The Unconquerable (30)
January 23, 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!
A calendar became a curiosity. Time was measured by sun and moon, by patrols and sentry duty and raids, by increasing frosts and colder winds. Winter was coming, and as nature prepared for her long sleep the men in the camp prepared for winter. The raids in the last few days left of autumn were never-ceasing. Supplies, clothing, and food were snatched from under the sharp, greedy German nose, were hidden nearer the forest for future needs. (“Nearer” meant within ten miles of the forest’s edge. The raids themselves, as far as Sheila could discover, pushed as far north as Lowicz, as far south as Cracow. It seemed as if man had regained the power of travel which nature had meant him to possess. These soldiers could cover ten miles as easily as if they were walking down the street to buy an evening paper.)
Men who were resting between raids helped with the preparations in camp. Huts were enlarged and made weatherproof with bark and thatch. Fuel, dried and as smokeless as could be found, was stored as carefully as gold. So were the sacks of rye and potatoes, the barrels (fashioned out of birch-bark like the cooking-pots and cups) full of salt meat. Animals, hunted or trapped, also gave them skins for winter clothes. The melted fat was used for cooking, for soap, for candles, and for greasing rifles. Nothing was wasted. Everything, like every one, had its function. Life was primitive and simple, work was hard, the sense of danger was constant. But perhaps because there was no time to sit and brood, because each man had learned savagely and cruelly why they were fighting, for what end they were fighting, there was unity of a broad and deep kind.
It was the best kind of unity, Sheila thought as she studied the men’s faces in the Lodge each night. Work — except for the constant forest patrol — and the one meal of the day were over. The camp relaxed in the warmth of the large room, gathered together with tolerant, unforced friendships. Perhaps it was the cold wind rising outside, symbolic of loneliness and danger, that made officers and men appreciate these hours together. Perhaps men always enjoyed themselves when they got together after a good job well done. There was talk — plenty, of it, for no one could accuse the Poles of lack of conversation. There were boasts and arguments and discussions and stories. There was singing, with verses invented to fit every man in the camp. Music and poetry seemed to be rooted and growing in every Polish heart. Even Jan, that prosaic silent man, could turn a rhyme to set the others laughing. It was the best kind of unity, for each of those men was still an individualist. You could see that in their reactions and unexplained prides. The engineer was still the engineer; the lawyer remained the lawyer; the farmer and land-worker still belonged to the villages. But these differences were like salt and pepper in the flavour of a broth. The communal dish was all the better for their varied seasoning.
Strangers still arrived in camp. Some stayed and filled the gaps in its ranks after each raid. Others left: either they were better suited for another branch of the underground movement than for guerrilla fighting, or they had come for training in the camp’s methods before returning to their distant villages. There they in their turn would organize and adapt what they had learned for the use of their own districts.
The rest of Reymont’s band arrived. But Captain Reymont didn’t. Nor did Thaddeus. Jan had awaited their coming. Then suddenly he said one day, “They won’t come.” And he turned away in disappointment from the two ragged strangers who had come out of the forest. After that he stopped looking for newcomers. So did Sheila, but she kept thinking about Reymont. She owed him her life.
“I don’t think he ever wanted to leave his own camp,” she said to Jan that night. Jan was silent. They were sitting in the Lodge. The shutters and door were secure. The voices round them rose and fell with the rhythm of men who enjoyed themselves while they could. There had been food, there was vodka, there was story-telling, there was warmth, there was laughter. Hard faces softened in the candlelight, and coarse voices mellowed into music. Jan didn’t look up at her. He was fashioning a long stick, strong and pointed, into a spear-like weapon. “No?” was all he would say. But he believed her. Reymont had enjoyed his own command too much; he had been proud of it. Sierakowski had persuaded him that only in co-operation with a larger group was there any chance of permanent survival. So he had sent his men where opportunities were bigger. For this camp here, with the work and united effort of so many men, seemed fantastically efficient and luxurious compared with Reymont’s camp. He had been a good leader, probably as good in some ways as Wisniewski, but he had worked on too small a scale. He had lacked Wisniewski’s vision.
When she reached that conclusion Sheila was startled at her own choice of words. Vision… She looked over at Adam Wisniewski sitting with his soldiers.
This was the first evening he had spent at the Lodge since his return to the camp four days ago. He had been absent for over three weeks. This was the first time she had seen him since that morning she had arrived in camp. Or rather, she told herself as she averted her eyes and pretended to be watching Franziska, this was the first time she had allowed herself to see him. At the moment she wished she were back in the loneliness of her hut, away from the warmth and life of the Lodge. Her will-power was weakening; she was still telling herself that she must rise and leave, when Franziska came over to her.
“Anything wrong, Sheila?”
“No,” Sheila answered sharply. And then she saw she had hurt Franziska, and she added more gently, “Of course not.”
Franziska shrugged her shoulders and sat down beside Stefan. She too pretended. She listened to Stefan’s enthusiastic description of his work at the radio-hut with Sheila, of the new transmitter which was being perfected. But she wondered about these last few days and the change in her friend; she wondered what she had done to cause this feeling of separation. She listened to Stefan, but she watched Sheila, and Sheila seemed to be staring at the middle distance.
Now Adam Wisniewski was listening to a story, his intelligent eyes on the teller’s face, his lips ready to laugh. Sheila had her second surprise then. He likes men, she thought; and men like him. She watched him, almost incredulously. And then she smiled at her naïveté. Hadn’t this camp been proof to her that Adam Wisniewski got on well with men? Hadn’t this been the reason why Olszak had chosen Wisniewski? Horses and women — protofascist…
Russell Stevens had been quite certain about all that. Would he be as certain if he lived in this camp for a week? Wouldn’t he be sitting there now, laughing along with Wisniewski? Probably, Sheila thought, he would be laughing at himself: for Steve was honest. Perhaps too quick to pin identification tags on people’s shoulders, perhaps too prone to simplify; but fundamentally honest. If Wisniewski had lived up to the label Steve had pinned on him he would now be sitting in Warsaw or Cracow, collaborating with the Nazis. There he would have had women and horses and a comfortable house; there he would have seen the people who opposed him either killed or imprisoned. If this man were a fascist by inclination he would have welcomed the chance to ‘cleanse’ his country of the people he disagreed with. He wouldn’t be working with them, living with them, all political differences buried under the common battlefield. Fascists never buried politics. They kept them sharpened, like a dagger to plunge in your back. The Nazis were looking for a political foil in Poland. They had searched among politicians, among generals, ambassadors, princes, land-owners, professional men. Not one Pole had accepted the chance to gain the whole New Order and lose his own soul by working with the enemy. The reward for their refusal was always torture and death for themselves, imprisonment and persecution for their families. Yet each week the execution list of these men was growing. Nothing the Nazis could do would convince or persuade or force the Poles to become Nazis or the allies of Nazis.
If ever she were to see Steve again she would argue this out with him. “Labels, Steve, are just misleading,” she would say. “They are meant for laboratory specimens, not for human beings. All the so-called ‘enlightened’ would have had Poland quite taped and labelled. Poland was ‘feudal,’ Poland was ‘undemocratic,’ Poland was ‘fascist.’ And now the Poles are giving a demonstration to the world of what honour and freedom really mean. If a country doesn’t love freedom why should it die so willingly against oppression? Why doesn’t it jump on the German ‘band-wagon’ and say, ‘Of course we’ll co-operate’? The Germans gave it the chance to do that. They churned out propaganda on the radio — you heard it as well as me — about the stupid, cowardly Government which led the poor Poles into this war. They’ve slandered, they’ve even fabricated proof of the guilt of Polish leaders. They offered the Poles every opportunity to say, ‘We’ve been betrayed. We lost the battle because we’ve been betrayed.’ But the Poles won’t take that soothing excuse. Their honour is real, not just national vanity. And the more they refuse to co-operate, the more they suffer. Korytów, and the hundred other Korytóws, would be still standing to-day if the Poles would only co-operate. How many other countries, even the most democratic ones, would pay this price for their honour, Steve?”
The voices swept in warm gusts round her. Above was the black shadow of the pointed roof, and the static animal heads peering down through the haze of smoke. Those beasts must have seen many a hunting-party here. Now they were watching the strangest hunting-party of all. She looked across to the priest, tall, thin-faced. He was listening to the man who had lost an eye. How unreal and yet real; how mad and yet sane!
A voice, strong and confident, was speaking. She looked up, startled. There was no escape this time. “You look very serious.” It was Adam Wisniewski. He didn’t wait for a reply, but sat down cross-legged on the floor at her feet. Something in the ease of the gesture reminded her of the first time she had seen him. There were four or five answers she could give him; each sounded sillier than the other. She kept silent and smiled.
“That’s much better,” he said approvingly. He was watching her as he drew a packet of cigarettes out of his pocket. He offered her one. He lit it carefully. Jan placed his cigarette behind his ear: he was concentrating on smoothing his spear-point into sharp perfection.
“I’ve almost lost the taste of a cigarette,” she said. She was annoyed with herself for her nervousness. She couldn’t seem to think of anything else to say.
“So you do talk?” Wisniewski said slowly.
She returned the long look which he gave her. (How unreal it is, she was thinking. We have at last spoken, and I find I have nothing to say.)
“Occasionally,” he said gravely, answering for her. That made her laugh.
“Actually,” he went on with a smile, “I think you’ve been avoiding me.”
There was enough truth behind the light words to make Sheila lose the composure she had gathered so determinedly.
“You’ve been busy,” she said with little originality. What a lack of wit and intelligence she was displaying! The cat had not only got her tongue — it had got her brain.
He wasn’t smiling. Strangely enough, he wasn’t looking bored. He was watching her face very intently. He had watched her like that at Korytów when she talked to Steve at that last dinner in the Aleksander house. That look had been disconcerting then. Now it also made her happy.
“You’ve been busy,” she repeated. That was true. And sometimes she had felt that he had been avoiding her, too. Each avoiding the other, as though they were afraid of something they couldn’t avoid.
“You yourself haven’t been exactly idle,” he was saying. “In fact, you’ve been too busy. Where’s the smile you used to have in your eyes?”
“I remember when I first saw you. You were leaning out of a window, talking to old Felix. I recollect thinking, ‘That’s the way a woman should look, with a smile in her eyes and a soft word on her lips.’”
“Felix,” Sheila said slowly. “‘My friend Felix,’ as Teresa used to say.”
He was quick to notice the strained look on her face. “Come,” he said, with unexpected gentleness. “Come now.” He took her hand and gave it a reassuring grip. He turned to Jan and said, “What’s the spear for?”
“Old Single,” Jan said without looking up. He was wetting his thick forefinger and running it along the wood.
One of the men near them laughed. “He’s heard those wild stories about bears.”
“A spear and a sabre,” Wisniewski said. “They are brave weapons against a bear, Zygmunt.”
“If a man can fight a bear that way,” Zygmunt said dis-believingly.
“It’s been done. It gives bear and man an even chance. When you face a bear that way, then you know it’s either him or you. That’s the most satisfactory way to kill.”
“You might fight a bear that way. But not a boar. Old Single’s too clever,” Zygmunt said. “Why, he even knows just the limits where we are allowed to shoot. He’s been keeping down to the forest edge since we came here. He knows we dare not shoot him near there.”
Jan said “I’ll catch him.” He tapped the spear. “I haven’t met the pig yet that I couldn’t stick, Göring included.”
Wisniewski was examining the spear. “It will need a crossbar just about there, as a grip.” He felt the spear and then shook his head. “It’s strong, but not strong enough. Not for Old Single. He’s carried bullets about in his fat for several years now. You need steel for that job.”
Jan grinned and patted the sheath of the long, thin knife he now carried — as all the men did — at his waist. “Little sister will make sure. First big brother.” He pointed the spear like a javelin. “Then little sister.” He drew his finger across his throat with a quick slashing gesture.
“How much would you bet on it?” said Zygmunt with real interest.
Jan’s finger rubbed the side of his nose.
“Careful,” Sheila said to Zygmunt warningiy. “If you make a bet with Jan that’s enough to make him win.”
Wisniewski released her hand. She was all right again. She had stopped thinking about Korytów. He thought, It seems impossible that anyone as lovely as she is should be so unconscious of her power. He looked at her. And, for once, she accepted his challenge.
“Yes?” she asked.
Rather surprisingly, he didn’t accept hers. “Why do you stay here when you could go back to your own country?” he countered.
“Why does Jan, who knows little about forests, want to brave Old Single?” she answered.
Jan looked up at her quickly. “I’m learning,” he said resentfully. “I’m doing the best I can.”
“Some would say it’s because he’s mad.” Wisniewski’s hand on Jan’s shoulder turned the words into a compliment. “Or some would say he is proud and never refused a challenge.” Adam Wisniewski was smiling now, watching her eyes with that very straight, disconcerting look of his. “Or some would say he has courage.”
“I’ve hardly that.” She was trying to laugh. “I scream at a rat. I’m afraid of snakes. I turn sick when I see blood. I’ve tried hard. But I still scream, I still turn sick.”
“And the rat Captain Streit? And the snake called Dittmar?”
Sheila looked at him in surprise. The brown eyes were amused, and yet, somehow, serious. She felt the blood rise in her cheeks, and she smiled uncertainly, and she felt a warm gentle surge in her heart.
“I know so much about you, you see,” he was saying quietly. “First it was Andrew who talked. Then Madame Aleksander and Barbara. Then Korytowski, Olszak, Sierakowski. Even Jan. It seems as if the only person who won’t talk to me about you is yourself.”
“Yes — oh!”
The laugh in his eyes had died away. The smile on her lips had gone. We’ve always known each other, Sheila thought. We’ve always talked and laughed and been silent together. We’ve always been together.
Jan was looking at them curiously. Franziska, beside Stefan, was watching too: she seemed to be saying reproachfully, “But you never told me!”
Sheila rose quickly. “I must go now.” She was running away. She knew it. She didn’t look at him now. “Good night,” she said. She wished her voice hadn’t been so uncertain.
Adam Wisniewski had risen too. He was even taller than she had thought. He cleared a path for her to the door. For a moment the room was silent.
“Good night, Captain Wisniewski,” she said again. But he didn’t seem to hear her low voice. He closed the door behind them, shutting in the sudden burst of voices. For a moment they stood together. He took her arm, and they walked slowly away from the Lodge.
The black sky with its misted moon and stars spread like a blanket over the forest. The naked trees moved and sighed in the soft night wind.
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”