The Unconquerable (2)
By: Helen MacInnes | Categories: Adventure, Serial 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

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Chapter 2: The Last Dinner Party

Andrew Aleksander and Mr Stevens had arrived. The car had driven up in a swirl of warm dust, Teresa and Stefan had rushed outside, the stable dogs had barked, the ducks and geese had added their contribution of noise from the pond. In the kitchen women’s high voices had subsided with their hurrying footsteps. Everything was ready.

In her room Sheila pretended to make a last search through the drawers of the dressing-table. She was increasingly nervous about going downstairs. She persuaded herself that she must give Andrew and his friend time to meet the family. One drawer, forgotten in its smallness, roused a vague suspicion. She crossed over to the little rosewood writing-desk. She was right. She had almost left her diary. Small wonder that she had forgotten it; she hadn’t entered a thing in it for weeks. In London, where she had always been so busy, she had yet managed to keep an account of what she had done each day. Here, there had never seemed to be any time for writing a diary. She smiled at that. Diaries must be for lonely people.

She opened the book, crossing over to the window to have better light to read. What had she been doing one year ago to-day? That was always amusing to find out. August 30, 1938…. The Sudeten question. Enrolment in a class for voluntary nursing. An interview with a newspaper editor, in the hope of being accepted as a very minor member of his staff…. Not a very good entry…. The Sudeten question was now solving itself in Danzig. The voluntary nursing hadn’t been much of a success — why did other people not turn sick at the sight of blood? As for the newspaper job… too many would-be correspondents, too few openings.

A movement from the clump of bushes near the American’s car caught her eye. There was a glimpse of white loose sleeve as an arm grabbed a small tow-headed boy and pulled him back into the thick shrubbery. There was a giggle; children’s voices trying to be subdued and not succeeding; and once more the head of the boy struggling into view. This time he evaded the arm and dashed towards the running-board. By standing on tiptoe, his short stub of a nose could just see over the edge of the open car.

“Red,” he squeaked excitedly over his shoulder. He stared inside once more, his small hands clutching the car’s side tightly. “Leather!” he added. There was a flurry of excitement in the bushes. Yellow-topped Wanda darted forward, followed by an older girl in the wide-sleeved blouse. Then Felix appeared, charging round from the stable end of the house with a yell like a factory whistle. The children vanished. Felix, growling into his long moustache, searched in the bushes. But the birds had indeed flown. My friend Wanda’s high laugh sounded from the straggling pine-woods beyond.

Sheila laughed too, and Felix looked up. He had dressed himself in his best clothes — tight black trousers tucked into tight, high boots; a sleeveless jacket over a clean white shirt — and he had combed his few remaining hairs into a toothy parting.

“Felix, you do look handsome,” Sheila called down, and won a broad gap of a smile.

“The young lady is ready to leave?”

“Yes.” Sheila heard the sound of galloping horses. They were coming from the east, but the pine-woods which hid the children also blocked any clear view.

“That is sad. Every one is going away. All the young people once more.” He stood shaking his upturned head.

The hoof-beats struck the road, and two horses swept into the drive. Sheila held her breath. The horses reared as they were tightly reined in, stood erect in their quivering haunches for a long moment, and then dropped their forefeet slowly to the ground. A white-haired man dismounted and gave the reins over to Felix. But the dark young man in uniform still sat on his horse. He was looking up at Sheila with sufficient interest to freeze the smile on her lips into self-consciousness. She drew back half a pace. Then, with a smart salute to the tip of his smart cap, the officer vaulted lightly off his horse, threw the reins over Felix’s waiting arm, and followed the older man into the house.

Sheila placed the diary on top of a suitcase. Before the mirror she combed her fair hair, added more powder to an already perfect skin. Her brown eyes looked back at her reprimandingly. “You had no need,” they said severely, “to keep staring at him.”

Barbara, white-faced, sad-mouthed, interrupted her thoughts. “Sheila, aren’t you ready? We are waiting. And we have other guests, too, now. Adam Wisniewski and his father have ridden over from their house. Adam’s regiment is moving north, and it is stationed to-night near Lowicz. It is requisitioning more horses. Adam got leave to see his father, and they have come over here to say good-bye. He’s Andrew’s greatest friend. Did you meet him when Andrew was in London last year? Adam passed through there on his way to the Dublin Horse Show. He rides, you know.”

“So I saw.”

“Mother would like me to marry Adam. Can you see any reason why I don’t fall in love with him?” Barbara was half smiling.

“None.” Sheila paused. “Except that you fell in love with Jan Reska.”

Barbara must have been thinking of Reska too. Her voice wasn’t very steady now. “It’s funny…” She took Sheila’s arm, and together they walked slowly towards the staircase.

“What is?” Sheila asked gently.

“Falling in love. How you do it, with whom…” Barbara managed to control her voice better. “Mother wants to see all her children married to people she likes. Of course, you knew that was why she asked you to visit us this summer? She was so eager to see you after Andrew came home from London and talked about you most of the time.”

“Oh.” Sheila had wondered about that. After all, that was one of the reasons which had made her decide to accept Madame Aleksander’s invitation: she had wanted to find out, too, if she were really in love with Andrew.

“You would have been just my choice for a sister-in-law,” Barbara was saying. She watched Sheila’s face as if hoping for a denial that Sheila wouldn’t be her sister-in-law. She saw instead a look of embarrassment and unhappiness well mixed. In some things, Barbara thought, the British girl seemed so much older than she did — in other things, such as falling in love and recognizing it, Sheila was so much younger. It was incredible that people should be afraid of their emotions, instead of enjoying them.

“Don’t worry, Sheila.” Barbara’s sun-tanned arm went round Sheila’s shoulder. “Don’t worry. Mother has other things to think about now. She is talking downstairs about leaving for Warsaw to do hospital work if war comes. She nursed in the last one, you know.”

In the hall there was the sound of many voices, even laughter.

“Is the news better?” Sheila asked, as a heavily laden Maria, followed by a twittering Zofia bustled past the girls.

Barbara shook her head slowly. All pretence of light-heartedness was gone. Then Maria’s broad back had pushed the dining-room door wide open, and Madame Aleksander had seen them, was coming forward to welcome Sheila.

“You aren’t shy?” she asked gently, looking at the girl’s wide eyes. And Sheila immediately lost the composure she had been mustering. The faces round her were so many, so vague. Then suddenly, they focused sharply. She found herself looking into the brown eyes of the tall cavalry officer. She would have to pick on him, she thought angrily, and looked quickly away. She had the feeling that it wasn’t quickly enough. He was smiling.

Andrew was beside her now, looking very strange and serious in his uniform. There were the introductions to be completed; Father Mazur, Pan Wisniewski, Mr Russell Stevens, Captain Adam Wisniewski. There was a scraping of chairs. The last party in Madame Aleksander’s house was about to begin. As if every one were admitting it secretly to himself there was a sudden restraint, a hush that continued after the priest’s blessing was over.

Teresa ended it. Her eyes, round with excitement at having been included in a real grown-up party, were examining the elaborately embroidered cloth, the silver vases and candlesticks.

“When did you get all this, Mother?” she asked suddenly.

The men roared with laughter. The priest’s serious face relaxed into a smile. Aunt Marta, looking more Roman matron than ever in her best black dress, said severely, “Teresa, they were your great-great-grandmother’s. At times they have been buried deep in the earth to save them from the Cossacks. But when it was safe to bring them out they came out for special occasions. To-night is a special occasion.” With that Aunt Marta turned to Pan Wisniewski and began a conversation about the requisitioning of horses, the low price of hogs, and the long summer drought. Madame Aleksander was talking with Father Mazur, their voices so low that Sheila guessed the latest news was under discussion. Captain Wisniewski was doing his best to entertain Barbara with his most recent troubles. Now and again the captain would glance across the table to Sheila, as if including her; and then Sheila would hastily renew her conversation with Andrew on her right. The American on her left seemed to understand that Andrew had a lot to say, for he kept silent and devoted himself to the variety of food which Maria and the other woman were serving. Maria’s habit of entering into the conversations with a crusty comment or two seemed to amuse Mr Stevens. His Polish, Sheila noted, was more fluent than her own efforts. His appetite was certainly better.

The pinpricks of light from the tall white candles had spread into a rich glow as the sunset faded. There was a steady flow of talk, but the animation was tense and strained. Andrew was quiet, gentle, sympathetic, but there was a hard look in his eyes whenever the subjects of present news — probable war, or Germany — were introduced. So he and Sheila talked of London, of the friends he had made there last winter, when he had visited England with a Purchasing Commission for army supplies. Then Andrew spoke of her Uncle Matthews, who, he was sure, would blame him for not having made Sheila leave Poland ten days ago.

“No,” Sheila said quickly, emphatically. “No, Andrew. Please don’t worry about that. My uncle knows by this time that you did try to get me to leave two weeks ago when you left Warsaw for Gdynia. He also knows me. I think…”

Andrew smiled at that. Sheila avoided Captain Wisniewski’s very direct look.

“I must say I had rather a shock to-day when I got back to Warsaw and discovered you had never gone to England,” Andrew admitted. “Why didn’t you go when you said you would?”

“I meant to. But somehow there were so many things I still had to do. And there was a wedding in the village to which I was invited. It is strange, isn’t it, how a village can catch you up in a way that a big city never touches you?”

Sheila was suddenly aware that the American was listening too. She turned to him and smiled to excuse her neglect.

“Hello,” he said very seriously. “I’m Russell Stevens. Remember me? I’m the fellow that came in with Andrew.”

“I’m Sheila Matthews,” she countered weakly.

“I know. I’m a friend of Andrew’s.” He watched the heightening colour in her cheeks with matter-of-fact interest. “And how does our English friend enjoy the Polish countryside? It’s all too marvellous?”

The mocking note of quotation in his voice annoyed Sheila. I am not an impressionable schoolgirl, she thought irritably. She glanced involuntarily across the table and then wished she hadn’t. Captain Wisniewski had given up all pretence of talking to Barbara and was watching her quite openly. The calm scrutiny opposite, with its implied masculine confidence, had its effect. The neat little speech which she was preparing for Mr Stevens’ benefit suddenly disintegrated.

“Go on,” Mr Stevens said encouragingly. “You look very charming when you are indignant.”

She checked her next words in embarrassment. At a time like this she would only argue emotionally. Perhaps Mr Stevens had guessed what she was thinking, for he gave her an unexpected smile and glanced at his watch. That was the third time he had looked at it in the last half-hour.

Sheila said, “I’m sorry I am giving you all this trouble. The journey to Warsaw, I mean. But you don’t have to put me on a train. I’ve caught midnight trains abroad before now.”

“On the eve of a war? And what a war!”

Sheila was silent.

“I’m not worrying about you, Miss Matthews. You are one of the lucky ones. You are leaving.” He looked round the room. Food and wine had slackened the tense conversations. The animation was gone. A calm fatalism had taken its place.

“They’ve suffered more than our countries have,” Sheila said slowly.

“We’ll learn.” The American’s voice was grim. Suddenly he was alert. “What’s that?”

Sheila listened tensely. So did Madame Aleksander and Barbara. But it was only the engine of a high-powered car.

“Some one to visit you, Madame Aleksander,” Stevens said, more for the sake of ending the sudden silence than for anything else.

“An emergency, perhaps?” Wisniewski’s strong, deep voice suggested. Both he and Andrew had risen to their feet as the brakes screeched on the drive. Their uniforms emphasized the serious look they interchanged.

Maria entered with a short announcement. “There’s a man to see the English lady.”

“A gentleman to see Miss Matthews,” Madame Aleksander said pointedly.

“He’s a German,” Maria said, equally pointedly.

For one painful moment all eyes were fixed on Sheila’s astonished face, and then suddenly every one had something interesting to say to each other. To Sheila it was as embarrassing as silence would have been.

Teresa was already out of her chair. “Mother, I want to see a German.”

“Stay where you are, Teresa.”

“But, Mother,” Stefan said, his brown eyes urgent, “I’d like to see what kind of car he has. Listen, all the children are looking at it.” Through the open windows the voices of the children had indeed grown louder. Sheila, as she rose from the table, saw many people outside on the grass. The villagers were beginning to arrive. It must be nearly eight o’clock.

She excused herself with a slightly bewildered smile, and hurried into the hall. Russell Stevens followed her along with Stefan and Teresa.

“And don’t be long with your German friend,” he warned her. “We’ve only ten minutes.” He gave her a grin and went outside with the children.

Maria was pointing to the music-room. “He’s in there,” she said unceremoniously. All her friendliness was gone.

Sheila pushed aside the white panelled door. The man, who had been sitting uncomfortably on the piano stool, rose and faced her. He was a complete stranger.

Sheila widened her eyes to see better in the darkening room. The man moved to the window. She followed him there, and they stood looking at each other in the last of the evening light.

“I think there’s a mistake,” Sheila said in German. “I don’t know you.”

The man was staring at her curiously — a white-haired, square-faced man with tight lips and clever eyes.

“No, Miss Matthews,” he said in English, “you don’t know me. My name is Johann Hofmeyer. I have business connexions with your uncle, Mr John Matthews. He has just wired me about you.”

“Then he sent you here?”

The man bowed. “He telegraphed yesterday and gave me your address. I am at your service, Miss Matthews, to take you back to Warsaw. There is a plane to Bucharest which you could catch to-night.”

Sheila’s confusion left her. She was suddenly on the alert.

“My uncle doesn’t have a branch of his business in Warsaw.” she said.

“I am not in your uncle’s business.” There was a suspicion of a smile. “I have my own business. I export the finest Polish table delicacies. Your uncle’s firm is a very good customer. I have been under obligations to him. So, when he telegraphs me in urgent language, then I feel impelled to do as he asks.”

Sheila relented. “I am afraid I have given you unnecessary trouble. I am very sorry. But I am just on the point of leaving for Warsaw.”

“And when are you leaving Warsaw?”

Sheila smiled. This man was quick. “By a train about midnight,” she answered.

Mr Hofmeyer produced a bulging pocket-book. He handed her several pieces of paper, neatly clipped together. “Your plane tickets. Give up the idea of a train, Miss Matthews. You are sure you won’t come with me now?”

Sheila shook her head. “It’s very kind of you, but my friends are waiting for me.”

“So. Well, at least my journey here wasn’t wasted. I can let your uncle know that you are leaving Warsaw to-night.”

Sheila was thinking, why does he keep looking at me like this? She said, “How did you know when I came into this room that I was Sheila Matthews?”

She couldn’t fathom the man’s half smile, the suddenly guarded look on his face.

“Am I really so like my uncle?” she asked gently, and waited tensely for the reply.

“No. Not really.” Then, as if he had said too much, Mr Hofmeyer turned towards the door.

“Mr Hofmeyer,” Sheila began awkwardly, “thank you for coming here. I should think it must have been a very unpleasant journey for you, at the moment.”

The man caught her meaning. “I’ve lived in Poland for twenty years. There are a number of Germans here, landowners and business-men. We are accepted as Poles.”

Sheila looked at the square face, white, heavy-lined. She couldn’t read anything there. If the man worried about his status in Poland at this time it wasn’t evident. A blank look had spread over his features. His face had become unmemorable, undistinguished.

“Good-bye, Miss Matthews. My regards to your uncle.”

“Good-bye.”

Sheila heard his light, firm step cross the parquetry floor in the hall.

Involuntarily, she stood close to the window. There was a crowd of children in the garden. The American’s tall shoulders were surrounded by a waist-high sea of sleek heads and bright clothes. He was showing them how the lights of his car switched off and on. Sheila heard the children’s “Ohs!” and “Ahs!” of bliss. In the general clamour of thin, light voices Mr Hofmeyer’s square figure had hurried down the steps of the house. The villagers, who had been staring through the dining-room windows, turned to watch him as he entered his car. As it swung into the road and gathered speed there was the beginning of a song from the other side of the house. A woman’s voice was chanting a four-lined stanza, a man’s followed it with another verse, and then a slow rhythmic chorus came from the other peasants and quickened to a crescendo. The villagers were saying goodbye in their own way.

The door opened, and Madame Aleksander came in. “Sheila, they are leaving.” Her voice, at last, had no disguise.

Sheila’s throat tightened. “I don’t know how to thank you,” she began. And then, as she saw Madame Aleksander’s face, she said quickly, with a rush of emotion and much truth, “I have loved being here… all of you…” Madame Aleksander embraced her quickly. There were tears on her cheeks too. Not just for this parting, Sheila knew. They were both weeping for all the partings this night. They were weeping for all the women who were weeping with them.

Aunt Marta was in the hall, calling them in her firm voice. The others were gathered there too now.

Madame Aleksander quickly dried her tears and blew her nose. She went forward to Andrew.

Sheila, still holding the plane tickets in her hand, took the hat and gloves and coat and handbag and diary which Maria had brought downstairs.

“Everything else is in the car,” Aunt Marta was saying.

Stefan said eagerly, “You will send me those aeroplane magazines you promised?” Sheila gave him a bear’s hug and a nod. So many outstretched hands to take and hold for a brief moment, so many voices, kind, affectionate, well-wishing. Teresa’s small, thin fingers wouldn’t let go.

Barbara was saying, “Write to me at Uncle Edward’s flat. I’ll be in Warsaw if war comes.”

Adam Wisniewski stood slightly apart, watching the group round Sheila and Andrew almost grimly. Sheila’s eyes met his. She had a feeling he was going to speak. But Russell Stevens had taken her coat and her hat and her arm and was leading her determinedly towards the car. “We’ll be late,” he was saying anxiously.

Sheila settled herself obediently in the car, but die wondered at her sudden annoyance with anyone so helpful as Mr Stevens. It was all because of this parting, she decided. Partings were unsettling — you lost something, and you were never sure of being able to possess it again. That was it, she told herself firmly. Partings were disturbing.

She heard Adam Wisniewski’s voice saying, “See you in Berlin, Andrew,” and saw his arm round Andrew’s shoulders. Then there were other voices — Stefan’s, Teresa’s. And Aunt Marta calling practical advice.

Andrew left his family.

It was over. At last. They were driving through the gate of poplars. The lighted windows, the moving heads of people crowding round the house, the four white pillars sheltering the group of upraised hands, the children’s shouts, were gone. Above them was a dark sky and the sudden coolness of a night breeze.

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 | William Haggard’s The High Wire | 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.