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!
The journey was as unpleasant as she expected. It was a hot afternoon. The men on either side of her filled most of the car’s seat. And whenever she tried to see a landmark to help her guess where she was being taken the young man who sat opposite her would watch her keenly. When she relaxed he watched her speculatively. He had relieved her of her handbag unexpectedly and very neatly as she had left Mr Hofmeyer’s office. He now held it determinedly if incongruously under his arm. It was a relief when the car’s speed slackened, and it stopped before a large square building of modern structure. She couldn’t recognize the street when they ushered her firmly across the pavement into the large doorway, and her heart sank still further. She tried to believe that foreigners straying about the city had to be counted like so many sheep. Probably the Security Police wanted to send her home to England. Probably. But her heart kept on sinking.
The two bodyguards, their mission accomplished, had gone. She was left alone on a stone bench with the first young man. She found it difficult to restrain herself from fidgeting as she felt his eyes watching her closely. As they waited, their backs against an impressively panelled wall, their feet on the highly polished floor of intricate design, neither spoke.
Hurrying men, worried men, men carrying papers which they still studied, men walking urgently from one doorway in the long hall to another, men and only men passed by. Most looked at her with a quick, impersonal glance. Some nodded to the silent man beside her and gave her a second look. There were other benches in the hall. Four other people sat there, as silently as she did, each with a neatly dressed, watchful man beside him. One of these people was a woman — a middle-aged, defiant-looking creature, with a face carefully camouflaged to conceal the wrinkles, with expensive clothes cut to flatter the contours. Of the others, one seemed a prosperous business-man, one was a hotel porter, one was a workman with an excessively honest face. The three men shared the woman’s defiance. Sheila wondered if they were here for the same mysterious reason which had brought her to this place. She watched their faces, and she felt still more worried. No reason seemed to link together such a varied collection of people. They certainly were not British, nor Americans, nor Frenchmen.
Sheila glanced at her watch nervously. It was almost half-past five. Ten minutes later the man beside her rose and motioned her to enter the doorway which had just opened. The three men and one woman still sat and waited in the hall. They were getting restless now. The woman was trying hard not to cry.
The room which Sheila entered was unexpectedly simple after the impressive entrance-hall. Simple and businesslike. So was the uniformed man with a dark moustache who sat at the desk, with a window behind him. On one side of him was a man in civilian clothes, seated, waiting with a notebook and an open fountain-pen. On the other side of the desk stood another uniformed man, as neat and slender as a French general. An empty chair faced the desk, the three men, and the window. A series of office cabinets covered the wall on her left; to her right there was nothing but a door leading to an adjoining room.
Sheila determined to be equally businesslike. She crossed the room quickly, sat down on the obvious chair, and looked at the man with the black moustache. He didn’t seem an unreasonable man — cold, perhaps, and impersonal; but not unreasonable. She waited while he adjusted his pince-nez and a black leather folder in front of him.
He looked up suddenly at the young man who had escorted Sheila here. “Better get the Special Commissioner if he is available,” he said. “He has had much to do with the case of Margareta Koch.” He transferred his look, as he pronounced the name, to Sheila.
She took a deep breath of relief as the young man placed the handbag on the desk and went to look for the Special Commissioner. This, she told herself, was nothing else than a complete mistake. Well, it would soon be cleared up.
She said with a smile, “May I speak in English? My Polish is very weak.”
“Any other language you can speak?” the man with the black moustache asked very gently.
“French or German.”
“Oh…. Well, we all understand German. Would you speak in that language?” But it was more of a command than a question.
Sheila began eagerly, “Am I supposed to be this Margareta Koch?”
“What makes you think that?”
“By the way you looked at me when you said her name.”
The men exchanged quick glances. “And do you deny that you are Margareta Koch?”
“Of course. I am Sheila Matthews.”
The man behind the desk smiled. Sheila began to feel that this wasn’t going to be as easy as she had thought.
“Born in England. My father was Scots.”
The man with the fountain-pen began writing. The man with the moustache smiled again. “Just answer these questions, please: Your name is Sheila Matthews? Spell it.”
Sheila did so.
“Born where and when?”
“In High Wycombe, a small town not far from London. On August 7, 1916.”
There was another interval for more spelling.
Sheila suddenly lost her resolve to be patient. “Is this necessary?”
“Most necessary. Your parents?”
“Both dead. My mother died in September 1916. My father, Charles Matthews, was killed in December of the same year.”
“No.” Sheila found that her uncle’s insistence on silence over her father’s death was even, at this moment, making it difficult for her to talk about it. “In Poland,” she said reluctantly.
“Really?” All three men were watching her intently now. “Just where in Poland in December 1916?”
“Here in Warsaw.”
“There were no Allied troops fighting in Warsaw by December 1916. By that time the Germans were in possession of the city.”
“The Germans shot him. There’s a tablet erected to his memory in the Citadel.”
The man who looked like a French general said aside in Polish. “This is devilish clever.”
“That can be verified,” the man behind the desk continued. “You speak very calmly of your father’s death.”
“Well, after all, I never saw my father.” And Uncle Matthews wouldn’t talk about him, either. “All I can feel,” Sheila added honestly, “is pride and curiosity, and regret that I never knew him.”
“Who was responsible for your education?”
“My father’s only brother, John Matthews.”
“He is a business-man. His firm is Matheson, Walters, and Crieff. Exporters.”
Her interrogator nodded. “Verify that,” he said to the secretary. And then he continued, “Any other relatives?”
“None. My uncle is unmarried. My mother had two brothers, but they were killed in the war. France and Gallipoli.”
“How is it that you came to visit Poland at this time?”
“I came at the end of June, on an invitation. I stayed longer than I should have.”
“Why are you still here at this time?”
Sheila shrugged her shoulders. There were so many explanations to that, all little, all very personal, that it seemed useless to start listing them.
“Who invited you?”
There was a sound of the door behind her being opened and closed; of footsteps which halted just inside the room, so that she couldn’t see the newcomers. Her eyes seemed to be stuck at the desk. She couldn’t look over her shoulder.
“Who invited you?” The question was sharper this time.
“A Polish family.” Sheila wondered desperately how she could keep the Aleksander name out of this stupid mess. She probably couldn’t without rousing more suspicion. She told them quickly of Andrew Aleksander’s visit to London last winter on a Purchasing Commission; of her visit here this summer at the invitation of Madame Aleksander; of her stay at Korytów.
“How did Aleksander come to meet you in London?”
“His aunt, Pani Marta Korytowska Madalinska, had given him a letter of introduction to my uncle. Her husband was killed by the Germans with my father.” Sheila felt more confident again. All these facts could be checked, and her story would be proved. But the next question left her gasping.
“Then why did you visit Hofmeyer’s shop to-day? Why did he leave money for you in an envelope? Quite a large amount?”
“Why don’t you ask Mr Hofmeyer?” Sheila said angrily. Surely she didn’t have to start explaining all that too….
“Unfortunately, Mr Hofmeyer disappeared half an hour before our men arrived to arrest him. He has been in contact with German agents. He met one of them — who has since been arrested and given us the necessary information about Hofmeyer — at Lowicz yesterday evening. Lowicz is near Korytów. We have traced his visit to you there. Yes, you may look dismayed, Miss Koch. When we arrest him, which should happen any minute now, you may find he is less thoughtful of you than you have been of him.”
“But I am not this woman Koch. I am Sheila Matthews.”
“Koch used many names, sometimes English or American ones. Matthews would have been an excellent one to choose.” He said to the secretary, “Now check all these main points in her story.” The man rose obediently and hurried through the communicating door.
The man who looked like a French general was watching Sheila coldly. He picked up the black leather folder.
“Margareta Koch, aged twenty-five, born at Grünwald near Munich, medium height, slender, straight fair hair, brown eyes, for three months employed by Johann Hofmeyer (Polish citizen) as secretary. Disappeared without trace on March 17, 1939. Believed to have returned secretly to Germany and then to the United States.
“Complete evidence on her undeniable guilt as an organizer of subversive activities and of spying then follows….”
“But my hair isn’t straight,” was all that Sheila could say, with complete inadequacy.
The uniformed man waved her silent. “Forgetting about permanent waving, Miss Koch, or Miss Matthews, what course of action should we take when we heard that an envelope with money was to be delivered to some one who was to call at the business address of a man who is facing the charge of being a traitor? Especially when the person who called was a blonde young woman of medium height, with brown eyes? Especially when some of us believe that the rumour of Koch’s departure for Germany and America was merely a fake to cover her continued presence in Warsaw? What would you have done in our place?”
Sheila, watching the secretary’s face as he returned with a slip of paper which he handed to the man with the black moustache, watching that man reading it with interest, said slowly, “I’d arrest her, of course, in a time like this. And then I’d find out who she was. And then I’d check her story. And then I’d release her and apologize.”
The slip of paper had now been passed to the French general. He read it with one eyebrow raised.
“What if,” he continued still more coldly, “a London directory of business firms lists all men who have any important positions in the various firms; lists Matheson, Walters, and Crieff, and all its directors; but doesn’t mention a John Matthews? Or is he now an unimportant clerk, so that we can’t check his name?”
Sheila said, “But he is important.” Remembering Uncle Matthews’ clothes, his house, his friends, she added lamely, “At least, he had money enough.”
“Have you visited his office?”
“No.” Uncle Matthews didn’t approve of that. “But I’ve ’phoned there often enough to leave a message for him. His secretary took the message.”
“For Mr Matthews?”
“Yes. For Mr Matthews. For Mr John Matthews.”
“I see. What if we have found the record of Charles Matthews, found that he was murdered along with Andrew Madalinski by the Germans but that there was no mention of any child? It was known to his friends that he had a wife and a brother, who doesn’t happen to be named on this report. But there is absolutely no mention of either the wife’s death, or of a child.”
Sheila sat very still. She could only think. He didn’t know, he didn’t know I even existed…. He didn’t know.
The man was talking again. She tried to listen, but her thoughts were with her father. For him she had never existed. If the men in this room had tried their best to find some argument to end her resistance they couldn’t have succeeded more brilliantly, more cruelly. Suddenly, as her silence remained unbroken, they realized something had had an effect.
The man with the moustache pressed home the advantage. He said quickly “If Koch, knowing that she was in danger of being discovered, and yet knowing that her work in Poland was still to be finished, wanted an excellent and safe means of returning here what could be better than to become the daughter of a man who died for Poland some twenty odd years ago? Then she could enter a Polish family of good standing, and as their guest she could spend the summer safely and quietly until the time came for her to finish her work. And that time is now. Now, with war threatened…”
Sheila roused herself. She said tonelessly, “But I didn’t seek out any member of a Polish family. He had a letter of introduction to my uncle. He was invited to our house.”
“That will be checked.”
“That’s all I want.” But, she wondered, would things be checked quickly in a time of national emergency? Andrew had left Warsaw with his regiment that morning. Professor Korytowski could only say that he had met her as a friend of his nephew’s.
“Look here,” she said in desperation. “Why don’t you take me back to Mr Hofmeyer’s place? This girl at the desk told a lie when she identified me as this Koch woman. The other employés there could tell you I am a complete stranger to them all.” The conviction that she had at last given them an unassailable piece of proof added confidence to the last sentence. She was almost cheerful again as she ended the little speech.
“Either you are very innocent or very clever,” the black moustache said with a peculiar smile. “You know, or didn’t you, that the present secretary whom you saw to-day has only been recently employed by Hofmeyer? That the rest of the staff are now discharged or have scattered? Some are innocent. Others are in hiding. When they are found they will be shot as spies.”
Sheila made her last attempt. “If I were as clever and mysterious as you think why should I have walked into such a trap this afternoon? Surely Hofmeyer would have warned me if I were his accomplice?”
“He would have warned you, I am sure, if there had been time. We heard the Lowicz German’s confession at four o’clock, implicating Hofmeyer. When our men arrived to arrest him Hofmeyer was gone. If you yourself had arrived at the appointed time for your envelope we should have been too late to find you. But you were the one who was too late. By these little mistakes even the best spy walks into the net, Miss Koch.”
“I am not Koch. I am Sheila Matthews.” Her Scots temper flared.
“Now we are back where we started,” the man murmured. He looked over her shoulder, behind her. She suddenly remembered that some one had been standing there all this time.
“Do you want to continue the interrogation, Mr Commissioner?” the man at the desk was asking the unknown. Sheila turned her head, her eyes widened. But only the small, thin man. who was now advancing towards the desk, could see them. He looked at her without any sign of recognition, but there was almost a warning in the blankness of his eyes. He held her stare so coldly that her “Mr Olszak!” froze on her tongue and remained unspoken.
“No, thank you, Colonel Bolt,” Mr Olszak said crisply. “I think you have handled it as fully as possible at this stage, and you have treated it with your usual thoroughness and brilliance. The case of Margareta Koch is on the files of my little department, and I think it would probably clarify matters if this young woman were to be put under our care until a full check can be made of several interesting points which she has raised.”
Colonel Bolt, obviously pleased with the beginning of that speech, seemed somewhat ruffled by the time it approached its end.
“We are handling Hofmeyer, and it would seem that this case is linked with his.”
“Hofmeyer was never under suspicion until four o’clock this afternoon. The files on him have only been opened. Koch, on the other hand, has been one of our subjects for the last six months, and the files on her past activities have grown in that time. In any case, Colonel, you have more important business at the moment than the tedious verification or disproval of this young woman’s statement. How’s that Gottlieb case going along? My dear fellow, I thought your analysis of his reasons was really brilliant, if I may say so.” Mr Olszak had seated himself casually on the corner of the desk. He picked up Sheila’s handbag. “Examined these papers in here yet?” he asked casually, as he opened the bag to show it stuffed with a woman’s usual concentration of odds and ends. “Of course not” he added quickly; “it takes time to examine all these innocent-looking little scraps of paper and letters.”
“There was no gun or weapon,” Sheila’s first escort volunteered from the background.
“Good,” Mr Olszak said. “And now ——”
“We’ve wasted considerable time on this Koch-Matthews possibility,” Colonel Bolt said quickly. He was still inclined to be difficult.
“Not wasted, I assure you,” Olszak said, equally quickly. “And my department is in your debt, Colonel.”
“For the matter of our records ——” Colonel Bolt con tinued, but Mr Olszak interrupted him with polite magnani mity.
“The records, of course. By all means, Colonel, have it placed on your files that a young woman, calling herself Sheila Matthews, but possibly Koch, was apprehended by your department at Hofmeyer’s shop in suspicious circumstances. That the said young woman, having failed to satisfy your department that she had no connexion with Koch, was transferred to the care of my department because of our special interest in that case. Now I think I’ll take Miss Matthews or Koch along with me. I believe I can find a quick method of verifying certain necessary points in her statement. I shall let you know at once, of course, so that your records on this case may be completed.”
Sheila, her arm grasped by a thin, surprisingly strong hand, found herself being led determinedly from the room. In his other hand Mr Olszak had an equally determined grip of her handbag.
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 | Hammond Innes’s Air Bridge | 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”