The Unconquerable (38)
March 19, 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!
Kati had been right: the night wind had brought a threat of rain in its cold touch. Sheila pulled Zofia’s coat more closely round her neck, moved her feet inside their wide shoes to keep them from freezing, hugged her body with her arms. The man sitting beside her under the bare branches of the small wood was motionless. He hadn’t spoken since they had reached this place and he had pointed northward into the darkness and had said, “Nowe Miasto.”
Sheila strained her eyes. In front of her she could, with some effort, make out the black stretch of slow-moving water. Through the wind’s sad song in the branches overhead came its steady, gentle rhythm. That was the river which flowed east towards the Vistula. Adam had insisted that she should wait for him on its south bank. On the north bank, towards the west, pin-pricks of light showed that Nowe Miasto was still awake. Even as she waited the lights were slowly dying out. Soon the town would be asleep.
She whispered to the man, “Soon, now.”
He nodded. She felt he was angry with her because he had to sit and look after her, instead of taking part in the attack.
Sheila stared once more at the masses of dark shadows, at the patches and the blots of darkness which meant trees and houses and buildings. She was too far away to be able to see anything clearly. She could only guess. She wondered where Adam and his men were. Probably lying like this under some tree, waiting as tensely as she was. She thought of Dittmar’s dead body, now lying in a ditch to the north of the town, with that identification flask in its pocket and its Luger beside it, as if the attacking guerrillas had only had time to shoot, but not to search the man who had tried to stop them. And, thinking of the Luger, she said suddenly, “They’ve only got revolvers. They won’t have much chance.”
The man stirred and put out a hand to quieten her. “We’ve a cache near here. They wouldn’t attack without visiting it first. Don’t worry. They are well-armed.” His bad temper seemed to have been drawn off by the worry in her voice. “Don’t worry,” he whispered again. And then, to the silent village, he said softly. “Go out, little lights, go out. We are ready.”
At last there remained only two visible lights. The man was sitting erect now, leaning forward, alert. His excitement was obvious. “Time to deal with the sentries,” he was saying. He put out his hand once more and gripped Sheila’s arm. As the first explosion shattered the black curtain of night his grip tightened. A second, a third explosion, a rattle of quick shots, blinding flashes of light. Men’s cries of warning seemed little things in the violence of sound and jagged flame.
Sheila and the man had risen to their feet. He was cursing steadily, fluently, in an ecstasy of joy. He stopped for one moment to look down at her. “Well-armed, eh?” he asked, and then, as a large orange column of flame wrapped in thick black smoke rose straight into the sky, he added, “Holy Mother, that’s the railway. Petrol-cars must have been standing on the lines.” He hugged her in his joy. And then the explosions ceased. There was only the wild chatter of machine-guns.
“We’ve left,” he was saying now, “That’s the Germans taking their turn now.” He watched the orange pillar of flame. “Such damage, such beautiful damage.” His voice calmed. “Well planned. That’s the way. First the sentries. Quietly, no fuss. Some dynamite well placed. And then the grenades: well placed too. And then some shooting from scattered places, so that they may think there’s a big attack with a lot of men. And then a quick retreat just as the Huns are getting together. That’s the way, meanwhile: hit hard, then run like blazes.”
Sheila’s excitement left her more quickly. She suddenly felt cold as ice. She watched the thick, heavy curls of smoke, blacker than the black night sky, and wondered: How many killed, how many wounded? Adam?
The man pulled her down once again into the shelter of the bushes.
“That’s what we have to watch,” he whispered, and pointed to the river.
“Where’s the bridge?”
“Too well guarded.” The man had guessed her worry, for he added confidently, “He will swim it all right.”
Sheila felt suddenly weak. He will swim… She stared at the black cold water of the river. The man must have felt her dismay. “Don’t worry. We are used to this. It’s all in a night’s work. It’s nothing.”
Nothing? Sheila looked at him angrily.
“Another five minutes. Give him five minutes,” the man said calmly. His eyes never left the river. Then suddenly he gave the low call of a night bird. Just then a flare lit up the river-banks and turned the orange flames to green. The man thrust Sheila’s face down and held it pressed to the earth. They didn’t move, but Sheila’s heart had quickened. She had seen Adam, a black shape now as immovable and indistinguishable as they were, as he had thrown himself down beside a patch of bushes. Again the man beside her gave the low bird-call. As the flare’s blue light died down they heard Adam’s running footsteps. The man’s arm was raised; this time the bird’s whistle was scarcely audible. A second flare ripped into the sky, but the three of them were behind a wall of trees, and Adam’s hand was round her shoulders as they lay side by side, face down, on the ground.
“Neat,” the man said approvingly. “Neat job, sir.”
Adam’s heavy breathing quietened. He nodded. “If they are sending up flares they aren’t sure where we’ve gone,” he said. From across the river came the roar of motors. “Now they think they know,” he added. He listened. “They’ve followed those who went north-east to the Vistula.”
The flares had ceased. Adam sat up. To the man he said, “Reach the forest by the south. Tell Colonel Sierakowski that three have gone towards the Vistula — Ladislas, Kasimierz, and Edmund — and that two others have gone to the north. They’ll be in camp in a week’s time. Julian is dead. Little Jan is wounded. He’s gone to the Halicz farm. Send two men to pick him up there and get him back to the camp. Tell the colonel I am proceeding to the south, as we arranged at our last meeting. I expect to see him there next month. He must ask Warsaw to tell Number Sixteen that the Radom —— Nowe Miasto route is now under suspicion and should be used no longer. Is that clear?”
The man repeated the message for Sierakowski quickly.
“Good,” Adam said. “I’ll see you in the spring, Ryszard. In the mountains.”
Ryszard saluted. “In the spring, rotmistrz,” he said cheerily. And then he was gone, a dark shadow slipping into darker shadows. Adam took Sheila’s hand, and together they moved through the wood. Only the distant shouts from the little town, as the Germans fought the flames spreading with the wind, broke the silence of the night. Once the sound of distant shooting halted them. “German bullets only,” he said. And then, “Our men are still safe. If they had been cornered they would have shot back.”
As they came out of the wood on its south side Adam paused once more. “Our men got away,” he said at last. The relief in his voice told Sheila how much he had been worrying. He caught her violently in his arms, held her for a moment against his wet body. He kissed her slowly and then suddenly let her go.
“Nearly twenty miles to go before daylight,” he said. “Or is that too much for the first part of our journey?” He took her hand once more.
“To the mountains?”
“Yes. I’ll keep you there until Olszak and all his experts have a safe plan arranged for you — papers, clothes, and all that. If Olszak can’t think up a safe enough one to please me you stay until he does.” His voice was determined.
They were moving into the open field now.
“What will Olszak say?” Sheila murmured.
“I’ve more to say about you than he has,” was Adam’s quiet answer.
The night became a number of hours, each with its accomplished miles. There was speed and tension and care, but none of the agony of her night journeys with Jan and Stefan. Adam didn’t force the pace, and yet they appeared to cover more ground. He insisted on a ten-minute rest every hour, and whenever her pace lagged his arm would be there to help her. Even that contact with him seemed to give her strength. Before dawn they had reached the end of the first stage of their journey. A quiet-faced peasant woman welcomed them into her small house.
The second night they covered thirty miles. This time they were given shelter in a country house, whose owner had been a friend of Adam’s father. Now his wife dead, his sons killed, he lived alone in the almost empty rooms of his looted home.
When they set off on the third night’s journey, which was through wide stretches of forest land and uninhabited country, they were given two horses. “Poor specimens, I’m afraid, compared with what you used to ride, Adam,” their host had said, “but it was all I could hide from the damned Germans. These crocks will at least take you a little more quickly than your feet. Leave them at the monastery. They will be brought back here to lend to other travellers.” He had watched them leave, half proudly, half sadly. Sheila felt that the deepest regret of this old man, who lived with perpetual reminders of regret and sorrow, was that he was too old, too ill, to be of any use, except as the host of those who travelled secretly. The horses carried them a long distance that night. The flat plains had given way to rich forests and rolling grassland. They travelled far enough away from even the smallest road, so that they were unseen and unheard. Dawn brought them to the monastery. The white-robed priests gave them shelter in the small guest-house outside the grounds.
The fourth night they travelled through a country of foothills, each with its small castle or little church on its crest. It was now much colder. The ground was hard with frost. The rain was turning to grains of snow. At dawn they thawed out in a forester’s warm hut. When they left they had food with them, and the forester’s wife had given Sheila a fur cap and long boots.
The fifth night took them to the mountains. At first the mountains were simply steeper hills, tree-covered, snow-sprinkled. And then the hills heightened, sharpened. The peaks became ice-covered crags, the pine forests climbed only halfway up the steep sides. Adam led her along the finger-like valleys, deep and narrow; along the paths beside the shallow icy streams that clattered down to meet them. Snow was underfoot now, yet either the mountains or the pine forests sheltered them, for Sheila felt warmer than she had felt on the open plains.
They rested for only an hour on the fifth day. Looking at the dark grey sky above them, Adam shook his head. “We are nearly there,” he said. And then, anxiously, “Sheila, can you keep on walking? We can trust this place even in daylight. There’s nothing to be afraid of here.” He looked up at the sky once more.
“Except the snow?” Sheila suggested.
He nodded. “There’s going to be a heavy fall soon. We must keep moving until it comes. Once it starts, we shall have to wait until the storm is over. And it might last a week.”
Sheila looked at the black rocks showing through the snow on the mountain-side. The pine-trees, green no longer, seemed black too. There wasn’t a house in sight. She shivered and said, “You lead, Adam. That makes it easier for me.”
Their pace had slowed, perhaps because of the snow on the ground, which made each step an effort of sinking and lifting wherever the flakes had drifted, perhaps because Adam watched Sheila’s progress as anxiously as he watched the sky.
“Adam, you don’t have to stop for so many rests,” she said once. “I’m all right.”
He kissed her and then straightened the fur cap on her head again.
“What a bad mountain-climber you’d make, darling,” he answered, his smile broadening as he watched her indignation and then her answering amusement.
“Frozen?” he asked.
“Not as long as we keep moving.” She pulled Zofia’s coat tighter round her neck. She kept doing that nowadays, it seemed.
“I’ll get you a fur jacket,” Adam said.
She laughed at that. “The Germans seem miles and miles away, somehow,” she said.
“Five miles, to be exact. Just over that wall of mountains on your right,” he answered. “Over there is the railway from Cracow to Zakopane. They’ve taken over Zakopane completely. It’s their mountain resort, where tired army officers and Gestapo experts take their little blondes for ten days’ leave.”
Sheila stared blankly. “And our village?”
“Quite near Zakopane. Sometimes there’s safety in the lion’s den.”
At the end of the afternoon the narrow valley broadened, and they saw the village: red roofs on blue-painted houses scattered over the white snow.
Wisniewski was smiling now. The worry had gone from his face. “Our house is higher up the mountain. It stands above the village,” he said. “We’ll cut up through this pine forest. Just half an hour more. All right, Sheila?”
She nodded, and he kissed her. “It’s extraordinary,” he said, shaking his head.
He looked at her with a smile in his eyes. “Later,” he said. “We’ll talk later, Pani Wisniewska.”
They climbed slowly through the pine-wood. She needed his arm now. He felt her weight sag, and slowed his step still more. She didn’t even notice it. At the edge of the fir-trees Adam halted. There was nothing but silence and the gathering darkness. In a clearing was a log-house. A long slope of mountain-shoulder was the background. There was smoke from its chimney, a thin column pointing like a grey finger from the wide red roof to the greyer sky. A small candle burned on a table at the window. Adam smiled and gave a long, low whistle. They waited. The candle moved — as if some one had lifted it and put it back.
In the summer, Sheila was thinking, the meadow round the house would be green. There would be little yellow and red and blue flowers, white butterflies, birds, and the dark sweet smell of pine-trees. There would be a high blue sky, pierced by the jagged mountains gleaming white in the sunshine. There would be red and purple petunias in the carved window-boxes, the sound of a woodman’s axe in the forest, the clear voices of children bringing home the cows from pasture in the evening. The bells round the cows’ necks would strike their slow note at each slow step. In the summer… Well, that wasn’t for her to see.
She tried to smile. “We managed it,” she said.
In the valley below she could see the steady pillars of smoke from the village chimneys. The houses themselves were hidden in the downward curve of pine-woods. Beyond the valley was the range of mountains which divided the village from Zakopane. And the Germans. She gazed at the mountains and said once more, as if to them this time, “We managed it.” She smiled happily. “I managed the journey better than the one with Jan, didn’t I? It was longer, and yet I’m not so tired, Adam.” She stumbled as she spoke. “Or am I, and I just don’t notice it?” Adam’s arm tightened round her waist. He half lifted her across the stretch of snow-covered grass towards the house.
The door opened as they reached it. An old woman, her black knitted shawl drawn tightly by one hand across her throat, against the cold air, waited for them.
“You’re late,” she said to Adam in her faded voice. “I was beginning to worry.” She gave him her hand, and he bent and kissed it.
Closing the door behind them, she looked at Sheila. If Adam takes his arm away, I’m going to fall down, Sheila thought…. How warm the room is… how safe and warm and safe….
“My wife,” Adam was saying. “Sheila, this is Pani Olszak.”
Sheila’s tired eyes opened. “Michal Olszak’s mother,” she heard Adam say softly to her. He led her to a low chair by the open fire. Pulling off her long boots, he began rubbing her feet and legs.
“Soup,” Madame Olszak said. “That’s what she needs. Hot soup. And a foot-bath. If your feet are warm you’re all warm. Veronika! Where’s that girl? Veronika!”
Veronika came hurrying out of the kitchen, white-haired, plain-faced. She was a good twelve inches taller than her mistress; as broad-shouldered as a man. She wiped her large hands on her apron, and a real welcome came into her expressionless eyes as she saw Adam.
“My nephew, Adam Gunter, and his wife have come to see me,” Madame Olszak was saying. “From Cracow. They are tired and hungry. Give them some soup, Veronika, and bring that wash-basin and some hot water in here. Yes, in front of the fire. The bedroom’s too cold to bathe in. Don’t you see how frozen she is? Make them comfortable. They came all this way to see me because they heard I was ill. Imagine that, Veronika! We must take good care of them.”
Veronika smiled at Adam and nodded. “All the way from Cracow! Imagine that!” she echoed in her harsh voice. As she turned to look deliberately at Sheila the welcoming smile gave way to a frank stare. Then, as if suddenly remembering all the things to be done, she whisked round and disappeared into the kitchen.
Madame Olszak’s young blue eyes smiled out of her old, wrinkled face. A thin, narrow face in contrast to Veronika’s broad bones.
“Does she really believe that?” asked Sheila. She was still shaken by Veronika’s cold appraisal.
Madame Olszak laughed and looked at Adam. “You’ve chosen a smart one, Adam. Even if she is a foreigner.” And then, watching his face, “You a married man! Well, well… But it suits you. You’re looking better than you did when you came to see us six weeks ago.” She turned to Sheila as if she had just remembered the answer she had almost forgotten in her amusement over Adam’s expression. “No, she doesn’t believe it. It’s a game we play. All the men who pass this way are Gunter, my nephew. Veronika thinks it funny. I find it useful.” As she talked her eyes never left Sheila. She watched the girl’s face, her movements, her expressions. If Sheila hadn’t felt so exhausted she would have been embarrassed at such open scrutiny. But now all she could feel was a soft glow of warmth and safety and happiness and fatigue. She leaned her head against the high chair-back and smiled. Madame Olszak’s soft voice went on, “I had two nephews here last week. An English branch of the family. Two British airmen who came all the way from a prison camp in East Prussia. Couldn’t speak a word of Polish. They stayed here for five days and got some skin back on their feet. Wenceslas, from the village, took them to their next stop. They were going east, to Rumania. And then to Constantinople.” She shook her head admiringly. “Imagine! Such courage!”
“And such good Polish friends,” said Sheila quietly.
“The only good thing about war is the friends we discover.” Madame Olszak sat down on a bench at the side of the fire, and lifted the sewing which must have been interrupted when Adam whistled from the pine-woods. It looked as if it might be a patchwork quilt some day. “Soon need to light the lamp,” she said, frowning at the growing darkness, pursing her lips as she concentrated on the squares of bright colour. “Put out that candle, Adam! There’s no need for it now. And your wife’s all right. She’ll live. And she needs two hands to hold her bowl of soup, anyway.”
Adam grinned and obeyed. Sheila watched him as he went over to the window table and blew out the candle. Madame Olszak was watching Sheila.
“Did he ever tell you what happened to the candle on his last visit here?” She tried to thread a needle, and said irritably, “Better light the lamp, Adam, and close the shutters. How short the days are now! No time at all for work. Now come and take your soup while it’s warm. That’s better.” She shifted her sewing to let the yellow light fall across it. Veronika brought a wooden tub to the hearth-side and half filled it carefully with hot water. As she passed between the kitchen and the room, with the alternately full and empty kettle, she would look sideways at Sheila. It was a strange look, half reluctant, half curious, wholly guarded.
Wearily Sheila closed her eyes, let the warmth of the room soak into her tired body. Such luxury: warm soup, a fire, a bath, a comfortable bed, no Germans to worry about. Such luxury.
“Are you all right, Sheila?”
She opened her eyes. “Yes, Adam. I’m thawing out. It’s wonderful.” The round globe of light brought out the colours, deepened the shadows in the room. The deep red walls were as comforting as a glass of burgundy. Veronika closed the kitchen door disapprovingly. Such a fuss about nothing, was the clear implication. Poor Veronika, Sheila thought; obviously no one had ever made a fuss about her.
“…On his last visit here?” Madame Olszak insisted.
“No,” said Sheila. Madame certainly didn’t give you time to think of your own aches or the pains of others.
“Well, I had the candle lit. My guests always arrive after sunset, and I always hear from Wenceslas — you know, Adam, that radio works perfectly. I should never have believed it. Wenceslas’s son is learning to send out messages too now…. Well, where was I? Oh, yes, the candle. It was lit. I had heard, you see, that my nephew Adam Gunter was to arrive. The soup was ready. The water was being boiled, the bed was being warmed. Everything was waiting. And then a party of Germans arrived at the door. Four of them. They had been mountain-climbing. ‘You light your candle early, old woman,’ they said to me. ‘I need it for my sewing,’ said I. ‘When you are eighty years old you will need a candle too.’ They wanted food. What loud voices they had! You would have thought there were fourteen and not just four men in this room. It was then I heard a bird whistling in the wood. ‘Why do you put out the candle, grandmother?’ one asked. ‘Because I save it when I don’t do my sewing. You don’t need it to find the way to your mouths.’ And they began to eat the soup. But they didn’t eat much. Two mouthfuls were enough. You should have heard what they said about Polish cooking…. Then they went down to the village where they had left their car and went back to their Zakopane. Later I lit the candle again. When the bird whistled this time I moved the candle. Who should come in but my nephew Gunter? But he got no hot soup. We had to throw away the whole potful. Veronika had been too generous with the salt. Such a waste!”
Adam and Madame Olszak laughed. Sheila’s smile wasn’t successful; she couldn’t manage to be as objective as mat about such incidents.
Madame Olszak noticed Sheila’s worried eyes and quickly added, “I haven’t seen a German from that day to this. They don’t climb the mountains so much; they stick close to their Zakopane now. Such a lot of mountaineering accidents we had.”
She rose, carefully folding the quilt. “You’ll find it warmer to get your clothes off and bathe in here. In this weather the bedroom is as cold as Siberia. We who live in the mountains have to take our comforts seriously.” She moved towards the kitchen. “I’ll give you my news in the morning, Adam.”
“Good news?” he asked quickly.
“Yes. All the instructions you left here have been carried out. Wenceslas has a list of willing men. And there’s other news. But not to-night. To-morrow is time enough for the telling. Anyway, the snow is coming; you will be unable to move out of the house till the first heavy storm is over. You’ll have four or five days to rest and hear my news.”
Adam’s voice became expressionless. “Have you had any message from your son?” His eyes met Sheila’s and held them.
“No.” Madame Olszak was watching them. “What’s all this, anyway?” she asked with a smile. “An elopement? I wondered what she was doing here with you, Adam Wisniewski!” She came back into the room. “I must admit I am curious,” she said. “It is one of the prerogatives of old age.” She turned to Sheila. “Who are you, child? I’ve seen you before. I can’t remember where. But I’ve seen you before.”
Sheila roused herself from the warm feeling of sleep which was beginning, so comfortably, to paralyse her thoughts. “I’m Sheila Matthews.” She caught a smile from Adam. “I mean, I was Sheila Matthews.”
Madame Olszak’s blue eyes searched for a meaning to the name, almost — not quite — finding it.
“Your son was a friend of my father, Charles Matthews,” said Sheila.
“Charles Matthews,” the faded voice repeated slowly. And then, suddenly, more quickly, “Charles Matthews!” Madame Olszak was really smiling now. The veil had dropped. Politeness vanished. Real emotion surged over the finely wrinkled face. “Charles Matthews… of course… that’s where I’ve seen you.” She crossed over to Sheila with her slow, even step. “I’ve been staring at you all the evening, my dear. I kept saying to myself, ‘I’ve seen that girl before. But where?’ It worried me.” She touched Sheila’s cheeks gently with her thin brown hand. “Your father ——” she glanced at Adam. “Yes, I know. That will keep for to-morrow too. Besides, Veronika will be angry if I let my bowl of soup stand any longer.” Adam half smiled. No one, not even Veronika, could bully Madame. But the excuse was graceful; it made a tactful exit. He opened the kitchen door and waited.
“If she is as like her father as she looks you couldn’t have chosen a better wife, Adam. Even if she is a foreigner.”
“I know,” he said. “Without knowing about her father, I know.” He raised Madame Olszak’s thin hand to his lips and then closed the kitchen door firmly behind her.
Sheila had risen uncertainly from the chair and, having made that effort, seemed incapable of more. She didn’t speak. There was a strange, brooding look on her face. For a moment he was jealous and then cursed himself for a selfish fool. Jealous of a ghost, of a dead father… jealous of the moments when her thoughts were not his. He lowered the lamp, saw its flame flicker and die. By the light of the fire he watched her hands slowly fumble at the waistband of her skirt. Then she looked at him, and now she was thinking only of him. Even before she spoke he came over to her.
He held her shoulders. His hands slid to her waist. She touched his cheek.
Suddenly there was fear in her voice. “Olszak has sent no message. Could he? Has there been time enough?”
He nodded. How strange women were. To be so practical, so worrying, when there were other things to think of. “Time enough by wireless to the village,” he said. He unfastened the last hook. Her skirt fell to her feet. “…Even Olszak is human, it seems.”
She smiled at that. “Yes. Even Olszak had a mother. Extraordinary.”
“But logical.” He tugged at the tape of her petticoat. “How in heaven’s name do you unfasten this? It’s knotted like iron.” He knelt beside her, pretending to concentrate on that problem. His fingers were strangely numb and slow. Her soft voice was saying, “I’ve never quite found out yet. You sort of pull and hope for the best.”
Now he was smiling. His eyes looked up at her quickly. She laughed and pushed back the lock of hair which had fallen over his brow.
“And I didn’t mean that.”
“No? And why not, Pani Wisniewska?”
They were both laughing now.
“Such luxury,” she said, “to sleep without one’s clothes, to wash in hot water, to stand before a fire, to have a warm bed, to forget about Germans.” She stepped out of the wide circle of skirts spreading round her feet, and let the blouse and Kati’s best pink-ribboned chemise fall from her shoulders. She looked down at him. “Such luxury to be in love, Adam. Such luxury to be truly loved.”
He wasn’t laughing any more. The light from the leaping flames of the fire flickered over her body, white in the room’s dark shadows.
Outside, a crumbling cloud of snow descended on the mountain-sides and valleys. In the villages it blotted out the house across the street, the tree only ten yards away, the winding roads. On the lower mountain-slopes the scattered houses became still more alone. The large, falling flakes hid the forests and the paths. There was no longer sky, or mountain, or valley. The white curtain smoothly, quietly, obliterated everything. Height and distance, shape and colour, no longer existed.
In the kitchen Madame Olszak finished the last spoonful of soup and refused a second helping. “It’s begun,” she said to Veronika, and nodded to the unshuttered window. Veronika replaced the cover on the soup-pot.
“Time was when we always had plenty of food to last us for months of bad weather.”
“Times change. Close the shutters, Veronika. It seems warmer with them closed.” She pulled the shawl more closely round her shoulders.
Veronika peered out at the falling snow. “It’s just coming down,” she announced. “It was lucky they got here before this started.”
“I imagine,” Madame said dryly, “that my nephew Gunter realized that fact. He knows the mountains.”
Veronika cleared away the soup-bowls and crumbs of bread from the table. “It was only a year ago he was staying in the village with that shooting-party. They still talk about that shoot.”
“Veronika,” said Madame Olszak, “sometimes a good memory is a dangerous thing, particularly if there’s a loose tongue attached.”
“I’m only saying it to you and me,” Veronika protested indignantly. As if, she thought crossly, I didn’t know how to hold my tongue when a German’s about.
“And that’s two people too many, my girl. Best not to get into the habit of remembering. You wouldn’t want to be the one who gave him away?”
“But there have been no Szwaby here for weeks. They took all our extra food when they put our names on their list. They won’t come, not until this bad weather is over, anyway. And then there will be just some skiers, out for a good time. Those others with their lists and grabbing fingers won’t be back until we have something else for them to lift.” Her indignation changed to vindictive pleasure. “But they won’t get the new calf or our chickens. Our own men will be eating them this summer.”
Madame relented, and nodded her head approvingly. The two women smiled. We are old, they seemed to be saying, but we are needed now as much as the young men; even we can help.
“You’ve put the Adam Gunter papers in his room? Good. They are getting worn. We’ll soon have to ask for a new set. And the skis?”
“Wenceslas saw to them the last time he was here. They’re in the attic, ready.” Veronika finished wiping the bowls and stacked them neatly on the painted shelves fixed to one wall. “Time for some painting to be done round here again,” she said, scrutinizing the fading colours of the flower decorations on the wooden beam above her head.
“That can wait till after the war,” said Madame Olszak decidedly, and glanced at the hand-loom beside the window, at the spinning-wheel beside the oven, at the small table with its growing pile of rough homespun.
“Aye.” Veronika agreed. “They’ll be needing a lot of cloth this spring when they come up to the mountains. There won’t be much painting or wood-carving done in this or any other village from now on.” She paused and listened to the footsteps in the corridor. A door closed.
“I wonder what she’s doing here with him,” said Veronika. Her lips closed tightly and she shook her head.
Madame Olszak smiled slightly, but didn’t answer.
“Married! She hasn’t a wedding-ring, even. I shouldn’t feel married unless I had a ring on my right hand.”
“Wouldn’t you?” Madame Olszak smiled gently. She sat quite still, letting her thoughts wander back sixty years. Sixty years ago… Veronika’s voice kept insisting, kept pulling her back into the present. Madame Olszak frowned in annoyance.
“Is she going to stay here? That’s what I want to know. When this storm ends he’s got work to do. He’s leaving here, isn’t he? He’s got other villages to visit, hasn’t he? And if she stays here alone what will happen if German skiers come to the door at any time? They always notice the pretty ones. And even if she had papers she’s still a foreigner, by her accent.”
“It is none of our business,” said Madame Olszak sharply. She too had been worrying about that all the evening, but somehow she felt irritated when these worries were put into words. Then, more gently, she said, “What’s wrong with you to-night, Veronika? Come, we’ll have a last half-hour at the fire before we go to bed.” She rose wearily from the hard bench. “Perhaps I am getting old, Veronika. The beginning of winter now makes me sad.”
Veronika followed her into the other room. “It’s the snow,” she said slowly. “It makes you feel old. It makes you feel alone.”
They sat close to the fire and watched the dying log.
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”