The Unconquerable (6)

By: Helen MacInnes
August 7, 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 6: Mr Olszak

“Well, young lady,” Mr Olszak said at last, when they had reached a small room of indescribable confusion, “you do make life very complicated for yourself.” He pushed aside two wire trays filled with papers and perched himself on the corner of his desk to face Sheila, seated in his only chair. Now her back was to the light, and it was Mr Olszak who faced it. Sheila felt as if he had reversed positions deliberately. She suddenly relaxed for the first time in the last two hours. Her hands trembled slightly as she smoothed her linen skirt over her knees. But she managed to smile.

“That’s better,” Mr Olszak said in his crisp way. “Much better.” He removed his rimless glasses and fingered the thin bridge of his nose where they had pinched it into a red groove. His greying hair had receded so deeply from the temples that what was left of it formed an exaggerated widow’s peak, making the high brow still higher. His face had the white look of a man who worked too much, slept too little, and cared about neither regular meals nor exercise. His clothes and his manner of wearing them were quiet and neat, but nondescript. He was completely undistinguished to look at, except for his eyes and his hands. Both of these, Sheila thought, were unexpectedly powerful, once he let you look at them. It wasn’t the colour of the eyes so much — a strange mixture of grey and green — as the expression they held. Behind his glasses they had been quick and intelligent. Now, as he looked past Sheila to the tree branches which brushed the window, there was a brooding quality which combined thoughtfulness with decision. This man, Sheila realized, did not know fear. He believed in something so far apart from himself that he had left no place in his mind for selfish emotions. Nothing that happened to him personally would seem important enough to be terrifying. She envied him at this moment.

“And what do you think of our policemen?” he asked, still watching the tree, still smiling in that sardonic way of his.

“I’d think they were wonderful,” quoted Sheila with some bitterness, “if I weren’t in my position. For a moment or two they had almost convinced me that I didn’t exist.”

Mr Olszak didn’t bother to answer. He was looking through the contents of her handbag now. “Where did you find this?” With a movement as sudden as his question he had extracted Hofmeyer’s leaflet. He watched her closely as she explained it all, beginning with Hofmeyer’s visit to Korytów yesterday evening.

“You believe me, don’t you? You know I am Sheila Matthews,” she ended desperately, as Mr Olszak remained silent.

“Why else should I have rescued you from the efficient logic of Colonel Bolt?” He smiled without any sarcasm this time, and added, “But my belief didn’t come from anything you contributed to the discussion in Bolt’s office, Miss Matthews.”

“What do you mean?”

“I met you through Professor Korytowski. He met you, like Barbara and her mother, through Andrew. Andrew met you in London through some letter or other from his aunt. But if he or she cannot be found to substantiate your story — if, for instance, a German bomb or bullet took care of them within the next few days — well, then! What’s more, you had a strange reluctance to leave Poland. Edward Korytowski told me about the station incident last night. Of course, we could have checked with the British Embassy to find out why you were staying. I presume you informed them?”

Sheila’s face was answer enough. She said at last, to end his obvious amusement, “I went this afternoon. That was why I was late for Hofmeyer’s. But everything, every one was so busy… Really, I didn’t think I mattered so much just then.”

“I see.” It was an encouraging rather than a polite remark. Sheila felt that not one of her most hidden emotions could escape these sharp eyes.

“Why do you believe me, then?” she asked.

“Because,” and he paused and his voice was very quiet, “I knew your father. You are very like him. The resemblance is extraordinary. Except that your eyebrows and eyelashes are darker, but perhaps that isn’t nature’s fault.”

“You knew him?”

“Yes, I was at the last meeting he and Madalinski attended. I had just left. It was raided by the Germans. They were shot.” He looked at the girl almost gently. “When you get angry and push your hair back from your face and lift that chin and your eyebrows, I can see enough of Charles Matthews to please me.”

“Then why didn’t you tell Colonel Bolt? Why didn’t you? He would have believed you.”

“Yes. I’ll explain that later, once you have answered a few questions. Now, quietly, Miss Matthews. Please be patient. The questions are important to me. First, what did you know about your father? What did your uncle tell you?”

“Only that my father was killed in the war.”

“Did you never ask for more information than that?”

“Of course. But you don’t know Uncle Matthews. He isn’t very communicative. There wasn’t even a photograph of my father. And it was only last winter, when Andrew Aleksander came to London, that I found out that my father had died in Poland. I had always thought it was France.”

“Men like your father, Miss Matthews, don’t go about being photographed, and don’t have medals pinned on their chests. When they are wounded it must be explained by the word ‘accident.’ When they are killed there is no military funeral, no name on a roll of honour. Their families can’t talk about their deeds, for their families even don’t know about them.”

“My father was a spy?” Sheila asked haltingly.

“A spy, to me, is some one who finds out information for a certain amount of money. The money smothers his conscience if he is a traitor. If he is a patriot the money softens the lack of public recognition. But there is another word which I prefer to give to men who care neither for the money nor for any recognition. Their lives are often ruined; they may meet an unpleasant death; but they fight in their own way — with their brains, secretly, courageously — because all that matters to them is what they are fighting for. I think it is only fair to give them full credit for that. Shall we say that your father was a secret agent?”

Sheila didn’t answer.

“Now tell me another thing…. Why did you come to Poland this summer?”

Sheila said with some difficulty, “Partly because I wanted to see the Aleksanders. Partly because I wanted to see where my father had died.”

“I want you to be frank, for I have been frank with you. You came to see the Aleksanders?”

Sheila’s colour deepened. “Andrew wanted to marry me. I wasn’t quite sure. I…”

Olszak seemed pleased. “That’s better,” he said. “Now you are being as frank as I am. Good. And when you came to Poland you intended to leave before any trouble started?”

Sheila’s face was scarlet. “Yes. It sounds mean and callous now. But I never thought of it that way then, somehow.”

“Why didn’t you keep your intention?”

“I’ve been trying to find out the reasons for myself. Perhaps I stayed so long because Poland was so like, and yet so unlike, anything I had expected. We — the people at home, I mean — don’t know so very much about Poland. And when I stayed here I found a lot of answers which I hadn’t found in books. You can’t capture the spirit of a people by just studying facts. You’ve got to live with people, and talk and argue and laugh with them and see their worries, before you begin to understand why they believe certain things, do certain things. I felt I was beginning to understand a little. And it was important to me that I should at least begin to understand. For although I never knew much about my father, I’ve thought of him… a good deal. When I learned he had died in Poland I wanted to know why. I mean, I wanted to find out what he believed in so strongly that he was willing to risk his life here. I felt if I learned about Poland I might learn something about my father.”

“That’s one reason. Any other?”

Sheila hesitated. She was embarrassed that Mr Olszak should be playing father confessor, embarrassed in case she bored him. But he didn’t seem impatient or bored.

He was saying “Yes?” very quietly.

That gave her courage. “Another reason, a lesser one, but still another reason, was the fact that I have never known much about what we call ‘family life.’ I got plenty of it with the Aleksanders. I liked it. I wanted to hang on to it as long as I could. That was how the weeks vanished.”


“And then I just lost my temper at the station last night, I think.”


“Because… oh, just because.”

“Because?” Sheila had a feeling that Mr Olszak was waiting eagerly for the answer, as if much depended on it.

“Well, I felt — perhaps I’m wrong — I felt that the people at the station weren’t leaving Poland so that they could join the fight in their own countries, or because they wanted to go fighting in other places. I felt all they wanted was to get away from the fight. And do you know what I wanted? I wanted just one bomb, only one, to be dropped right on top of them. That’s how they made me feel.”

Olszak’s smile didn’t appear. “I am glad you didn’t tell that to Colonel Bolt. He would have thought you were an anarchist. What are your politics, if you have any?”

“A Liberal,” Sheila said firmly.

“I didn’t know there were any now. What makes you so sure of being a Liberal, Miss Matthews?” His voice was amused now.

“My Conservative friends say I am a Radical. My Communist friends say I am a reactionary. So obviously, I must be a Liberal.”

Olszak wasn’t smiling at all, yet strangely enough she knew he was laughing. It seemed as if the sardonic smile was there only when he was not amused.

“Now, what do you know about your uncle?”

“Uncle Matthews?” Sheila was on guard, although she still smiled. “Oh, he’s a business-man. He’s been very good to me, really. It must have been a frightful bore to have a month-old baby dumped on him. Especially when he is what you might call a total bachelor.”

But Mr Olszak wasn’t to be sidetracked.

“Come, Miss Matthews, you promised to be frank. It saves so much time.”

“I know nothing, except the usual things any niece knows about her uncle. He has been very busy recently. Exporting and importing, you know.”

“Shall I phrase it another way? What do you think about your uncle?”

“I’m very fond of him. He’s rather a pet, although he looks formidable enough.”

“Miss Matthews, you are fencing. Why? Did your uncle send you for any reason to this country?”

“Send me?” She felt relieved that she could once more give a direct answer. “Why, he wasn’t even in England when I left! He travels a good deal. I sent him a letter explaining why I had decided to accept the Aleksanders’ invitation. By the time the letter reached him I was already on my way here.”

“Didn’t he ask you to come home?”

“Recently there have been telegrams from him,” Sheila admitted.

There was a pause and a sharp look from Mr Olszak. “In a way, I am pleased with the way in which you have fenced. It proves a certain loyalty, a certain control. And they are important. But I am not asking you to betray your uncle. I know about him. More than you’ll ever know. And,” Olszak tightened his voice to a command, silencing Sheila’s lips as they opened, “don’t give me that export-import stuff once more. I know your uncle would not tell you anything important, but I think you can add two and two together as well as anyone. You have the advantage of being pretty, so that most people will underrate you. I, however, have not fallen into the mistake of underrating you. I know you must have had suspicions about your uncle, but because he didn’t want you or anyone else to have them, you very loyally avoided thinking about them. Isn’t that so?”

Sheila’s memory was already working. Things, little things she had noticed about her uncle’s life, about his visitors, about his trips abroad, came crowding into her mind. Old unanswerable questions, old half-formed guesses, now began to take the more solid shape of possibilities. Particularly after the news about her father… secret agent. She returned Mr Olszak’s stare.

“Remembering now, Miss Matthews?”

“Nothing very much,” she said, and didn’t let her eyes waver.

“Your uncle will be pleased with such obstinate discretion. But it adds to my difficulties. All I wanted to know was whether you came here with a particular mission entrusted to you, or not. All I wanted was any information or knowledge which you had gathered here in recent weeks. It might save me much time. More important, it might save lives. We are on the same side, aren’t we?”

“Of course we are. But I can’t help you in any way; I should like to, but I can’t. For I know nothing. I am what is called the innocent bystander.”

Olszak replaced his glasses carefully. “Well, that’s as far as we get, I see,” he said, and swung his legs off the desk.

Sheila rose with relief. “May I go?”

“Only next door, I’m afraid. You’ll have to stay near me or be locked up as a suspected enemy agent. Colonel Bolt still has you on his little list.”

“But you could tell him all about my father!”


“Then why don’t you?”

Olszak took a long time to light a cigarette.

“Miss Matthews, just as Colonel Bolt found the evidence pointing to you as a German agent, I found the evidence pointing to you as a probable British agent. Don’t look so incredulous. I admit I am beginning to think I was wrong, too. But that was why I let the drama in Colonel Bolt’s room almost reach the third act. I can, as you very pointedly, say, close it now. If you have no wish to help us I will close it. I can go to Colonel Bolt, tell him I find you absolutely innocent, and your name will have that description written after it in his records. You will then be free to go. Will that please you?”

“It would be something of a relief.”

“But if I told you that you could be more useful to us, to Poland and Britain and our friends, by allowing Colonel Bolt’s records to have a grave question-mark against your name, would you let that question-mark still remain?”

Sheila looked puzzled. She was groping for a meaning.

“What do you mean by ‘useful’?” she asked at last.

“That depends on the future. If we are faced with a catastrophe then people like you who are willing to fight with only courage and brains for weapons will be very useful indeed.”

The only meaning that Sheila could discover in Mr Olszak’s words was so fantastic that she simply stared.

“I only hope the future for which I must plan now will not happen,” the exact voice continued. “I hope this with all my heart. I see you look horrified, Miss Matthews. I am not a defeatist. I am being a realist. In the past I’ve had grim experience in how to organize and fight hidden battles. I am talking, you see, of the possibility of a temporary German victory. For, if Germany’s overwhelming preparations for war do win, then there will be some of us who are already prepared in our turn to carry on the fight until the day Germany is ultimately beaten. That is one possibility of the future. And this is the one time that I hope all my plans and preparations will never need to be used.”

Sheila decided to risk her fantastic guess. “In such a future the Germans would be interested in anyone who was marked down in your police records as a possible traitor to Poland?”

“I should think so.”

“If you could have people on these records who were innocent of such charges and who would work with you, then you would find them useful against the Germans?”

“That would be possible.”

“Was that interview with Colonel Bolt a complete farce? Did he know I was innocent, after all?”

“Good God, no. There’s only one man in the Security Police who knows why I have been appointed as Special Commissioner. Bolt would have apoplexy at the idea we were using his records for our own purposes. Of course, many of those whose names appear on the records are guilty; they get their deserts. Those I know to be innocent either ‘escape’ or are released under ‘strict surveillance.’ But the question-mark remains against their names in Colonel Bolt’s files.”

“And they become your men? For future use, if necessary?”

“You make me sound very autocratic,” Olszak said gently. “I assure you that I and my friends have merely decided on a certain course of action as a precautionary measure. An insurance policy, shall we say, against evil days?”

Sheila studied a blot of ink on the surface of the desk. They either ‘escape’…

“Was Hofmeyer really a German?” she asked innocently. Or was he an English agent, working under her uncle as her father had done?

Olszak arranged some of the papers on his desk very casually. “I hardly expected such a wild guess from you, Miss Matthews.”

Sheila, feeling very young and very stupid, offered her justification. “There seemed to be a strong connexion between my uncle and Hofmeyer. You have hinted that my uncle is no mere business-man, that he is more interested in other things, that he is doing the kind of work my father did. Then you jumped to the conclusion that I was an agent as soon as you saw that Hofmeyer leaflet which I had in my handbag. And Mr Hofmeyer did say Matthews correctly. And he seemed to recognize me when he first saw me, so perhaps he knew my father, too. And then, he did escape in time.”

Olszak ignored all that. “Matthews…” he was saying. “Anyone can say Matthews correctly, if they only read it correctly.”

“You don’t say it correctly, Mr Olszak.”

They looked at each other steadily, and then Mr Olszak surprised her by throwing back his head and laughing loudly. “Well,” he said at last, “I don’t pronounce Matthews correctly. Think of that!” But Sheila felt that he had turned her question about Hofmeyer very adequately.

Mr Olszak looked at his watch. “The last train for refugees leaves at seven. In half an hour, to be exact. What is it to be? Do you take the train, with your name cleared of all charges against it? Or do you stay here and help us as I have proposed?”

“I will not take the train.”

“Then you have no alternative if you stay in Poland. You see, Miss Matthews — rightly or wrongly pronounced — you have been caught up in a chain of events, which will make it dangerous for us to have you here unless we can trust you fully. I know you aren’t against us. But that isn’t enough. Knowing what you do, you must be with us completely. For I must be sure of one thing. To put it quite brutally, your name, left in the doubtful category on our police files, will ensure your silence.”

Sheila said slowly, “I see.” She did, only too clearly. She brushed the hair back from her forehead. She looked suddenly so young and uncertain that Mr Olszak came over to her and took both her hands in his.

“You mustn’t think I enjoy talking to you like this. But either you go straight back to England, having taken a very solemn oath never to speak of these matters, never to think of them again… and I’ll have to send some one with you to make sure you do arrive safely. I shall also have to write a report to your uncle, so that he will see that you remain thoroughly discreet…. Or you stay here and leave your name on the files of the Security Police. I shan’t have to worry about you then.”

“But I should have plenty of worries if you got killed, or if my friends heard I had been arrested. I couldn’t explain anything to then.”

“No, you could not.” Olszak looked pleased, as if she were showing the right responses.

“But why would you have to send some one to protect me on the journey home?”

“I am quite sure that your arrest will have become known to people who take an interest in these matters. Your name will also be on the German files.”

“So soon?”

“You are so trusting, Miss Matthews. It must be very pleasant to be so trusting.” He looked at her still more closely. “Perhaps you don’t want to accept my proposal unless you know exactly what it entails? Yet, I’m afraid, that’s what I can’t tell you. You must take my word for it that I shall ask you to do nothing impossible or useless.”

Sheila smiled, but she still didn’t give him an answer.

“Why don’t you rest next door? You can think about it, and if you decide to return to Britain I shall see you get there, train or no train. You’ll find some magazines and a radio and a comfortable chair. And be sure to black out the window before you switch on the light. I’ll order a tray with some food, and I’ll telephone Korytowski so that he will stop worrying about your absence. I have other work to do meanwhile. Orthodox work, approved by Colonel Bolt’s investigation of subversive activities.”


“Oh, Germans pretending to be Polish-Germans of great loyalty, who will inform against all Polish-Germans of great loyalty once the Germans get hold of them. Or Germans pretending to be Polish-Germans to stir up trouble and spread untruths and panic among Polish-Germans. Or just Germans doing their best to defeat us before the war even starts. What is wrong, Miss Matthews? You look amazed.”

“It is all so mad, so difficult to believe. I mean, things all being planned under the surface, while ordinary people just eat and sleep and think about their own problems.”

“Life is never simple, Miss Matthews, except for those who close their eyes and will not see. You thought I was being over-dramatic at the beginning of our conversation. Perhaps you even thought I was at the stage of inventing secret and mysterious plans to satisfy my wild imagination. I said I was a realist. I am. But I don’t blame you for not quite believing my urgency. Anything outside one’s own experience always seems ‘unreal,’ ‘fantastic,’ ‘unconvincing.’ That’s the way most human beings react. Do you still think that I and my friends are mad?”

“No.” Sheila smiled as she added, “I begin to think that I and all my friends may be the mad ones. At least, we haven’t been exactly realists, and I suppose it’s madness not to be realistic. My only worry now is — well, I don’t think I’d be any good to you at all, Mr Olszak.”

“Won’t you let me be the judge of that? After all. I’ve been watching you more closely than you think during this conversation. I must say you’ve shown a certain alertness and mental agility.” He was waiting for her answer, she knew.

Sheila took a deep breath, and walked to the door leading into the next room.

“You have work to do,” she said in a low voice. And then, as she opened the door, she paused. “Mr Olszak, what happens to a simple-minded person like myself who finds out too much and can’t co-operate with you?”

“I was hoping you wouldn’t bring that up, Miss Matthews.”

She closed the door behind her, leaving Olszak examining a sheet of paper.

“You may not have found out too much yet,” she told herself bitterly, “but you certainly guess too much.”

She turned on the wireless-set in order to divert her worries. Her purpose was certainly achieved. She felt an increasing disgust with herself as she listened. The news was still worse, and here she was insisting on making her own choice of the way in which she wanted to help. At a moment like this choice became a selfish privilege. And why didn’t she want to accept Mr Olszak’s suggestion? Was she afraid? She might as well face it: she was afraid. Afraid of being called a traitor when she wasn’t one. Afraid of living with fear and worry and lies. Afraid of being incapable and unsuccessful. Afraid of a possible death which would not earn her any kind memories. She was not only a coward, but a vain little coward.

The announcer’s voice was saying: “…certain amount of unrest on the Polish frontier, owing to diversionist activities. The Government asks… continue to keep calm…”

She listened to the radio voice, to the traffic sounds dying away in the street outside. She watched evening come to the waiting city, to people heart-sore and mind-weary. She saw the cold wind rising, blowing the dry dust in little swirls off the pavement. Darkness came, and with it were no lights.


When Mr Olszak entered the room it was fully eleven o’clock. He stopped in the doorway in amazement, silhouetted against the brightness of the other room.

“Why in the darkness?” he began, crossed over to the window to close it and its screen of black cloth, and switched on the light. He shook his head as he noticed the half-eaten food on the tray, the untouched magazines. He switched off the radio, now talking of Danzig, and waited for her to speak. Sheila rubbed her cold hands together. Her foot doubled under her as she rose from the edge of the chair.

“Take off your shoe and stand with your foot flat on the floor,” Mr Olszak commanded.

Sheila began to laugh.

“What’s so funny? Standing that way to cure cramp?”

“No. Just having cramp at this moment. I wanted to rise, erect and noble, and say ‘Mr Olszak, I agree to do what you think is best.’ Instead, I stand here listing to starboard, trying to straighten my leg.”

“That’s better,” Mr Olszak said, “that’s much better.” He wasn’t referring to her cramped foot. Behind the solemn grey-green eyes he was thinking, she can laugh at herself again. For a moment his thoughts touched on the girl’s dead father. When Matthews had joked about a personal emotion it had meant a depth of feeling that had better not be underestimated. And then Olszak’s mind switched back to the cold room and the girl whose loose, fair hair fell over her eyes as she bent to find her shoe. He knelt quickly and replaced the shoe on her foot, and smiled to himself as he noticed her confusion. They are so independent nowadays, and at the same time so young, he thought. She was twenty-three. At twenty-three his mother was not only married with three children, but had followed his father into political exile in Tsarist Russia. At twenty-six she was a widow with four children, and all her possessions in Poland had been confiscated when her husband was executed. At thirty-seven she was a grandmother and had seen two of her sons imprisoned like their father. At fifty-seven she was a great-grandmother, with all her sons (except Olszak himself) killed in the last war. She too had taken part in that war, sheltering escaped prisoners from German camps, aiding her grandsons and their friends when they were wounded in guerrilla fighting. She still lived, in a neat little house in a small village high in the Carpathian mountains. People had always thought how gentle and frail she was.

And then Olszak became aware that Sheila was watching him. “You aren’t really so terrifying as I thought,” she wanted to say. But the quick change in Mr Olszak’s eyes silenced her.

“What do you want me to do?” she said, equally businesslike.

“At the moment, nothing. I want you to go back to Korytowski’s flat. I’ll have a story ready for Colonel Bolt in the morning, so don’t worry about that. Shall we say that you are still under my department’s observation? Forget everything we have been talking about. Be natural. But keep alert. That’s all.”

Sheila looked keenly at Mr Olszak. Her initial disappointment over the first sentence of his speech now vanished. She thought she detected a rather satisfied look in Mr Olszak’s eyes.

“I shall take you to the flat now.”

“I can manage, really. You are probably too busy, Mr Olszak.”

Mr Olszak said patiently, “I shall take you to the flat.”

In the cold darkness of the street an unobtrusive man silently joined them as they entered a cab. Nothing was spoken throughout the slow journey. They left the cab a hundred yards away from Korytowski’s home. The unobtrusive man lagged behind them so that he was out of sight when Sheila and Mr Olszak were admitted through the wrought-iron gateway by a sleepy Henryk.

Henryk was curious in spite of his half-closed eyes. He gave Olszak a nod of recognition, but his chief interest was in Sheila. The lamp, now blue in colour, above his house-door gave a feeble light which sicklied their faces. Three ghosts stared at each other. Then Olszak had taken her arm in his special grip above the elbow, and they left Henryk’s square white face with its two black shadows of close-set eyes.

“He looked like a clown, a clown with a whitewashed face,” Sheila said.

“He’s hardly a clown. He may be many things, but not that. I like clowns. I don’t like Henryk. But then, I dislike inquisitive people.”

After that very final remark, Sheila’s next question remained unspoken. In any case, she wasn’t supposed to know if Professor Korytowski had any further connexion with Mr Olszak than that of an old friend. She wasn’t supposed to know anything.

In the flat there was once more a roomful of tobacco smoke and men’s voices. But this time Olszak led her into the living-room. “It will be all right,” he said aside, to Professor Korytowski. “For one thing, she’s perishing with cold — didn’t have any coat with her. She needs a warm drink, or well have a case of pneumonia on our hands. For another, I think they should meet her. She’s Matthews’s daughter, after all.”

Korytowski’s look of worry and indecision disappeared. “Splendid!” he said, with such enthusiasm and relief that Sheila knew he had been wondering how else to cope with a guest who stayed out so late and came back shivering. So Olszak was in command here too.

She was plunged into a sea of unknown faces. The men stopped talking, but they must have known her father, for their eyes were friendly and welcoming. The warmth of the room, the sense of returning security reacted strangely on her. She couldn’t say anything as she bowed shyly to each man who kissed her hand as he was introduced. Most of them had indeed known her father. She bit her lip, and her eyes were too bright, but none of the friendly faces laughed. There was only understanding and sympathy. That weakened her still more.

Russell Stevens appeared at this moment, carrying a glass of colourless liquid. “I was told you needed this,” he began, and then with a quick glance at her face he added, “Thawing out, I see.” That started her laughing. It wasn’t a very good attempt, but still it was a relief.

“So you are still in Warsaw?” he said severely. “What do we have to do to get you home? Hit you over the head and shanghai you?”

“But you are still here too.”

“I have a job to do.”

Sheila looked at Mr Olszak and returned his smile.

The inevitable telephone gave its harsh ring in the hall.

“For me. I expect,” Stevens said quietly. There was a new tension in the room as he left. The faces were openly anxious now. The smiles and friendly talk of the last hours seemed very far away.

When the American came back he was grim. “Got to leave now. Emergency.”
Korytowski was hurrying with him towards the door. But Mr Olszak had taken Russell Stevens by the arm — a firm, polite grasp it would be, Sheila thought — and in that way they entered the hall together. She heard their voices. Mr Olszak was being firm. The American was being firm too.

“I’ll lay my bet on Mr Olszak,” Sheila said to herself wryly. What was the argument about, anyway? If she suffered from too many guesses, then Mr Olszak certainly enjoyed too many ideas. He was serene when he returned to the room, but you couldn’t tell anything from that. The outside door, banging abruptly, told Sheila much more.

“I think you would be wise to go to bed.” Mr Olszak was saying quietly. “The dawn is already here, you know. Soon it will be morning.”

Sheila moved towards the hall. Her head was heavy, her eyes felt as if two pennies were laid on them. She began to notice each time she swallowed. Bed would not only be wise, but infinitely pleasant. I’m going to catch a cold, she thought miserably.

The man whose shoulders were bent over the radio suddenly stiffened. He held up one hand. His head was thrown back, his eyes were white circles. The announcer’s voices cut through the sudden silence of the room.

It had come.

“Less than an hour ago German planes bombed Polish territory. Without any declaration of war…”

It had come.



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 Stacpool’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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