man had been called up for the Army. The school-teacher had come back from his holiday, and there were going to be lessons again once the harvesting was all finished. Wanda’s grandmother had a pain in her back, and you could hear it creak when she bent over the clover-field. Last of all to arrive was Stefan, and as soon as he arrived Aunt Marta would send him away to tidy himself. “Stefan, if you must oil the clocks, please leave the oil where it belongs. Not on your hands.” Stefan would smile good-humouredly and obey. Sheila had guessed that the boy only made this appearance, anyway, out of politeness and a sense of duty. He wasn’t interested in the discussions about crops and prices (Aunt Marta), or in the problems of housekeeping or education (his mother), or in students’ clubs (Barbara), or in “my friend Wanda” (Teresa). But he hid his boredom well. Perhaps the fact that his two older brothers — the remaining members of the Aleksander family — were so much occupied in Warsaw made Stefan feel the responsibility of being the man of the house.

Madame Aleksander had tried to make her voice sound normal, but the attempt wasn’t as successful as her smile. Perhaps she knew there were not going to be any more afternoon talks — neither to-day, nor to-morrow, nor any other day.

Barbara had sensed that too. “Sheila is almost ready,” she cried.

“It is unbelievable, isn’t it?” Sheila said hurriedly. “I really must apologize for being such a persistent guest. I came for three weeks, and I have stayed more than two months. I don’t think I realized that until I looked at a calendar to-day.”

“It is our fault. We enjoyed your visit so much that we have kept you too long.” Madame Aleksander’s English was grammatically perfect. There was a slight twist in the accent which added to the charm of her low voice. “But you will have to leave to-night, Sheila, if not for your own comfort, then certainly for your own safety. Edward is very gloomy. He has stopped all work on his book.”

“Then the news is serious!” Barbara exclaimed.

“Be serious yourself, Barbara.” There was an edge to Madame Aleksander’s usually calm voice. Barbara was chastened. When you are twenty-one it is difficult not to make a joke, not to try to make people smile. She sat on the arm of the chair and placed her hand on her mother’s shoulder. Sheila, watching them together, thought how comic it was, but in a charming way, to see such a strong family resemblance. But then, Sheila told herself with a touch of private bitterness, that was only because she herself had no family. Except Uncle Matthews, of course, and he scarcely counted; he was much too busy. There wasn’t much in common between him and her — not even a nose. With the Aleksanders it was so different. Barbara was a younger, more enthusiastic Madame Aleksander. Teresa was a miniature Barbara. Even Aunt Marta had the same wide-set blue eyes, broad brow, straight eyebrows, short nose, round chin. So had Andrew, the second oldest son, who lived in Warsaw. So had Uncle Edward. Only Stefan and Stanislaw, the eldest son, were different. Stefan was black-haired, brown-eyed, with the thin high nose of his dead father’s portrait. Stanislaw was the image of his father, Sheila had heard; he was the only Aleksander whom Sheila hadn’t met. He was a diplomat, married to a rich wife. And, as Aunt Marta said frequently, “What with watching military attachés with one eye and his wife’s international antics with the other, it’s small wonder that Stanislaw has little time to look in our direction nowadays.”

Madame Aleksander broke the silence. “Well, it’s all arranged. Andrew is coming here, this evening. That nice young American friend of his, Mr Stevens, is bringing him down in his car.”

Barbara’s face lit up. “It will be almost a party, Mother! Is Andrew coming to say good-bye to Sheila? Couldn’t he have seen her as she passed through Warsaw?” She was laughing as Sheila’s face reddened.

“Andrew,” Madame Aleksander said slowly, “is coming to say good-bye to us all. He joins his regiment to-night at ten. They leave Warsaw at dawn.”

When the girls didn’t speak, but remained staring at her, Madame Aleksander said, “Sheila is to travel back with Mr Stevens and Andrew to Warsaw. Uncle Edward and Mr Stevens will see that she catches the midnight express from Warsaw.”

She rose abruptly. She was once more the capable mistress of the house, her eyes on the watch which was pinned to her blouse, her mind already calculating the amounts and varieties of food and drink available at such short notice. “They’ll be here at six o’clock and must leave by eight. We haven’t much time.” She frowned as she considered the time it would take to prepare the food. And then, brusquely, “Sheila, do see that everything’s packed. And don’t place your passport at the bottom of a suitcase. Barbara, run to the village and tell them your brother is coming. We shall need help for Maria and Zofia in the kitchen. And ask every one to come to the house later this evening. There will be plenty to eat and drink. When you’ve done that come straight back, for I need your help in the storeroom and with the linen and silver.”

Barbara paused as she left the room. “Shall we invite the schoolmaster to dinner?” Her voice was too casual.

“I don’t think it’s necessary. He was here last week.” Her mother’s voice was equally casual, but the straight eyebrows were straighter. As Barbara’s footsteps descended the staircase Madame Aleksander looked uncertainly at Sheila.

“Sometimes,” she said almost unwillingly, “I worry about Barbara.”

“I don’t think you need to, Madame Aleksander,” Sheila smiled as warmly as she could.

“You don’t?” Madame Aleksander’s blue eyes were searching her face.

“I really mean what I said.”

There was a slight pause.

Then, “Do you like that young schoolmaster?” Madame Aleksander asked slowly.

“Yes. I like Jan Reska.”

“Aunt Marta doesn’t. She says he is a radical.”

“I think all the nicest old men I’ve met were radicals when they were young.”

“But it seems so odd, Sheila, to bury yourself in a little village like this if you have talent.”

Sheila, watching the anxious face, thought, You yourself do a very good job of burying, Madame Aleksander. She said, “Jan Reska was a farmer’s son. He hasn’t been able to free himself of his love of the land. That’s why he chooses to teach in a country village.”

Madame Aleksander nodded. She looked as if she could understand and believe that. Suddenly she raised her hands in a quick gesture to her face. “Oh, how dreadful… I nearly forgot. Sheila, would you hurry after Barbara? Tell her to visit Kawka’s house. His mother is very ill. I want to know how she is. And if Father Mazur is there tell Barbara to invite him to dine with us.” She paused, and then added, “Tell her to invite Jan Reska too.”

*

Sheila hurried down the curving staircase and through the square entrance-hall. Behind her was the kitchen, the smell of spiced fruit, newly bottled, Maria’s voice raised in anger. Zofia’s weeping followed Sheila out of doors into the warm air. As she crossed the shaded veranda, with its four white pillars rising to support the overhanging roof, and descended the shallow steps, hot to the touch of her thin shoes, she was thinking how strange it was that one servant should be so arrogant with another. Madame Aleksander ruled the kitchen with a firm hand, but she never reduced Zofia to wailing. Maria could, and frequently did.

Sheila hesitated on the sandy surface of the drive. Barbara had probably taken the short cut, past the small west wing of the house, past the stables and the duckpond. My friend Wanda was there, sitting under the shade of a willow that wept into the dark water. A yellow kerchief hid her tightly plaited hair, her bare legs were straight and wide apart before her, like a ballet girl on a Degas canvas. One of the geese hissed angrily at the running Sheila. “Boo to you,” she called in English over her shoulder. Wanda looked up from her knitting, and her face crinkled. She didn’t understand, but she laughed, anyway. Sheila gave the child a wave of her hand as she passed through the line of linden-trees and entered the path which edged Kawka’s long, narrow stretch of land. His was the first house in the straight row of rye-thatched cottages which formed the village of Korytów.

She saw Kawka and his wife and his sister, working half-way up the field. And then, just as she was wondering if her hesitating attempts to speak Polish would be understood by them, or if they would object to hearing some German instead, she saw Barbara. And with Barbara was the schoolmaster. They were standing under one of the broad linden-trees. They waved as if they had noticed her indecision. She went forward slowly, thankful that it had been she, and not Aunt Marta, who had found them standing hand-in-hand so openly. But as she saw the numbed, helpless look in their eyes she knew that the time for discretion was past. Time was too short. They knew it.

“Jan cannot come,” Barbara replied to Sheila’s message from Madame Aleksander. “He leaves within the hour. The call came this morning. Just a piece of paper handed silently into his house. That was all.”

Sheila didn’t know what to say. Anything seemed trite. She looked at Reska. He had the strong body, the quiet, large-boned face of a countryman. The sweat still glistened on his throat. His hands and forearms were covered with harvest dust. He had been working with Kawka. He had chosen to help on that piece of land because it lay nearest to the manor-house, and he had desperately hoped to see Barbara, or Sheila, or even Teresa, to give them the news of his going.

His blue eyes were fixed on the horizon as if he. could see the German waves ready to roll over these plains. “I wonder just how many men they really have,” he said softly, almost to himself. “There’s been so much bluster and talk.” Then he smiled as if to cheer the anxious girls, and the hard line of his high cheek-bones and strong chin softened.

“If things were desperate I’m sure the Polish armies would be fully mobilized and at the frontier now,” Sheila said hopefully.

“It’s a long frontier.” Reska’s voice was not dejected, only philosophic. “And we have been mustering the troops slowly, almost secretly. We are far from being mobilized. The democracies have asked us to give the Germans no excuse for attack, so we leave ourselves vulnerable in trying to keep the peace. Personally, I think we would have been wiser to have mobilized weeks ago. If the Germans don’t find an excuse they invent one.”

Sheila suddenly felt she shouldn’t be here with them. Hurriedly she said, “I’ll go down to Kawka’s house. Father Mazur will understand me if I talk German, won’t he?”

Barbara nodded.

To Reska Sheila spoke the Polish good-bye phrases, which she had been mastering in the last few days. He bowed with unexpected grace and gave a neat reply which embraced Poland, her allies, his good wishes for her safe journey to London, his hope to see her again in Poland once victory was won. He raised her hand and kissed the cuff of her sleeve.

By the time she left Kawka’s house Barbara was waiting alone for her under the linden-tree. Neither of them appeared aware of the heavy tears on Barbara’s cheeks. Sheila found herself staring at the western horizon as Reska had done.

NEXT INSTALLMENT | ALL INSTALLMENTS SO FAR

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RADIUM AGE SCIENCE FICTION: “Radium Age” is HiLobrow’s name for the 1904–33 era, which saw the discovery of radioactivity, the revelation that matter itself is constantly in movement — a fitting metaphor for the first decades of the 20th century, during which old scientific, religious, political, and social certainties were shattered. This era also saw the publication of genre-shattering writing by Edgar Rice Burroughs, Sax Rohmer, E.E. “Doc” Smith, Jack London, Arthur Conan Doyle, Aldous Huxley, Olaf Stapledon, Karel Čapek, H.P. Lovecraft, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Yevgeny Zamyatin, Philip Gordon Wylie, and other pioneers of post-Verne/Wells, pre-Golden Age “science fiction.” More info here.

READ GORGEOUS PAPERBACKS: HiLoBooks has reissued the following 10 obscure but amazing Radium Age science fiction novels in beautiful print editions: Jack London’s The Scarlet Plague, Rudyard Kipling’s With the Night Mail (and “As Easy as A.B.C.”), Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Poison Belt, H. Rider Haggard’s When the World Shook, Edward Shanks’ The People of the Ruins, William Hope Hodgson’s The Night Land, J.D. Beresford’s Goslings, E.V. Odle’s The Clockwork Man, Cicely Hamilton’s Theodore Savage, and Muriel Jaeger’s The Man with Six Senses. For more information, visit the HiLoBooks homepage.

REDISCOVERED BY HILOBOOKS: Jack London’s The Scarlet Plague | Rudyard Kipling’s With the Night Mail (and “As Easy as A.B.C.”) | Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Poison Belt | H. Rider Haggard’s When the World Shook | Edward Shanks’ The People of the Ruins | William Hope Hodgson’s The Night Land | J.D. Beresford’s Goslings | E.V. Odle’s The Clockwork Man | Cicely Hamilton’s Theodore Savage | Muriel Jaeger’s The Man With Six Senses | Jack London’s “The Red One” | Philip Francis Nowlan’s Armageddon 2419 A.D. | Homer Eon Flint’s The Devolutionist | W.E.B. DuBois’s “The Comet” | Edgar Rice Burroughs’s The Moon Men | Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland | Sax Rohmer’s “The Zayat Kiss” | Eimar O’Duffy’s King Goshawk and the Birds | Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Lost Prince | Morley Roberts’s The Fugitives | Helen MacInnes’s The Unconquerable | Geoffrey Household’s Watcher in the Shadows | John Buchan’s Huntingtower

ORIGINAL FICTION: HiLobrow has serialized three novels: James Parker’s The Ballad of Cocky The Fox (“a proof-of-concept that serialization can work on the Internet” — The Atlantic); Karinne Keithley Syers’s Linda Linda Linda (which includes original music); and Robert Waldron’s roman à clef The School on the Fens. We also publish original stories and comics. These include: Matthew Battles’s stories “Gita Nova“, “Makes the Man,” “Imago,” “Camera Lucida,” “A Simple Message”, “Children of the Volcano”, “The Gnomon”, “Billable Memories”, “For Provisional Description of Superficial Features”, “The Dogs in the Trees”, “The Sovereignties of Invention”, and “Survivor: The Island of Dr. Moreau”; several of these later appeared in the collection The Sovereignties of Invention | Peggy Nelson’s “Mood Indigo“, “Top Kill Fail“, and “Mercerism” | Annalee Newitz’s “The Great Oxygen Race” | Charlie Mitchell’s “A Fantasy Land” | Joshua Glenn’s “The Lawless One”, and the mashup story “Zarathustra vs. Swamp Thing” | Adam McGovern and Paolo Leandri’s Idoru Jones comics | John Holbo’s “Sugarplum Squeampunk” | “Another Corporate Death” (1) and “Another Corporate Death” (2) by Mike Fleisch | Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer and Frank Fiorentino’s graphic novel “The Song of Otto” (excerpt) | “Manoj” and “Josh” by Vijay Balakrishnan | “Verge” by Chris Rossi, and his audio novel Low Priority Hero | EPIC WINS: THE ILIAD (1.408-415) by Flourish Klink | EPIC WINS: THE KALEVALA (3.1-278) by James Parker | EPIC WINS: THE ARGONAUTICA (2.815-834) by Joshua Glenn | EPIC WINS: THE MYTH OF THE ELK by Matthew Battles | TROUBLED SUPERHUMAN CONTEST: Charles Pappas, “The Law” | CATASTROPHE CONTEST: Timothy Raymond, “Hem and the Flood” | TELEPATHY CONTEST: Rachel Ellis Adams, “Fatima, Can You Hear Me?” | OIL SPILL CONTEST: A.E. Smith, “Sound Thinking | LITTLE NEMO CAPTION CONTEST: Joe Lyons, “Necronomicon” | SPOOKY-KOOKY CONTEST: Tucker Cummings, “Well Marbled” | INVENT-A-HERO CONTEST: TG Gibbon, “The Firefly” | FANFICTION CONTEST: Lyette Mercier’s “Sex and the Single Superhero”

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Scottish-born novelist Helen MacInnes (1907–85) wrote 21 anti-totalitarian espionage adventures, including these titles from HiLobrow's list of 200 Greatest Adventure Novels: Above Suspicion, Assignment in Brittany, The Unconquerable, and The Venetian Affair. Fun fact: Assignment in Brittany was required reading for Allied intelligence agents who were being sent to work with the French resistance against the Nazis.