The Unconquerable (33)
February 13, 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!
In Warsaw Volterscot had helped her. Now he helped her again. He helped all of them.
The camp had finished its preparations: the surplus food had been eaten, the wounded men and Franziska had left to wait at the forest’s edge, the Lodge was once more alive. For to-night those who had been left in the camp were going to sleep here. Outside the air had the edge of fine steel. Inside the Lodge the waiting men, closely grouped as if from habit before the unlit fire, were at least sheltered from the wind. Their coats — roughly mended now, but still carrying the dark stains of battle — or blankets neatly folded and belted were round their shoulders. Their rifles were stacked at the door. Rations were in their pockets. Ammunition. They were ready to move. The feeling of tension slackened as their tired bodies rested, as the food they had eaten and their close grouping warmed them. There was the beginning of talk and laughter, of tall stories, of long discussions over the best routes to reach the mountains, over the best methods of dealing with German patrols. But on the subject of the unnecessary dangers which would face them if they were forced to move to the mountains before spring every one was silent; and by their silence the admission of danger was complete. Volterscot helped all of them. Whenever the voices lagged, whenever an unguarded face became moody or morose, there was always Volterscot. Obligingly and with his delighted good humour the little dog went through his tricks. And a dark face would lighten, an unexpected laugh would be forced to grim mouths. Even the tricks that failed brought applause. And Sheila, watching Casimir’s pleasure and Volterscot’s antics, could sit as quietly as if she were alone in this room.
Jan Reska, equally silent, sat beside her. He had chosen the seat purposely, so purposely that Marian had nudged Antoni and raised her eyebrows with deliberately comic emphasis. But Reska, after the first halting, undecided phrases, had said nothing more. Either he wouldn’t, or he couldn’t, mention Barbara. And if they talked they would talk about Barbara. It seemed as though Reska and Sheila each took comfort from the other, just sitting side by side, just saying nothing.
Stefan was asleep on the floor. He had brought back an encouraging report from the village. There were no Germans at the north edge of the forest at the time of the shot; a platoon had passed through there on the day before, but to-day there had been no Germans. Two of the villagers, out gathering wood, had heard the shot. So had a man who had taken refuge in the village. Jadwiga hadn’t sent him on to the camp, because he hadn’t known about it, didn’t ask for it, didn’t give any signs of knowing names or password. (“We are a very exclusive club, you see,” Sierakowski had said to Sheila with a smile. “No one becomes a member unless he is proposed and seconded.”) The man was still hiding in the village. He was looking for his wife and her young brother, who had gone to the south-east when they fled from Warsaw. He had traced them to this district. He had heard the shot and at first had been curious. But when Jadwiga gave him Stefan’s explanation he had accepted it. He seemed a dull, stupid kind of person. He was too worried, looking for his wife, to pay much attention to anything else. That was what Stefan thought after watching him in the inn kitchen. Anyway, even if the man were still curious about the shot he would keep silent. He was a Pole.
Sierakowski had been pleased with Stefan, and his grip on the boy’s shoulder had made Stefan happier. At any rate, the strained look on Stefan’s face had gone. He had eaten the food Sheila saved for him, had sat on the floor at her feet, and then the weight of his head had fallen against her knees, and he was deeply asleep. It was just as well for him to rest like that until Sierakowski, sitting near the shadows of the door beyond the small circle of candlelight, along with the thin little man in rough peasant clothes, gave the signal for them to leave.
Volterscot abandoned his audience and came over to Sheila. He still had the same little habit of holding her fingers gently in his teeth, while he paraded up and down before her at arm’s length. “See.” Casimir was saying, “he remembers you.” He watched Sheila’s face anxiously: and his wide grin was fading. “You’ve never noticed,” he challenged. He couldn’t conceal his disappointment.
“We washed him!” Marian called across to Sheila. With more heartiness than was necessary, she added “Alone we did it. Looks a real dog now. doesn’t he?” She pretended she hadn’t been watching Sheila’s face. She was joking now with Casimir, drawing the boy back to her and to Antoni, diverting his embarrassing attention. She had obviously taken a liking to Casimir, and Casimir, with the disarming confidence of a child, considered Marian already his friend. Sheila felt a gladness in her heart as she watched his face, old no longer. He was excited by every one, by everything. He was so happy he could scarcely sit still. Here, Sheila thought, he could begin to live again. Danger or discomfort didn’t matter to him now. Even they seemed fairly wonderful.
Zygmunt rose from the tight circle of men. His limp was controlled now, as though he were determined to prove his leg was fit once more. He was coming over to her. Specially. She saw that in his eyes, in the stiff way he held his usually fluent hands. She saw the group of men behind him watching him intently as though they were coming over to speak to her, too. They were a background of shadowy faces, strong, sad, violent faces. And then Zygmunt, standing before her, blotted out the watching heads. His voice was very quiet for such a large man.
“Wish I had lost that bet,” he began awkwardly. His gaunt face, looking more like a death’s-head than ever in the feeble candlelight, lost its hardness. “Don’t worry,” he said. “The priest went down to be with the body. We’ll give him a Christian burial as soon as this alarm’s over.”
She watched him rejoin his group of friends before she realized he was thinking of the dead Jan. After that she had a feeling of guilt whenever one of the men looked at her. They were giving her more credit than she deserved; they were thinking she was sitting quietly like this because of Jan. Even Marian thought that. Antoni’s friendly, comforting smile proved it.
She glanced at Olszak and Sierakowski, still talking as they waited. They had kept the secret of her leaving. Sheila thought bitterly, to-morrow some will guess why I went away, but none will guess the right answer. I shall be the English girl who deserted, just as Stefan will be the boy who put his family before his country. She looked at the sleeping boy, at the tired white face and the wild black hair and the large brown eyes hidden by the still eyelids. Sierakowski couldn’t have had the heart to tell him. Stefan wouldn’t be sleeping so deeply, so peacefully, if he had known he was to leave the camp. We shall be called deserters, she thought. It wasn’t a pleasant idea. Reska had noticed her expression, for suddenly and unexpectedly he began to talk of his journey with Casimir. They had left Warsaw secretly and travelled some fifty miles south-east to Nowe Miasto. There they had met Madame Aleksander, who had made a less direct journey. After the Nazis had questioned her in Warsaw she had been released. Surprisingly, there was no more interference. The Germans even gave her the necessary permission to leave the city for Cracow, where she wanted to see some relatives. She had travelled quite openly, third class of course, as all Poles had to do now, by a local train as far south as Radom, with the dog in her arms. She wasn’t going to abandon him in Warsaw. Then she had left the train quietly at Radom, where a ‘friend’ waited for her. She had then travelled back the thirty-odd miles north-west to meet Casimir and Reska, walking, riding in farm-carts, guided by a succession of ‘friends.’ She and the dog had arrived at Nowe Miasto just before Olszak appeared. Olszak had been as angry about the dog as Casimir had been delighted.
Then they had made their way towards the forest. It had been a journey much like Sheila’s — the same pattern of effort and pretence and exhaustion. Near the small village of Dwór Madame Aleksander’s strength had suddenly given out. They had left her there, at the little village inn, with Dwór’s Jadwiga keeping a close watch over her. “Madame Aleksander’s an extraordinary woman,” Reska finished. “Yet I used to be pretty scornful about her. Lady Bountiful, I used to call her. Then I saw her as a nurse when I was in hospital. Either people were different in times of peace, or we were all blind to one another’s possibilities.” He was silent for a
moment. “Take Wisniewski, for instance ——” He broke off suddenly. Perhaps he had remembered some camp gossip. Perhaps Sheila’s face was too polite.
She said, “In times of peace… What was peace, anyway, but a state of being left alone to use our own energies in our own way? Probably that was its weakness as well as its charm. We didn’t all choose to use our energies in unselfish, impersonal ways. People weren’t really different in peacetime. Now it is only the different ways in which they use their energies that make them seem changed.”
Reska nodded. He leaned his square-shaped chin on the strong hand with its red mouth of a wound scarring up into the frayed cuff of his army tunic. “The problem is to keep people using their natural energy in the right direction in times of peace, when there is no compulsion to use it in any direction except in their own way. The compulsion in war is one’s country. In peace it should be the State.”
“A confession of failure,” a man beside Reska said unexpectedly. “When one’s country, or the State, arranges what the individual citizen can’t or won’t do for himself, then it’s a confession of moral bankruptcy. Totalitarianism is an admission that the individual must be regulated and conditioned to be a good citizen. And that’s a confession of failure on the part of the citizens. They should be able to do it for themselves, without the State stepping in.”
“But there isn’t a country in the world that has such citizens.”
“No, but when a country has such citizens we shall at last see the perfect state. How to produce them? Education. Have teachers who are truly wise as well as clever, teachers who know all politics, possess no party beliefs, know and respect all great religions…”
The man’s voice continued, but Sheila’s eyes were on Sierakowski. He had been looking constantly at his watch. She felt his tension. Now he was rising to his feet. Now he was coming over towards Sheila and Stefan. Well, this was it, at last.
Sheila bent down and wakened Stefan gently. The boy was still yawning when Sierakowski stood before them. Looking up at the thin worried face, Sheila suddenly felt sorry for him. He wasn’t enjoying this, either. He was saying, “Stefan, you are to go down and meet your mother at Dwór. That’s where she is now. Miss Matthews will go too.”
Stefan looked startled. “Dwór?” he asked. “Why, I was only seven miles from there this afternoon.” And then he was following the colonel out of the Lodge with his questions. His mother, was she all right, when did she come, why hadn’t she finished the journey to the camp… ? Olszak had already disappeared. Zygmunt was walking to the door. Surely Zygmunt wasn’t going to be their guide down through the forest? Sheila, remembering his attempt to walk naturally, remembering his determination to visit Dwór, almost smiled. Suddenly she wanted to laugh. Hysterical, that’s what you are, she told herself angrily. She touched Reska’s arm — Reska still enlarging on education and a teacher’s qualifications — and said, “I have to go, too. Madame Aleksander.” Reska interrupted himself to look at her with surprise. Perhaps her explanation didn’t ring so very true, perhaps he was wondering why her lips were smiling while her eyes were all blurred with tears. She couldn’t see the others very clearly either now. She walked quickly away. Here it was, at last.
Sierakowski waited for her at the door. “Zygmunt takes you as far as Dwór,” he said quietly. “Olszak will then travel on to Warsaw, while you and Stefan and Madame Aleksander will be taken towards Cracow by easy stages. Outside Cracow you will be given your papers and suitable clothes. You will then find the journey easier. In three weeks’ time you will be in Switzerland.”
He followed her outside. The door was closed on Reska, on Marian, on Volterscot and Casimir, on all the friendly faces whose names she hadn’t learned to pronounce yet.
“Zygmunt’s leg ——” she began, to end the awkward silence.
“He can walk. If the Germans attack he might not manage a running fight. He’s safer in the village for a couple of nights. Anyway, he’s the one man here who knows every blade of grass on the way to Dwór.”
Sierakowski pushed a small revolver into her hand. “There are two schools of thought about this. Personally, I never go unarmed. You can always get rid of this in an emergency. It’s reliable for twenty yards, anyway. Six bullets.”
Sheila slipped the gun inside her blouse, tightened the skirt-band over it to hold it firm. Its cold weight at her waist reassured her. It was extraordinary how at this moment six bullets sounded so much more reassuring than Switzerland.
“Take no risks,” Sierakowski said. “We shall hear when you reach safety. I’ll depend on you for that news.”
Sheila pulled the heavy coarse black shawl more tightly round her shoulders. The night wind cut through the kerchief over her head. They were two pale ghosts walking under the moon’s blue light towards the forest path. She was still unable to give that last message. The wind, or something, had frozen her tongue.
“Good-bye!” Sierakowski lifted her cold hand and kissed it.
“Good-bye.” She hesitated.
She said, with painful inadequacy, “Take care of him. Please.”
“Yes,” Sierakowski said. She saw him smile. “Any other message?” he asked gently.
His eyes were on her face, as though they were photographing not its clearly moulded lines, not its smooth softness, but its intensity and honesty. Her face gave the message which her voice couldn’t.
“I’ll tell him,” he said slowly. He let her hand drop, and she was walking quickly towards the beginning of the forest path. She turned round once, just as she reached it. Sierakowski saluted her. He had forgotten the others until he heard Zygmunt say in amazement, “Is she coming too?” and Olszak say, not unkindly, “We must hurry now,” and Stefan say in a hurt, bewildered voice, “Sheila, we aren’t coming back. Did you know?” And then there was only the vast silence of the forest and the repeated coughing of the sentry outside the Lodge.
Sierakowski walked towards the empty hospital hut. No alarm yet. The Germans couldn’t have heard the shot. The boy Stefan’s report was probably true. He would know definitely when the two scouts he had sent down to the other near-by village returned to confirm it. To-morrow night the rest of the men would be back here. Wisniewski would be the last to come in.
“Do stu djablów,” he said with sudden vehemence, and ground out his half-finished cigarette.
Olszak and Zygmunt were in front. Sheila followed with Stefan. The dark forest closed round them. Bright stars pierced the bared branches above them. Last night they had laughed with her like the warm flames of Christmas candles. Now they were cold and impersonal. Last night the forest had been a magic place of warmth and life. Now its blackness was a pit of despair.
Zygmunt’s injured leg kept the pace steady and even, seemingly slow. But his knowledge of the path and its short cuts brought them to the forest’s edge without loss of time. In three hours they reached the plains. The last trees were behind them, the last outpost, the last bird-cries which signalled their going. The wind was stronger, the air colder, the moonlight clearer. Now they walked in Indian file, some distance apart, obeying their guide. Zygmunt’s knowledge of the most sheltered path to the village made the journey simple. He used every haystack, each tree, each windbreak, cunningly, skilfully. He brought them eastward round the village, towards its north side.
There, in the deep shadows of a wooden barn, with the sharp, frosted stubble cutting at their feet, he left them and entered the village from the north. He seemed to be part of the night, so difficult it was to follow his progress. Olszak, Stefan, and Sheila waited in silence. They waited unmoving, as though they were carved out of the rough wood against which they leaned. Only their eyes were alive, watching the sleeping village.
“No Germans,” Zygmunt whispered. He had come back from another direction, so that Sheila, startled, bit her lip and stifled a cry. Olszak looked pleased, as much at Zygmunt’s skill as at the good news.
“This is where we leave our weapons, in case we are surprised and searched in the village. Rule of the camp,” Zygmunt whispered. He was watching Sheila’s hand, which had travelled so quickly to her waist when she had bitten off that beginning of a scream. She relaxed her grip, but kept her hand at her waist and hoped it looked like a natural gesture.
“No weapons,” Olszak said. Two schools of thought — here was the other of them, Sheila reflected. She made no move.
“All right.” Zygmunt’s tone was brusque. Either he had no idea of Olszak’s importance or he didn’t care. Probably both facts were equally true; Zygmunt wouldn’t care even if he did know. “The girl goes with me. You two will follow. You know the inn.”
“Give us a hundred yards’ start,” Zygmunt said. He was still watching Sheila’s hand resting at her waist. But he said nothing more as he led her towards the village.
There weren’t more than twenty houses, squat and lumpish, although it was difficult to count the number, so haphazardly were they grouped together. Large, age-twisted trees, isolated remnants of the primitive forest that had once covered all this land, sheltered the sides of the cottages, or spread over the scattered barns and straw-covered root-houses. In daylight Dwór might have the charm of disarray (“a pig’s breakfast” Uncle Matthews would have said), but by night it was bewildering. Bewildering, but safe. Sheila felt more confident as she followed Zygmunt’s tortuous course. It was almost midnight now. The villagers were probably abed; certainly no lights showed.
Zygmunt saved her in time from the cold water of a communal duck-pond, guided her across the narrow stone causeway of a lurking stream. They had reached the centre of Dwór, a little open space too small to be called a village square. At one side was the tiny wooden church sheltering its cupola and cross under the protecting branches of its trees. At the other was the squat gable-end of a house and the beginning of a narrow road, its ruts of mud now crusted by frost. The road wandered westward. It was Dwór’s one link with the world outside.
They paused under the church’s covered gateway. Then, following the trees round the open space, they reached the gable-end house. The inn. A very glorified title, thought Sheila. Or did people once stay here on hunting trips in the forests? Now it seemed as dead as the other village houses.
But she was mistaken. Some one had been waiting for them. The door at the left of the gable opened slowly and quietly. Quietly and slowly it closed behind them. “Careful,” a woman’s voice whispered.
They were standing in a dark, narrow hall, running the whole length of the house, like a corridor in a train with the rooms as its compartments. The blackness at first numbed Sheila’s eyes, and then, as the woman began to move silently towards a panel of light near the end of the corridor, Sheila could distinguish the deep shadows which were the recesses of other doors. Five, she counted; four solidly closed. Through the nearest one, the one almost opposite the entrance to the house, she could now hear a murmur of voices. A laugh added itself to the murmur, so suddenly that her grasp tightened on Zygmunt’s arm and her body stiffened. He patted her shoulder gently. She followed the woman. The floor was either stone or hard-packed earth, for there were no creaking wooden boards to betray them. Zygmunt had a wonderful bedside manner, she was thinking as they stepped into the panel of light: the right mixture of domination and reassurance. The woman — she was young, Sheila now saw, with a round, pleasant face and a strong body — closed the door behind them, and they were in a small room.
How warm it was, Sheila thought, although the small wood stove now gave little heat from its low night fire. And how bright! It seemed a long time since she had seen a room as small as this one lit by a lamp.
Madame Aleksander had risen from the bench beside the stove. She looked smaller, somehow, and thinner. Her hair was completely white. But there was still that strange blue light in her eyes.
“Sheila!” she said in surprise and then in delight. “I didn’t know you were coming to meet me.” She was watching Sheila’s face closely. “Something’s wrong,” she added quietly. “Something’s happened to Stefan.”
“No,” Sheila said quickly. “No. Not Stefan. He’s all right. He will be here any moment.” She looked towards the girl who had waited for them at the door. Zygmunt had her firmly round the waist, and her feet were dangling. She was scolding him for being late, and he was interrupting each phrase with a well-placed kiss. He set her down on her feet again.
“Two more, milady,” he said to her. “That old fellow who was here last night and a boy. Quick.” He helped her out of the room with a neatly timed smack with the palm of his hand. As he came over to the stove there was a wide, happy grin all over his ugly face. The three of them sat down on the bench and looked at the half-open door. They hadn’t to wait long. Ourof the corridor’s shadows the girl’s smiling face appeared, still flushed and happy, then the more sombre countenance of Olszak, and, last of all, Stefan.
The door was safely closed. Mr Olszak and Sheila had drifted together naturally, as if driven by the emotions they felt all round them. He watched Madame Aleksander and Stefan with a strange sadness, and then looked at Zygmunt and the girl with almost a smile. “Yes?” he asked Sheila, so suddenly that she said what she had been thinking.
“I’ll never know what you really feel, Mr Olszak.”
He took her hand gently. “That’s just as well,” he said. “Do you still hate me as much as you did this afternoon?”
“I believe I don’t,” she said, with some surprise at her own calm voice; “I think you meant well.”
Mr Olszak grimaced and dropped her hand. “That’s the most damning praise of all,” he replied. “But, like most clichés, it is true.” He watched her again. “After all,” he went on, “you’ve been a big personal responsibility, you know. Your father would have expected me to do as I’ve done. And he would have expected you to do as you have done, too. It is strange how much you resemble him, in every way. He had a great capacity for self-sacrifice.”
And that, thought Sheila miserably, makes me seem wilfully selfish if I ask Mr Olszak to change his decision. The request had been on the tip of her tongue. She looked at him and began to laugh.
“No, no. Not that. Please.” Mr Olszak really looked unhappy. He turned to the astonished Zygmunt and his girl.
“Now, before I leave,” Mr Olszak was saying, “where’s your mother? Any Germans appear?”
“No Germans,” the girl replied. “My mother’s in the front room. She’s with Zak and Peter and a stranger.”
“Another recruit?” said Zygmunt. “Fine, bring them all along.” But the girl didn’t share his light-heartedness.
“He doesn’t know anything about the camp. He wasn’t sent here by any of our friends. But he was asking about the forest. My mother got Zak and Peter to give him some drinks in the front room. She’s just making sure of his story.”
“How does that stand up?”
“It’s true, I think. I feel sorry for him. He’s had a pretty hard time of it.”
“What about me, Kati? Haven’t I had a hard time of it?” Zygmunt clipped her broad waist expertly.
Kati laughed and pushed him away.
“That’s right, Kati,” said Olszak, with an unexpected smile. “Business before pleasure. Have you some one here to take these people to Nowe Miasto?”
“Peter,” said the girl; “but he’s in the bar too.”
Olszak consulted a cheap, battered-looking watch tucked into a disreputable waistcoat-pocket. “I don’t want to leave until I see them begin their journey,” he said, as if to himself. “But I may have to.” He bit his lip. “Damn the man for coming at this time. To-morrow night he could have drunk Peter under the table for all I care.”
Madame Aleksander said slowly, “Michal… what is all this? What journey? The forest isn’t far away.”
“We aren’t going there,” said Stefan. His mouth was a straight line. His large dark eyes were angry, mutinous.
Madame Aleksander sat down once more. “Just what are we doing, Michal?”
Olszak walked over to her. He was sitting beside her, talking quickly in his low precise voice. Yet, to Sheila watching them, there was a softening of the hard lines of his face, an earnestness mixed with gentleness that revealed more about the man than she had ever guessed. There was only one person to whom Olszak was vulnerable. That was Madame Aleksander. “I’ve known him for years,” she had once said. She had concealed a lot in that simple understatement; she wasn’t the kind of woman to flaunt her past conquests. Watching them, Sheila realized the incredible: Olszak had once been in love. He had lost. Madame Aleksander had chosen to forget about it. But he was always aware that she had never reminded him of his defeat, and her power had increased instead of diminishing. Even now she was unaware of it, and Olszak had to fight twice as hard because of that. Sheila, watching them, was suddenly hopeful.
“No, Michal. Really no: I will not leave Poland. If I die I die here.” Madame Aleksander turned to Stefan. “And would you have me take him away to safety, to a country where he would be separated from all the other boys of his age? Where he would grow apart and come back to find himself out of touch with them, even an intruder? He cannot share honourably in the peace if he hasn’t suffered equally in the war. Can he?”
Stefan’s reply was to give his mother a wild embrace. Madame Aleksander tried to free herself from his arms. She still had something to say, and it was difficult. It wasn’t only Stefan’s bear-like hug that made her words halting, breathless.
“And I must be here, so that little Teresa or Marta or Andrew will, find me here if they escape. They would need me. So I shall stay. And Stefan stays. As for Sheila” — Madame Aleksander was in control of her voice again — “as for Sheila, perhaps she ought to go. There’s her uncle, for one thing. For another, this isn’t her country, and she’s done more for us already man we had any right to expect.”
Sheila’s hope was gone once more. “There are no countries any more,” she said slowly. “Just people. People who are on your side or people who are against you.”
“But, Sheila, why don’t you take this chance of going away? You have friends who are waiting for you, who want to see you. Your uncle.” And then, hesitatingly, shyly, “And there’s Mr Stevens.”
“Yes,” Sheila said. So Olszak hadn’t told Madame Aleksander about Adam Wisniewski. She looked at him bitterly. He pretended to be examining his watch.
“Every time you women change your minds,” he said irritably, “I lose an hour.”
“But I haven’t changed my mind, Michal,” Madame Aleksander protested. “I always meant to stay here.”
“Then you intend… ?”
“To go to the camp, help with the nursing and cooking and sewing and mending and weaving and cleaning.” She turned to Zygmunt. “You can take us back when you return, can’t you?”
Zygmunt looked at Sheila. “Her too?” he said, with a wide approving grin spreading over his face.
“No,” Mr Olszak said firmly. “Peter will take her to Nowe Miasto. From there she will go to Radom by the way Madame Aleksander came. At Radom she will be hidden until her papers and clothes and story are all ready.”
Madame Aleksander was still watching Zygmunt’s face. Then she looked quickly at Sheila.
“I seem to have misunderstood something,” she said. Then very quickly, “Michal, did you tell me everything?”
Olszak said rapidly, “There’s hardly time now. When I visit the camp again I can tell you all the details. The important thing now is to find that Peter.”
Kati said, “I’ll get him out somehow. Come on, Zygmunt, you can take his place in the front room. Better knock at the door as if you’d just come in. I’ll be there to welcome you. You’re my young man over here on a visit from Opoczno.”
“That’s right. I’m your young man,” said Zygmunt.
She looked at his laughing eyes and evaded his arm. “None of that in the corridor,” she warned. “Not until you’ve knocked at the front door, and I’ve let you in.” They left the door half open. Kati waited there until Zygmunt had reached the front entrance and given a cautious knock. Then they heard her footsteps walking along the corridor.
“Clever girl,” said Olszak approvingly. “How did Zygmunt let her know that we had arrived?”
“By the window. He knocked there gently. I didn’t even hear it. But she did. She had been expecting him all the evening. She put out the light and opened the shutters. They talked in whispers. Then he went away. And she waited in the corridor. It sounds simple now, but it really was quite a strain. For me, anyway. Kati doesn’t seem to worry. She has no nerves at all. And no fears.”
Mr Olszak put a finger to his lips, went over to the door to close it gently. He paused. For the front door had been opened by Kati. Her voice was welcoming. There was a smothered laugh, a stifled squeal. Zygmunt was going into action. A man who must have come out into the corridor from the front room said boisterously, “Well, who’s this? All safe? No Germans? Thought I’d better make sure.”
Kati was explaining now.
The voice said, “Come in, come in and have a drink. Come on, fellow. You’ll need it if you’ve been doing any travelling. What’s the news?”
Other voices, more distant, more blurred, said, “Come on, Zygmunt.”
Zygmunt was saying, “Never refuse a drink or a pretty girl.” There was laughter. Then the voices, the laughter, the sound of footsteps were shut inside the front room. In the corridor there was silence, darkness. All that remained was the mixed smell of pinewood and boiled cabbage.
Mr Olszak finished closing the door. ‘That wasn’t Peter who spoke,” he said. “Was it Zak?”
Madame Aleksander said, “No; it must be the stranger. He sounded cheery. I’m glad. His story is so sad.”
“You’ve met him?”
“Oh, no. I’ve been kept in here. He only came this evening. But Kati heard it, and she told me. He’s lost his wife and her young brother. They were refugees. He can’t find either of them.”
“That’s the man I met this morning,” said Stefan. “He was in Zorawno then.”
Olszak was watching Sheila. “Yes?” he asked.
She shook her head. The rough voice from the corridor had been familiar: a note, an inflexion… Something so vague, so distant… yet faintly disturbing. She shook her head again. “Nothing definite,” she said. “Just…”
She sat down on a bench and imagined the voice once more. “Come in and have a drink. Come on… What’s the news?” The harder she tried to catch it, the farther it slipped away. She looked up at the observant Olszak. “Nothing,” she said. “Just a very faint imagination.”
“Which was he?” Olszak said. “Anxious or curious?”
The two women and the boy looked at him in perplexity.
Madame Aleksander said, “You don’t trust this man?”
Olszak sat down on a bench. “Until I find out more about him I shall have to stay here.” He looked sharply at Madame Aleksander. “You were followed as far as Radom after you left Warsaw.” She looked so amazed that he smiled. “Why else do you think the Germans gave you such quick permission to leave Warsaw, after questioning you? But we took great care you wouldn’t be followed from Radom to this district. The only thing is the dog. He could easily have given you away. That was why I was angry about the dog, Teresa.”
Madame Aleksander looked crushed. “Casimir was so happy to see him. Besides, I couldn’t abandon him in Warsaw again. I couldn’t do that, not even to a dog.” Then her voice brightened. “But he was hidden for most of the journey from Radom to here. Inside bundles, inside jackets, covered with rags on the bottom of carts. He wasn’t allowed to run along after us. Your men saw to that.”
“You are positive no one saw him?”
“Only the people with whom I stayed. And you trust them.”
“Yes. Then the Pole who is looking for his wife and brother- in-law may be looking for his wife and brother-in-law after all. Perhaps ——” he silenced them with his hand. The front- room door had opened, then the entrance door.
“Some one’s going out,” Olszak said. Other footsteps were running lightly along the hall. Kati entered and held the door open for a man.
“Here’s Peter,” she said. “Zygmunt is taking the man out for” — she glanced at Madame Aleksander — “for a walk. He’s showing him the barn where he can sleep to-night. They’ll be back soon.”
She was gone, leaving Peter, tall, red-faced, blue-eyed, waiting for Olszak to speak. He shuffled his feet in their clumsy high boots, rubbing his square chin with a very large, very red hand, and then scratched his wrinkled brow uncertainly. The straight, straw-coloured hair bristled like a haystack. On the broad face was a fluctuating smile. Peter swayed a little, the smile vanished, and then reappeared. He walked towards the bench with a slight list and rather too much determination. His audience looked at each other in dismay. Olszak said coldly as the bench grunted beneath Peter’s sudden weight, “Peter, I’m afraid you’re drunk.”
Peter shook his head. “Not drunk,” he said. “Other fellow’s drunk. Not Peter. Not drunk. Just tired.”
“Then I hope he’s drunker than you are.”
Peter looked so shamefaced that Sheila wanted to laugh.
“Then what did you find out about him?” Olszak went on. “Or can’t you tell us?”
Peter wiped his face with his hand as though to drive away sleep from his eyes. “Nothing. He’s looking for his wife and her young brother. That’s all.”
“Didn’t he talk?”
“Plague on it, didn’t he talk? He talked us all under the table.”
Olszak continued his questioning. Peter, making an effort, concentrated. And he achieved something. The answers were slow, but conclusive. The man was looking for his wife. Once he had asked about the forest: was there good hunting here? Mostly they had talked about the war, about what the future held for them. Zak had asked him what he was going to do: was he going to fight on? The man — Ryng was his name; yes, that was it, Ryng — had said he was going to find his wife first. After that he’d know what to do.
Even Olszak was satisfied. “He didn’t ask about a white dog, did he?”
Peter looked surprised. “No,” he said very decidedly. “No. No dog.”
Olszak was pacing the small patch of floor. “Well,” he said at last to Madame Aleksander, “this man Ryng isn’t interested in either you or the camp. That’s one good thing.” He turned to Sheila. “But I’m afraid I chose an unlucky night for your guide. You will have to wait until to-morrow night before you leave. When Zygmunt takes Madame Aleksander and Stefan back to the forest, then you will go with Peter. He should be fit by that time.” Olszak gave Peter a bitter look and received an apologetic grin in return.
“I’ll be all right. Just tired. Sleep,” said Peter. He curled himself comfortably, if somewhat precariously, on the bench, pillowing his cheek on his arm.
“Not in here,” said Olszak, and with unexpected strength he pulled the half-sleeping man towards the door. “Sleep it off in the front room,” he said, with a final push on the man’s shoulder, which sent him lumbering down the hall. “Fool,” he added.
“You forget men aren’t trains. They can’t be made to run on time, Michal,” said Madame Aleksander. He didn’t answer. He stood at the door, listening.
Kati was helping Peter into the front room. And Zygmunt and Ryng were re-entering the house. Olszak waited until the babel of sound in the corridor had ended before he left the door. He was looking at his watch again.
“This is really most regrettable,” he said. He went over to Sheila unexpectedly. “I would take you to Nowe Miasto myself. But by to-morrow night I have to be near Warsaw. There’s a meeting which I must attend. I simply cannot come with you.”
“I’ll go with Peter to-morrow. It will be safe enough then. We’ll take care.” Mr Olszak was watching her, measuring her lifeless face and the quiet voice. She would do as she had said.
“Good. Remember, after Radom the journey will be pleasanter.”
“Where do I go from there?” Again that quiet acceptance. He felt angry with himself. His voice was all the colder.
“To Cracow. Then to Vienna. By train. Your story and papers will reach you at Radom, where you will be hidden until they arrive. In three weeks’ time you should be ——” He paused. He took her hand. “You must take care. You have suddenly become twice the responsibility you once were. I shall be held doubly answerable for you now.” His eyes were half laughing, half serious. For the first time since she had known him Mr Olszak seemed completely human.
Sheila smiled back. I don’t know why I like you at all, she was thinking. I should hate you: and yet I cannot. I don’t know why I should smile for you, except that I know you want me to. She said, “Yes.”
He kissed her hand and quickly turned away. “Trust is the most powerful flattery,” he was saying in a low voice to Madame Aleksander. “She weakens my resolution, that girl.”
“Michal, what have you been doing?” Madame Aleksander challenged him.
“Playing the thankless role of father,” he answered.
Together they looked at Sheila. But the girl wasn’t listening to them. She had walked over to the high bed which stood in the corner of the room. She was standing before the little shelf beside it, with its two small candles under the carved figure on its cross. She was watching the hollow cheeks, the deep eyes, with a strangely curious detachment.
“What is it, Sheila?” Madame Aleksander asked at last. Sheila turned to face her slowly. Then she became alive as she noticed the room again. Olszak had left.
“He’s gone?” she said quickly. And no reprieve. No last-minute reprieve. The last faint hope flickered and died.
“Come here, Sheila,” Madame Aleksander took her hand and led her to the bench. “Now the simplest thing is to begin at the beginning.”
But Kati had come back to the room. Her round pink face looked as if she were going to cry.
“Peter’s dead asleep,” she announced vehemently. “And Zygmunt’s getting louder and louder. Everything’s going wrong.”
“Provided Zygmunt doesn’t talk about the camp…” Sheila began.
“He’s not doing that. He and Ryng are just telling stories.”
And Kati is temporarily forgotten, Sheila thought. She said, “Peter passed out very suddenly. Does he always do that?”
“Usually he’s careful when he knows there’s a job to do. It must have been that last drink Ryng dared him to take. He said it was dynamite. Peter didn’t believe him.”
“But it was?” Sheila felt suddenly very wide awake. “Ryng gave him a drink? How? I thought you were serving Ryng drinks?”
“Ryng had a flask of his own.”
“Oh.” Sheila exchanged glances with Madame Aleksander. “Kati, you’d better get back to that room and watch that flask.”
Kati looked at them. “Why can’t I have just one quiet evening nowadays with my sewing?” she asked plaintively. “Just one?” Only Stefan didn’t understand.
Madame Aleksander watched the closing door. “The Germans have taken our food, but they let us have plenty of cheap drink. They’ve taken away our guns, but they let us carry flasks,” she said bitterly. Then she noticed Stefan’s heavy head and sagging shoulders. From the bed she lifted one of the solid pillows, straightened his body on the hard floor, cushioned his head. She pushed back the thick black hair from his brow and kissed him gently. He was already asleep.
She rose to her feet, her hands straightening the mended skirt, the darned shawl, smoothing the white softness of her hair. She looked round the strange room.
“How lucky I am,” Madame Aleksander said. “I still have Stefan and Stanislaw.” She paused before the crucifix. “The Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away. Blessed be the name of the Lord,” she said. She crossed herself slowly.
She came towards Sheila, tears for the first time in her blue eyes. She clasped the girl suddenly, and Sheila felt all her self-imposed barriers dissolving like the grey-edged ice of a glacier.
“Now,” said Madame Aleksander, putting aside her own worries and troubles, “we’ll begin at the beginning.”
* Do stu djablów — A hundred devils.
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”