The Unconquerable (35)
March 1, 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!
Dittmar had won that round, and he had won it entirely by the force of surprise. The first moment, when some one might have had a chance to snatch the initiative away from him, was gone. Now they were standing, controlled by the large, efficient pistol, along one wall of the room. Amazement gave way to a feeling of foolishness as they stared at the man opposite them. Dittmar leaned against the little table near the door. His eyes and mouth were as determined and ruthless and impersonal as the Luger. He was in complete control.
He consolidated his gain effectively. The emotionless voice said, “Any move by any one of you, or a shout for help, and I aim for Kati. Any move from Kati, and I shall blow a hole in her Zygmunt. At this range, a Luger doesn’t leave much of a face.”
He looked at them in turn, made himself comfortable on the table, and his mouth loosened into a pleased grin; but the hand and the eyes never relaxed.
“Some friends of mine are due here this morning. You won’t have very long to wait.”
“You’re lying,” Sheila challenged him. “You haven’t got any word out of this village. There’s no ’phone working from here or from Zorawno.”
“What a clever girl you are,” he answered mockingly. “Three days ago, before I reached Zorawno, I was in touch with my assistant — but, of course, you’ve met him. You remember Hefner? Well, Hefner had found traces of an old woman and a little ragged dog as far as Nowe Miasto. Three days ago it seemed that we had both come to an impasse; now Hefner will have quite a lot of surprises. He’s reporting to me here to-day. For before I left Zorawno to come to this God-forsaken hole I gave a message to a helpful farmer to take to Nowe Miasto on market-day. That message would reach Hefner last night.” His tone changed. The words were like flint now. “Incidentally, if you have any stupid ideas about attacking me please abandon them. Herr Hefner will want to know the reason why I am not here waiting for him. And he comes officially, not in this kind of fancy dress.” Dittmar pointed to his stained and torn suit of cheap, poor cloth. “And there will be others with him. This village will be another example of what the disobedient can expect — if you try any little tricks.”
“You are boring us,” Kati said. “Your voice is as bad as your breath.”
“You keep quiet. You’ll answer when I come to ask you questions.”
“Shall I indeed?” said Kati. “Just you wait until Zak warns the village. They’ll deal with you and have answers ready for your uniformed friend.”
“Zak will not warn the village.” His smile was as confident as his voice was decisive.
Even Kati was silent now.
“Interesting district, this,” Dittmar went on. “Where were the old woman and the boy going, I wonder?” He paused, and then added, “To the forest where you came from, my little cousin Magda?”
Sheila didn’t answer him.
“For you came from there, didn’t you?”
Sheila looked at the others, pretended to smile, tried to look as if she were secretly pleased by the question. Let him waste time on the forest, was the implication: that’s all right as far as we are concerned. We all know there’s nothing there.
“I told you once before, cousin Magda, that you would go far with the right boss. I didn’t know then that you were on the wrong side, that the only end for you would be either your back against an execution wall or a soldiers’ brothel. If you don’t talk you’ll get both.”
She was silent.
“Come on, now. You could give me just a few facts. You could tell me about Kordus. You could tell me about Herr Hofmeyer, for he’s in this too, isn’t he? You could tell me who has been hiding you in this district, and where you could hide when you weren’t to be found in any of its villages. If you told me just those few facts you could spend the rest of the war in a prison camp. That’s quite pleasant compared with other places.”
No one answered him. There was a restless look in Zygmunt’s eye. He was planning something.
“Come on, now, Magda. Or do you prefer to be called Anna; or is it Sheila?”
Sheila thought, If I keep him talking, perhaps Zygmunt can work out whatever he’s planning. She said, “You take a great deal for granted. How do you know that Madame Aleksander and her son have left here? Perhaps you are being too clever.”
“People carrying a bundle are not out for morning strolls. Or is it usual that a man accompanies them to the end of the village, or waits there until he sees them safely out of sight behind a stretch of trees leading south — where there are no more villages, no more houses, merely forest? Is it usual that the man runs back to tell the others in the inn? Not, that is, if the woman and the boy have been only taking a morning stroll.”
He watched Peter’s openly crestfallen face with increasing amusement. Like all winners, Dittmar couldn’t help pointing out the loser’s weakness. “The mistake you made was to think that I should be content to sit in a barn with Zak blocking the door so innocently.” Now he was laughing at Zygmunt. “Or to think that I should never imagine you might suspect me. That incident in the hall was unfortunate for me in one way. If it hadn’t happened I should now be sitting peacefully in a cabbage patch, and the woman Aleksander and her son would no doubt have been still here, waiting with you all in this house — until my friends arrived. We’d have got you with no effort at all. But, in another way, the hall incident was fortunate.” He shook his head slowly at Kati. “Your cousin had very slender bones for a country girl. Her hands were very smooth for cleaning out a bar. Except for one hand.” He looked at Sheila now. “The left one. The skin was still healing.”
Sheila took a deep breath.
“Did you think your boy’s hair would cheat me?” Dittmar asked her derisively. Then his voice sharpened. “Keep still there!” He rested the Luger on his left forearm. His eyes narrowed.
Zygmunt’s body stiffened and obeyed.
“I am going to drop my arms. Otherwise I shall faint,” Sheila announced. Twenty paces, Sierakowski had said when he had given her the gun. If she could only lower her arms, pretend to rest one hand casually at her waist, near her heart.
“Keep them up. Higher. Quite the English little miss, aren’t you? Men at Fort VII have stood in ice-cold rain with their hands above their heads all through the night. Don’t tell me that you patriots here are less patriotic than they were.”
Through the half-open shutter came the sound of a village stirring into life. A woman singing as she worked; children’s voices laughing, quarrelling, calling to each other, the noise of a wooden-wheeled cart lumbering slowly away.
Sheila looked at the rafters above her head, at the bright paper flowers and stencilled patterns along the whitewashed wood. Zygmunt, she felt, was going to do something desperate. She looked at the others. Did they know that when Zygmunt moved they must all move, or else be mowed down like ripe corn in a harvest field? If they all moved, all attacked at once, two would perhaps be killed. Dittmar wouldn’t have time to shoot more than that in a room of this size. If they all acted together… Looking at their faces — Jadwiga, thin, wrinkled, impassive, her bright eyes steady; Kati, an angry scowl drawing her straight, thick brows into an ugly fold; Peter, stolid, expressionless almost to the point of stupidity; Zygmunt, his weight balanced on his uninjured leg, his dark face brooding, his eyes restless — Sheila knew they were waiting, waiting for the right moment. Zygmunt would give it to them: Zygmunt, who was no doubt cursing his wounded leg at this moment.
The tension increased in the silent room. Dittmar felt it too. His eyes narrowed once more, his watchfulness tautened.
Sheila’s eyes closed. Perhaps in that way the hard face opposite her wouldn’t be able to read her thoughts. For she had the beginning of a plan. If only Zygmunt wouldn’t make his move until she managed it. If she could give a good imitation of a faint just the moment before Zygmunt moved, then Dittmar’s eyes might for one moment be off guard. And from the floor she could use her revolver; and that was something Dittmar would not expect. Dwór, like every village and town in Poland, had been looted of its guns; even the possession of a child’s toy revolver had been enough to condemn a man to the firing squad. Last night Dittmar had obviously discovered that neither Peter nor Zygmunt was armed.
Sheila looked sideways at Zygmunt. Yes, he had noticed her expression. She hoped he understood it. And now her arms sagged, she swayed on her feet, one hand went to her brow.
“Keep your hands up!”
Dittmar’s voice was worried and angry.
A slow faint — that would have to be the way. Dittmar didn’t want to shoot her yet. He wanted to question her. Knees bending, head bending, and then a relaxing of her body until it could sprawl forward and lie inert. Not too violently— no point in knocking herself out cold on that hard floor, still less in falling on the gun — just like this… on her left side… leaving the right arm free…. She let her body sag forward…. Her left shoulder struck the ground with a sharp shock.
The Luger’s crash seemed to split her ears. Peter’s leap finished in a stumble, and then his body huddled almost at Dittmar’s feet. It had been Peter and not Zygmunt — Peter standing so quietly, so stupidly — who had fully understood Sheila’s pretence. Zygmunt, a fraction of a minute too late, dropped, as a second bullet was fired. Sheila fumbled for her gun. Her waistband held it too securely. She tugged at it secretly, desperately, as Jadwiga and Kati rushed Dittmar. A third crash, and Jadwiga’s hand let the uplifted candlestick fall. Kati alone had reached Dittmar, Kati unarmed, Kati hitting and kicking and clawing. Dittmar wasn’t shooting any more. He could handle two women. They must be kept alive, or he wouldn’t get his information. He smashed his fist into Kati’s face and, as she reeled, kicked her heavily in the stomach. The girl lay half gasping, half moaning, her body in a rigid angle of pain. Dittmar looked down at her, kicked twice again. The small strangled cries were silenced.
“That accounts for her meanwhile,” Dittmar said. He looked towards the other girl. She was raising her head and shoulders now, supporting her body with one hand flat on the floor. The other hand was covered by the wide-spreading shawl. She looked white and weak and terrified. Dittmar’s calm voice said, “A little of the same will keep you quiet, too, my friend.” He walked over to her slowly. He was quite confident.
Sheila fired two bullets. The floor splintered beside her as the Luger cracked once more. At least she had spoiled Herr Dittmar’s aim. His astonished face suddenly became quite expressionless. A shoulder tilted, an elbow dug into his left side. His rigid body listed sideways and then pitched forward.
Sheila moved away from the sprawling arm that pointed towards her. He must be dead. One in the stomach, one at his heart. Two bullets. A third, to make sure? This time she found herself turning her head away and half closing her eyes as she pressed the gun to his ear and pulled the trigger. She noticed her hand was beginning to tremble. Dropping the gun, she walked unevenly over to the bench by the door. Her whole body was trembling now, as though racked by some fever. It wouldn’t, couldn’t stop.
Outside, the sounds of the village had given way to a startled silence. There was a long pause. Then a shout broke the silence, unleashed the alarmed voice and the running footsteps. She could hear the movement of people round the window, the movement of people along the corridor. Behind it all was the rustle of questions. “What is it?” “What’s wrong?” “What’s happened?”
The door opened, and a white-haired man in shirt-sleeves, with his cap on the back of his head and a scythe held as a weapon in his hand, stood looking at her. And then at the room. And then at her again. A black-robed priest entered. His quick glance passed over Jadwiga and Peter and rested on Zygmunt. He knelt beside him, holding Zygmunt’s shattered leg tightly above the knee.
“Call Tomasz,” he said to those who tried to press curiously through the doorway.
“Tomasz — Where’s Tomasz? — Tomasz, you’re needed!” — the voices echoed.
Sheila rose, and the man with the scythe tightened his grip. She went over to Kati, knelt beside her. She was afraid to lift her or to try to straighten the unconscious body.
“What can we do for her? She wasn’t shot. He kicked her insensible,” she heard herself say.
The man with the scythe laid its sharp blade carefully against the wall. He took off his hat and crossed himself as he passed Peter and Jadwiga. He stood beside Sheila, equally worried and useless.
“What’s wrong here?” a woman’s voice said sharply from the door. She pushed her way past the two old men guarding the entrance and then stood aghast. A tall, thin-faced man followed her, hurried over to the kneeling priest. By the way he handled Zygmunt’s leg Sheila judged he must know something about doctoring. This must be Tomasz.
She called over to him unhappily. “Kati has been kicked in the body. She’s unconscious. What can we do?”
“Leave her there till I can look at her,” Tomasz said sharply. He was tearing his shirt into strips, winding them tightly round Zygmunt’s leg above the knee.
The woman’s stupefied horror broke. She gave a scream, rushed to the window. ‘They’re dead, they’re all dead! They’ve been killed!” The villagers outside were shocked into silence, and then the chorus of voices began.
“How? How? What happened?”
There was restlessness in the corridor outside. The people wanted to see for themselves. The priest rose and took the woman’s arm, quietening her. “Zofia,” he said, “unless you want to stay and help, you must leave.” To the people pressing against the window he said, “There has been violence and death in this house. Some of its people have been killed some injured. We do not yet know how. Be patient, my children. We will find out.”
Once more there was silence.
Zofia crossed her arms and rocked herself slowly. She was weeping now. She looked down at Kati’s mother, whom Sheila had known only as “Jadwiga.” “Aunt Katarzyna,” she moaned. And then, “Peter too. And the stranger who came last evening, God rest his poor soul.” There was an echo of sympathy from the doorway. And then Zofia stared at Sheila as if she were seeing her for the first time.
“Who’s that? Who’s that?” Her voice changed from grief to fear, and then to anger. She pointed at Sheila. “What’s she doing here?”
Sheila looked up at the woman in sudden alarm. She had been assuming that they would all understand at once. Now she saw a long series of questions and answers, of explanations disbelieved. She saw Hefner and the other Gestapo men arriving in the village while the explanations still dragged on. She saw Korytów repeated.
She rose and went over to the priest, quickly marshalling her thoughts. “The village is in danger,” she said urgently. “That man was a German spy. He killed Zak in the barn, then came here and held us up with his revolver. He knew we had become suspicious of him. He was going to keep us until his Gestapo friends arrived. He had arranged to meet them here. But Peter rushed him, then Zygmunt, and Kati’s mother was shot too. He struck Kati and then kicked her. He wanted to keep her and me alive for questioning. I shot him.”
The priest’s large-boned, hollow-eyed face watched her curiously. Even Tomasz had paused in his work to stare at her. The woman’s nostrils dilated. “What does she say?” she cried incredulously.
“I said that man was a German; other Germans are coming!”
The woman looked scornfully at her, her mouth twisted. “He was a Pole. He was looking for his wife.” Her anger increased at Sheila’s slander of the dead. “If there’s any German here it’s her. She can’t even speak Polish properly. She shot them. She’s waiting for her German friends.” The woman’s grief had become hysteria. Her face flushed. Her arm kept pointing.
“She did it. She’s the one.” Voices again rose from the corridor and the window.
Sheila sat down again on the bench. She looked at the priest and shook her head slowly. “There’s the revolver I used,” she said, and pointed. “There’s the one he used. Anyone who knows about guns can see the difference in the wounds.” What’s the use she was asking herself, what’s the use? She looked at the grimly silent faces, suspicious, watchful. Damn them all, she thought savagely; let them take what’s coming to them. I’m tired. I can do no more.
The priest was still studying her.
“Who are you?” he asked. His voice was kindly. He, at least, was willing to believe her.
Sheila Matthews, the daughter of Charles Matthews, shot in Poland, 1916; niece of John Matthews of London… How would that sound?
‘The voice of one crying in the wilderness,” she said bitterly.
“Hush, my child.” The priest crossed himself.
“Sorry, Father. I’m just tired of explaining while the Germans are acting.”
“But we must know who you are. Why did you come here?” It was as if the priest were trying to prompt her to give the right answer.
“Ask Kati. Ask Zygmunt. I came here last night, looking for Jadwiga.”
The faces round her became guarded.
“Who sent you?” There was relief, almost gladness, in the priest’s voice.
“The Reapers. Peter was to guide me towards Radom to-night.” Sheila felt as if she had won that point. There was interest now as well as watchfulness around her.
“She knows too much,” said Zona. “She will betray us to the Germans when they come.”
“I must be away from here before they come. They are searching for me.”
“Are they now?” Zona was quite unconvinced. “You leave us with guns and dead people. The Germans find the guns. The village will be lost.”
Sheila’s anger vanished as quickly as it had arisen. Looking at the worried faces around her, she felt ashamed of herself.
“It will be lost unless you hide the guns and can explain the bodies,” she said quietly. “We must plan now, while Tomasz is doing what he can for Zygmunt and Kati. When they can talk they will tell you the story. First of all, see what has happened to Zak. Zak was guarding the German in the barn. He must have been struck down. For in here the rest of us heard nothing until the German stood at the door with his gun.”
The priest silenced Zona’s reply with his upraised arm. He moved to the window and instructed two men to go round to the barn. Then he spoke to the white-haired man, still standing speechless, motionless. “Take the guns. Hide them with the others.” To Tomasz he said, “What about Zygmunt?”
“The leg’s no good to him. We’ll cut it off.”
“She’ll come round.” And then Tomasz called on the two men standing at the door, “Come on there, give me a hand. We’ll lift her over to the bed. Careful. Watch out for the blood on the floor.”
The priest sat down on the bench beside Sheila. “We have accepted your warning,” he said gently. The deeply shadowed eyes looked at her not unkindly. “But you must stay here until Kati or Zygmunt can talk. You understand? After all, we don’t know yet who you are. We cannot let you leave until we do. We must think of the village.”
“Yes,” Sheila said. “I understand.” She tried to smile. “Anyway, I don’t know where to go. Not now.” She looked at Peter. And then, “What time is it?”
“After eight o’clock.”
“Then we have perhaps an hour’s grace. Perhaps less. I don’t know, really.” It might indeed be only a matter of minutes. She stared at Heinrich Dittmar’s limp body. Powerless now, and yet not powerless enough. He could still harm them if he were found by Hefner. He must be the first one to be hidden. But the two others and Zak must be hidden safely too. Not that the Germans objected to the Poles quarrelling and killing each other; that saved the Germans a lot of trouble. But the bodies carried bullet wounds, and bullets meant hidden guns, and that the Germans would not tolerate. Sheila remembered their ingenious theory of ‘collective responsibility.’ Evidence of one gun in a village made the entire village responsible. Hostages were taken and shot. The number depended on the Germans’ whim.
“What can we do?” she asked suddenly. “We must act at once.”
The faces at the door nodded. They kept their grim silence. They were too stunned by the blow that had struck the village to be able to plan. They liked time to shape their ideas; there was something wild and indecent about such haste. They were peasants, and they moved slowly, like the earth.
“Dig a grave?” Sheila asked, and then realized the hard frost would show the newly turned ground. And digging took time. Tomasz was shaking his head.
“Take them out of the village in a cart?”
“Where? And if Germans are coming they will meet the cart and search it,” Zofia said scornfully.
Sheila, looking at the woman’s face, kept silent over a third suggestion. A fire might solve the problem. Yet if this house burned it might take an hour or two before the blaze was really strong enough to destroy all evidence of bullet wounds. In any case, Zofia and the others would be shocked. They would not let their dead be burned: their dead must have decent Christian burials.
“Well?” Sheila said. Her insistence must seem callous. And then she realized that, as the stranger here, she alone saw the tragic incident as part of one large pattern, involving not only this village, but the camp and Hofmeyer and Olszak and God knew how many others. To the villagers the tragedy consisted only of the murder of their friends and of the threat of ‘collective responsibility.’ They could not realize that the tale of death would not stop in Dwór. Nor could she tell them. The explanation she had already given them had baffled them enough.
“Father,” she said quickly to the priest, “in many Polish villages there is a house with coffins displayed for sale in racks before its door. Is there such a house here?”
The priest nodded, gazed at her gravely. He wasn’t going to approve of her idea, she knew. She explained with increasing desperation. When she had finished his serious eyes confirmed her guess. But he hadn’t refused to listen. There was still hope. She waited impatiently for his reply. She saw that Tomasz agreed with her; so did another man. Zofia was looking uneasy, uncertain. They all waited for their priest. He would decide.
“God grant us strength for what we do,” he said at last, and rose to his feet.
It was the signal for all of them. The spell of silence and inaction was broken; commands, quick movements, willing hands gave life to the room and were echoed outside. Tomasz was in charge. “Give us half an hour,” he said.
Zofia, now she had become accustomed to the idea that the Germans might come, that Sheila had not lied, worked eagerly, unquestioningly. She was even beginning to take a pride in the plan, inventing little details of her own. Perhaps some day, if this story were told in the long evenings before her kitchen fire, the plan would become hers entirely.
Sheila relaxed. The village was together. It was working with an energy as intense as its gloom had been. Even the children did their share; some went to the main road where the short track to Dwór branched from it; others carried water, brought sheets of linen from their mothers’ store cupboards.
Half an hour, Tomasz had said. In half an hour they were ready.
* “Men at Fort VII have stood in ice-cold rain with their hands above their heads all through the night.” — Fort VII, officially Konzentrationslager Posen (later renamed), was a Nazi concentration camp set up in Poznań in occupied Poland during World War II.
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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”.
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