The Unconquerable (4)

By: Helen MacInnes
July 22, 2014


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!



Chapter 4: The Old Square

Sheila twisted once more on the narrow bed. Outside she heard the cool sound of water as the porter hosed the pavement. It must be nearly morning, she thought. The sound of voices from the living-room still came mumbling through the hall, like the intermittent stirring in a hive of bees. Can’t sleep, can’t sleep, ticked the clock on the bookcase. Can’t sleep, can’t sleep, hissed the water against the house-wall.

“Can’t sleep. How can I? How can anyone?” Sheila said bitterly to the ceiling. “If,” she told herself, “you hadn’t been so very high and mighty at the station last night, if you hadn’t had so much pride that you didn’t want to be seen even dead with that crowd of hysterics you’d now be on a train. And soon you would be arriving in a country where it would be safe enough for your fellow-travellers to regain their good humour and elegant charm. As Mr Stevens would say, ‘So what?’ All right, so what?” But the fact remained that to-day and to-morrow and to-morrow she would also refuse to get on a train. Well call it pride; but she wasn’t going to start scrambling to leave Warsaw. Not after the kind of scene she had witnessed at the station last night. The only trouble was money. She had stayed so much longer than she had expected that she hadn’t much left. She would have to write to Uncle Matthews in London, explaining her point of view — a nice, long, chatty letter to keep him from worrying. He would send her some money through the Embassy.

She listened to the hoof-beats of many horses being driven through the empty streets. Now and again there was the dull rumble of tanks and heavy trucks. At other times there was the creaking and groaning of farm-carts bringing in supplies of food. Sheila listened, and dread and fear and pity and excitement kept her staring at the ceiling. She wondered how many millions were lying awake with these same emotions, millions who had the added sorrow of parting from those they loved. (She was indeed one of the lucky ones, as Mr Stevens had said; she hadn’t a husband or a sweetheart or a son or a brother to worry over, like all those other women.) It seemed unfair of life, somehow, that other millions could sleep in peace and need only worry about nothing more than breakfast when they awoke.

Having decided that she belonged to those who worried and stayed awake, Sheila fell deeply asleep.

When she awoke it was early afternoon. The apartment was silent. Dressing didn’t take long when the choosing of clothes was eliminated. She was filled with sudden energy. First, the suitcases — clothes. Secondly, the Embassy and a wire, with a letter to follow, to Uncle Matthews — money. Thirdly, a talk with Uncle Edward — something to do, to help while she stayed in Warsaw. How long would she be here? Looking at that question in the practical light of day and not in the emotional atmosphere of a blackout, she smiled ruefully. Uncle Matthews would have a lot to say, and Professor Korytowski, although he had been too polite last night to argue when she was so tired and unhappy, might very well find a piece of gentle advice to give her when she was rested. But they would find she was in earnest. The only thing that worried her now was that she might not be considered useful, or worse still, that she would be a positive worry and nuisance to them all.

What could she do? Nursing? If she could somehow learn to control an overturning stomach the minute a patient started being sick. She could drive a car, but she would have to learn about its insides. She could speak French passably, Polish haltingly and blunderingly, German really well. She could understand them all; especially German. Why did she have to choose that language as her best one? She wasn’t a bad shot; even Uncle Matthews admitted that. But it wasn’t likely that much shooting would be done in Warsaw behind the trenches. And, she was forced to admit, her shooting had been with clay-pigeons. She had never killed as much as a mouse in her life. It seemed as if all her assets for war had a ‘but’ attached. The trouble was that her instincts and training were geared for peace. Well, she would just have to learn. That was all. She wasn’t the only one.

She moved over to the window to comb her hair in the sunlight. The green fingers of the chestnut leaves were outstretched below her, shielding the pavement from the heat. In the cool-looking shadows of the opposite side of the street a large notice was fixed to the pillar of a colonnade. It must be new, for every one who passed would stop to read it. They stood in a small, fluctuating, yet constant, group. Each one, as he gave place to a new arrival, would detach himself quietly from the others and go his own way. And yet he was linked to the others he had left. The heads bent in deliberation, the silence, the thoughtful steps were the link that bound them. It couldn’t be war. Not yet. The skies were empty of planes. Not yet, with the skies still blue and broken only by a light wisp of cloud.

The rest of the apartment was as empty as it had sounded. It was neat and clean, so the porter’s wife, who came up each day to ‘look after’ Uncle Edward, must have finished her work. The living-room had lost its disorder of chairs and smoke-filled atmosphere. Last night she had just had time to notice that through the half-open door, before Uncle Edward had shown her into Barbara’s room. He had offered her food and something to drink, but she had refused. She hadn’t been invited into the living-room. She had been too tired anyway, but her glimpse of the crowd of middle-aged and oldish men gathered there had aroused her speculations. They had stopped talking as she passed through the hall, had looked out with an interest which now seemed rather strange and undeserved. There she was, imagining things again. Sheila turned impatiently away from the living-room. The curtains moved in the cross-current of air as she held its door open. A sheet of paper fastened by a paper clip to the incongruous pink lampshade (probably a Christmas present from Madame Aleksander; there was a definite ‘woman’s touch’ about it) flapped, too.

Sheila smiled at Uncle Edward’s idea of a prominent place to leave a message, and her smile broadened as she read it. In large scrawling letters he had printed, “Coffee and sugar in the small cupboard to your left in the kitchen. Bread in the tin box. Butter, milk, ham in the box of wire netting near the window. Matches at side of gas oven. Will be back before six. Important! — Stevens ’phoned. Suitcases at his apartment at Frascati Gardens. Telephone 6-5488. A Mr Hofmeyer ’phoned twice. No message.” Then followed two drawings: one shapeless figure was stuck by an angry-looking telephone, while an equally shapeless figure (“Do I look like that to him?” Sheila wondered) was stretched out on a table-like bed, with snoring signs above its head. (“And I don’t snore, either,” Sheila added.)

She decided to have something to eat outside; that would save both time and Professor Korytowski’s food supply. But she would ’phone Mr Stevens first of all. There was no reply. And then, after some hesitation, she decided to ’phone Mr Hofmeyer. It was only polite, for one thing. For another, she might be in time to stop any alarmed telegram to Uncle Matthews. She had left the business leaflet somewhere in the bedroom. She opened the ’phone directory instead. H… . HOFMEYER Adolf, HOFMEYER Bruno, HOFMEYER Helmut, HOFMEYER Sigurd… There was no HOFMEYER Johann. She couldn’t remember the name of the firm which he owned. She had to go back into the bedroom and search for the leaflet.

Yes, his first name was Johann all right. And his telephone number was 5-7177.

She was surprised to be answered not by a secretary or a clerk, but by Mr Hofmeyer, himself.

“Sheila Matthews,” she said.

“I’m sorry to hear your voice,” Mr Hofmeyer replied in English. His voice sounded more British over the ’phone than it had sounded yesterday at Korytów. “You should have left Warsaw last night.”

“The plane ——”

“I know. But there was a train.”

“Yes, but ——”

“Please leave as quickly as you can. How are you for money?”

“I have a little.”

“That won’t be enough. Call here, and you will find an envelope with money waiting for you. Come at once. Before four o’clock. There’s a last train about seven. Good luck.”

Sheila had begun to thank him, but there was no reply, only a dead silence which told her he hadn’t waited for formalities. She replaced the receiver on its hook, thoughtfully. “Call here.” Surely that meant the business address. She looked at the crumpled leaflet, and on impulse searched for the name Kotowitz in the telephone book. It existed all right. The Old Square 31. But its telephone number was not the one she had just used to find Mr Hofmeyer. His must have been a private number, no doubt. Probably he hated the telephone as her Uncle Matthews did and tried to discourage people from ’phoning. She tried to visualize him as she had seen him yesterday evening. All she could remember was white hair, a squarish face, and the quick, light footsteps. She realized suddenly that there had been a vague quality about him, an expressionless quality, so that it was hard to remember him. It was strange, for he hadn’t impressed her as being without determination or character. The least she could have done, she thought angrily, was to have paid more attention to some one who had taken so much trouble for her. She jammed the business leaflet into her handbag, grabbed her hat and gloves — it was too warm for a coat — and hurried out of the apartment. “Before four o’clock,” he had said. She hadn’t much time. She ought to get to the British Embassy and let some one know she was staying in Warsaw. That was the right thing to do, she supposed. And if the Embassy wouldn’t arrange to get money for her from her uncle, then she would have to fall back on Mr Hofmeyer’s generosity. In normal times she wouldn’t have had the courage to accept his offer. But this was, as Uncle Edward had said last night, a state of emergency. And her Uncle Matthews would see to it that Mr Hofmeyer was not left out of pocket.

Her thoughts kept her company into the courtyard, past its clumps of lilac-trees, through the vault-like gateway. In the street outside Henryk, the porter, was airing a terrier. “Good day,” he said, and burst into a long sentence. Sheila, snatched away from her plans of campaign, stared blankly at him. He wouldn’t understand English, but he might be able to understand German. Many people in Poland could.

Bitte?” she asked politely.

He looked at her with sudden sharpness. “Don’t speak German,” he said in a low voice, and turned his interest to the dog.

Neatly snubbed, Sheila thought. She had better try no more German on strangers to-day, even out of politeness. But as she picked her way across the heavy cobbled surface of the street, trying to avoid twisting a high heel in one of the deep cracks, she suddenly began to wonder. What was it he had said — “I don’t speak German,” or “Don’t speak German”? But what did it matter anyway — Either a concierge couldn’t talk German, or he was advising her not to speak in German. What did matter was the proclamation pasted across one of the pillars of the colonnade. She joined the small group of people round it.

General mobilization. Transport completely militarized. Horses, bicycles, cars, to be commandeered. Every man on receipt of his mobilization papers was to report at his district’s army headquarters within two hours. That was all. It ended with the date: “August 31, 1939.”

There it was at last. There it was in the quiet, determined faces round her, in the men walking away to set their house and business in order before the two hours hung over them. Hofmeyer had said there was a “last train.” There must be a special one, then, for foreigners. But there was none for these people. Sheila felt her resolve tighten; all the arguments, for and against, why and why not, which had plagued her like a cloud of persistent mosquitoes ever since her sudden decision at the station last night, were swept away for good. She wanted to say to the strained face beside her, “Look, if you can stay here so can I.” But she kept silent, edged her way out of the group, and walked towards Main Street. She wouldn’t have time to eat, after all. She hadn’t time to ’phone Stevens again. She found a cab and drove to the British Embassy.

When she arrived there she felt helpless and unnecessary. Too many people were there. Too many men with urgent faces and decided steps were passing through the courtyard. They had serious business. She felt negligible. She hesitated for some minutes and then entered the building. In the waiting-room there was a line of people, hurrying secretaries, busy men. This she realized, was going to take hours. She looked at her watch and saw it was after half-past three. She left the building quickly, and no one even noticed her abrupt exit. She felt microscopic. After all, she told herself as she searched for another cab, they would probably want to send her home. If they heard that she had practically no money left then they’d ship her off as a Distressed British Subject. Somehow a D.B.S. didn’t sound so funny at this moment.

A cab, its horse too thin and old to be worried about his duty to the Army, was coming along the avenue. Sheila left the railings, looked up at the imposing balcony, and said good-bye to the British Embassy. She would go to Mr Hofmeyer. The cab-driver, an old man with his identification tag hanging at the back of his thin red neck, drove as urgently as he and the horse could manage. They were crossing the city to reach the older district in the north. In the gardens and pleasant green parks men and women and children were digging.


They had reached the Old Square at last. As the cab rolled over the wide expanse of cobblestones, flanked on four sides by rows of gabled houses, Sheila looked at her watch and found she was late. She determined not to worry; nothing she could do now would make her any earlier. She looked at the houses, tall and narrow in the late Gothic manner, with their fronts newly restored to their one-time glory. In the last twenty years they had been reclaimed from the slums into which they had degenerated under foreign rule. She wondered which house was Number 31. The broadest of the houses had four-window façades, which was the sign that some three hundred years ago, or more, princes had lived there. Those with three windows had housed nobles. Those with two had belonged to merchants. These social differences still remained in the carefully preserved facades, but the people behind the painted walls were now equal in lack of titles and of wealth. Some of the houses had long flourished as restaurants famed for this, or wine-cellars famed for that. It was near one of them that the House of Kotowitz had its restrained medieval setting.

A car was standing in front of the arched doorway. The entrance led past a small but intricately carved doorway, past a flight of handsome stone stairs leading to the apartments above, and ended inside a cobbled yard with chestnut-trees. Sheila, thinking how strange it was that one always went too far when one was late, retraced her steps to the carved doorway. That seemed the only possible entrance to the ground-floor shop. With difficulty she discerned the name of Kotowitz written in elegant but faded lettering. The door opened easily, and she was in a room, bright with sunlight from the Square. It was more like an office than a shop. There was a large table and a girl with a ledger. She looked up and scrutinized Sheila closely.

“My name is Sheila Matthews. I believe Mr Hofmeyer has an envelope for me.”

The girl’s eyes widened. “Oh, yes!” she said. Then she rose and looked towards a door in the rear of the office. “You are to wait. I’ll get it.”

Sheila waited. Then the rear door opened, and the girl returned. Behind her was a young man with a heavy but pleasant face. It had assumed a serious expression for the moment. The eyes were very businesslike. Rising young executive, Sheila thought: well-polished shoes, neat pinstripe suiting, hat in hand, and all.

The young man was speaking. “Miss Matthews? I am sorry that the envelope has not yet arrived. Mr Hofmeyer asked me to bring you to his house to save further delay.”

Sheila looked at him uncertainly. He returned her stare too blandly, quite unaware of the puzzle in her mind. The girl had said, “I’ll get it.” This man said, “The envelope has not yet arrived.”

“But is this not Mr Hofmeyer’s house?”

“This is his place of business,” the man said patiently. He reached for the door handle. Sheila looked at the girl, standing once more behind the table. There was a cold, hostile look in the girl’s eyes. Their enmity warned Sheila.

“I am sorry,” she said with evident finality. She didn’t move. How the dickens did you say in Polish, “I haven’t much time. I have another engagement. Anyway, I don’t know who on earth you are, and I am not going to accompany you to any strange house”? She was deciding on the correct phrases and was just about to try a murderous version in desperation, when the young man moved away from the door, came over to her, and took a firm grip on her arm.

She tried to shake herself free. “I have no time. I am sorry. I have no time,” she said in a mixture of anger and alarm.

“I am sorry too,” the man said politely, but with equal conviction. “I am afraid you must come.” He gave a nod to the girl, who hurried promptly, eagerly over to the window. She waved. Sheila remembered the waiting car.

“What is this, anyway?” Sheila said angrily in English. She struck herself sharply free. She was hot with temper. She ran to the door. It was already opened. Two men, as neatly dressed as the man who had gripped her arm, stood there quite placid and immovable. They were broad enough to fill title doorway. Sheila halted, let her anger cool. She had to; she needed to think very clearly.

“You must come with us,” the young man was saying. He was angry. He was rubbing his arm where she had hit him, and his eyes had narrowed and didn’t look at all so pleasant now.

“Why?” Sheila’s voice was cold and hard. She returned his angry stare with equal vehemence.

“Security Police. You may as well resign yourself. There is no choice for you but to come with us. And please don’t make any scenes. There is no need… a matter of routine.” He looked sharply at Sheila. “Do you understand what I say?”

“I don’t understand anything.” But the word “police” had reassured her. She walked outside, shrugging off the young man’s arm. The girl at the table stared after her as if Sheila were a leper. Sheila found herself firmly wedged between the two large men in the car which had been standing at the entrance to Mr Hofmeyer’s place of business. She was quite convinced by this time that she wasn’t going to see Mr Hofmeyer’s house either.



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.

SERIALIZED 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 | Hammond Innes’s Air Bridge | James Branch Cabell’s Jurgen | John Buchan’s “No Man’s Land” | John Russell’s “The Fourth Man” | E.M. Forster’s “The Machine Stops” | John Buchan’s Huntingtower | Arthur Conan Doyle’s When the World Screamed | Victor Bridges’ A Rogue By Compulsion | Jack London’s The Iron Heel | H. De Vere Stacpoole’s The Man Who Lost Himself.

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) | John Holbo’s graphic novel On Beyond Zarathustra (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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