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!
When she awoke the room was dark and stifling. If this were night again, then she hadn’t much to show for to-day. She could remember a man, one of those who had met her in the living-room last night, sitting beside her bed. He had taken her temperature, felt her pulse. He had made her swallow some small, square-shaped pills. Uncle Edward had stood watching her silently. The apartment no longer had any voices. She had thought, dismally, that every one had gone home; every one, except herself. And she had started to shed a sympathetic tear for herself, and then she must have fallen into a sleep so deep that she couldn’t even gauge its length. Later, when the sun filtered through the leaves outside to cast moving shadows on the wall, some one had wrapped her in a blanket and propped her in a chair. It was a woman, she had noticed dimly, a woman with a straight wisp of hair over staring eyes. And the woman had talked — low, quick words. Sheila remembered feeling alive enough only for a brief space to mumble, ‘Ja, jawohl…” in answer to a repeated question. It must have been asked in German, although she hadn’t realized that at the time. She had been busy watching the shadows on the wall. One had turned into a fox’s face. It chased the other shadows up and across the wall, and then it would suddenly drop back to its original position, and the fox’s mask would start its chase all over again. The woman hadn’t believed her even when she pointed out the exact position of the cunning face, had helped her firmly into bed, had covered her with sheets that were all smooth and cool once more.
But now the sun had gone, the shadows and the fox’s mask had gone, the doctor and the woman had gone. Only Uncle Edward was still there, still standing silently watching her from the doorway. He was so quiet that it seemed strange he should have wakened her. Her thoughts were slow like her movements. She wasn’t shivering now. The bed was as hot as an oven. The pillow felt damp when she moved her neck. All air seemed to have gone from the room. There was a jangling in her ears as if she were listening to a distant, violent fire-alarm.
“I really don’t think you can be moved,” Uncle Edward said. He walked slowly into the room and switched on the small light beside her bed. “But I think you ought to know, now that you are awake, that we are again under attack.”
“Again?” Sheila swallowed painfully. Even the voice didn’t seem to come from her dry throat. It sounded as if a ventriloquist were using her for a dummy. She raised herself on one elbow, but there was no support in her arm, and she was glad to sink back into the pillow’s furrow.
“Yes. The first came at sunrise, just after the doctor had given you some pills and put you to sleep. Then there was a second attack, fairly quickly. I’m beginning to lose count now. The air-raid warden from upstairs has been trying to herd us over to the trenches in the Park, for the recent raids have been coming closer to this district. But I don’t think you should go.”
The blue eyes, tired, worried, suffering, smiled at her. “I helped to dig them during the last two days. I prefer to stay here myself. Four walls give an illusion of protection.”
An angry, staccato rattle sounded from the courtyard.
“Anti-aircraft,” Korytowski said gently. “It was set up in our garden this morning.”
Sheila nodded. Her hands were clenching the sheets in the same way she used to clench her handkerchief while the dentist’s drill ground out a deeply decayed tooth.
“Just rest, and you’ll be all right. Two or three days, and we’ll have this fever beaten. If we could only send you to a hospital it would be better for you. But the hospital beds are being kept as empty as possible.” He shrugged his shoulders. The kindly face looked so sad that Sheila tried a smile.
The sound of aeroplane engines seemed closer. Sheila shut her eyes. She couldn’t bear that sound; it was worse than the explosions as the bombs landed. For the bombs had at least finished when they crashed on the ground, but that loud coughing from the sky went on and on, threatening those still alive, promising pain and destruction.
Korytowski sat on the edge of the bed. “Words are extraordinary things,” he was saying. “They persist through the centuries as if they had a real life of their own. Stevens was telling me that the vulgar expression for legs in his country is ——” There was a violent blast, the room seemed to rock, glass smashed on the pavement outside. Korytowski looked at the black square of window speculatively. “It really was fortunate that I boarded it up this afternoon. Never did believe in these strips of paper. Well, the vulgar expression is ‘gams,’ I believe.” Another blast tightened Sheila’s body into a rigid stretch of bone and muscle. “Now the extraordinary thing is this: back in the days of Rome the soldier who didn’t speak proper Latin would insist on a rough slang all of his own. His word for a pretty leg was ——” The room moved again, this time more insistently. Sheila’s eardrums were bursting, but her hands couldn’t leave hold of the sheets to shut out the overwhelming sound. Professor Korytowski waited patiently for silence, as if he were facing a crowd of coughing, shuffling students in a class-room. “His word,” he continued when the first short lull occurred, “his word was ‘gamba.’”
The planes had gone. The anti-aircraft guns had fallen silent in the courtyard. But the ringing in Sheila’s ears was louder. He noticed her tenseness.
“Fire-brigade,” he said briefly. He poured a glass of water and held it to her lips. “This bed has got to be changed again. We are soaking the fever out of you, anyway. I’ll go and get Henryk’s wife. She said she would look after you until Teresa arrives.”
“Madame Aleksander is coming?”
“She has already left Korytów with Barbara. They decided they ought to be here at the hospitals. Stefan and little Teresa have stayed with Aunt Marta. It will be safer in the country. The Germans will not waste bombs on anything so small as Korytów. Marta ’phoned me after Teresa and Barbara had left; couldn’t reach me on the ’phone before then.”
“Then only Aunt Marta knows I am still here?”
“So far. And do you know what she said about this chill of yours? ‘Never did wear enough clothes.’”
Sheila wanted to laugh, and found she couldn’t, somehow.
“I’ll go down to the porter’s lodge. I don’t think there will be another raid for at least an hour.”
“Yes, Sheila?” The blue eyes smiled kindly, reassuringly.
There was a slight pause. And then, “Aren’t you afraid?” The question came hesitatingly.
“Yes, I was. Very much so. But I’m getting accustomed to the idea that bombs can drop around me, and as soon as you get accustomed to that you begin to feel so many other emotions — anger, chiefly — that fear loses some of its importance.”
“Is there much danger?”
“What you’d expect.” The blue eyes had hardened.
“Has London been bombed?”
“No. Nor Paris. Not yet. We are fighting alone so far.”
Sheila closed her eyes.
“Don’t worry,” the quiet voice was saying. “Well hold on here until our allies can reach us. All you’ve to worry about is recovering as quickly as possible. Ill tell the porter’s wife to come up here, now. When she has left and you are back in bed I’ll give you some medicine.” He nodded towards a bottle standing on the table beside the bed.
The door closed.
Sheila stared at it miserably. It was one of those moments in life when everything seems wrong.
The door opened again, cautiously this time. The pale-faced, pale-eyed porter’s wife came into the room.
“It’s only me — Elzbieta,” she said. “I’ve brought you some herb tea. Sip it, while I straighten this bed.”
She wrapped Sheila methodically into the blanket and propped her once more on the chair. Sheila began sipping the tea. It was weak and bitter; it smelled of a wooden chest with scented clothes, long undisturbed. Sheila collected her thoughts slowly. She suddenly realized that the woman had spoken in German. A lot of Poles knew German, used it with foreigners if Polish failed. Yet Sheila felt she should be surprised at this woman. At the moment she was incapable of feeling anything except worry. Over the edge of the wide cup she watched the woman methodically change the bed linen. She was dressed in an old skirt, a shapeless knitted jumper. Yet there was a neatness, a clean-scrubbed look about her in spite of the old clothes. Her straight hair was tightly pinned into a plaited coil at the nape of her neck. Only one short strand of hair was out of place, and she would blow at it out of the corner of her mouth as it fell over her eye. Then, quick-temperedly, she’d tuck it back into place, scarcely pausing in her work. Sheila took some time to notice that the woman was watching her as much as she was watching the woman. “You’re slow in the uptake to-day.” she told herself, and at that very moment realized why she should have felt surprised at the woman’s German. It was good German, accurate and hard, with the clear enunciation of Berlin.
On an impulse Sheila said to the waiting woman, “Are you German?” Her voice was a ludicrous whisper; the effort of sitting up in this chair must have been more of a drain on her strength than she had imagined.
Elzbieta looked at her with a strange smile. “Oh, no!” she whispered back. “Are you?”
Elzbieta laughed suddenly. She spoke in a normal voice again. “There’s no one here. You can speak as loud as you want. Old Korytowski’s down gaping at the bomb-holes.”
Sheila tried to focus her mind sharply. The callous impertinence in the woman’s voice had warned her.
“You work for Hofmeyer, direct?” the woman asked suddenly.
“Hofmeyer?” Sheila felt her mind dulling again. She was too tired to cope with all this, she thought in desperation.
“You don’t know anyone called Hofmeyer?” The voice was sarcastic.
Sheila shook her tired head.
“Come off it,” the woman said almost savagely. “Stop wasting time.” She went over to the dressing-table, opened Sheila’s handbag, pulled out the aeroplane tickets and Hofmeyer’s leaflet. Sheila, who had imagined that Olszak had destroyed that sheet of paper, could only stare at the fact that it was still in her bag. And there was a reason behind that fact. So much she could guess, even at this moment, when her head felt as if it had fallen off her neck and was rolling round on the floor.
The woman said bitterly, “I found that this morning. Fine credit you are to us! Letting them dope you, until you can’t even see what’s happening to your own handbag. Heinrich got in touch with Hofmeyer about you this morning, after the policeman left us.”
Heinrich. Not Henryk. Heinrich. And Johann Hofmeyer playing a double, yet single-purposed game. Hofmeyer, neither German nor Pole, living in Warsaw for twenty years as a German-Pole. Hofmeyer taking orders from Uncle Matthews, working now with Olszak, accepted by the Heinrichs. Surely that must be it. Surely Hofmeyer was in German pay in name only, for his own purposes. Surely — policeman… What was that about a policeman?
“Political police. Watching you. A fine mess you’ve made of it. What did you spill at headquarters yesterday?”
“Hofmeyer will be pleased for that small mercy. If it’s true. Wish he could see you now, so doped that when the police pick you up again they’ll get everything out of you.”
“Where is he?”
“Hofmeyer? Safe. And still in touch with us. He said you would hear from him.” The woman smoothed the top counterpane with quick, decisive strokes of her hand. “What’s your idea in staying here, anyway?”
Sheila felt that the woman hated her for being here. There was certainly resentment in her eyes.
“It was safe.” Sheila was now praying for Korytowski’s return. She was feeling too tired, she was losing the alertness which her fear had given her. She would make a mistake. Why didn’t Korytowski come?
“It was a good front all right,” the woman admitted. “Hofmeyer’s a sharp fellow. But my guess is that he will tell you to clear out now, before the police arrest you again.”
“But the police were satisfied yesterday.”
“God, what innocents we are using nowadays! Don’t you know that the police are never satisfied? Listen — you are fairly new to this game. Not like me or Margareta Koch. And the first thing you’ll have to learn if you want to stay alive is that you’ve got to smell danger. I’ve just got to take one look at this set-up, and I smell plenty of danger all round you.”
“Margareta Koch? Where is she?”
“Haven’t heard for nigh on six months. One of our men in the police building reported yesterday that Koch had been arrested disguised as an English girl. But it turned out to be you and not Koch. I won’t say you weren’t a surprise. But then, Papa Hofmeyer usually has one or two up his sleeve. I’ll tell you one thing — he’s pretty angry with you just now. Called you a string of names to Heinrich for getting on the police list. You won’t be much good to us now, not until we take over here. Come on, back into bed with you. Clever of you to have chosen to be the English milady. No one expects them to speak Polish correctly.” She picked up one of Sheila’s shoes and shook her head admiringly. Trust Papa Hofmeyer. Everything correct down to the English shoe label. Nice piece of leather. I haven’t been allowed to wear anything like that for a long time. Too damned long. Wait until you’re made a caretaker’s wife some day. You’ll know then!”
Sheila pressed her head further into the pillow, as if to shut out the woman’s venom. She suddenly felt at the mercy of this woman’s bitter heart. She almost cried out with joy when she heard the outside door being opened. The woman dropped the shoes and picked up the empty cup.
“No more medicine!” she said quickly. “Remember. You’re not ill. They are doping you to keep you here. And you’ve got to leave. The plans are being made.”
Elzbieta was opening the bedroom door now. “Good evening, sir,” she said very timidly, very politely to the man who came in. It wasn’t Korytowski. It was Olszak.
“Well,” he said to Sheila, “don’t tell me you are a casualty. Where’s your host? I brought him a copy of my war editorial.” He uncorked the medicine bottle. “Want some now? One of my best accomplishments is holding a spoon of nasty medicine for some one else. Allow me.”
“No ” Sheila said as clearly as she could. “No, thanks. I don’t need any more medicine.”
“Too bad.” Olszak corked the bottle again, regretfully.
They both listened to the dosing of the outside door.
Olszak moved swiftly, in strange contrast to his diffident entry, back into the hall.
“Thoroughly locked,” he said when he once more returned. “Now, what did she say?”
Sheila was so amazed that Olszak should expect the woman to have said anything interesting that she could only stare at him.
“Quick, Miss Matthews, tell me everything that happened.” His voice was strangely excited. “I know you are ill, but if you ever wanted to help in this war, by God, I think you are going to do it now.”
The wild enthusiasm in his voice lifted Sheila out of her lethargy. She told him about Elzbieta, haltingly, yet as accurately as she could force herself to speak. Sometimes she would forget something (why must she be ill at this time?) and then she’d pause, force herself to go back and straighten out what she had jumbled. Mr Olszak listened patiently, intently, without interruption or prompting. He let her choose her own tempo, and his silence helped her. If wasn’t so long, after all, before he could piece together the whole scene.
“Good,” he said. “In fact, excellent. That’s all I wanted. You know, it is a nice feeling when you have a suspicion that no one else will share, when you work out a little plan to deal with it, to find that everything does fit into place, and that you’ve a neat success on your hands. It’s a nicer feeling than many a bigger, more obvious victory.”
He looked at Sheila critically. “You’re tired. You should sleep. I’ll wait for Korytowski in the other room. Anything I can get you?”
“Some medicine. I want to get out of this bed as soon as I can.”
Olszak nodded approvingly. “I think I’d better warn you,” he said as he poured a careful tablespoon of medicine, “that your real name is supposed to be Anna Braun. It was the first name that Hofmeyer could think of when Henryk contacted him with the news that you were under suspicion. Henryk, of course, wanted to know all about you. There, that’s the way. Swallow it quickly when your mouth is wide open. Now here’s some water. That’s the way.”
He relented suddenly. “I suppose you have earned more of an explanation than that,” he said. “I had a suspicion or two about Henryk. Only my sources were not reliable, and although we have watched him and the woman, we could find out nothing definite. Hofmeyer knew nothing about them. But last night one of my men was instructed to inform them very carefully that you were under surveillance, that you had contacted another German who knew where Hofmeyer is hiding. He actually met Hofmeyer. Now we know that Henryk and Elzbieta are Heinrich Dittmar and Lisa Koehler. We’ve more than enough proof.”
“Elzbieta knew who Hofmeyer was. She called him Papa.”
Olszak repressed a smile. “Only by reputation,” he said. “Just as Hofmeyer had heard of Dittmar. But he never met him until this morning. We did a good job of work last night.”
“What do you wish?”
Sheila stirred restlessly. “Somehow I wish Hofmeyer could just have come along here and found out for himself who Henryk really was.”
“And let the Germans’ suspicions be aroused against Hofmeyer when Henryk is arrested? No, I’m afraid that isn’t the way we have to work. In fact, you will have to be arrested again along with the porter and his wife, just to keep yourself safe from the Germans. I’ve already arranged for a nice place for you to hide after you ‘escape’ from our police. But meanwhile the problem is that Henryk will be planning how to smuggle you out of this apartment so as to hide you from the Poles.”
Sheila said, “But I don’t want to leave here. Madame Aleksander and Barbara are coming. I want to see them.” Her voice was foolishly on edge.
“I’m afraid you’ll have to leave. It’s a matter of your own safety. Henryk and the woman are too interested in the unknown Anna Braun. And Hofmeyer has got to invent a life-story for you that will fit, and you can’t answer any German questions until you learn that story. You’ve got to get out of here and be well hidden.” Mr Olszak began to walk about the room. “The best way,” he said at last, “will be to let Henryk do his planning, to let him smuggle you out. You will appear then to have escaped from this room with his connivance, whereas you really have escaped from him.” Olszak was looking pleased now. “Yes,” he added, “that would be a neat way to use Henryk and catch him.”
“Madame Aleksander,” Sheila began miserably. “I want to see her.”
“Yes, yes. Don’t worry. I’ll look after all that. Don’t worry. Get some sleep.” His voice was reassuring and strangely gentle.
Bombs wakened her again.
Olszak had come back into the bedroom. He was standing beside her.
“I’m afraid it would be ungallant to climb under your bed,” he shouted, and won a weak smile.
“Still not here.” He glanced impatiently at his watch. “I can’t wait much longer. Yet I can’t leave you alone.” Sheila thought, It isn’t the bombs he is worrying about so much as the woman downstairs. As long as some one was with Sheila she would be safe from Elzbieta’s curiosity.
At that moment, even as if their thoughts had attracted the woman, they heard a pounding at the entrance door. Olszak gave Sheila a warning glance and moved quickly into the hall.
“Every one to the shelters!” Elzbieta was yelling. “Air-raid warden’s been hit. I’m following his instructions.” She pushed past Olszak to enter the room.
“Get dressed before the next raid. This is going to be a bad night. Every one’s to get to shelter. Orders.” She stared at Sheila and then turned on her heel.
“Miss Matthews is ill,” Olszak’s voice was saying.
“Ill help her to the shelter. Orders.” She left them as a building shattered to the ground. That bomb had landed not so far away. She didn’t even flinch. Her eyes, as she left the room gave Sheila a final look and command. The entrance door slammed once more.
“She’s without fear,” Sheila said.
“She’s enjoying it. If I were in Berlin and the bombs started dropping I’d dance with joy.”
“Have they dropped there yet?”
“England, France? Are they fighting?”
“America? The other countries?”
Olszak shook his head. In a quiet moment he dropped his voice to normal and added, “This is approximate to my idea of hell.” He sat on the edge of the bed as the torrent of noise broke loose once more. He had taken hold of one of her hands as if to give her strength, and she clung to his wrist desperately. The anti-aircraft guns had burst out again with renewed venom. The angry coughing of the planes was nearer. The living-room window, which Korytowski hadn’t had time to board up — his guest’s room had seemed the only urgent one to him — shattered suddenly. As the curtains blew wildly aside and the doors were sucked open Sheila could see a strange light sweeping through the blasted window to reach into the hall. Its rhythmical ebb and flow told her it was only a searchlight. Perhaps because her first fear had been so great she felt almost calm in her relief. If only she could be out of this bed, if only she could identify these ripping, smashing, tearing crashes, she would feel better. She felt vulnerable because she felt so helpless. If she could see other people waiting for the bombs, too, she would lose this feeling of war waged against her personally. It was always easier to bear trouble if you felt you weren’t the only one.
The noises slackened at last and then ceased. She could smile to Mr Olszak and say, with more determination than truth, “I think I’m getting accustomed to it now.” She let go his wrist and added frankly, “But I’m glad you were here.”
He said urgently, “Can you get dressed? Can you travel for a short distance? I have a feeling that Henryk has planned your rescue from this room during the next big raid. Elzbieta gave you the warning. You saw that, didn’t you?”
“I may have to leave you, for I have our own plans to put into action.” Olszak glanced at his watch. “It has stopped.” he said fretfully. “Damn Edward… what’s keeping him?”
And then the ’phone bell rang, a pathetic, plaintive little sound after all the noise of the last fifteen minutes.
“Edward!” Olszak said in relief, and hurried to answer the ’phone. First he listened, and then he insisted on something he proposed. He ended with the words. “Hurry, Teresa.” So it wasn’t Professor Korytowski. It must be Madame Aleksander, Sheila thought drowsily. It must be. She must ask. But when Olszak returned to the room she was already deeply asleep.
She was still asleep when Madame Aleksander arrived.
“Michal, what’s wrong?” were Teresa Aleksander’s first words.
“Gently, Teresa.” First I must calm her down, he thought. His voice was reassuring. “You are looking well, if a little tired. Come and sit down while I explain.” He locked the front door carefully.
“Where’s Edward? You were so strange over that ’phone. Why didn’t you let Barbara come up here? Why did you insist that she should go to your flat? What’s wrong?” She halted at the doorway of the living-room. “Oh, look at this glass everywhere!” Her domestic instincts were outraged.
“Gently, Teresa,” he said again as he watched her white face. The silly disorder in the room seemed as if it were the breaking point of Madame Aleksander’s resistance. Small things like that were always the last straw. He tried to make the blackout curtains secure once more, so as to shield the room’s one small light from the courtyard. “As if it mattered anyway,” he said irritably, thinking of the city so brightly illuminated now by flames. “Now tell me your story, Teresa. How did you get here?”
By the time she had finished her story of hopeless roads, of crowded fields, of children and women machine-gunned, she was again in control — as if by talking of these things she could bring herself to accept them for the harsh reality they were. Just as Barbara and she had reached Warsaw, walking the last ten miles on foot, the raid was taking place. “All we did was to stand and crane our necks,” she said in surprise. “So did every one else. I suppose it’s because it is all so strange: it is like another world somehow. I kept thinking, This can’t be Warsaw. This can’t be me or Barbara…. We just stood and looked. Then it was all over, and the trams started running again, and people got into them or started walking down the streets. And then I ’phoned Edward and found you; and I’ve sent Barbara to your flat as you insisted. But why?” She pulled off her hat wearily. “I hate hats. They make my head ache. But my feet feel worse. Fortunately, I made Barbara wear a pair of sensible shoes this morning. Otherwise we shouldn’t have been here yet. Now, where is Edward?” She smoothed the heavy braid of silver hair which encircled her head. She looked more tired than she would admit: the shadows under the eyes were stronger, the high cheek-bones seemed more pronounced.
“He is out. But the news is Sheila Matthews. She’s still here. She didn’t go to Britain.”
“Sheila!” Madame Aleksander was first aghast and then dismayed. “Oh, Michal!”
“And she’s ill. Caught a severe chill. I want Barbara to nurse her at another address. I didn’t want Barbara to be seen coming here at all. No, don’t go to see Sheila now. She’s asleep. And I have more to tell you, for I must leave here, now that you have arrived to take charge.”
“What’s wrong, Michal?” It was not for nothing that Madame Aleksander had known Olszak for twenty-five years.
“I am sending Sheila to another address. She is in danger here.”
“But this house isn’t any more dangerous than other buildings. Really, Michal, bombs don’t respect place or person. We’ve all the same chance.”
“It isn’t the bombing that worries me. Let me finish. Teresa. Sheila was instrumental in uncovering certain German agents. They know she is here. She must leave and hide.”
“Well, tell the police at once, Michal. Surely you’ve done that?”
“Teresa, things don’t work so simply. The police are very busy now doing a hundred jobs outside their own duty. Besides, we have little time. We shall have to help Sheila. We can protect her. When the next raid warning comes through get her dressed. When the concierge or his wife come upstairs let her go with him or her. But you must stay behind. Say you want to wait for your brother; give any excuse that seems natural. But don’t say one thing more than that to the person who comes for Sheila. If you do you will kill Sheila.”
Madame Aleksander looked at him unbelievingly. “Michal!” she said. Yet he was serious; he really meant what he said.
“You will hear the full story later,” he was saying. “I will see that Sheila is safe. And Barbara. In two or three days you will see both of them again. Please trust me in this.”
“But of course,” she said slowly. “Of course I trust your judgment.” She followed him into the hall. He opened the bedroom door, and they stood looking at the sleeping girl.
Madame Aleksander crossed quickly over to the bed. “Her brow is damp. She’s flushed. Her breathing is heavy. Michal, I don’t think she should leave this bed. Really, I don’t.”
Olszak said firmly, almost coldly, “She must go. Now do you see how desperate the situation is if I insist she must get up and go in her present condition?”
Madame Aleksander nodded. “She looks so young at the moment. There is always something so pathetic about the young when they are asleep — all their grown-up ways quite gone.”
“She’s twenty-three. What were you doing when you were twenty-three?”
Madame Aleksander smiled gently. “In Serbia, with my husband. Andrew was only a year old. Stanislaw had such dreadful bronchitis I never thought he would live.”
“But he did. You all did. Hardship and danger destroys fewer people than indulgence.”
“Sometimes I used to think that if we suffered, then we should save our children from suffering,” she said sadly. “Now it seems as if no generation escapes suffering.”
“Each generation suffers so that its children will be strong, for children whose fathers have escaped hardship come to think that life is easy. Soon they believe that easiness is life. There is no greater danger to a country than when its citizens assume that danger no longer exists.”
“I wish I didn’t believe you,” Madame Aleksander said. “I wish I didn’t.” At the door she gave him her hand to kiss.
In the kitchen-cupboard she found a dustpan and broom. She turned the radio on, so that she might hear the next air-raid warning. She took off her costume jacket and rolled up the sleeves of her white silk blouse. How do you begin to clear up so much broken glass? she wondered.
She had almost finished the seemingly impossible task when the radio suddenly interrupted its concert, and in place of violins came the impersonal voice of the announcer. “Look out! Look out!” So many enemy planes passing this zone, and then this zone, and then this zone. They were heading for the centre of the city. She hurried into the bedroom. “Wake up, Sheila, wake up,” she was saying frantically as the radio voice warned the last zone of all, “Warsaw! Warsaw!”
“Quick, Sheila, quick.” Madame Aleksander was already drawing a thin stocking over Sheila’s damp instep. “Wake up, Sheila. Air-raid warning. Wake up.” Madame Aleksander was in tears, tears shed in anger at her own weakness at ever having promised to get Sheila out of this flat. “Sheila, my dear Sheila,” she was saying. “I’ll never forgive myself.” She hugged the girl tightly.
Sheila forgot to be surprised. The quinine was playing havoc with her head. She had begun to shiver again once she had left the warm bed. Only when Madame Aleksander had managed to close the hip-fastener on her girdle and had slipped her skirt over her head did she say, “Madame Aleksander! I thought you’d never come.” Madame Aleksander blinked back the tears and gave Sheila a second hug and then pushed her arms into the sleeves of her linen jacket.
“Where’s your coat?”
Sheila nodded towards the curtain which disguised the pegs on the wall. But even with the coat’s warmth belted tightly round her, its collar turned up round her ears and across her throat, she was trembling with cold.
The anti-aircraft guns were going into action. As Sheila fumbled weakly after a shoe which her foot had kicked by accident under the bed the door opened, and Elzbieta entered. She had pretended to retire for the night. She had pinned a shawl round her head to hide the thin plaits of hair. A coat hung over a tent-like nightdress. Her bare feet had been thrust into an old pair of sand-shoes.
“Every one downstairs,” she said in Polish. “It’s a big raid. Orders.”
Madame Aleksander, kneeling beside the bed with one arm stretched under it produced the missing shoe. It was probably her exertions which made her face so red and unnatural.
“Miss Matthews is ready,” Madame Aleksander said. “I don’t think she is well enough, but she insists that a shelter would be safer.”
“It certainly would. Hear that? Come on — I’ll help her,” Elzbieta said.
“I’ll follow. I must get my own coat, and my bag, and my brother’s manuscript. He would want me to take it with me.”
Elzbieta nodded agreeably. She was pleased at this turn of events. Madame Aleksander saw a last, almost despairing look from Sheila as Elzbieta urged her out of the door. The woman was holding the girl very firmly round the waist. A sudden chill struck Madame Aleksander’s heart. She was afraid, not of the bombs beginning to fall so methodically, so callously. She was afraid for Sheila, for Barbara, for little Teresa and Stefan and Marta. She was afraid for Andrew on a crowded road leading to the front, for Stanislaw who was still in Warsaw. Even for Eugenia, his wife, hard as it was to like her. For if anything happened to Eugenia it would hurt Stanislaw; and anything that hurt one of her children hurt her. She had become part of them, just as they had once been part of her.
This war has scattered us, she thought sadly. Now none of us even knows what the other is doing, where he is, whether he needs us. We are all shut off from each other as if we were strangers. Each time a bomb falls I shall wonder if it is worse for them wherever they are….
The planes were almost overhead now.
Madame Aleksander switched off the meagre light. She clasped her slender fingers and knelt beside the bed in the deafening darkness.
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”