The Unconquerable (9)
August 27, 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!
“Hurry up. No time to lose.” The door had closed on Madame Aleksander’s anxious face. Outside the babel of sounds had increased. The woman’s arm tightened round Sheila’s waist, urging her through the dark courtyard, past the shouting men, round a pointing gun, into the entrance-gate. To-night no blue-painted bulb was needed to light the vault. A dim glow was reflected from red patches in the sky.
“In here, quick.” The woman pulled her into the doorway of the porter’s lodging.
“Here,” a man’s voice echoed sharply, and firm hands guided her through the dark narrow hall into a poorly lit room. The smell of stewed sausage and sauerkraut was everywhere. The hands freed her, and Sheila caught the edge of a table for support, its dishes rattling nervously as her weight shifted them. She wished she liked the smell of stewed sausage and sauerkraut. The nearest chair seemed so far away, and her legs had suddenly lost the power to move. Olszak was right — this was worse than bombs.
“As soon as the raid is over,” Henryk was bellowing, “Martin will have the car here. And as soon as the car’s here we can all stop worrying.” The outside noises slackened, and he could drop his voice to a shout. “So you’re Anna Braun, Hofmeyer’s little surprise packet. ‘You’re a fool,’ I told him this morning, ‘to think that you’re important enough to pick and choose your own private agents. What do you think you are? A head of a department?’”
“You were the fool,” Elzbieta said. She paused for a sudden burst of gunfire to finish before she went on. “Hofmeyer’s got influence. He soon will be the head of a department.”
“I’m superior to any Hofmeyer. Just remember that, my girl.”
The background of noise lessened again. But the last crashes and slams and smashes had seemed to make Elzbieta angrier.
“Yes. You were. But his time is coming. He’s chosen the right friends. He will probably be made the head of a district. It’s a pity you didn’t use a little more tact, my man. I’m tired of playing a porter’s wife. It’s time you got something better for us than this. Before I tied up with you I lived in the Athene Palace and the Dorchester and the Waldorf-Astoria. This is what I get now.” She flung her arms tensely apart.
Sheila was praying, let them go on using their bad temper on each other; let them bicker, and perhaps they’ll forget to question me. But her legs were treacherous. She sank to the ground, kneeling beside the table, shifting it with her weight. Henryk took a step forward, peered down at the flushed face leaning against the table leg. Sheila’s eyes were closed. Her breath came in short stabs.
“She’s ill,” he said, and felt her brow. “She’s damned ill.”
“Doped,” the woman said. “Why all the sympathy? Last week I had a worse cold than that. I had a pain which bent my back double. But I kept on my feet and did my work. Much credit I got for it, too.”
“Shut up. She’s ill. She’ll never stand the journey out of Warsaw. Martin will have a dead woman on his hands. What will Hofmeyer say then?”
“None of us is irreplaceable.”
“Tell that to Hofmeyer.”
“So you think he’s important now, do you?” Elzbieta sneered.
“Shut up,” Henryk said savagely. “Help me to get her on this chair.”
The noises off-stage had burst out again with uncontrolled fury.
“It won’t matter whether she’s ill or not if a bomb hits this place,” Elzbieta shouted. “Did you hear that one? It was the closest yet.”
“Why didn’t you tell me she was ill? We could have made other plans. Too late now.”
“I still say she isn’t ill. Just ——”
“Oh, shut up!” The planes and guns obeyed him incongruously, leaving the angry voice to shake the room.
Footsteps hurried on the flagstones outside. Some one thumped a fist on the porter’s door.
“Too early for Martin,” Henryk said. “See who it is.”
Elzbieta was gone for only a few moments. “The air-raid warden,” she said quickly. “He’s all bandaged up. Thinks he’s a hero. He wants the hose-pipe.”
The footsteps had entered the hall.
“Damnation,” Henryk said quietly, and pushed his way past Elzbieta. “Keep them outside, you fool.” He was speaking in his usual tone of voice when he reached the hall. “Here’s the hose-pipe, gentlemen. Just here.”
“Good,” a strange voice replied. “Any extra spades? There’s digging to be done in the next street. We’ll need you. Did your wife get every one out of this building?”
“Every one except the old cripple on the third floor. She wouldn’t leave her dog.”
“Better get her down to the first floor, anyway. Bring the dog too.”
Sheila could almost hear Elzbieta’s unspoken protest as she obeyed the warden. The men’s footsteps died away too. She opened her eyes. She was feeling better now, except for this trembling; she was shuddering with cold. For a moment she thought of going out into the street to wait for Olszak there. He had indeed been right. She would rather face an air raid than this little room, smelling of sausage and sauerkraut. Henryk and Elzbieta, she named them, and giggled weakly. Sour cabbage fitted Elzbieta so exactly, and sausage wasn’t too bad, either, for Henryk.
When Elzbieta returned the raid was almost over. The larger explosions were less regular and more distant, almost far enough away to sound like grumbling thunder. The antiaircraft guns had reached a last frenzy of protest and were silent again. There was only a strange patter of heavy hail now. And after two or three minutes that ceased too.
Elzbieta had been running. Apart from a slight breathlessness she was as calm and hard as ever. She sat down on the chair opposite Sheila and wrinkled the small square of tablecloth with her elbows as she cupped her chin in her hands. A sharp chin, a sharp nose, pale eyes, pale hair. That was Elzbieta. The two women sat staring at each other. She doesn’t trust me, Sheila realized. Elzbieta was probably sensing that danger she had talked about to-day. Smell danger, she had said. All Sheila could smell was sauerkraut.
“Wipe that grin off your face,” Elzbieta said. “You don’t need to try to fool me. You didn’t like the big bad bombs, did you? I never saw such a coward. You’re trembling all over.”
In the street a car’s brakes grated.
“There’s Martin. Too bad Henryk wasn’t back in time for you to extract a little more sympathy. Come on, get on your legs. They’ve got to do more than look pretty. No time to lose.”
But the man who came into the room was obviously not Martin, to judge from the woman’s face. Two other men followed him.
“Martin stopped a piece of shrapnel,” the first man said. And then to Sheila he added, “Come on!”
Elzbieta looked at him strangely. Her eyes narrowed, her thin nostrils were dilated and rimmed with white. She could sense danger, Sheila admitted in amazement.
“What are you talking about? Who are you?” Elzbieta flashed at the men. “This is a young lady from upstairs, too ill to go to the shelter. I’m the caretaker’s wife. She is certainly not going out of this house with strange men.” She had all the shocked dignity of an honest working woman.
“Come off it,” the man said. Once more he turned to Sheila, “Hurry up. The car can’t wait for ever.”
Sheila rose unsteadily. One of the men caught her arm.
“Don’t go!” said Elzbieta suddenly. “Don’t you go with them!”
“You’ll get into trouble for this,” the man said.
The woman outstared him. “Shall I?” she said with every inch of insolence. “War or no war, no young man is coming to my door and taking away a young girl. I’ll call the police — that’s what I’ll do. Ill show you who will get into trouble. Now go on; clear out of my house.”
The men exchanged glances.
“Take her too,” one suggested. “There’s nothing else to do now. Comes to the same thing, anyway.”
Elzbieta made a dash for the door. After her recent conversation with her husband it was strange that the one call for urgent help which came to her lips was “Henryk, Henryk!”
Either the woman was a star actress, or she really was in love with the man. Sheila watched her again in astonishment. She was still more astonished when the man nearest the door acted even more quickly than Elzbieta. One movement blocked her way, another had her in a firm hold, and as she struggled, with a fury and skill which threatened to free her, a third movement had her limp and senseless. It was hardly a vulgar clip to the jaw, but it had the same results.
“Well,” the man who had first entered was saying, “I don’t see what else we could do. Who tipped her off, anyway?” The other two shrugged their shoulders. “And what about the man?”
“Out digging with the air-raid warden,” Sheila said slowly, and received a curious, unfriendly stare.
“Let’s move,” said the man who held her. “We’ll help you to get these air-raid victims into the car. And then two of us will come back here and wait for the man. Stop worrying, Tomasz; they were to be picked up later to-night, anyway. This saves us a double journey.”
The first young man shook his head. “It still worries me. We’ve gone beyond our orders.”
“What else could we do?”
Tomasz shrugged his shoulders in agreement, and the procession started for the entrance-gate. Sheila went first, firmly supported by one man. The woman was carried by the other two.
An air-raid warden looked at them with all the authority of his official position.
“Casualties. Shrapnel,” Tomasz said, who seemed hypnotized by that explanation. They will look at the aeroplanes…”
The air-raid warden, whose particular worry was people who would come out of shelter to look at aeroplanes, nodded sympathetically.
At the edge of the pavement there was a large black car with its windows screened. Far back in the car’s depth sat Mr Olszak.
“Really!” he said in protest as Elzbieta’s inert body was bundled on to the seat beside him. “Well, explanations later. Hurry.”
“Two of us must wait for the man. He was out,” Tomasz said.
Olszak’s polite voice was in contrast with the phrase he used. Then he leaned forward to say to the quiet man who sat beside the driver, “You wait with these two for Henryk. You can identify him.” And as the unobtrusive little man, who had kept watch at the gate last night, got out of the car Olszak said quickly to Tomasz, “You come with me and tell me how this happened.”
The car moved off, and Tomasz explained.
“I see,” said Mr Olszak. “Once she refused to let the girl go without creating a scene, you hadn’t much choice. Pity she didn’t come quietly like the girl.”
“Oh, she’s scared stiff,” Tomasz said with returning confidence, and turned to look at Sheila. “She’s still trembling.”
“Shock, no doubt,” Mr Olszak said. In the darkness his cool hand touched Sheila’s gently to catch her wrist and feel her pulse. Then he patted the back of her hand. But he didn’t speak to her, and Sheila had gathered enough from the young man’s tone to know that for this journey, at least, she was classified with Elzbieta.
She would have liked to be able to speak. She wanted to say, “That woman felt danger in the room and nearly escaped you. Perhaps I’ve been infected by her; but I too felt danger, there in the dark street. I felt some one standing back in the shadows, watching us. Not the air-raid warden, either. There was some one else, I felt. I think it was Henryk.” But silence was imposed on her now, and doubly imposed because of Elzbieta lying so limply in the car’s other corner. Elzbieta might not be so limp as she pretended. Elzbieta might be listening, waiting for her moment when the car at last halted. Mr Olszak had been waiting too, for the woman’s sudden desperate movement as the car slowed down had no success. There was a brief struggle, and then the woman was being carried, cursing and fighting, up the broad steps which led to the hall outside Colonel Bolt’s office.
Sheila felt as if the last remnants of her strength were ebbing quickly away. Now that Elzbieta had gone, there was no need to try to keep her mind working. And as her mind relaxed her body sagged. Mr Olszak had stayed with her, was guiding her into an empty room through a doorway into another empty room, through another doorway into a small, dark hall. Then there was the cold touch of open air on her brow. There was hurry and silence and Mr Olszak guiding her firmly and quickly. There was a car waiting so quietly in a side-street that Sheila’s over-tensed nerves jumped as Mr Olszak pulled her quickly into it. The engine came to life as Olszak closed the door, and the car was moving expertly through these smaller streets which had so far escaped bombs.
After the car there was a flight of stairs, an open door, familiar voices and faces. She thought she heard a man speaking English. It sounded like Stevens’ voice, which was a silly kind of idea. And there was a woman. It was only when she was touching Sheila that Sheila could be really sure the woman was there. At last the room stopped lurching and swayed gently instead. Sheila, the sheets and blankets drawn up to her chin, which wouldn’t stop its trembling no matter how she clenched her jaw, opened her eyes to see fair hair and very straight eyebrows focus for a moment before they swam into a white haze.
“Barbara,” Sheila said softly, and smiled, and then stopped smiling. That too was a silly kind of idea.
“I’ve such a terribly bad cold,” she complained to the room. A silly, irritating kind of room with faces and then no faces. So many faces. So many Olszaks and Barbaras and — yes, it was after all, there he was — Stevens. Too many for her to look at without getting dizzy. Sheila closed her eyes and wondered who could be breathing in such a peculiar way.
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) | 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”