The Unconquerable (27)

By: Helen MacInnes
January 3, 2015

macinnes

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!

ALL INSTALLMENTS SO FAR

***

Chapter 27: Death of Anna Braun

At the end of an hour they were ready. No explanation of Korytów’s fate had been asked or given. They all knew what Jan’s words implied. But with Sheila’s story proved, the threat of danger from Dutka’s village became more real. Silently, obediently, the men prepared to leave. The captain was taking no chances this time.

All traces of the occupation of the forester’s house were removed. The uniforms and weapons were distributed among the men. The table was cleared of everything except a map of Poland and the burning candle. The guards outside were replaced with men who had already been given their last instructions, and the remainder, some of them with strange, freshly shaven faces above green-grey uniforms, gathered round the table. Stefan, quite suddenly and unexpectedly, had fallen asleep and had been carried to bed. Sheila sat beside him. He would be angry that she had let him sleep while all these orders were being given, but it was better that he should sleep. However determined a boy of fourteen was to prove himself equal to a man, the shock of the last two days would not be fought against in the way that a man would master it. It was good for Stefan to fall asleep, and sleep well.

The captain stood at the table in front of the map. The white-haired man was at his elbow. Together they gave the final instructions. Immediately the house was abandoned the men were to separate. They were to travel either singly or in pairs to the south. There, some sixty miles away, they would reach the forest-land to the south-east of the Province of Lodz. In the part of the forest which they all in turn examined from the map they would find one of Wisniewski’s camps. It was hidden in that forest, a forest of great depth and safety, where fires could be lit, and game was still to be found in plenty. Meanwhile they were to travel carefully, at night. They were to avoid the Germans’ attention by neither fighting nor giving any cause for suspicion. They would find shelter through the day, and food in the villages through which they would pass. The peasants had already proved themselves willing to accept that risk. So had the big houses. So had the priests. The one danger was a German pretending to be a Pole. Therefore they were to steer clear of other wandering men. The people they could trust lived in the villages and were known to one another. When they reached the forest district they were to ask at any of the villages which encircled it for a woman called Jadwiga. It was all arranged: each village had its chosen Jadwiga, and each Jadwiga would either show or supply them with a guide to reach the first outpost of the camp. The password was “The Reapers.” That was the name the men of the camp had chosen. It was wise to have a guide to reach the forest camp of the Reapers, for a man from the open plains or towns would find the forest a grim place to penetrate. In its depths were stag and lynx and wild boar. There were parts of it where no human beings had ever been. The thick trees and bushes formed a matted wall. Also, wandering strangers with no guide to vouch for them were apt to be killed first and questioned afterwards.

The captain had finished. The white-haired officer repeated the commands carefully and slowly. In the same words all the men once more repeated what he had said, telling it to themselves unforgettably. After that not even the slowest thinking man in the group could have mistaken any of the orders. Not, thought Sheila, that there was a stupid look on any of the faces. Danger sharpens wits; hunger increases alertness. There wasn’t a placid face among them. Each jaw had an edge, each eye had a quickness, each mouth was set. The excitement and laughter of the earlier evening had given way to grim purpose. The men waiting so silently had seen death, had felt danger’s cold breath, had known tragedy and sorrow. There was nothing left to fear. Everything had been taken from them. The Germans had made a mistake in leaving them nothing, in conceding no hostage to fortune.

The captain and his friend came over to her, while the men sat on the floor, smoked the last of the cigarettes, and waited with eyes which saw beyond the room into their own personal tragedies. It was as if they strengthened themselves by remembering the evil that had been done to them and their land.

The captain said, “Miss Matthews, you are our worst problem. What are we to do with you?”

“I can go back to Warsaw and make up an elaborate story of an escape from you, as you once suggested,” Sheila said unhappily. Back to Warsaw and Dittmar and Captain Streit and the weaving of a further net in which she herself would at last be caught. There was no escaping from Captain Streit; she wasn’t clever enough.

The two men exchanged glances. It’s strange how every nation thinks that foreigners are mad, Sheila thought. She said, “I must reach Madame Aleksander and the head of my department. The last he heard of me was that I was summoned to Gestapo headquarters to identify a body. He will be rather worried.” And then I’ve to warn Olszak too, she thought, to tell him that Dittmar has been doing too much thinking.

The white-haired man smiled with his lips at her choice of phrase. His eyes never smiled, it seemed.

“I will let him know. And Madame Aleksander will be taken from the flat in Warsaw, and she can meet you and the boy. It will be arranged. But I, for one, would not advise you to go near Warsaw.”

Sheila looked at the grey eyes, flecked with brown: that was one of the reasons why they looked like granite. “If it can’t be arranged… ?” she asked slowly.

“We can try. We have a better chance than you have. You and the boy will travel with one of the men to the camp and wait there. Captain Wisniewski will take good care of you until we hear from Warsaw what you are to do.”

“Is he there?” Sheila asked quickly, and then was angry with herself. But the white-haired man didn’t seem to notice her embarrassment.

Suddenly the captain said to Sheila, breaking his worried silence, “Were you quite sure that the man was a spy? You didn’t misinterpret his expression?”

“I am sure. He was in sympathy with me, because he thought I was a German. He left as quickly as he could so that the Germans would be here before dawn. I was to be shot then. He knew that.”

“Yes, he was in great haste. At the time haste seemed natural if the village was to be raided before the dawn came. But now, with your interpretation, this haste seems to point to the man’s guilt. I was wrong about Korytów; you were right. You may be right about the man Galinski. We shall not know until he returns either with ammunition or with German soldiers.”

The white-haired man said, “You have decided to leave here, anyway. It is better to leave now than to wait for confirmation of Pani Matthews’s suspicions. If he isn’t a spy then the men can be directed to Wisniewski’s camp when they return here. If he is a spy you cannot save Dutka or your man who went with Galinski. Perhaps you cannot even save the scout whom Thaddeus sent to watch their progress. Not unless Thaddeus reaches them before Galinski leads Dutka and your man into a German trap.” At the mention of Thaddeus’s name, Sheila looked found the crowded room. Now she realized she hadn’t seen him since Jan and Stefan and the other survivors from Korytów had arrived. She felt that Thaddeus’s action was a gesture of atonement; he would blame himself for Korytów. The captain might have believed her if Thaddeus hadn’t been so much against her.

The captain was saying, “The scout should already be in position. His short cut takes little more than half the time to reach the road.”

“Are you sure Dutka won’t take his party by a short cut, too?”

“He always sticks to the path at night. He isn’t a woodman.”

“Galinski might persuade him to risk a short cut. If he is a German he will search for the quickest way.”

“Yes, there’s that to worry about, too. In that case, our scout would be useless, and Thaddeus has gone in vain.”

“I advise leaving at once, Captain Reymont. Your men are ready.”

The captain nodded, looked at his watch again, gave his last orders. The outposts stationed in the woods were given their warning to move. Their answering bird-call proved that they had heard it and were obeying. As the men in the forester’s house started to move out of the door Sheila wakened Stefan. And then she remembered that she too had preparations for leaving to complete. She found her handbag, which had been placed on top of the oven, near the worn prayer-book. All the permits and identification papers would have to be destroyed. Anna Braun was dying. There was unbelievable pleasure in feeling the thick sheets of paper tear between her fingers. The British passport was the most difficult.

“If I may…” the white-haired man said gently, and held out his hand. He must have been watching her all this time. He ripped the resisting cover of the passport in two. “Would you like me to dispose of these where the Germans might think they were very clever in finding them? That would make them so proud of themselves.”

“Of course. I am supposed to be dead.” She laughed happily.

“Or worse than dead. Naturally, the barbaric Poles would either have murdered and buried you, or carried you away for further torture. Naturally, the same barbaric Poles would try to hide the evidence of your capture. But the Germans being of a superior race, cannot be misled by such petty tricks.”

“May I keep my bag at least? Empty except for the comb and things like that?”

“Better throw everything away. If they think you left with a handbag safely under your arm they won’t think so much of the destroyed papers which they will find.”

She gave him the bag slowly. Now I’m neither Anna Braun nor Sheila Matthews, she thought as she watched the strong fingers rip the bag’s lining and break its clasp.

“Take off your jacket too,” the quiet voice was saying. “The material is too much like Warsaw for a trip through the fields. The boy will give you his. Later, at a village, you can get appropriate clothes and burn your blouse and skirt.”

He watched her transformation with approval. He picked up the jacket and the under-slip which she had stuffed into its pocket. “When these are discovered you will be in the headlines of all the Nazi papers.”

Sheila smiled grimly. “Yes. She died for her Führer.” The stranger laughed suddenly, so unexpectedly that the captain looked up in surprise and the few men remaining in the room smiled in sympathy. Sheila looked at the stranger’s transformed face. For a moment she thought of the change in all these men: this was how this man should look, this was how all men should look. Not aged and sad and grim, but laughing honestly. His teeth were white and even. She thought of Russell Stevens. He had wanted her to go, to leave for a world where men could laugh every day. She had chosen to stay and, in choosing, had chosen strain and sadness. Yet if she were now asked whether she regretted her choice she would say, “No. Not now. This afternoon, lying on that bed, waiting to be shot — yes. But now — no.” For now, watching the strength as well as the sadness in these men’s faces, she felt herself a part of something bigger than ever an individual could be by himself.

Jan had brought Stefan over to them. “We travel together,” Jan said to Sheila, and then grinned good-naturedly. “Did you hear I’m to get a medal because I didn’t shoot you? I’m the hero who saved the camp.”

“How does that work out?” one of the men called over from the door. He was waiting for his time to leave.

“Well, if I had shot her then she wouldn’t have been here to see that fine recruit that Dutka brought in for you, would she?”

The man at the door said, “If they give you a medal it will be a nursemaid’s one.” He grinned at Sheila and Stefan.

“I’ll get them to the Reapers quicker than any of you grown men can travel.”

“What do you bet on it? My knife to your dagger, eh?” The man’s time had come. He slipped through the opened door and gave a last wave of his hand to the room.

“Jan, are you to get a medal?” Stefan asked, his excitement wakening him fully.

Jan smiled. “When we drive the Germans out of our land well all get medals. I’ll carve my own out of Himmler’s jawbone and wear it on my hat.”

*

The room was empty. Only the captain and Jan and Stefan and Sheila remained. The white-haired stranger had gone as silently as he had come. She hadn’t even seen him leave.

The captain smothered the candle with his hand. “Better go now,” he said. “The other men have gone ahead to clear any danger out of your path.” He was looking at her, but she couldn’t see his face in the room’s darkness. Through the opened door came a short. path of faint moonlight. The shrewd night wind cut into the room’s thick warmth.

“And you?” she asked.

“I shall wait for Thaddeus and any other who gets back here. They must be told where to go.”

If there is any other, Sheila thought. If there is any Thaddeus.

“Good-bye!” Captain Reymont said quietly. Jan had already moved over the path of moonlight into the silvered grass.

“Good-bye,” she echoed, and gave the dark silhouette her hand. “Good luck!” He would need it.

“Good luck!” Stefan repeated.

Sheila followed Jan and Stefan round the edge of the clearing. The trees, now a wall of black bronze and white silver, shut out the forester’s house and the man waiting in its darkness. If Thaddeus or the scout returned first he would have a chance. If the Germans got here before them there was none.

The sky with its fitful clouds and veiled moon was blotted out. Overhead were only the rustling, whispering leaves. The forest seemed alive. Sheila’s alertness increased. Inside four walls it had been possible to relax a little, to feel a supposed security. But here, in the nakedness of the night, every shadow and every whisper might suddenly become an enemy.

Jan had said, “Follow me. Do as I do. The boy walks last.”

In this way, like the men who had gone ahead of them, they crept through the woods. Through Polish land they crept, hunted through its forests and fields as if they, and not those who hunted them, had been its thieves.

When the woods ended open land as flat and broad as a sea stretched in front of them. Its islands were solitary trees, a line of hazel bushes, a group of houses clustered together in solid blackness. Above them was limitless night; in this countryside the horizon was not where the earth rose in rugged folds to touch the sky, but where the sky reached down to join the straight line of farthest fields.

“We’ll follow the edge of the wood for a while and then cut south,” Jan said. He was smiling. He was glad to see the plains again. The open fields and the wide sky were his country. He felt safer there.

They must have been more than a mile from the wood on the journey south when the first distant shots echoed across the fields.

Jan stopped. He cursed softly. He stood, looking back at the wood, as if he were about to run towards there again. Sheila found she had taken hold of his sleeve. It was as if she were saying, “Don’t leave us. We are lost without you.”

He looked down at the girl’s anxious face. He cursed softly again, and turned away from the direction of the shots. They were closer together now, dull, distant, but unmistakable. Thaddeus and the captain, instead of escaping, must be shooting it out with the Nazis. The Germans must have come quickly, perhaps they had been waiting on the outskirts of the wood near Dutka’s village for “Galinski’s” return. For now the meaning of the German patrol stationed in the village just after “Galinski” had arrived there became clear. The Germans were moving against guerrilla bands. This was the method they had devised: first a spy was sent to a village near any suspicious locality, then some troops, ostensibly, as a road patrol. No wonder “Galinski” had not been discovered by the Germans when they searched the village. No wonder he and Dutka had been allowed to reach the wood without any trouble. And now Thaddeus and the captain were shooting it out, perhaps to give the rest of them time to scatter to safety.

Jan urged them on madly. They raced towards a group of darkened houses. Sheila, breathless, had no time to ask why this sudden speed should be so necessary. The Germans hadn’t followed them. Thanks to the captain and Thaddeus, the Germans were well occupied round the wood. But as they waited in the shadow of a long, low cottage and Jan rapped gently at a shuttered window she began to guess the reason of Jan’s urgency.

“We are still too near the forest,” she whispered. “Should we stop here?”

Jan said, “You need proper clothes.” And that was all. But even before the sleep-dulled faces welcomed them into the long, dark corridor which formed the hall, even before she and Stefan were being given peasant clothes and a bowl of thin soup, even before Jan disappeared as they swallowed the warm liquid and sat round the wooden kitchen table, she knew that her guess was right. Jan had done what he had wanted to do as soon as he had heard the shots. Jan had gone back to the wood.

“He will be here before dawn. He promised,” the peasant’s wife assured her, and offered her some more soup. Sheila refused politely. Heaven only knew if she and Stefan were gobbling up the family’s ration for a week. She kicked Stefan adroitly on the shin as he seemed about to accept a second helping. He refused suddenly, and would not be persuaded again. The two little girls, flaxen-haired and wide-eyed with excitement, stood with their bare feet showing under their long white nightgowns, staring. An older girl helped her mother to serve the food. There was no sign of the woman’s husband. Sheila watched the broad-faced, broad-hipped woman moving so silently about the kitchen in her shapeless plaid nightgown. How often in the last few weeks had she taken strangers into her house and shared its warmth and food with them? Her placid face gave no answer.

At last the soup bowls were emptied to the last shred of cabbage.

“You and the boy can share a mattress in front of the stove,” the woman said. “It’s warmer here than in the bedroom next door. He is your brother?”

Sheila nodded. She was too tired for explanations.

“Poor souls,” the woman said to the wooden beam across the ceiling, “they’re dropping with sleep.” She lifted a candle from the table and said to Stefan, “Help your sister get the mattress. It’s next door. I’ll show you.”

In the next room, leading off the long corridor which ran the whole front length of the cottage, there was a striped mattress and a gay bed-mat and high-piled pillows. But the room was cold, and Sheila changed her mind about suggesting she would sleep here after all. As she and Stefan pulled the bedding along the corridor to the kitchen they heard the roar of motor-cycles.

The woman blew out the candle, and they finished their task in darkness. The light in the kitchen had been extinguished too. The children were back in bed. The older girl sounded as if she were clearing the table of all signs of their meal. They felt their way to the stove by its warmth.

“Quietly,” the woman’s voice came through the darkness as Sheila stumbled against a bench. “Open a shutter, Weronika.” The girl’s footsteps crossed the floor unerringly. A shutter was gently pushed aside, just enough to let the intense blackness give way to dim shadows.

“Remember,” the hushed voice from the corner bed was saying, “you are my niece and nephew from Lowicz. Your parents are dead. Your names?”

“Sheila and Stefan.” The words were out before Sheila could stop the boy from speaking.

“Sheila? What a strange name!” Weronika said. “It doesn’t sound Polish.” She was helping Stefan to straighten the mattress in front of the whitewashed stove. Then her bare feet ran towards the crowded bed. The children exclaimed and were hushed by their mother as Weronika climbed in and pushed them over to the wall. Then there was silence.

The motor-cycles had swept through the village. Now they were followed by two cars. And then there was silence once more. Sheila shivered in spite of the warmth of the kitchen. She couldn’t stop worrying. Korytów… she would need to know what had happened there. She had failed, and she wanted to know just how far she had failed.

“Stefan,” she said softly. But the boy was already asleep. Steady breathing came from the corner bed. There was a nice placid sound to the unbroken rhythm. It was warm on the floor, and more comfortable than Sheila had imagined. Her last thought was one of amazement at the discovery, and then, yawning loudly, without benefit of a restraining hand, she hugged her shoulders and closed her eyes.

*

When she awoke the others were all moving about the kitchen. From the mattress she, could see nothing but strong legs and bare feet.

“Well, she’s back with us,” a man’s voice said. It was Jan. She raised herself on her elbow. He and Stefan sat at the long table with their backs to the wall. They were eating again.

“It’s all right,” Stefan called. “Jan brought us some food.”

Sheila rose slowly. Cold sunlight filled the kitchen. The corner bed was stiffly neat. The woman and her children were dressed now as Sheila was, with wide black skirts and white blouses and sleeveless jackets and aprons. Like those which had been given to Sheila, their clothes were neatly patched and darned. Weronika was examining Sheila’s discarded skirt, holding it up in front of her.

“That and the jumper and the boy’s jacket should be burned,” Jan said between generous mouthfuls of food.

“Such a waste. Such good material,” the woman said. She looked at the stained and torn pieces of clothing. “If they were washed… I could alter them, and the Germans would never know them.”

“Then alter them quick,” Jan said.

“They ought to be destroyed,” Sheila suggested. She looked worriedly at the others, but no one wanted to hear her.

Weronika ran happily for her mother’s carved-wood sewing-box. “We’ll alter them first before we wash them,” the woman decided, “and then no one can recognize them when they are drying on the line.” She looked up at Sheila, who was watching her busy scissors doubtfully. “You must eat, for you will be leaving shortly. The cart will soon be ready for the journey. Hurry.”

As Sheila ate the simple meal which one of the flaxen-haired little girls put shyly down before her Jan was talking to Stefan about his farm and a cow that had given him a lot of trouble. The woman added her advice on that subject as she stitched. There was only a feeling of peace in the neat room. In many ways it reminded Sheila of the forester’s hut. Only, its decorations were cleaner, its whitewashed walls and ceiling were fresher. Its similar array of pictures and imitation flowers tacked along the overhead beam was brighter. And the same love of brightness and colour was in the cheap prints along the wall, in the striped bed-cover and gay pillows piled high on the wooden bed. From her high place of honour the Virgin Mary smiled down on them, her robe as blue as the children’s wide eyes. A prayer-book had been laid neatly, reverently, so that its edges exactly paralleled the corner of the little table under the Madonna’s outstretched arms.

Jan rose suddenly. “Time to leave,” he said.

The woman gathered the new shapes of cloth together, spoke quickly to the children. They ran obediently out into the street. The girl Weronika stood with her fair head leaning against the door. Her blue eyes under their thick eyelashes and strongly beautiful brows were watching the children at play.

“It’s safe,” she called back over her shoulder.

The woman watched Sheila tie the yellow kerchief round her head.

“Not that way. This way,” she said with a smile. Her tanned cheeks creased into fine wrinkles. She took the two long pointed ends of the kerchief in her thick, square-shaped hands. She knotted the scarf firmly. “Like that,” she added, and pushed Sheila gently towards the door. “Go,” she said, and then as Sheila tried to thank her, “You would do the same for me and mine.”

She was already bending to pick up the bedding from the floor as Sheila followed Jan and Stefan into the street. Weronika turned back from the door and gave them a shy, sidewise smile. From the kitchen her mother’s voice was telling her to clear the table and hurry up about it. The children in the street stared at them for a moment in the way that children do and then remembered suddenly to go on with their game. Their high laughter was the last memory of that staunch house.

In front of the blacksmith’s open shed an ancient horse was harnessed to a long, boat-shaped cart. The blacksmith, standing well back in the black shadows of his shop, watched Sheila and Stefan climb into the low cart. Jan stooped for a moment, as if examining something beneath it, jammed his revolver quickly behind one of the slats, and lifted the reins. He gave a reassuring nod to the old man standing so silently within the shed and said quietly, “We’ll leave the horse and cart with the blacksmith at Rogów as your daughter arranged,” The old man, still silent, watched them drive away.

“He didn’t want us to take the horse,” Jan explained cheerily, “but his daughter persuaded him.”

“That was the woman who took us in last night?”

“Yes. I knew her husband. We were in the army together.”

“Where is he now?”

“Killed. All the best men get killed.” And then with a sudden laugh Jan added, “So I’ll live for many a day yet.” He tilted his cloth cap forward to shield his eyes from the strengthening sunlight, and whistled quietly as the horse plodded forward.

*

The road they followed was broad and badly constructed. Its surface had churned into mud. It wound crazily southwards over a flat plain of harvested fields, with thin trees marking its way. Without the trees the road might have lost its name as well as its direction.

They passed other peasants, mostly walking. The lumbering carts were few. When German motor-cyclists or a Nazi car approached Jan would slip from the driver’s seat and stand holding the horse’s uncertain head, as if all he had to worry about was the frightened animal. Sheila, clinging to the edge of the shallow cart, still unsure if it really was going to remain upright, felt that the rearing horse couldn’t be any more terrified than she was. But the Germans passed with mud hissing out from under their tyres, and Jan took his perch once more on the rough board across the front of the cart; and the hammock-like wicker basket, its sides supported by wooden slats, rolled along on its four shaky wheels.

Once Sheila had said, “This takes a long time, Jan.”

And Jan, turning round to look down at her and Stefan jolting along with the remains of cabbage leaves, wisps of hay, goose feathers, cucumber rinds, and poppy-seeds, had grinned and said, “Those they are looking for won’t travel slow.”

And once on a lonely stretch of straight road, which went on and on until it hit the blue autumn sky, she said, “What happened last night, Jan? In the wood?”

This time Jan didn’t turn round. He said, his eyes fixed on the long road in front of him, “The wood was surrounded. The Germans had called up reinforcements. The shooting was over before I got there. I saw Dutka. Dead on the road. So was our man who went back with that spy. At the edge of the wood there was another body. A car’s head-lights were on it. It was our scout. And then I met one of our men just outside Dutka’s village. He had been there to warn Dutka’s wife and boy. It was an idea of his own, but it worked. They got away.”

“The captain? Thaddeus?”

“The Germans were still searching when I left. The searchlights had been brought up.”

“There’s a chance, isn’t there, Jan?”

“There’s always a chance.” But his voice was heavy, and his shoulders drooped.

Sheila’s next question about Korytów was stifled by Jan’s expressive back, by Stefan’s dark face. They would tell her when they wanted to. Stefan, now that the excitement of being in a guerrilla camp was over, now that they were faced with a tedious and ignominious journey, had relapsed into heavy gloom. Nothing Sheila could say would pull him out of it. He sat with his arms round his hunched knees, swaying to the rough rhythm of the cart, staring ahead of him with unseeing eyes.

He altered that position only once, and that was when they were stopped by a patrol on the outskirts of one of the larger villages. And then he turned his eyes on the Germans with such burning hate in their black depths that Sheila was afraid. Surely the Germans would notice it, and Jan’s explanations would be useless. But the Germans, after a quick search for weapons on the three stiffly held bodies, after a look into the dirty cart, seemed satisfied. Possibly they had come to think that the look which Stefan gave them was a natural one for a hard-faced, glowering Pole. The main thing, anyway, was kept secret: Jan’s gun, jammed between the wicker cradle of the cart and one of the supporting slats of wood, had not been discovered.

Sheila, in her nervousness as the examination ended and they were still free, missed her foothold on the cart-wheel and supped. The soldiers laughed. Perhaps it was funny. She picked herself up from the ground and shook down her wide skirts. She bent her head to hide her scarlet cheeks. The Germans thought that still funnier. Jan waited patiently, stupidly, until the soldier who had been holding the horse’s head let it go at a signal from the sergeant The soldier gave the horse’s nose one last pat.

“I’m fond of horses. Even an old nag like this,” he said.

The soldiers, now that they had found these three peasants harmless, stood in an amiable group in the middle of the road. Well clothed, well fed, they looked at the poorly dressed Poles and their ramshackle cart and their ancient horse. There was nothing here to be commandeered. They could indulge themselves in the very pleasant feeling of being so vastly superior. Their mockery was generous. Their humour was broad.

Jan urged the horse forward. As soon as the Germans had started to discuss the girl in particular terms he had felt it was indeed time to be moving. Many a joke had ended in earnest before now.

A car travelling quickly towards them out of the village was the deciding factor. The half-dozen soldiers formed up neatly, the sergeant saluted, and by that time Jan’s efforts had driven the horse into the beginning of the village.

From the branches of the trees in front of the Posting House were suspended four bodies, hands tied behind their backs, toes pointed, heads drooping forward.

Sheila turned her head away quickly. She said in a hard, strange voice. “I’m fond of horses. Even an old nag…”

Jan’s back was as rigid as Stefan’s eyes.

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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 Stacpoole’s The Man Who Lost Himself | P.G. Wodehouse’s Leave It to Psmith | Richard Connell’s “The Most Dangerous Game” | Houdini and Lovecraft’s “Imprisoned with the Pharaohs” | Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Sussex Vampire”.

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” | Flourish Klink’s Star Trek fanfic “Conference Comms” | Charlie Mitchell’s “A Fantasy Land” | Charlie Mitchell’s “Sentinels” | 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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