The Unconquerable (31)

By: Helen MacInnes
January 28, 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 31: Old Single

As usual, Franziska had risen before the dawn. She had bathed at the pool. Her cheeks were pink and her fingers chilled and white. She was kneeling before the crucifix on the wooden wall. Sheila kept still until the girl had finished her morning prayers, and then jumped out of bed too. She dressed quickly, shivering slightly.

Franziska said, “It’s getting colder, every morning now. I almost froze going down to the pool this morning.” And then, too casually, she added, “I met the Chief on his way to the Lodge. He starts work early.”

Sheila was smoothing her short hair with the rough wooden comb which Jan had made for her. She ignored Franziska’s lead.

“Where’s Marian?” she asked.

“Still on night duty at the hospital hut. That amputation is taking an awful time to heal. I’m just going over there. Have you time to relieve me at midday?”

Sheila nodded.

“And we’ve those dressings to wash,” Franziska said. “And the patients need more milk. If you’ve a spare hour this morning you might try and explain that to the goats.”

Sheila said “Yes.” Franziska, she thought, always seemed to think of the most unpleasant task early in the morning. It was as if she lay worrying about them all night in order to produce them in a neat row when she rose from her bed.

“This place needs a good scrubbing,” Franziska said, taking the twig-broom and brushing vigorously at invisible dust.

“All right,” Sheila said, and smiled. She was accustomed to the idea, by this time, that short-wave listening in wasn’t considered hard work either by Franziska or by Marian. “I’ll do that. I’ll bring back a pail of water when I go down for my bath.”

“I’ll help you,” said Franziska, suddenly relenting. “Two of us make the job easier.” She looked at Sheila. “But how long are the two of us going on working now? Why didn’t you tell me? You can’t really think I’m your friend after all.” The girl’s voice was hurt, reproachful.

“Franziska, what’s wrong with you this morning?”

“You made me think you didn’t like him. Why, you never spoke to him. You kept out of his way. Purposely, too. I could see that. And then last night: both of you looking at each other as if the rest of us didn’t exist.”

“You’re imagining things,” Sheila said stiffly. She wished Franziska would go to the hospital hut. She wished Franziska would stop probing. This was her own affair, she thought, and stared at Franziska. “Yes, I’m in love,” she could say, “and I’ve been in love with him since the first moment I saw him.” But she wouldn’t say it. She would tell neither about that nor about anything else connected with Adam. And then Sheila’s anger disappeared; poor Franziska she thought, Franziska, whose fear of men frightened men away.

“Better relieve Marian,” she suggested gently. “I don’t have any important broadcasts until eight o’clock. I’ll have this place scrubbed and the goats milked before then. I’ll see you at midday.” She put her arm round the thin shoulders. How soft and fragile women’s shoulders felt. She turned quickly away and started straightening her bed.

That was Franziska. Then there was Marian, as brisk as ever even if she needed sleep and rest. At least, she was direct — startlingly direct.

“So you’ve made up your mind at last,” she said approvingly, as she unbraided her hair. The heavy plaits fell over her shoulders almost to the waist. It gave the thick middle-aged figure a strangely girlish look. She was rubbing some grease into her face. “When the spring comes we’ll search for some herbs and make this stuff pleasanter. I feel as though I were an axle every time I put it on. Antoni’s done his best to purify it, but grease is grease. Still, it protects our skins from those red sores that the frost brought on. Last week my face cracked every time I smiled.”

Marian unbuttoned her skirt and stepped out of it neatly.
”Of course,” she said, folding it with excessive care, “I knew
 all along. I said to Antoni ——”

“I’ve got to get down to the pool for water. Franziska wants this floor scrubbed.”

“Nonsense. I washed it two days ago. There’s a war on. We’ve given up polished parquetry for the duration. Now, as I said to Antoni, there’s a well-matched pair, and if she doesn’t know it, then he does, and she’ll soon learn. What this camp needs is a wedding. That’s what I said, and I was right.”

“Marian!”

“Don’t look so shocked, Sheila. If I were you I’d be shouting the news from the tree-tops.”

“You go too fast.”

“Not me! I’m not so green as I’m cabbage-looking.” Marian slumped into bed. “When people fall in love they usually marry, unless something prevents them. What’s to prevent you two? Nothing — absolutely nothing. I knew it all along, anyway. Ever since the morning you came here. He carried you in as though you were an armful of precious glass instead of a bundle of rags. And the row he kicked up when I cut off your hair! Had to… Couldn’t get a comb through it. But you should have seen his face when he came to see you before he left on that raid. And you still sleeping away…”

She pulled the deer-skin rug over her shoulders. Sheila breathed in relief. But Marian’s head bobbed up again, and she was saying, “People in love are always the same. They think no one knows about it except themselves. It’s the most open secret in all the world. As for trying to keep any kind of a secret in a camp like this… ! Why, you might as well try to do it in a large family. Don’t you worry: no amount of talk will scare the Chief, if that’s what’s worrying you. He’s a man, not a milksop. He knows where he is with himself. He is what he is, and no false pretences. We could do with more of his kind in the world. Ask Antoni. He used to doctor — oh, what’s the use? If you don’t believe what I’m saying, then you’re not worth the Chief’s little finger.”

Sheila was so silent that Marian relented. “I’ll talk no more about it. Antoni would say I’d talked too much. It’s just that I like you, Sheila, and I don’t want to see you cheat yourself. You could. You startle as easily as a deer.” She laughed and added, “In some things, anyway. Did you hear Jan’s latest story about you? You shot two Germans, strangled another, and caught three spies. He’s getting it almost perfect, isn’t he?”

Sheila began to laugh in spite of herself.

Marian’s eyes were closed firmly. Case dismissed.

*

Stefan helped her with the goats. It was impossible to try to milk a goat and not think the world had humour in it. They made progress, despite the advice shouted to them from two men weaving a wattle fence round the hen-run. Sheila, her face scarlet with exertion, was laughing at one of the men, more helpful than the other, now retreating back to the protection of the fence, with speed rather than grace; Stefan was looking with great seriousness at the amount of milk they had rescued. “It really isn’t very much, is it?” he was saying.

And then three men walked towards her. Sheila, laughing, saw the two soldiers salute her, the little thin man in peasant’s dress bow gravely. They had been talking earnestly, their heads slightly bent, their hands clasped behind their backs. Neither Sierakowski nor Olszak faltered in the deliberate pace. Adam’s step slowed, imperceptibly. And she saw, too, the serious eyes suddenly lighten as he watched her as he passed. The line of his lips, grim and hard, softened for a moment. No one else had noticed, no one else could; only she could notice and know what he meant.

Olszak asked something quickly, and Wisniewski’s stride caught up with the rhythm of the others, as he replied. Then the trees hid him.

Sheila could have shouted with joy. It came in a wave, filling her heart and her whole body. “Shout it from the tree-tops,” Marian had said, and she had been right. “Stefan thinks that I’m looking at him, that I’m smiling because of him,” she said to herself. “He’s wrong. I’m on the top of the highest tree, shouting and shouting. And no one can hear me except Adam. Just as I can hear him, and no one else can.” It was only after that strange, disturbing exuberance had spent itself, and she felt sane and ordinary again, that she remembered to be surprised that Olszak was here. Olszak had arrived at last. Olszak in peasant clothes, Olszak unshaven and so different, Olszak still so much Olszak in spite of the mud and the grime. And he must be leaving soon — probably to-night. For he hadn’t bothered to wash off a week’s accumulation of dirt. Yes, Olszak was still Mr Olszak, the realist who didn’t lose any time.

Stefan was saying, “Is that another recruit? We soon won’t have room for any more. We’ve got dozens sleeping in our hut.”

“Stefan!” Sheila wasn’t laughing as she should have been. She was too busy wondering whether she should say, “Stefan, that ‘new recruit’ will have news of your mother,” or not. Probably not. No use raising the boy’s hopes, in case…

“Well, we’ve nine, anyway. Jan calls it the hen-roost. He says we’ll soon be sleeping standing up, like horses. That’s why there are no more huts being built just now.”

Sheila tried to leave Madame Aleksander and come back to the forest. “What was that, Stefan?” she asked.

“Didn’t you know? We are going to get more horses. The stable’s being built for them over there. When the spring comes they’ll sweep down on the plains. They’ll — Sheila, you aren’t listening.”

“Yes, Stefan,” she said meaninglessly, and then saw her blunder in the boy’s disappointment.

“What’s wrong with you, Sheila? You never listen now.”

“Come on,” she replied gently. “We’ll take this milk over to the hospital. They probably need it over there.”

“I’m free until this afternoon. I’ve got leave.” His voice emphasized the word proudly. He was a soldier: he got leave. “That’s because I worked all the week without stopping. At least, hardly stopping. Jan has his leave too, but he’s not going down into the village like Zygmunt. Zygmunt’s always going to Dwór. But Jan’s going hunting. He’s taking me with him. I made him promise. I’m not allowed to go down to one of the villages.”

“I should say not,” Sheila began emphatically.

“Why not?” There was a small smile at the back of Stefan’s eyes.

“Well, hunting’s better fun than a dull village, isn’t it? What could you do down at the village except talk and look at people? You couldn’t even fight if a German patrol came visiting.” That was the rule of the camp: the men on their visits to the villages were not to provoke suspicion. They went unarmed and behaved as the villagers would behave.

“Yes. Specially ——” He stopped too quickly.

Sheila said, “Specially what, Stefan?”

His cheeks flushed. “Oh, nothing. Not really, Sheila. Besides, it’s a secret. Jan’s secret.”

They were reaching the centre of the camp now. And then she saw Jan. He was waiting for Stefan not far from the Lodge. He carried a long wooden spear. There was a cross-bar fixed near the butt. His knife was sheathed at his waist.

“Stefan!” Sheila cried sharply. But the boy had already relinquished his grasp on the leather thong-handle of the bark bucket and was running towards Jan. “Sorry I’m late, Jan,” she heard him say. “I had to help Sheila. She’s not very good at…” and then the man and boy were gone into the forest, and Sheila was left alone at the hospital door. There was no one else in the half-clearing in front of the Lodge, no one else to whom she could call to stop these two fools. She almost ran into the hut. Franziska looked up from the wound she was dressing. Her patient was Zygmunt, gloomily watching the girl’s fingers handling the nasty gash on his leg. He would take a long time to reach the village for his night’s leave with that leg. Three other men were stretched in rough cots on the floor.

“Careful!” Franziska said in a low voice. “You’ll spill the milk. Put it over there, Sheila.” She nodded to the table.

“Jan. Stefan. They’ve gone hunting Old Single.”

Ssh!” Franziska nodded this time towards the sleeping men on the floor.

Sheila lowered her voice. “I’ll have to try to stop Stefan at least. His mother may be here any day now. I can’t let him get killed just before she arrives.”

“I wonder if he’s got a chance, that Jan,” Zygmunt was
saying. “He’s got an eye on my rifle. He bet —”

Sheila said quickly, “Then he’s determined to win. I told you not to bet. You heard what Ad — Captain Wisniewski said last night. The spear won’t be strong enough. He knows. He’s hunted boar. He knows.”

“So that’s why Jan was questioning the patrol that came back from the north edge of the forest this morning. Old Single was moving farther in, they said.” Zygmunt added, “Damn to hell the misbegotten axe that argued with my leg. I’m going to lose the best gun a man ever picked out of a dead German’s hands.”

“Where’s the patrol?”

“Sleeping, of course. What did you think they would be doing after twelve hours on duty?”

Sheila started towards the door. Franziska thrust the long strip of bleached linen into Zygmunt’s hands. “Hold that. Just there,” she ordered, and followed Sheila outside the hut. “What are you going to do?” Her face was unexpectedly sympathetic.

“I’ll have to go after them. There’s no one else to send. I’d only waste more time running round the huts trying to find some one who hadn’t a job to do.”

Franziska said. “Don’t worry if you aren’t back by midday.
I am staying on duty anyway. That boy with the amputated
arm is worse again. Marian says — oh well, I’m not going to
lose him now, after all the trouble I’ve had. When I think
 of ——”

Sheila knew the story well. She gave Franziska an unexpected hug. “I’ll be back before midday,” she said. She was looking round the clearing. No one in sight. Hammering from the distance. A voice giving commands over at the training-school. Here there was no one. She would have to go by herself.

She set off at a run. Franziska understood. She wasn’t going to lose her patient after all the difficulties they had overcome together. Sheila wasn’t going to lose Stefan. Not needlessly like this. Madame Aleksander — oh, damn that big lump of a man. Why couldn’t he wait till Old Single moved still farther in, moved into the shooting zone? Why was he so set on getting Old Single this way? And when she caught up with Jan and Stefan they would probably laugh at her; fuss about nothing, they’d say. Women are always like that, always worrying and interfering with men’s business, they’d say. They may be right; but she wasn’t going to take the chance. Not with Madame Aleksander… Madame Aleksander had lost enough already.

Sheila was hidden by the forest.

She was right, Franziska thought as she re-entered the hut. This idea of Jan’s was too dangerous. Some one had to stop Stefan. Only — well, it wasn’t any of her business. She picked up the bandage slowly. Then she looked at Zygmunt.

“Where’s the Chief?” she asked suddenly.

“With that stranger. The little fellow.”

“In the Lodge?”

“Yes.”

Franziska thrust the strip of yellow linen back into Zygmunt’s hand. She ran out of the hut.

“Hey!” Zygmunt called after her, and then he grinned as he began winding the bandage himself. A woman, he was thinking, never knew how funny she looked from behind when she ran. Or none of them would run. Must be the way they kicked up their heels, like a scampering cow.

*

Inside the Lodge the three men sat at the table. Olszak was studying the map, Adam Wisniewski was studying Olszak, and Sierakowski was lighting a cigarette.

“Good,” Olszak said, and straightened his back. He looked at Sierakowski. “You’ll be in charge of the camp this winter, then.” To Adam he said, “I am glad you found everything working smoothly in these last two weeks. You turned a raid into quite a tour of inspection, I hear.”

“I thought it was wise to see, before I left here, just how our arrangements with the villages were working out.”

Olszak nodded his approval. It had been wise. “And are you leaving this week?” It was a very polite form of suggestion.

Adam Wisniewski smiled. “I shall leave before the first heavy snows come to the mountains.”

“That will be soon, then?”

Adam didn’t answer. Sierakowski found his cigarette hadn’t been lit properly, after all. Damn, he thought, and then wondered if he were angry with the cigarette or with Olszak’s insistence. “Damn this,” he said sharply.

Olszak was speaking again, very casually, very gently. “Actually, Adam, I had expected you to leave as soon as you got back from that raid.”

Sierakowski said quickly, “Oh, there’s time enough. Adam will reach the Carpathians before winter sets in.” He glanced at his friend as if prompting him to reassure Olszak. The little man was fussing like a hen with its chickens. He wasn’t satisfied, as though he had guessed something. And I’m responsible, Sierakowski thought worriedly. It was I who brought Sheila Matthews here. And yet, back at Reymont’s camp, this place had seemed the most obvious, especially with Reymont’s men all coming to the forest. Pity about Reymont. The Germans must have killed him. Pity. Clever, sensitive kind of chap.

Adam Wisniewski said as quietly as Olszak, “I’m thinking of getting married.”

Even Sierakowski flinched. Adam, he thought, what in Heaven’s name made you speak so bluntly? Why didn’t you at least prepare him for the shock?

Olszak’s face was a mask. At last, “That’s a bad joke,” he said coldly.

“It’s far from a joke,” Adam said in the same even voice.

Olszak took a deep breath. Only his thin hands, suddenly rigid on the map in front of him, showed his temper. Just as evenly he replied, “Then it’s the greatest piece of foolishness I’ve ever heard of.”

Adam’s jaw tightened. But he said nothing.

“You are in earnest?” Olszak went on. “Where is she going to live? What about security? Hers? Yours? Who is she, anyway?”

It was then that they heard the running footsteps.

“Coming here,” Sierakowski said for all of them. “What’s wrong now?”

Franziska’s face, flushed and worried, answered him. The girl hesitated in the doorway of the Lodge, suddenly afraid of her own temerity.

She heard the little, thin man ask in his cold voice, “Is this she?”

The Chief didn’t answer. He was watching her. “What is it?” he asked. His voice sounded angry. She took a step backward. All her courage had gone.

“What is it?” he asked more gently.

“The English girl. I shouldn’t have let her go. Alone. I
shouldn’t have let her ——”

Adam Wisniewski had risen abruptly. He was coming towards her. “Where? When?” His hand reached out and gripped her shoulder. She winced, but the intensity of his grip forced the story out of her. The stranger had come over to the doorway with Colonel Sierakowski. “Madness,” he kept saying. “Incomprehensible. Mountain out of a molehill.”

Adam Wisniewski turned on him savagely. “Keep quiet, Olszak. Let me hear this!” Then he said more gently to the nervous girl, “What path did she follow? Come, show me.” His grip moved from her shoulder to her wrist. He pulled her out of the hut into the forest glade.

Olszak’s voice was cold and quiet no longer. “Wisniewski, damn you, stay here!”

But Wisniewski was pointing to the paths into the forest. “This one? or that one? This?”

Franziska nodded.

Without any further pause he started to run.

Olszak turned back into the cold shadows of the Lodge. Sierakowski stood at the doorway until at last he heard the far-off whistle and its answering call.

“He’s made contact with one of the sentries,” he said as he came back to the table. “The sentry will have a rifle, anyway.”

Olszak looked up from the pretence of studying the map. “Is that so necessary?”

Sierakowski looked at Olszak’s set face. For a moment he felt a certain pleasure. You know so much, Mr Olszak, but not everything, he thought.

“Have you ever hunted boar?” he asked politely.

“I’ve been much too busy with other things,” Olszak said with a touch of sarcasm.

“Then you don’t know in what danger Miss Matthews is, or the boy Stefan, or even Jan.”

Olszak’s voice lost its grating edge. “Then it is Miss Matthews?”

“Yes.”

“Since when, may I ask?”

“Since they met, I believe.”

For the second time, watching Olszak’s expression, Colonel Sierakowski had a mild feeling of amusement. Mr Olszak indeed did not know everything.

“I know nothing of Miss Matthews’s feelings,” Sierakowski went on, “but Adam is my friend, and I do know him. I’m afraid this affair is neither a joke nor a piece of foolishness, Mr Olszak.”

Mr Olszak traced the course of a river on the map with his finger. “So I see,” he answered at last. And this time there was sadness in his voice.

*

Sheila was breathing unevenly, in heavy, tearing gasps. She halted and tried to master the short stabs in her breast. She swallowed the hot saliva, rested her hot hand against the cold, rough trunk of a tree. She was following the right path for the north. That was the one Jan and Stefan had taken. She must catch up with them soon. They hadn’t so very much of a start. Surely their pace couldn’t be as quick as hers: hunters don’t hurry. And then she remembered that Stefan was due back on duty by the afternoon; they would be hurrying after all, to cover the six, seven, eight miles that would bring them towards the last stretch of forest. She kissed her knee quickly, and the stitch of pain at her side softened. She ought to have remembered that child’s trick before now. She had come about a mile already; she hadn’t even begun the journey. Too bad if she still gasped like a fish out of water. She started northward once more.

At the end of the third mile her lungs had seemingly decided she wasn’t going to rest, so they stopped rebelling. She was travelling more quickly now. Her feet too had resigned themselves to this inevitable pace and were picking their way more cleverly. It was as if all parts of her body realized they’d better look out for themselves because the mind controlling them was certainly thinking about other things. She passed some huts standing modestly back among the trees. Nobody was there. By this time the men would be at work. She reached the tree on the path with the blazed markings. Beyond this, shooting was absolutely forbidden. Beyond this, she hadn’t walked since she arrived. And because this new part of the forest was strange to her it seemed more threatening. “Perfect nonsense,” she told herself, but her words didn’t convince her. She was nervous now as well as worried. Jan and Stefan were still invisible. She stopped to listen. But she heard nothing except the constant whisper of branches. She couldn’t get lost if she stuck to this path, and surely Jan wouldn’t leave it. No one left the paths except the outposts, and they were chosen because they knew forests, because they could move as confidently through these trees as the others would walk down a city street. She must have passed an outpost now, although she couldn’t see him when she stopped and looked round her as the bird’s call came suddenly out of the forest. A round-breasted pheasant, his long tail straight as a rudder, rose in a straight stiff angle with a hoarse cry of protest. He had the same heavy look as the bombers she used to watch over Warsaw when they had lifted away from anti-aircraft shells.

Sheila stopped in sudden annoyance. This is futile, she thought; absolutely futile. And all the thanks she would get, if she did find Jan and Stefan, would be scorn. Men never liked advice from a woman. They didn’t even call it advice; ‘nagging’ was the word they would use. Knowing that only made her annoyance deepen. She used the scrap of linen which she had cut for a handkerchief to dry her brow. Her face must be a fine vintage purple by this time. Moistening the corner of the handkerchief, she tried to stop the irritating trickle of blood from a cut on her lip. Her hands and arms were scratched too. There were red scores on her legs. She sat down on an overturned tree and stared at its surrendered roots in disgust. A rabbit scampered towards her. Two wood-grouse flapped out of cover. Two more rabbits. A squirrel abandoned a beechnut and fled to the nearest tree. Yet she was sitting quite still. It couldn’t have been her movements which had startled them.

And then it seemed as if she saw them all at once. Coming back towards her on the path were Stefan and Jan. She rose, relief on her face, her lips open to greet them. They were returning, was her first thankful thought, they were returning; they had failed. But Jan wasn’t looking at her. Stefan only glanced towards her for a moment. He laid a finger on his lips, and then he too was half-crouching, moving slowly towards the thin trees. She could see nothing. But the feeling of nervousness which had so discouraged her for the last few minutes turned into fear. She was all the more afraid because she didn’t know what she was to fear. She looked quickly over her shoulder. On the path, some distance behind her, was Adam. Adam and one of the sentries. Adam had taken the man’s rifle. The man held his bayonet like a knife. Both men were stiff, unmoving, as if they were turned into rock. They weren’t watching her. They were staring at the thicket as Jan had done. Her first thought was: Adam — how did Adam get here? And then she thought: there is danger. She looked back again to the wall of bushes on her right. Moving slowly round the roots of a trunk which had blocked her view came Old Single.

The boar moved so slowly, so nonchalantly, that for a minute Sheila believed all would be well. If you didn’t attack he wouldn’t attack. That was what the boy who had guided them into the forest had said. Sheila stood as still as Adam and the sentry behind her. Adam can’t use the gun, she was thinking; the Germans might hear a shot. All we can do is to stand still and let Old Single wander off. She had been keeping her eyes so fixed on the huge beast that she hadn’t seen Jan. He couldn’t have noticed the Chief. Jan noticed nothing except the giant boar. Jan was moving forward.

Old Single, in spite of his pretence of rooting round the tree, had known they were there. The men had come again to trap him. The nearest man was rising now, standing there to give him challenge. Old Single accepted it. The shapeless mass suddenly swerved. The hulking shoulders, the long snout, the savage tusks pointed towards the man. He was at Jan with a speed which terrified Sheila. She saw the raised spear pointing forwards, plunging into the boar’s shoulder with all the strength of Jan’s right arm. Both the man and the beast seemed to stagger under the shock. And then, before the sharp edge of the spear had reached the boar’s heart, the wood cracked, and the spear’s shaft snapped cleanly in two. Jan stumbled. His knife was ready, but the tusks slashed mercilessly at him. Sheila was gripped by a nausea: she saw Stefan, his knife in his hand, start towards Jan and the boar. Then Sheila’s sickness passed, and the weight which had anchored her feet to the ground was slipped, and she was moving towards Stefan. “No!” she was saying. “Stefan, no! Too late! No!” She had wrenched her apron from her waist with an impulse completely instinctive and unreasoned.

The boy stopped as he heard her voice. Perhaps he knew it was too late. Perhaps he realized the danger into which he was pulling her. He stopped, and he lost the one moment when he could have attacked and been attacked. The moment was gone, and Old Single had charged, and Stefan was safe. It was towards the running Sheila, not towards the motionless Stefan, that the bloodstained tusks pointed. The beast was almost on her. She dropped the apron and stepped aside instinctively to try to reach a tree. The tusks slashed the fallen apron, and then swerved towards the girl. She heard a racketing crash through the silent forest. Old Single checked for a moment, as if in surprise. She had reached the tree. He was following her, but he was moving slowly, blindly, as if he were tired, as if all his strength and pride had gone. He travelled almost fifteen feet to the tree before his knees bent forward as though the heavy shoulders were too much to bear any longer. He grunted and tried to rise. For a moment he stood, his small eyes staring stupidly, pathetically at Sheila. He made one last quick movement, no longer stupid, pathetic. For one moment he was Old Single again, with all the meanness and savagery that gave his huge bulk so much evil. And then he fell forward once more and lay motionless. He was only a shapeless mass of flesh and fat, a monstrous joke by nature to balance the beauty she could also create.

“I’ll make sure,” the man with Adam was saying, and used his bayonet. “They’ve the cunning of the devil.” He wiped the bayonet on the bristling hair. “That’s one that isn’t cunning any more,” he said. He walked over to where Jan lay. Stefan, white-faced, knelt with him. The man was shaking his head slowly.

Adam still held the rifle. With his free hand he grasped both of Sheila’s, and then his arm was round her waist holding her fiercely. His strength gave strength to her. Their kiss was in defiance of death.

Then, still gripping Sheila’s wrist, he was speaking, quickly, urgently, to the sentry and Stefan. The command brought them to their feet and over to their Chief. Stefan, the tears on his face unnoticed, received his instructions in silence.

“Stop thinking of Jan,” Adam said sharply. “Think of the camp. Can I trust you to take this message to the village of Zorawno on the north side of the forest? You know it?”

Stefan was stung into answering. “Yes, sir. We went to the edge of the forest before we started back — before we saw him.” For a second he looked down at the boar. “I saw Zorawno. It isn’t so far away.”

Wisniewski repeated his instructions. “Go to that village, carefully. Find Jadwiga. Find out if any Germans are in Zorawno or near it. If any are there and heard the shot, then Jadwiga remembers that one of the villagers went out hunting last night. She heard the shot too. She thinks an accident happened. If the Germans insist on searching they will find a dead man, a dead boar, and a gun.”

Stefan repeated Wisniewski’s words.

“Now, quickly,” said the captain. “And carefully. We are depending on you.”

The boy saluted. He left at a run.

“Carefully!”

Stefan’s movements became noiseless.

Wisniewski turned to the sentry. “Go back to camp, giving the alert signal as you go. Colonel Sierakowski is in command there meanwhile. Tell him to start Plan C at once. I’ll be behind you.” The man repeated the instructions, saluted, and set off at a half-crouching, silent lope. Wisniewski let go Sheila’s wrist.

“I’ve bruised it,” he said gently, and lifted it to his lips. “Wait here,” he added. He walked quickly over to Jan, placed the gun carefully beside the bloodstained figure, paused for a moment as he picked the long feather out of Jan’s cap, and came back to Sheila. He stood for a little, looking down at the feather, his face grim, his eyes thoughtful. Then he took Sheila’s arm, and together they followed the sentry. A strange bird-call echoed in front of them, one that Sheila had never heard used before. It was the warning. She heard it again, far and faint, strident and harsh. She shivered slightly: it meant, perhaps, the end of the camp.

They covered the long journey in silence. The pace was too quick for any talking. The time was too late for explanations. Each hut, as they passed it, was empty. Ahead of them they heard the faint bird-call once more. Only Adam’s firm grasp gave Sheila comfort. The long journey seemed short and easy. With him, anything would be easy.

They were near the Lodge now. Already they could hear men’s voices, words of command, directions.

Wisniewski halted suddenly, and pulled Sheila round to face him. The grim look on his face softened. He was looking at her with the old smile, half mocking, half serious.

“This may be a false alarm,” he said quietly. He was holding her shoulders so that she was forced to look up at him. “But we can take no chances. If it isn’t, then you stay with the people in the camp, leave as they leave.”

“And you?”

“I’ll follow you later. Some of us must stay round the forest’s edge. If the Germans come we’ll retreat into its depths. If they follow us beyond Old Single, then Jadwiga’s story hasn’t worked, and we’ll have to do some shooting. By that time the camp will have dispersed. Each man knows where to go. You travel with Sierakowski.” He touched her hair. “Sheila, you will obey me?”

She nodded. Their arms were round each other. With her last, almost despairing kiss she told him what he had left unasked. He kissed her again, suddenly, this time gently. Then they were walking quickly towards the camp.

Sheila saw the men, in numbers which she hadn’t even guessed, standing silently among the trees. They were armed and waiting. A look of relief came to the watchful eyes as they saw the Chief. “He’s here,” some one called. There was the beginning of a shout which Wisniewski silenced. Sheila, standing against a tree, watched him move towards the Lodge. He had jumped up on a table pulled out at its door. She heard his voice, crisp, cool. She watched the faces around her, straining eagerly for his words. They knew the plan which had been prepared for this day, he told them. Each group of men had its orders, each man knew what he was to do. To Sheila, standing so watchfully, came the revelation of still another Adam. Sierakowski and the other officers beside him seemed pale, cold figures. Wisniewski had control of these men. He spoke well, because he spoke briefly, simply, honestly. He had their respect and their loyalty, not because of the form of his words, but because of the sincerity which lay behind them. Even at the end of his short speech, when his voice said clearly and slowly, “As for the event which may force us to leave this camp — I take full responsibility. But now my first duty is to see that we all get out of this mess. After that, when you are either in your new quarters or safely back here, you can appoint a new commander.”

Sheila missed a breath — and then relaxed as the men broke their silence with a derisive shout. “Pox to that,” a man beside her yelled. She could have hugged him in her relief.

Wisniewski said no more. He stood looking at the men for a moment, gave them a quick salute, and then leapt down from the table. The priest was speaking now. The men knelt. Under the arches of bared boughs, under the cold blue sky they knelt; their voices were like the voice of the wind through the trees, surging, unfathomable, free.

Now the men formed neatly, soldierwise, into prearranged groups, and the officers took their places with the men. And then the groups took their various directions into the forest. Adam had gone. Only the men who had been left to clear the camp remained. Sierakowski gave them their orders, standing beside the table outside the Lodge. There was a feeling of life and bustle, of great haste and urgency. Faces and voices were excited; movements were quick. But to Sheila the camp was already deserted.

She went towards the hospital hut. She heard Antoni’s voice saying, “Of all the damned nuisances…” as he packed a wooden case with his medical supplies in front of the door. There was Marian, giving instructions to a man fashioning a rough stretcher.

“Two will have to be carried all the way. Your men know what to do?”

“That’s why we’re here,” the man said abruptly, and silenced even Marian. Inside the hut Franziska was packing the last things. “Don’t worry,” she was saying to her patients. “We’ll get you out of the forest at night. You’ll stay hidden in one of the villages till you are well enough to join us again.” She glanced at Sheila and said, “Well, here’s a fine how d’you do! We’ve to begin all over again.” She was almost weeping with anger.

“What can I do?” Sheila asked.

“Help get the stuff over to the pits. We are hiding it there in case we have to move.”

Sheila seized a bark-covered bundle. “Where are the pits?”

“Follow the crowd,” Franziska said.

Antoni pointed out the way to her. “Over there through the trees. That’s our cache. Dog’s blood, isn’t this a damned nuisance? How the hell did it happen, anyway? Is it true Jan Pietka is dead?”

Sheila nodded. Marian quieted her husband’s language by saying, “Well, the Germans may not come. We may not have to leave this camp.”

‘Then we’ll have everything to take out of those holes in the ground again. I say it’s a damned nuisance, and that’s what it damned well is.”

Marian had no reply. It wasn’t often that Antoni left her with none. She looked suddenly at Sheila. “Here, I’ll give you a hand with that,” she said, and lifted one end of the bundle. But she had the sense and the kindness to keep silent as they carried the heavy load to the pit.

It was more of an underground cave than a pit. It had props to keep the roof from sagging, and the floor had been covered with boards to try to give it some dryness. Sheila and Marian watched their bundle stowed away with the few straw mattresses and furs and blankets.

“The hens are what I’m worried about,” Marian said. “I won’t have them killed until we get the signal to move out.”

“What about the goats and the horses?”

“The last of the rearguard will use the horses. It may give them a chance.” She stopped as she saw Sheila’s face. “Don’t worry. He’s got nine lives. He’s only used up five of them so far.” She took the girl’s arm. “Did you hear the men when he said he would resign the command? That’s why they are for him. He’s always first in and last out. He never asks one of us to do what he can’t do himself. Come on now. We’ll give Franziska a hand with parcelling up the wounded. They’ll have to be taken down near the edge of the forest right away. Can’t leave them to the last moment. Franziska’s going with them. Sort of funny, she’s leaving the way she came in. Didn’t she ever tell you?” And when Sheila didn’t answer Marian plunged into the epic of Franziska: how she, as a nurse, had driven a horse and cart filled with wounded just one step ahead of the Germans for over a hundred miles. At the end of the war she had reached this district. By that time only five men out of eleven were alive. “Machine-gunning, chiefly. Only those who could walk managed to get out of the cart in time to dodge. The villagers hid them, but after the war the enemy began searching the villages. So the villagers carried the five men here. Franziska came with them. Four of them are out in the forest now. The fifth one is that boy whose arm we had to amputate. That’s why Franziska’s worried about him. He’s been her special property, somehow.”

As they reached the hospital door Marian was congratulating herself on her ingenuity. She had talked without letting her tongue trip her up again. It may give them a chance. How could she ever have said such a thing? Good job Antoni hadn’t heard her.

Antoni’s temper had recovered. His round face creased in a wide grin. “Well, this will be a good dress rehearsal, anyway,” he said to them as he finished packing the box. He added, “Sheila, they’ve been asking for you. Over at the Lodge.”

He stood with Marian and watched the fair-haired girl turn silently and retrace her steps towards the Lodge.

“Now, what did you say to her? Only ten minutes ago her eyes were shining, and she carried her head bravely. Look at her now: she’s back to her worrying again.” Antoni’s voice was so sharp that Marian stared at him.

“Why, nothing at all,” she answered indignantly. She looked at the men carrying the camp equipment into the forest. “It’s going to be miserable sitting round waiting, without warm food or bedding until we get the signal to move. If we get it.”

Antoni let her change the subject. “You’re getting soft again,” he said teasingly. “All the luxuries we’ve been having have softened you.”

She looked down at her bare legs and broken shoes, at her darned skirt and her reddened hands. She drew the coarse shawl more closely round her shoulders. She smiled and said, “Do you ever think back to our flat in Warsaw, Antoni? I wonder how the new lace curtains are — and that new tiled stove we got last spring — and that pretty rug you bought me for the bedroom in July? Funny: we took ten years before we got all the things we wanted for our house. I had just got all the colours right, and the little extra tables, and you’d got the pictures you wanted and that new bookcase. And then the Germans came. And there’s a German doctor working in your office, with all the equipment we bought before we could buy my rose-covered chairs. And his family is sitting on the chairs now and eating off our good mahogany table and walking over my polished floors. His wife has my linen cupboard and all the rows of sheets and pillow-cases that I embroidered myself, every stitch of them. He’s got your X-ray apparatus and your instruments and all your notes on those special treatments you were giving your diabetics….” She paused. “Well, that’s the way it goes.”

Antoni took her roughened hand. “Do you ever wish you hadn’t come here with me when Wisniewski asked me?”

“Antoni! The idea!” And then she laughed. “Do you think I’d let you out of my sight with all these pretty girls around?”

Antoni curved his arm round the thickening waist and gave it a light squeeze. “That’s my Marian,” he said. “You’re the best and the prettiest girl in Poland. And that means in the world.”

“Antoni!” She gave him a rough quick embrace and pushed him away. The woman of forty laughed like a girl. “Just hope they remember to water the window plants,” she added.

Antoni stared at her. She was back in Warsaw again.

“You know what I wish, Antoni? I wish our home had been utterly destroyed by the bombs. There I was, patting myself on the back because we didn’t even have as much dust and splintered glass as our friends. Probably that’s the punishment I get for being so selfish — knowing that a German family owns it now.”

Antoni said, “Better see that each man knows what food to take with him. Look after the kitchen. I’ll finish this job here. Franziska has been wrapping up the wounded. They’re practically ready to go.”

“All right, my dear.” Marian moved off towards the kitchen. She halted and looked back for a moment. “Antoni, I’m going to get a haircut like Sheila’s.”

“No!” said Antoni. “You’ll do nothing of the kind.”

“It’s handier. And Sheila looks so pretty now, like a boy with long curls.”

“No,” Antoni repeated firmly. He started rolling up a mattress, covering it with a rug of rabbit skins.

Marian shrugged her shoulders, but there was a smile on her lips. She was humming to herself, a gay little polka tune, as she passed round the back of the Lodge to the place where the kitchen fires had been grouped. She looked through a window as she passed the Lodge. She had a glimpse of a thin-faced little man sitting on the edge of the table. She heard Sheila’s voice. There was something despairing in its tone.

Marian’s song stopped. Her step slowed.

At the ‘kitchen’ — three small, scattered pits, with large flat roofs, a thick, fallen trunk smoothed off as a table — she found Zygmunt and another man in charge. Near them a strange man and boy — their clothes still showing the signs of much travel — were eating some of the remains of last night’s supper and talking to Sierakowski between mouthfuls. They must be the newcomers who had arrived just before dawn along with that thin-faced little man. They looked half dead. Probably they had been pulled out of their sleep to come and eat while there was still time. A small, dishevelled dog was busily gnawing meat off a bone. He paused when Marian came up to the group and held the bone firmly between his paws, his head cocked to the side, his ears and eyes alert.

Marian laughed. “What’s this?” she asked half contemptuously.

The boy said defensively, “He needs a bath. He looks fine when he’s white. Only, he’s been travelling. As soon as I give him a bath he’ll look fine.”

“What next?” Marian said. “Children and dogs. What next?”

The stranger smiled, and the hard line of his jaw and gaunt cheeks softened. He had the strong body, the quiet, large-boned face of a countryman. But his voice was not the voice of a peasant. He was saying, “We’ve more travelling to do, I hear. I shouldn’t bathe him just yet, Casimir.”

“I want him clean before Sheila sees him,” said the boy. “She liked to see him clean. She was always telling me to go out and wash him.”

Marian said, “You aren’t that Casimir, are you? …Why, I know all about you! And this is that dog? Where’s Madame Aleksander then?”

The man answered. “In a village called Dwór just north-east of here. She had to rest. She’ll be brought along here in a day or two.” He paused. “At least, she was to have been brought here in a day or two. She’s a nurse.”

“Good. We shall need extra help, I expect.” Marian still couldn’t place the man. He wasn’t an Aleksander, and yet he seemed to know them all right. There was that touch in his voice. “Who are you?” she asked.

“Jan Reska. I used to live at Korytów.” There was a blankness about the words which said “And don’t ask any more questions.”

Sierakowski said, “After you’ve eaten you can help to get this kitchen eliminated. The thing to remember is not to destroy. Just remove things and hide them for future use.”

“I’ll show them,” said Marian. “I’m going to see no food gets wasted.”

“Good.” Colonel Sierakowski moved away.

Marian said quickly, “If you could, Colonel Sierakowski, would you look in at the Lodge?”

He halted and looked sharply at her serious face. “Very well, Pani Rozak.”

“Now,” Marian said, “well finish this job. And when everything’s done we’ll clean the dog. And you can tell me how you got here.”

“That’s a secret,” said Casimir. “We tried out a new way, and it worked,” he added, proudly.

“Did it, now?” Marian said. She lifted the wicker lids off the food-baskets, while the three men and the boy started to take the fire to pieces. Marian pulled out the food carefully. “Wonder what’s the best way to divide this up?” she called to them. “How much food do you think a Pole would be allowed to travel with nowadays? I’m not up in the new regulations. How much could each of us carry, without arousing suspicion if we were caught and searched?”

“Nothing,” Reska answered, “or next to nothing.”

“What, they don’t even let us eat nowadays?”

“Just enough to keep us from starving, not enough to let us live.”

Casimir yelled over, “The best way to carry it is in here.” He pointed to his stomach.

Marian stared at him. “I believe it is. We’ll have a big meal first, and pack what food is left after that. Here, Zygmunt, hobble round and tell every one to come here as soon as they’ve finished their jobs.”

Zygmunt said, “H’m. What about these bottles of vodka?”

“They will keep. We can hide them.” She relented. “You can each have a drink if Colonel Sierakowski allows it. That’ll keep you warm to-night. But the rest will be buried until we get back here.”

‘That’s a woman for you, always thinking of the future,” said Zygmunt in disgust. “To-day we’re here, to-morrow we’re dead. Why worry?”

Because, Marian thought, even if we are dead there will be others who will come after us; even if we die we’ve shown them the way, and they’ll follow it. The fight won’t stop just because we get killed. There are others who’ll take it up where we left off. There will be others who will come some day to use these supplies.

“Really now, you don’t say?” she mocked. Well, if you laughed loudly enough you didn’t weep. She started counting the food supplies once more. If one man got a leg of pheasant would he get as much as another who got a quarter of a rabbit? She began to sing the polka which had been running through her head all day. Somehow she couldn’t stop thinking about Sheila.

NEXT INSTALLMENT | ALL INSTALLMENTS SO FAR

***

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”

What do you think?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.