The Unconquerable (7)
August 14, 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!
In the dark street the unobtrusive man paced slowly under the chestnut-trees. Twice he halted at the gate and peered into the gloomy cavern of faint light. The third time he approached the iron gateway Henryk came limping forward.
“Well?” he said, with a truculence that usually disposed of unnecessary visitors.
“Cold night,” the man said, and buried his neck further into the shelter of his upturned collar. “Should have brought my coat.”
“Get a move on there. Or I’ll call the police.”
The man shrugged his shoulders, lifted a hand out of his pocket to turn the palm towards the porter. A metal disk gleamed there for a moment in the blue light “No need,” he said, and slipped his hand deep into his pocket once more.
Henryk lost his truculence. He dropped his voice and added a smile. “Have you got business here?”
“Yes. Is this the only entrance? No others?”
“No… Who is it?”
The man shivered slightly. “I wish to heaven this sudden wind would bring some rain. We could do with some rain. They tell me the roads are baked dry.”
“It’s warmer in here,” Henryk suggested. “You can sit in the doorway. Less of a draught there, and you can see every one going or coming. People are moving about to-night. Can’t settle.” He swung the gate, and the man entered.
From the porter’s apartment came a rhythmic snoring. “The wife,” Henryk explained. He lowered the volume of the small radio beside his chair. “I was having some coffee. I’ll get you a glass. Aye, there’s been a lot of traffic in and out here to-night. I’ve got to stay up until it stops. Why they can’t stay in their beds at this hour is something I’ll never understand.”
“Wish I could be in mine. You and I appreciate our beds, and that’s why we’ve both got jobs that keep us out of them.”
Henryk laughed and limped into the kitchen for more coffee. “Some one been breaking the law?” he asked jokingly when he returned with an extra chair as well. The two men settled themselves comfortably in the little cubicle of a doorway and stared out into the gloomy vault of the entrance-way as they sipped the coffee.
“Some one I’ve just got to keep an eye on,” the visitor said.
Henryk’s small, deep-set eyes studied the simple face beside him. “We are all highly respectable here. Can’t imagine you’ve come to the right place.”
“This is the house all right.”
“You followed some one here? Well, that’s different.” The deep-set eyes were inscrutable now. The man, concentrating on his glass of coffee, seemed lost in his thoughts too. But they would have surprised his amiable host. Hurry up and get to the point, the man was thinking; the boss told me you were a curious chap. What’s happened to your curiosity all of a sudden?
“Do you know the people here well?” the man asked at last.
“I’m getting to know them and their visitors now. Took a week or two to remember them by name.” Henryk’s voice was casual, almost diffident.
“Any strangers recently?”
“A girl. Came late last night, too. She’s a guest of Korytowski’s. There’s nothing wrong up there, is there?”
“Korytowski’s all right. Just another dopey professor as far as I know.”
“But the girl is a friend of the family. My wife was told that to-day.”
“He thinks she is. What do you think of her?”
“Looked good to me.” Henryk outlined a curve in the air with his two hands and laughed with the other man.
“Would you say she was English? Have you heard her talk?”
“She’s a foreigner for certain. Might be English.”
“She didn’t seem German?”
Henryk was impassive. Except for the slight pause there was nothing to show that the question had startled him.
“No. Didn’t get that impression. In fact. I was out with Madame Sarna’s dog to-day — she’s the singer, third floor over there to your right” — he pointed into the dark courtyard — “and this girl appeared. She didn’t know much Polish, it seemed. Just stared at me when I wished her good-day, and then said something which sounded like French to me. I remember thinking her legs looked kind of French. What made you think she was German?”
The unobtrusive man lowered his voice still more. “I don’t get told much. Do this, do that. But no explanations before or after, see? But to-day the hunt is on for a German spy. Hofmeyer’s the name. And she’s a pal of his. That’s all I know. It isn’t much, but it’s enough when you’re dealing with Germans.”
“And Korytowski doesn’t know? Why, his house is always filled with good patriots!”
“And that’s it. Who would suspect her if she were there? She’s a clever one.”
“Aye,” Henryk said. He moved his stiff leg. “Wound from the last war,” he explained. His guest had no objection to changing the conversation now. They talked of the old days.
Henryk turned the radio louder. “Soon be dawn,” he said cheerfully.
“I’ll take a turn on the pavement and let you have a nap.”
“Don’t feel like sleeping. I’ll get some in the afternoon when the wife’s on duty.” His hand played nervously with the radio’s station-finder.
Footsteps running through the courtyard caught their attention. It was the American. He gave them a nod as he clanged the gate after him.
“An American,” Henryk explained. “Friend of Korytowski’s. Always in a hurry, coming or going.”
Silence filled the courtyard once more. Only the radio voice was speaking. There was a sudden pause, a sudden rush of words. “Less than an hour ago German planes bombed Polish territory. Without any declaration of war…”
The two men stared at each other, and then Henryk rose quickly to his feet.
“Elzbieta, Elzbieta!” he was shouting into the bedroom. “Wake up, woman, wake up. It’s started!”
The quiet man sat stiffly in his chair. “Dog’s blood,” he swore, “dog’s blood and dog’s bones.” He didn’t look at the staring-eyed woman, her straight hair stiff in thin pigtails, who clutched round her throat the shabby coat which she had thrown over her nightgown. With her husband she bent over the radio to catch the uneven words. Henryk’s hands trembled. He wiped his mouth and the back of his neck with a rag of a handkerchief. The Pole, still sitting on the chair beside him, cursed the Germans for what they were in a steady, even flow.
Other footsteps were hurrying through the courtyard now. Olszak looked at the little group in the doorway as he opened the gate.
“You’ve heard?” Henryk called after him. Olszak nodded. His quick footsteps died away on the pavement outside. “That’s another friend of Korytowski’s,” Henryk explained. “He’s the editor of a paper that no one buys. He’s probably rushing to write an editorial that no one wants to read. What are you going to do yourself?”
The man said dully, “Can’t leave this job until they get another man here.”
Ten minutes later Henryk’s ’phone rang.
“Some one wants to know if the man waiting in the street outside this building can be brought to the ’phone ” Henryk announced with a grin. “Better not tell them you’ve been warming your back on my chair.”
The man rose and went to the ’phone. He did the listening. Elzbieta had to wait until he returned to the doorway before her curiosity was satisfied.
“Got to go now,” he said.
“What about ——?” Henryk motioned with his head in the direction of Korytowski’s flat.
“That’s taken care of. Another man is set across the road, now that the daylight has come.” He stopped at the gate. “I wouldn’t say anything about this,” he advised. “These Germans are wary birds. She’ll fly at the first sign.”
Henryk nodded. “I’ll say nothing. I’m too busy to notice anything.” He pulled out the hose-pipe on to the pavement. He called back to his wife. “Get some clothes on. We’ll have breakfast when I’ve finished this job.”
The unobtrusive man had already disappeared round the corner of the street as Henryk started playing the jet of water round the roots of the chestnut-trees.
Sheila, in her bedroom, heard the cheerful hiss of the water. Some one down there was whistling quietly to himself.
“What has he got to whistle about?” she said savagely to herself. A weight was pressing on the back of her neck now. Her hands were hot, her spine was cold. The bed linen was as icy as a mid-winter pond. She started to shiver.
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
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”