The Unconquerable (29)
January 16, 2015
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!
There was warmth, the soft rise and fall of light voices, the lazy feeling of security. Sheila stretched her body under the coarse linen sheet. The straw mattress rustled. The voices halted. Sheila, too contented with this new world of comfort, kept her eyes closed. She didn’t want to talk, she didn’t want to move; she just wanted to lie here for ever and ever.
The voices began again.
“…until the potatoes stick to the meat, and the marrow juice comes out of the bones…”
“Water only drowns it…”
“…headache fit to split…”
“At least forty threads to the inch…”
“Rat’s teeth… never saw such stitches. And she…”
Two women gossiping gently. Cooking, dresses, the weather, illness, other women. Women gathered round a village well, round a bridge-table, round a factory bench, round a silver coffee-tray. Women talking together.
Sheila kept quite still and listened drowsily. It was wonderful to feel so warm and safe and clean. It was a spell she didn’t want to break.
At last one of the women rose and came over to the bed. Sheila had kept her eyes closed too long. Now, as the woman stood beside her touching her brow with a businesslike hand, Sheila found she really couldn’t open her eyes and show she had been awake — awake, listening to the women, without telling them.
“Much better,” the crisp voice said, and the cool hand left Sheila’s brow. “She’s been quite normal for two days now. I feel rather proud of her, as if she were my first case all over again.”
“You’ll soon have plenty more,” the softer of the two voices said. “I wonder when the raiding party will be back? Did you hear what they were out for this time?”
“Supplies, as usual. But mostly clothes this time. We’ll need warmer things as soon as the real winter sets in. The Chief went himself on this raid. It’s a big one.”
“I wonder where?”
“Far from here, you may be sure. There’s no raiding done near here. Don’t want the Nazis to chase us out of this camp just as we are getting it nice and cosy. You can see a difference every week. When I came here at first there was only the hunting lodge, unused for years. The forest damp had got into it. Mouldy — that’s what it was, perfectly mouldy. And all the huts unusable, practically falling to pieces. When they brought me to this one and said, ‘Here’s your hospital, nurse!’ I burst out laughing.”
“I hope they bring in some more supplies for our new shelves.”
“Antoni got the Chief to send some men after drugs and dressings. They are going to lift the contents of a field ambulance. Not a bad idea. That would set us up nicely.”
“It would. Where’s Antoni? He hasn’t been to see her this morning.”
“He will be over here soon. He’s been busy with that case you brought in. The amputation, you know.”
The gentle voice sighed. “I never thought he’d live. The other cases were straightforward wounds, but this one ——”
“I know, dearie.”
“Sorry.” There was a forced laugh. “Always keep wanting to talk about it. Sorry, Marian.”
“That’s all right. I talk a lot, too. Somehow gets it out of your system. But the Chief’s against talking about the past. I remember the first night we came here. Just a handful of us then, more and more coming every day, some of them straight off the battlefields, some from the woods where they had been hiding, some from the villages, some from the towns. A funny bunch of scarecrows we were. The Chief said, ‘No talking here about what we’ve lost or suffered. That belongs to the past What we will suffer together is shared by us all. So no talking. And no arguments. I don’t care what politics or religion you have. We are here to fight together, not to fight against each other.’”
“He sort of frightens me.”
“What — him?”
“He’s — well, he seems hardly human.”
“As the Germans will learn. Yes, he’s driven us all pretty hard, but he drives himself hardest. And if we hadn’t a man like him where should we all be? We shouldn’t have turned this abandoned forest into a well-prepared camp, ready to face a hard winter. Once he’s satisfied with this place he’s going into the mountains to start preparing a bigger base for the spring. And that’s a dangerous job he’s planning. The weather is fierce in the Carpathians in the winter, and there’s not only Germans, but storms and wolves. That mountain camp will be our main training-base, and then this forest one will be one of our advance bases for special raids. Antoni thinks all of us here will be moved up to the mountain base in the spring. He’s hoping that, anyway. He always liked a mountain.”
“I’d like to see them, too. Just once. In the spring? Wonder if we’ll be alive in the ——”
“Franziska! Where would you rather be than here with us? With Germans to cart you off to the brothel in their barracks? Or watching your brother being trucked off to Germany as a serf?”
“No, Marian, no. Please. I just get so sad. I sometimes wonder — why should anyone try to live at all? Sometimes those who have died seem the lucky ones.”
“I’ll send the priest to you, Franziska, if you start that again. You’ll be crawling on your knees all over the forest as penance for such talk, all four hundred square miles of it!” Marian began to laugh.
Franziska’s gentle voice was shocked. “Marian, you shouldn’t say such things. You don’t take religion seriously.”
“Oh, I do my share of praying. But if you want to die, then at least wait until you’ve killed a German or two. Don’t worry, Franziska. It we in this camp are going to die it will be so exciting we shan’t even notice our last moment has come. Or would you prefer cancer? As a nurse, Franziska, what illness of old age would you prefer to a bullet? My Antoni says that the most depressing thing about being a doctor is just to see what people get for hanging on to life.”
“All right, all right. Keep your voice down. Don’t waken her. But how she does sleep! You would think she was paid for it.”
“She won’t recognize herself when she wakens. When she came she was just a mass of rags and mud. And the Chief carried her here, too. That gave me as big a shock as seeing her. Wonder what she went through?”
“Oh, you’ll soon find out, Franziska. Several of our worst-smelling ditches, I thought myself. Antoni says that kind is always tougher than she looks.”
“I suppose she must have been a friend of his?”
“Of the Chief’s? Looked like it, I must say. But I don’t remember ever seeing her in Warsaw with him.”
“Did you know him then?”
“By sight. Who didn’t? I remember the last time I was at the Opera with Antoni. The Chief was there. I always did like those cavalry uniforms. And the girl with him! White velvet cut down to here. Off her shoulders, like this. Black, black hair, and rubies in her ears. And a sable cape. It touched the floor, all round. Antoni knew her husband — at least, he knew the husband’s uncle. Nice old thing. I met him once at a University reception. He was a professor. And, do you know, Antoni says he’s among the arrested. He’s on the latest Dachau list. The name’s on the tip of my tongue. Kory-something. Anyway, you should have seen that cape. Funny thing was, when the Chief came in here carrying that bundle of rags so carefully, I kept thinking of that last time at the Opera and the sable cape over his arm.”
Sheila moved restlessly. She had heard more than she wanted to. This was the just reward for pretending. She was angry with herself, with these curious women, with sable capes. A sable cape was unfair. Any idiot could catch an eye with a sable cape.
“She’s awakening,” Franziska said with sudden interest.
“Now you can find out all about her to your heart’s content,” Marian said with her good-natured laugh. “I’ll get Antoni.” From the doorway she called “Antoni! Antoni!”
Sheila opened her eyes. Unwillingly. That moment could no longer be postponed. A sad-faced girl was watching her curiously.
“Well!” she said. She turned to Marian at the door. “We were both wrong,” she said. “They’re brown.”
Marian, older, broader, plainer than Franziska, came bustling over to the bed. “Well,” she said in amazement, “so we were. Unusual, aren’t they? She wouldn’t look bad in a sable cape, either.”
“None of us would.”
“You’d be surprised. It takes a good neck and shoulders.”
A small fat man, quite bald and red-faced, entered the hut.
“Well, well,” he began in his best bedside manner, and reached for Sheila’s wrist. He sat down beside her.
“Looks surprised,” he announced. “Didn’t she know she had reached the camp, poor thing?”
Sheila smiled. Somehow, from Marian’s way of saying “Antoni” with such adoration attached to the word, she hadn’t quite expected this middle-aged, ugly little man. Sheila’s smile broadened.
“She’s better,” Antoni said delightedly. “I told you sleep would do it.” Marian, towering over him, clapped him on the shoulder as if he were entirely responsible. Franziska looked eagerly at Sheila and then slowly, almost unwillingly, smiled too.
“Tell the boy,” Antoni said. “He’s been moping round this door as if she were going to die. Better tell big Jan, too, if you can find him. He was over helping the men at the new huts.”
Franziska obeyed him promptly. The doctor and his wife, watching her running steps, exchanged amused glances.
“What she needs is a husband,” the doctor said cryptically.
“Yes, that would give her plenty to worry about,” Marian added affectionately, her hand still on the little man’s shoulder.
To Sheila Antoni said, “Your Jan thought he had killed you. He got a lecture and a half for the pace he set. Forgot you were a city girl, the big ox.”
Stefan came first. He didn’t say very much, but he looked so pleased that Sheila could have hugged him. Then Jan came in. He was equally speechless, and more than nervous.
Sheila looked at him solemnly. “Not dead,” she said, “I’m not dead.”
Jan stared and then broke into a shout of laughter. The more he tried to explain the story to the startled doctor and his wife, the less understandable it became. But his laughter was infectious. Even Stefan, with his solemn dark eyes, was half-smiling.
Marian became suddenly businesslike. “Well, there’s work to be done. If you men take yourselves back to your jobs I’ll get her dressed. She’ll sit outside on the bench at the door; some sunshine and a look at the camp would be the best tonic she could have! Antoni, tell Franziska to start changing the dressings in the men’s hut. I’ll get over to help her as soon as I’ve finished here.”
Marian’s actions were as quick as her words. In little time she had Sheila dressed and seated outside in the sunshine, with an army blanket over her shoulders and a doeskin rug tucked round her knees. Marian had asked so many questions that there had been little pause for any full answers, and between the questions had come such a jumble of friendly advice and information that Sheila’s head whirled. She was glad when the kindly but over-energetic woman left her at last, left her to watch the long, low log-house under the tall, thick branches. From this bench she could see only one other hut, quite a large, newly built one. That was where Marian had gone, so the rest of Antoni’s ‘hospital’ must be there.
Except for the distant sound of men’s voices, an occasional laugh, a sudden burst of hammering, the forest seemed deserted. A leaf, its rich colour faded into brown, would be torn from its branch by some unfelt breeze. A patchwork of cold blue, where the leaves had already fallen away from the tree’s black arms, formed the sky. A column of wood pigeons wheeled above, with silver underwings flashing brightly as it twisted and manoeuvred in the sunshine. This was the forest. Its vastness gave strength; its peace gave hope.
Antoni came out of the hospital hut, lighted a cigarette, and then, with his hands in the pockets of his faded army trousers, strolled over to the watching girl. His good-natured eyes, wrinkled at the corners, looked at her over his spectacles. His nose was so short that the spectacles had slipped almost to its snub tip and clung there precariously.
“Envying the birds?” he said gently, pushing his spectacles back into place as he sat down beside her.
Sheila stopped watching the flashing wings. “No. Admiring. Not envying. They have hawks to prey on them, too.” She hesitated. “Actually, I was thinking about aeroplanes.”
“Haven’t you left them behind you?” The kind eyes were studying her face.
“Difficult… Don’t they ever fly over here?”
“Yes. But the thickness of these trees keeps us safe. Even in winter their branches will camouflage us, and there are plenty of evergreens scattered about. You notice, we haven’t tried to make any clearing. We’ve dispersed the huts over nine or ten square miles. The Lodge, as you see, is the centre of the camp. The men come there for orders, or for an evening in its warmth. For we are very careful about fires. Smoke in daytime would give us away, or any glow at night. Yet we must have heat. So we light a fire in the Lodge when darkness comes, and we’ve built a canopy over the chimney, so that no red glow of sparks can be seen from the sky. We kill the fire before dawn, so that there’s no smoke left to give us away. Then we take the hot ashes and — do you see that kind of mound over there by the Lodge? — well, we spread the ashes there in a kind of hole in the ground, with earth over the top. It bakes things for us slowly. The main cooking is done either over the Lodge fire or at three covered kitchen fires. All at night, of course. We have had to change our meal-times to suit the fires, but at least we do have one hot meal a day. It looks as if we’ll have to build more kitchen fires if our numbers keep increasing as they do.”
“How many are there in the forest?”
“Well over three hundred now. At the end of a year, we’ll be counting in thousands.”
“But there won’t be room.”
“There’s room in other forests. There’s room in the mountains.”
“It all seems so quiet, as if no one really lived here at all.”
“We keep apart. We take turns working and relaxing. Even at the Lodge in the evenings there’s never more than fifty together at once. We share and share alike. Some look after the food, some look after the patrolling, some build and help with the improvements. There’s always some raiding party out. The men take their turns. It’s all a matter of planning and organization.”
“Food. Where does it come from?”
Antoni laughed and smacked his knee. “You ask us that in this forest? Four hundred square miles or more, with everything from hare and rabbit to boar and deer? The peasants in the villages around do what they can to help us, too. There’s a lot of smuggling going on in these parts nowadays. And then, now and again, we lift something we especially need from a Nazi’s larder. We don’t starve. We eat carefully, but we don’t starve.”
“But if you hunt in this forest surely the shots may be heard?”
“Not if we do our hunting in the central part of the forest. We’ve marked out a boundary line a certain distance from the camp. Beyond that, no more hunting.”
“What if the Germans come hunting?”
Antoni shook his head. “There’s a woman for you — always thinking of trouble.”
Sheila smiled at the wrinkled brow which meant the invisible eyebrows were raised in mock disgust.
Then seriously he added, “You don’t miss a trick, do you? It was a good point you made. But when the Germans take time off for some ordinary hunting, and not just the mere hunting of human beings, then they are going to spend their shooting holidays in the forest where the game is known to be so plentiful that they’ll bag big results. There has been a rumour for many years among the peasants — and we keep it alive, you may be sure — that this forest is poor in big game.
Years ago it was too much hunted over, and it was never restocked. There’s a forest to the east of us with bigger and richer game. Marshal Göring won’t waste time here if he has better tracts of forest to explore. As for a less ambitious hunter… well, if any of them come round here we’ll lie quiet that day and let him shoot round the forest’s edge to his heart’s content. Our patrols will follow him and his friends, and they’ll probably have some ripe criticism to make on the German’s way of hunting when next they spend an evening at the Lodge. I hear the Germans are pretty busy at this moment emptying our libraries and hospitals and factories of their equipment. What would they want with a forest where there wasn’t even a decent hunting lodge to spend a night in? No, the danger would only come when they formed a suspicion that this forest isn’t as desolate as it seems.”
He looked at Sheila laughingly. “You don’t believe me?” The spectacles were slipping off again.
“And if they formed a suspicion?”
“We shall have our warning. We have our patrols round the forest night and day. And we’ve good leaders. They’ve their plans made. Yes, even the optimistic Pole has his plans against a possible attack!” He watched her face with amusement. “Remember, no motorized division can surprise a large forest. The Germans will have to use men and not their machines for that. And we shall have time to retreat.”
He pushed his spectacles back into their rightful position with a broad forefinger. “Just wait until you’ve rested here for a week or two. Just wait until you see the men and the Chief. I know how you feel. I came here like you, not quite believing. Guerrilla army? A story-book adventure… something out of the Middle Ages… fantastic. Perhaps we are all these things; but we are also the only army left to a conquered country. Some of us at any rate will be here to help those who start pushing the Hun back where he belongs. Then we shan’t be just a story-book chapter; we’ll be in the history books as well.” He touched her arm gently. “We all came here with our courage shaken, our pride badly wounded, our hopes quite gone. All we had left was cold rage. But now we have more; we have learned to believe in ourselves again. We expect danger, we live with death; but we’ve got our courage, and we have action. Plenty of it. Look at the faces of the newcomers when they first arrive. You’ll be filled with pity. Look at these same faces just a few days later. Then you’ll see what I mean.”
“I’ve already seen. Jan. Even Stefan.”
“The boy was in a bad way. He will take some time to mend. Jan told me about it.”
“You know about it?”
“No. And yet I must. I tried to get there in time. I failed.”
“You don’t want to know about it.”
“I must. I have to meet Madame Aleksander. I can meet her better if I know. Jan wouldn’t tell me. Stefan — I am afraid to talk to him about it, I can’t… You are a stranger. You can tell me better than anyone. If you know, then tell me.”
“I know only the outline. But it is enough. It’s a common enough story in the last six weeks, yet it is one which you always seem to be hearing for the first time. That’s the sort of cold, unbelievable shock it gives you.” This kind, simple face was worried. He jabbed at the unruly spectacles crossly. Her request worried him. He looked miserably towards the hospital as if wishing Marian would appear and help him out of this.
Sheila’s voice was tense. “If you don’t tell me I shall never know. And I shall go on worrying about it and thinking about it. The name of Korytów is haunting me. I feel as if some one had told me that a friend had died, and then refused to tell me what illness killed him. That’s how I feel. I am not being sordid. It is just that Korytów was the one place in Poland which I knew as if it were my own village. Don’t give me details. But just tell me: are Stefan’s sister and aunt dead?” “They were taken away with the others.” Antoni watched her face. Suddenly he was the doctor again. “I think you are right in wanting to know, or else you will always torture yourself about it. If you know the worst, then you know. It’s healthier that way. Now what did you learn about Korytów’s end?”
“Only that Jan and another man went to warn the village. Only that Jan and five other men and Stefan came back. That’s all I know.”
The early sunset now bathed the forest in its rich rays. The evergreens seemed darker. The breeze had gone. There was a strange hush through the forest, as if the trees waited breathlessly for night.
Antoni cleared his throat and stared at the copper beech opposite them. Its leaves were like molten metal.
“Jan and his friend came to Korytów in the late evening. Jan went to warn the people at the big house. His friend went to the village; his girl lived there. There was absolute peace in the village. There had been no Germans since the officers billeted in the manor-house had left, taking the soldiers with them. The Germans had requisitioned most of the food supplies. In fact, there was so little left, that the people of the village thought the Germans wouldn’t bother about them again. So both Jan and his friend had some difficulty in persuading the people that there might be some danger intended for them. They didn’t get very excited about it. They had heard too many false rumours from refugees, they hadn’t anything left for the Germans to plunder. They didn’t believe the story very much that Korytów had been giving trouble and was to be punished. For one thing, all their weapons had been taken from them. And they knew that the Germans knew that.
“Well, at last, some families did move into the woods. They lay there all night and watched the peaceful village. Rain came on and a cold wind. By dawn the Germans hadn’t come. By dawn those who had listened to Jan and his friend thought they were alarmists. They found reasons for wandering back to the village where those who had refused to leave had spent a pleasant, comfortable night in their warm beds. The day passed, and still there was no sign of any approaching Germans. In the woods beside the village there were only left Jan and his friend and five men who wanted to join Captain Reymont’s band, and Stefan. Stefan wanted to fight, too, and he had been so insistent that his aunt finally agreed he should go back to Reymont’s camp with Jan. I think she knew that if he stayed in the village he would do something desperate and get them all into trouble. Stefan’s aunt promised she would set out for Warsaw with the little girl as soon as the child was well enough to travel, for she had been wounded at the time of the fighting round Korytów, and her hand wasn’t healing properly. From what Jan told me I think the whole arm had become infected.” Antoni passed a hand wearily over his brow. “So many of our doctors have been killed or imprisoned,” he said heavily. “So many wounds have gone unattended.” He stared at the copper beech, each leaf outlined in gold.
“Well, that was the situation. And then, on that evening after that day of waiting, Jan and his small band set out from the woods towards Reymont’s camp. They didn’t go very far. They were only about a mile away when they heard shooting. They knew that was the Germans. They started back to the village. Not that they could stop the Germans. Only Jan and his comrade had guns. But they thought that the people might have fled to the wood, that they could help them. When they got to a place where they could see the village — it was lighted by flood-lights from the German trucks and cars — there were some bodies scattered on the road to the wood. So some of the people had tried to escape. But the Germans had come too quickly, too efficiently.
“Jan and his men saw the villagers being herded out of their cottages, being dragged back from the trees in their fields where they had tried to hide. The lights were still burning on the cottage tables. Some people carried a small bundle in a handkerchief. Others hadn’t even time to collect that. They just carried a picture or an ornament or a Bible, just something they had caught up when they were told to leave. You could see everything clearly, because as well as the flood-lights there were now torches being lit, and one house was already in flames. Jan said you could see the villagers kneeling in prayer outside their cottage doors; that was the way they were saying good-bye to everything they owned. Then they were made to pick up their bundles, and they were divided into groups like so many animals. The younger women and girls were forced into one truck, the older women into another. The children were pulled from their mothers and pushed into a third. They were open trucks, and you could see the people jammed so close in them that they could neither sit nor turn round. The boys and men were grouped together and shot in the back. The parish priest was shot too, standing beside the truck with children as he tried to quiet them. Then the houses were set on fire. One old man had hidden in the stables beside the manor-house. The Germans set fire to the stables, too, and they shot at the window when the old man tried to climb out. He got stuck, there, wounded.”
“Felix!” Sheila said involuntarily. He had stood shaking his head under her window, that last evening at Korytów. “Sad,” he had said so calmly, “all the young people going away again.” Somehow she had always thought that Felix, no matter how the young people went and came back or didn’t come back, would always be there.
“Then the trucks drove away,” Antoni was saying. “Jan’s friend broke loose from Jan’s grip. He ran towards the road and the truck with his girl. He shot two soldiers before he was killed. The Germans stopped the trucks, a machine-gun was turned on the older women for a minute. Ten Poles must die for every German killed, you know. Then the trucks rolled on again. The women’s truck must have had many killed, certainly many wounded, but it left with the others. The Germans must have thought that Jan’s friend was by himself, perhaps one of the refugees whom they had overlooked. For they left the village. The last truck with soldiers comfortably seated was gone. The manor-house was on fire, too. The whole village was one mass of flame and smoke.”
Sheila hid her face with her hands. She had asked to be told. She had been told.
The doctor’s professional voice continued, “The old women will be dumped out on the frozen plains north-east of Warsaw and left to wander. The middle-aged are sent as serfs to Germany or are given the dirtiest duties about the barracks. The younger women and girls will be sent to the soldiers’ brothels. The children are being sent to Nazi camps. They will be taught to be slaves.”
She had asked to be told. She had been told.
Antoni was saying, “If I told you more than you asked to know, it is only because we all should remember.” His voice was no longer the doctor’s voice. “If we don’t know, if we won’t listen or see, then, we shall not remember. We shall forgive too soon, too easily, as we did before. And in the next war, the people who forget, will be destroyed even as Korytów.”
In a gentler voice he said to the still silent girl, “Go in and rest a while. You are cold. You must not get cold.”
She didn’t move.
“I’m sorry,” Antoni said miserably. “I shouldn’t have told you, after all.”
“Yes. You should have. I had to know. We all have to know.” She was thinking of Dittmar now. “I should have killed him,” she said.
Antoni stared at her. She looked up suddenly and caught his expression.
“A man who does evil because he is evil. I should have killed him.”
“Come in now. Well rest for a space. Come in.”
She shook her head. The beech-tree was now one purple shadow. “I’m warm,” she said. “I’m all right. Let me stay here.” She reached out her hand and touched his shoulder. “I thought they loved children,” she said sadly.
“Who? The Germans? Yes, they love children: German children. They glorify youth: German youth. They talk sentimentally of motherhood: German motherhood. In the last war the worst famines were in Belgium and Poland. Our starvation was caused not only by the blockade, but by the Germans who ate all our cattle and grain and left us nothing. But did you ever hear of German Relief for starving peoples? Unless for German peoples?”
Sheila’s halting voice said, “They suffered, too. Perhaps that is what twisted them.”
“Yes, of course.” Antoni’s voice was bitterly sardonic. “Think how they suffered and starved. That’s why they have so many rickety cripples in their armies to-day! And such small armies! And all because they suffered more than anyone else in the last war. Think of their countryside with its cattle and grain all stolen by invading troops. Think of their towns ruined in the battles fought on German soil. Think of all the rebuilding they had to do, with half of their population shot, and the other half working with bloated bellies. Don’t you see how their bodies have suffered through the terrible hardships and cruelties which the Allies forced on them when they invaded the Rhineland in 1914 without warning? What wrecks, what invalids they are! Why, the poor dear Germans have never done anything at all! Their land has been the cockpit of Europe, where other more powerful nations came to fight and rape and steal. That’s why they have so few people in their country to-day compared to other countries of the same area! Don’t you see it all? Surely it must be clear to you. That’s why they’ve no industries, no factories, no well- equipped laboratories. That’s why they’ve no trade, why they can’t reach South American markets or the Danube. And all these Germans firms and salesmen you find throughout the world, even in India and other far places? Why, they aren’t Germans at all! It’s only a capitalist lie, a stab in the back by Jews and Communists. They are merely ——”
Marian’s voice said cheerfully, “I got thirty eggs to-day. Isn’t that wonderful? If the hens don’t stop laying when the cold weather comes we’ll be able to have one egg each every two weeks. Isn’t that wonderful?” She was watching Antoni’s sad face. There is something pathetic in a face which is sad when it seems made only for laughter. Marian said quickly, “You just can’t trust a man, can you? Turn your back for fifteen minutes, and he’s talking to the prettiest girl in the district. That’s what I get for not taking my mother’s advice. ‘Marian,’ she said, ‘never marry a good-looking man. He’ll roast your soul.’” She placed a hand gently on her husband’s shoulder, and Antoni looked up at her as he patted it. He was smiling once more; a round-faced little man, with kind eyes and spectacles that kept on sliding down his nose.
“I hear that our outposts have just seen the first of our men coming back from the raid. There’s been a relay of signals from the edge of the forest. Better get things ready, Antoni. I’ve set Franziska to boiling the water and sterilizing the knives.”
Antoni rose. Now he was the capable doctor, moving quickly, neatly. He touched Sheila’s head as he passed her. “Keep your illusions about human nature,” he said. “Life is stark without them. It is wonderful to keep being broad-minded.”
Sheila smiled sadly. “Now you make me feel still more smug,” she said. “People like me who have never suffered — I mean in the way the people of Korytów and all the other millions of Poles are suffering — can afford to be broad-minded. You and the people who have really suffered must think people like me are not only smug, but callous.”
“Only if you tell us that it is wrong to hate,” Antoni said. “That is callousness to the men who have been tortured to death, to the women who have been raped and the children who have been brutalized. That is callous and blind selfishness disguised as nobility. Let every one think of himself as a villager in Korytów, and then if he does not hate the men who do these things, then he is truly broad-minded. If he can see his mother dragged off to destitution, his wife being forced to wash German latrines, his daughter sent to German brothels, his son shot in the back or left dangling from a tree, his young children kidnapped and their minds distorted, his house burnt, his life-work destroyed in a few short minutes, and can still honestly say, ‘I do not hate the men who do these things,’ then he has my respect. But I have none for those who only hear of those things and still say so very nobly, ‘Of course, you should not hate.’”
“Antoni, the men will start arriving,” Marian warned. “I’ll come over and help as soon as I have got our patient to bed again.”
Marian looked after him with a mixture of pride and sadness.
“He was the kindest, happiest, best-natured fellow you ever met,” she said slowly. “He still is to those who are human beings. Come on, here’s my arm. That’s the way. Stiff? You’ll soon be running about this place. Can you nurse?”
“I could try to learn,” Sheila said.
“Good. We need help.”
“Are you and Franziska the only women here?”
“In the camp. Yes. And that’s because we have work to do — plenty of it. When the men get leave they go to the villages round the forest. No weapons or uniforms then; they are just relatives from another village. When they first came here all they did was to sit about the camp in their free hours, sit and stare at the forest. It worried me. But now they go to the villages. They’ve got girl friends there, some even have wives now. That’s better. That’s more natural. Can’t sit about moping. That drives a man mad.”
Marian had helped to remove the wide black skirt and the bright petticoat.
“Pretty, isn’t it?” she said. “We sent down to one of the villages for it when you arrived. You know, I wish they’d let me go on a raiding party some time. I’ve got a list of things I need: just a few needles and some threads and an extra pair of scissors — I’m always losing mine — and some buttons and a few books and some real handkerchiefs. I always liked a neat handkerchief; I hate these little scraps of cloth I’ve got to use nowadays. But you can’t ask the men to risk their lives for these small things. They’ve got to get rifles and ammunition and uniforms and food, and they’ve got to find good hiding-places to cache them in. We don’t use much of the stuff we are collecting now. It’s for later, when we’ve enough trained men and our Allies start attacking from the west. Then we can help. Then we’ll show the world that Poland was not beaten in four weeks.”
“Yes,” Sheila said. “Yes.” And she smiled. To think of the word victory, even a remote and far-away victory, cheered her. She stretched her body comfortably; bed, she decided, was a good place after all.
“It’s just patience we shall need,” Marian said. “We shan’t always have to live secretly in a forest.”
Franziska’s running feet almost blotted out her words. “Three back,” she gasped delightedly. “No wounds.”
Three, only three? Sheila watched the two women clasp each other in their joy. Marian’s keen eyes had noticed the expression on her face.
“The men slip back as they slipped out, in twos and threes,” she explained. “You didn’t think we marched out in a column with flags flying, did you?”
The two women laughed good-naturedly. They were so happy that they could laugh at the smallest thing.
“Takes a raiding party two days to get out, and often a week to come back in,” Marian continued. “Now I must dash over and hear the latest news. Franziska, fetch her some milk. And then she can get up for a warm supper this evening when the cooking starts. You’ve never told us your name, you know. It’s an English one, isn’t it? You talked English in your sleep.”
“Sheila. Sheila Matthews.”
Marian and Franziska repeated it solemnly and then giggled at their efforts.
“Such queer names foreigners have! Can’t think for the life of me how they can ever pronounce them.” Marian said, and gave Sheila a warm smile, and was gone to hear the news from the world outside.
Sheila sipped the strong-tasting yellow milk from a square-shaped cup of bark.
“Birch-bark,” Franziska explained as she moved round the room, tidying its simple belongings. “It gives a strange taste at first, but you get used to it. We can even boil water in buckets made from it. The milk came from our goats. We have three of them, kept specially for our invalids. We’ve got hens. And last week Zygmunt brought back two young pigs. We are fattening them up for Christmas. The only trouble is keeping the fox and the badger away.”
“I’ve so much to learn,” Sheila said. “This life is all so strange.”
“Oh, you get used to that too.” Franziska had almost finished her tidying; not that there was much to straighten. Life was decidedly utilitarian in this hut. There was another straw mattress on the floor with half an army blanket neatly folded across its rough cover. The earth floor was hard-packed, swept clean. A natural wooden table, new-looking and stoutly made, was against one log wall. An equally new bench stood along the front of the table. There was no glass in the small window, only inside shutters. Franziska was now hanging Sheila’s strange clothes on one of the large wooden pegs driven into the wall at one side of the narrow door. On the wall beyond the door was a wooden crucifix.
“It won’t be long before it is dark,” Franziska said, “and then we can go across to the Lodge to warm ourselves round the fire and have something to eat. Or don’t you feel strong enough yet?”
“Oh, yes,” Sheila said quickly, “I’m all right. I wasn’t ill. Only exhausted. And now I’ve exhausted my exhaustion. All I want to do is to move about and see and do.” She smiled and said once more, “Everything is so strange.” It was a new world, she thought.
“When I first came here I missed everything I had been accustomed to think was a necessity. You will be surprised how very little is necessary in life, and how simply one can improvise. It becomes a kind of game — like keeping house or playing shops when we were children. Then you find yourself beginning to despise your old way of living, you begin to like this way. If I live to see the day when we return to our towns I expect I shall miss this forest. Funny, isn’t it?”
“A thousand years ago most people lived in forests,” Sheila said, “for the forests were deep and thick all over Central Europe then. Forests like this one.”
“The Dark Ages,” Franziska said slowly. “I used to think that name meant people couldn’t read or write. But if they lived in forests, then there was darkness all round them.”
“When I saw the churches of the Middle Ages I used to think the people who had built them were still remembering the forests of the Dark Ages. The tall windows are like the winter trees, and the light strikes through them as if it were piercing a forest. Even the way the stone pillars branch into the curve of roof…”
The two girls smiled together at their fancies. Then Franziska suddenly came over to her, saying eagerly, “Can you nurse?”
Sheila stared at the anxious, affectionate face. “No,” she said in mild surprise. “But I can learn. It’s really a matter of not being lazy, isn’t it? Like being a good cook — just taking every trouble you can and not finding easy ways for anything?”
“I’ll teach you. I’ll help you. Say you can nurse when they ask you. I’ll show you.”
Sheila’s surprise deepened. Now that the sadness had gone from this girl’s face, Sheila thought of Barbara. Here was Barbara, a little older, a little less pretty, a little less decided. But here was Barbara.
“Why?” Sheila asked gently.
“Because I want you to stay here. I don’t want you to be sent to live in one of the villages. I want you to live here. You see ——” Franziska’s quiet eyes were half smiling now — “you see, it isn’t a husband I need. Antoni is wrong. In fact all the men would be insulted if they knew how little I wanted them — as men. Men wouldn’t understand that. But you do, don’t you? I just want some one who will talk with me, will laugh with me. Marian has her Antoni. I’ve felt so alone. But now we can work and talk together. Isn’t it strange how two women can spend an hour together, talking about nothing really very important, and yet there is such a nice satisfactory feeling at the end of it? With men — well, either you are everything, or you are nothing. Either they make you feel that you are being hunted like an animal, or that you are as unattractive as a stone wall. It’s — it’s disturbing. Either way.”
“Yes,” Sheila could agree. “It’s disturbing. Either way.” Then they both laughed.
Marian’s voice, talking, explaining, was outside the hut. She entered, her head turned to answer the man who followed her. It was the white-haired man who had come to Reymont’s camp, the man who was a colonel and served under a captain.
“Well, you certainly sound much better,” he said.
Marian said, “Franziska, Antoni needs you. Two more men have reached the camp. One has smashed his shoulder in falling off a roof.”
Franziska picked up the empty cup obediently and gave Sheila a parting smile.
“Perhaps you will be needed, too,” the colonel suggested smoothly.
“Yes, Colonel Sierakowski,” Marian said regretfully. The conversation between these two had promised to be so interesting…. And then, as if to assert at least a little of her authority, “Now, don’t you go tiring my patient. She’s doing very nicely.”
“Yes,” the colonel said, and waited until the doctor’s wife had left the room. Then he pulled the bench across to Sheila’s bed. He obviously was not going to speak his information across the length of the room.
He spoke in English. His voice was quiet, exceedingly businesslike.
“We sent a man to Warsaw. He got through. We’ve just had a brief, coded message. So your warning has been given into the right hands.”
Sheila looked both relieved and puzzled.
“We have a radio, of course,” he said quickly. “We can receive messages. Soon we shall be able to send them; we have an electrician here who is putting smuggled parts of a transmitter together. Anyway, we do know that our man got through, and that he gave the message about you.”
“I keep wondering what they’ll do with it.”
“That will have been decided by this time. We shall not know until Olszak arrives.”
“For a brief visit. A meeting of sorts, in other words. Some changes must be made in the organization, changes to suit what we have learned from the Nazis. Their technique has changed in several ways from that of the German occupation in the last war. The Nazis have been even more cruel and ruthless than we had expected.”
“Yes,” Sheila said, and thought of Korytów. “Yes.” It seemed as if anyone who had come under the power of modern Germany always found that the Nazis were worse than anyone had ever imagined. They were a perpetual shock. And the worst shock was to know that they were human beings. She met the man’s sad eyes and said, “If they were some kind of monsters like robots or men from Mars we could expect this ruthlessness. But I’ve come to hate them just because they are human beings like ourselves. That gives them no excuse at all for behaving in the way they do.”
“Quietly, quietly. Or we shall have Nurse Marian back here, saying I am upsetting her patient. Now, when Olszak arrives we shall hear, among other things, about your friend Madame Aleksander. He will also have discussed your future with the man whose secretary you were supposed to be. All you can do now is to get quite strong again, and then you’ll be able to do whatever Olszak has decided.”
“I’d like to stay here.” It was out, quite unthinking.
Colonel Sierakowski restrained a smile at her impulsive frankness.
“I can’t go back to England,” she said in embarrassment. “Not now. If the Germans were to find out that a Sheila Matthews was living there, then the whole Anna Braun story would come crashing down. Wouldn’t it?”
“Unless your recent employer can arrange a suitable ending to it.”
She thought desperately for some reasonable explanation why she should stay. There were obviously no passengers in the camp. Every one had his job. Her face lighted up. With a woman’s instinctive leap in reasoning, she had found the solution.
“Colonel Sierakowski, there’s no good pretending I’m a nurse. I can learn. But I’ve had no training. But there’s one thing I really could do. I could be your listener-in for foreign broadcasts. I could listen to American, British, French and German news. I could be here all the time to listen and make notes. You do need to know what’s happening abroad as well as in Poland, don’t you?”
His rare smile appeared. “Of course,” he said. “We have had a man listening, but you would release him for active duty. Captain Wisniewski will be interested, I’m sure, when he returns from the raid.” His smile deepened. “And then Olszak wouldn’t have to think up any more plans for you.”
Sheila flushed. “Well, he certainly has arranged it to his own taste in these last weeks.” Her embarrassment grew as Sierakowski’s smile deepened further. “Of course, he knows best. I suppose.”
Sierakowski laughed at the tone of her voice, at her raised eyebrow. Then he sat and looked at her so gravely that she wondered what had brought that thoughtful look into his eyes. It was as if he were forming a decision about her.
“I’m afraid I’m dealing with a rebel,” he said at last. But she knew that wasn’t what he had really been thinking about in that long pause. “Perhaps if you start your job before Olszak gets here you will have more chance of persuading him. There’s a lot of weight carried by a successful fait accompli.”
“And Captain Wisniewski?” Her words had been quite evenly spoken. And why not? Captain Wisniewski was in command of the camp; his permission was necessary. Her question had been merely a routine one. That was all, she thought, as she studied the coarse weave of the blanket over her knees. That was all she was going to allow it to be.
“He will have no objections, I’m sure.” He still watched her thoughtfully as she looked up at the slight inflexion in his voice. He was puzzled by the sudden unhappiness in her eyes.
“Why do you want to stay?” he asked suddenly.
Sheila felt as if she were under examination again. She answered directly and simply, “Because I’ve done enough escaping and running away. I’m going to stay — and — and ——”
She halted. This sounded so much like heroics.
“Fight it out?” he suggested gently.
“In any way I can — yes.”
He thought, this girl was honest; she wasn’t a sensation-seeker, a wide-eyed romantic. She knew the dangers, she didn’t minimize them. And she could be of use.
“Good,” he said with unexpected brevity, and rose to his feet. His salute as he left the hut was equally unexpected.
Sheila stared at the rough ceiling’s shadows thankfully. Sierakowski had believed her. She had won an ally. Whatever decisions were made about her, he would be on her side.
There were voices outside now. Darkness had come. Work was over for the day. We are gathering at the Lodge, she thought; how many of the raiding party have reached home? We… home… the words had come naturally: this new world was no longer strange. She watched the black square of night in the window’s frame, listened to the rustle of closely laced branches in the stirring wind. She thought of those others who were now moving back to the forest under cover of this darkness. When you hoped the way she hoped now it was as if you prayed.
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”