The Unconquerable (39)

By: Helen MacInnes
March 26, 2015

macinnes

HiLoBooks is pleased to serialize Helen MacInnes’s 1944 novel The Unconquerable (later reissued as While We Still Live), an espionage adventure that pits an innocent English woman against both Nazis and resistance fighters in occupied Poland. MacInnes, it’s worth noting, was married to a British intelligence agent, which may explain what one hears is the amazing accuracy of her story’s details. Under the editorship of HILOBROW’s Joshua Glenn, the Save the Adventure book club will reissue The Unconquerable as an e-book for the first time ever. Enjoy!

ALL INSTALLMENTS SO FAR

***

Chapter 39: The Last Days

A firm, crisp surface formed on the deep snow. You could walk on it as you could on icy ground, carefully and slowly, with each step judged and balanced. The white-grey skies changed to a clear pale blue. The sun set this clean, unmarked world glittering. The very air seemed to dance with light. Only the leeward trunks of the trees with their long winter shadows, and the walls of the houses which had sheltered under broad roofs kept their dark colour in defiance of so much change. But even in the expanse of white loneliness the feeling of being lost in space had ended with the falling snow. Sound and sight had come back to the world.

You could see once more the wisps of whitish smoke from the village chimneys; you could hear the light sound of sleigh-bells. And along the lower slopes of the mountain’s side were scattered small brown patches, each with their column of smoke above them,, which meant other houses. In the morning there were blue shadows on the snow, the sound of men’s voices as they cleared paths to their doors, the echo of children’s high laughter as they played, the occasional long-drawn call shouted from one neighbour to another. In the evening the snow was streaked with gold and orange furrows from the large round sun sinking so swiftly behind the jagged edge of the mountains. The shadows deepened to violet, the columns of smoke thickened and darkened, and the day’s sounds (so small and simple, yet so magnified by the intensity of the silence) died gradually away. The people in the houses down in the village, or in the houses sparsely scattered along the hillsides or in the valleys, rested from their day’s work. The cows and goats, brought down for the winter months from the high pastures, were fed; the baking and weaving and sewing and cobbling and carving and making and mending were over. There was time for talk in the kitchens and lamp-lit rooms. There were tales from the past, and stories, more gruesome still, of the present. There were songs which brought tears and laughter, and whispered plans which brought hope for the spring. Night walked over the mountains, sweeping its train of stars, their brightness sharpened by the keen air. The carpet of snow became a cloth of silver. The shadows were as black as the windows where the lights died one by one.

Wenceslas came on the first day after the storm had ended. But his mixture of news and gossip and information lost all importance to him when he saw Wisniewski. The warmth of his welcome was so infectious that Sheila, her face taut and fearful when she saw this man arrive, found herself smiling along with Madame Olszak as they watched his delight and relief. It was almost as if he were greeting his son.

“Used to hunt with Adam. Best guide in these parts. Best hunter too,” Madame Olszak explained to Sheila in a low voice. “Come, we’ll sit over at the window and let them talk. We’ll keep an eye on the path to the village.”

Sheila followed the old woman obediently. She looked back at the two men now facing each other across the table — Wenceslas red-haired, round-faced, broad-shouldered, slow-speaking; Adam silently listening, his large dark eyes narrowing as his mind played with an idea, a smile glanced over the determined mouth as the idea developed possibilities. He had pulled a sheet of paper in front of him, spread out a map. Wenceslas leaned over the table on his powerful forearms, marking his points with an upraised forefinger.

Madame Olszak watched Sheila’s face. She touched her arm gently. “I know,” she said half sadly. “A man has two things: his work and his wife. A woman when she’s in love has only one. I know.”

Sheila looked at her in alarm.

“It’s all right; they’ll never hear us.” Madame Olszak smiled as she looked across at the two men. “They are in another world. I know.” She nodded philosophically over the patchwork quilt.

At the end of the hour Wenceslas rose to leave. He seemed to notice Sheila for the first time. “There was a message two days ago about her,” he said to Adam. Sheila’s heart missed a beat.

Wenceslas’s tantalizingly slow voice went on: “Person accompanying Captain X to await further instructions. Full plan to follow.”

Adam’s arm rested round Sheila’s shoulders. “Bring the message when it comes. As it stands. I’ll decode it, Wenceslas.” His voice was harsh.

Wenceslas looked at them in surprise. “Right,” he said.

“You’ve never told me your news, Wenceslas,” Madame Olszak said quickly, and led the red-haired man towards the door, listening gravely to the strange mixture of information: old Stefan was ill, badly this time; Maria’s cow had stopped giving milk; more shooting of hostages in Warsaw, Ladislaw’s younger daughter had a son, a ten-pound boy; Cracow professors had all been arrested and sent to concentration camps; five Germans at Zakopane had been caught in the snowstorm and frozen to death; the wolves were already prowling round the villages to the east — it was going to be a bad winter, more snow and bitter cold.

Wenceslas halted in the doorway. “The captain may have a chance to hunt wolves when he goes east,” he said. “Think I’ll have to come with you as your guide, Captain. Ladislaw can look after the radio for a while. He’s always sticking his nose into it, anyway.”

Adam smiled. “Wolf-shooting is off for the present, Wenceslas. German-shooting now.”

“There’s no law against doing both,” Wenceslas suggested hopefully, but without success. “Well, I suppose when I took on this radio job I gave up hunting,” he added sadly, and concentrated on fixing his skis.

“Plenty of hunting next summer when the camp has got to be fed, Wenceslas.”

The grin came slowly back to Wenceslas’s red, round face. “Ill be back in a day or two, no doubt,” he said, and looked at Sheila.

“Yes. I’ll have further instructions ready for the district then,” Adam replied. His voice was businesslike, but his grip on Sheila’s shoulders had tightened.

The door closed. Sheila felt that it had shut out all her hopes.

Madame Olszak picked up her needle once more.

Neither Sheila nor Adam had moved.

“She could stay with me,” Madame Olszak said softly. “Must she go?”

Sheila felt her shoulder crushed. She knew the answer before he had spoken.

“Yes.”

Madame Olszak’s keen blue eyes looked at them sadly, but she nodded slowly as if in agreement. She rose and went slowly into the kitchen. “Must tell Veronika about the news from the village,” she said.

Adam pulled Sheila round to face him.

“It would have been easier to say ‘No.’ That’s what I wanted to say…” He watched her eyes anxiously. The lines on his face had deepened.

“I know,” she said. “It seems strange… but I love you all the more,” and the truth of her words was in her eyes.

She ended the long silence with, “When will the instructions come?”

A shadow crossed Adam’s face. His voice was quiet, expressionless, almost as if he were talking to himself, getting his own thoughts into order. “A few days, perhaps. Perhaps a week. There’s a clever man at Zakopane who has helped us before. He would be the safest way. It depends if they can contact him and he is available. They must wait until he is. He’s safe.”

Sheila’s body stiffened. She looked up at him. “That isn’t why you are sending me away? Because of safety?” There was a rebellious line to her mouth.

Adam pretended to smile. He lied most innocently. “Of course not.” He silenced her with a long kiss. “Darling…”

She said softly, when she had enough breath to speak with, “I sometimes wish I were a man.”

“Thank God you aren’t,” he replied, with such fervour that she was forced to smile.

“That’s better,” he said. “That’s how I like to see you. With a laugh on your lips… That’s how I first saw you. Remember?”

“So long ago it seems. Before the war…”

“Scarcely three months ago.”

“How many more months before it all ends?”

He was silent.

“How long, Adam? Next year?”

His arms tightened round her waist. He kissed her throat.

“That’s my favourite corner, just there,” he said, with a pretence of a smile. He kissed the soft curve where her neck and shoulder met “One of my favourites,” he added.

“How long, Adam? Surely next year.”

“God knows.” He shook his head as if he were trying to free himself from his bitter thoughts. “But never too long, Sheila. Never too long for us to wait.”

Never too long… It might be years, then. Years, her heart echoed despairingly. But her eyes met his, as he wanted them to do, and accepted that fact.

*

Four days later Wenceslas returned.

“Things are shaping up,” he announced. He handed the message which he had brought to Wisniewski with evident relief. “The priest made sure I got it down all correct,” he went on. “He’s been waiting with me each night at eight o’clock for it to come. I told him it was important. And last night it came. But I thought I’d wait until this morning before I brought it along. Time enough, I said to myself, to bring it in the morning.”

Veronika finished her pretence of dusting the room. In the last four days she had dropped her hostility to Sheila. The foreign girl was going away. She wasn’t going to stay here and keep good men off their job. Much work any man would get done with her about the place.

“Come into the kitchen,” she said, with a sudden burst of tact, “I’ve got a nice bowl of hot soup ready to warm you, Wenceslas.”

Madame Olszak bad risen from her chair near the window. “I’ll come and hear all the news, Wenceslas,” she said.

Sheila crossed over to the table where Adam, his forehead resting on his hands and his elbows on the table, was reading the coded message. She sat down quietly beside him. Without looking up, he reached for one of her hands and held it.

“When?” she asked at last, certain he had finished reading the passage.

He still didn’t look up. “Soon,” he answered. “Very soon.”

She looked at the scrap of paper. It was a very innocent letter to a niece. Weather… family health… affectionate greetings… “Your loving Aunt, VALERIA.”

“And what does Aunt Valeria say?”

“Your clothes are already waiting for you. Your papers and story will be given to you any day after to-morrow, when Aunt Valeria arrives with them.”

“Here?”

“No. At a small inn outside Zakopane.”

She said slowly, “I should be there, ready to welcome Aunt Valeria when she does arrive.” She was trying desperately, to keep her voice calm.

“Yes…. I’ll take you to the inn. We’ll have to go carefully.” He gave her a twisted smile. “Strangely enough, that may be the most difficult part of the journey. After that, with the right clothes and papers, it will be saf — easier.”

“I feel safer with you than with any papers, Adam, no matter how clever your Aunt Valeria is.”

“He hasn’t made a mistake yet.” Adam’s voice was grim. He was convincing himself that this way would be safe.

He?”

“Yes. Aunt Valeria is one of Number Fourteen’s best men. Thank God he’s on this job.”

Her voice faltered. “To-night we leave, then?”

“To-night.” Adam rose abruptly. He didn’t look at her again. He opened the door, slowly climbed the path they had cut in the deep snow. If I had wept, she thought, as she stared at the pool of pale gold at the threshold where the sun’s weak rays spread over the floor, if I had wept we never should have left for Zakopane. It was a relief that she could allow herself to weep now.

*

Madame Olszak came back into the room. “I knew some one had left a door open,” she grumbled. “Such a draught. This place is like ice.” She moved about, closing the door, jabbing at the fire with a poker, talking incessantly as she moved. Sheila was in control of herself by the time that Veronika and Wenceslas entered.

“When?” Madame Olszak demanded suddenly.

“To-night.”

“That’s what I expected.” Her voice was almost bad-tempered. She was angry with every one, herself most of all.

“Where are you going?” Veronika asked pityingly. Her hard face had softened.

Sheila saw Wenceslas, behind Veronika, shake his head warningly.

Madame Olszak had seen his advice too.

“None of our business, Veronika,” she said sharply. “Now you and I will start some cooking. We want a special supper this evening.” She followed the slow-moving Veronika towards the kitchen. “Wars, wars,” she was saying savagely. “People who should be together, bringing up the children God meant them to have, kept apart… separated… I’ve always cursed the men who started wars. I must die cursing them… never an end… never…” It was strange to hear Veronika suddenly burst into wailing tears. And then the kitchen door closed.

“She’s all right, that Veronika,” Wenceslas said, “except that she always wants to know everything. Well,” his round, good-natured face watched her anxiously, “well … Think I’ll just wait here.” He sat down on the edge of a chair. “To see if the captain needs my help for to-night,” he explained unnecessarily. And then he looked upset: oughtn’t to have mentioned to-night, he thought. Pity she had to go. Yet no place for her here. The captain was travelling east. She would have to wait here. She couldn’t go with him there. That was certain. And the Germans might come to the village, might come to this house. As they had done before and would do again. The captain wouldn’t have his mind on the job. He’d be worrying about her. Pity she had to go. No one’s fault but the bloody Germans. Always the bloody Germans.

Wenceslas blew his nose violently. Then he was listening. “That’s the captain,” he said, and hurried to the window. “Walked his temper off too, thank God. We’ll get down to business now.” He looked anxiously at the girl. Funny how he kept saying the wrong things to-day. She was smiling sadly, and he blew his nose again because he couldn’t think of anything else to do.

They didn’t notice him much, anyway. Not even when he suggested the arrangements for to-night. A sleigh, a surefooted horse, and the third-rate little road which ran almost parallel to the main road to Zakopane. The German patrols kept to the main road in this weather, but even so the time to make the journey was between patrols. On Tuesdays and Thursdays the night patrols were out on the roads leading to Zakopane between ten and twelve, two and four. Methodical race, the Germans.

They didn’t notice him much, but they had listened.

“To-day is Thursday,” the foreign girl said.

And the captain said, his face the same cold mask that his wife’s was, “We set out at midnight, then.”

“I’ll have the sleigh waiting down by the last trees behind the post office,” Wenceslas said.

He left them then. They didn’t even seem to notice his going.

NEXT INSTALLMENT | ALL INSTALLMENTS SO FAR

***

RADIUM AGE SCIENCE FICTION: “Radium Age” is HILOBROW’s name for the 1904–33 era, which saw the discovery of radioactivity, the revelation that matter itself is constantly in movement — a fitting metaphor for the first decades of the 20th century, during which old scientific, religious, political, and social certainties were shattered. This era also saw the publication of genre-shattering writing by Edgar Rice Burroughs, Sax Rohmer, E.E. “Doc” Smith, Jack London, Arthur Conan Doyle, Aldous Huxley, Olaf Stapledon, Karel Čapek, H.P. Lovecraft, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Yevgeny Zamyatin, Philip Gordon Wylie, and other pioneers of post-Verne/Wells, pre-Golden Age “science fiction.” More info here.

READ GORGEOUS PAPERBACKS: HiLoBooks has reissued the following 10 obscure but amazing Radium Age science fiction novels in beautiful print editions: Jack London’s The Scarlet Plague, Rudyard Kipling’s With the Night Mail (and “As Easy as A.B.C.”), Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Poison Belt, H. Rider Haggard’s When the World Shook, Edward Shanks’ The People of the Ruins, William Hope Hodgson’s The Night Land, J.D. Beresford’s Goslings, E.V. Odle’s The Clockwork Man, Cicely Hamilton’s Theodore Savage, and Muriel Jaeger’s The Man with Six Senses. For more information, visit the HiLoBooks homepage.

SERIALIZED BY HILOBOOKS: Jack London’s The Scarlet Plague | Rudyard Kipling’s With the Night Mail (and “As Easy as A.B.C.”) | Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Poison Belt | H. Rider Haggard’s When the World Shook | Edward Shanks’ The People of the Ruins | William Hope Hodgson’s The Night Land | J.D. Beresford’s Goslings | E.V. Odle’s The Clockwork Man | Cicely Hamilton’s Theodore Savage | Muriel Jaeger’s The Man With Six Senses | Jack London’s “The Red One” | Philip Francis Nowlan’s Armageddon 2419 A.D. | Homer Eon Flint’s The Devolutionist | W.E.B. DuBois’s “The Comet” | Edgar Rice Burroughs’s The Moon Men | Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland | Sax Rohmer’s “The Zayat Kiss” | Eimar O’Duffy’s King Goshawk and the Birds | Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Lost Prince | Morley Roberts’s The Fugitives | Helen MacInnes’s The Unconquerable | Geoffrey Household’s Watcher in the Shadows | William Haggard’s The High Wire | Hammond Innes’s Air Bridge | James Branch Cabell’s Jurgen | John Buchan’s “No Man’s Land” | John Russell’s “The Fourth Man” | E.M. Forster’s “The Machine Stops” | John Buchan’s Huntingtower | Arthur Conan Doyle’s When the World Screamed | Victor Bridges’ A Rogue By Compulsion | Jack London’s The Iron Heel | H. De Vere Stacpoole’s The Man Who Lost Himself | P.G. Wodehouse’s Leave It to Psmith | Richard Connell’s “The Most Dangerous Game” | Houdini and Lovecraft’s “Imprisoned with the Pharaohs” | Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Sussex Vampire”.

ORIGINAL FICTION: HILOBROW has serialized three novels: James Parker’s The Ballad of Cocky The Fox (“a proof-of-concept that serialization can work on the Internet” — The Atlantic); Karinne Keithley Syers’s Linda Linda Linda (which includes original music); and Robert Waldron’s roman à clef The School on the Fens. We also publish original stories and comics. These include: Matthew Battles’s stories “Gita Nova“, “Makes the Man,” “Imago,” “Camera Lucida,” “A Simple Message”, “Children of the Volcano”, “The Gnomon”, “Billable Memories”, “For Provisional Description of Superficial Features”, “The Dogs in the Trees”, “The Sovereignties of Invention”, and “Survivor: The Island of Dr. Moreau”; several of these later appeared in the collection The Sovereignties of Invention | Peggy Nelson’s “Mood Indigo“, “Top Kill Fail“, and “Mercerism” | Annalee Newitz’s “The Great Oxygen Race” | Flourish Klink’s Star Trek fanfic “Conference Comms” | Charlie Mitchell’s “A Fantasy Land” | Charlie Mitchell’s “Sentinels” | Joshua Glenn’s “The Lawless One”, and the mashup story “Zarathustra vs. Swamp Thing” | Adam McGovern and Paolo Leandri’s Idoru Jones comics | John Holbo’s “Sugarplum Squeampunk” | “Another Corporate Death” (1) and “Another Corporate Death” (2) by Mike Fleisch | Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer and Frank Fiorentino’s graphic novel “The Song of Otto” (excerpt) | John Holbo’s graphic novel On Beyond Zarathustra (excerpt) | “Manoj” and “Josh” by Vijay Balakrishnan | “Verge” by Chris Rossi, and his audio novel Low Priority Hero | EPIC WINS: THE ILIAD (1.408-415) by Flourish Klink | EPIC WINS: THE KALEVALA (3.1-278) by James Parker | EPIC WINS: THE ARGONAUTICA (2.815-834) by Joshua Glenn | EPIC WINS: THE MYTH OF THE ELK by Matthew Battles | TROUBLED SUPERHUMAN CONTEST: Charles Pappas, “The Law” | CATASTROPHE CONTEST: Timothy Raymond, “Hem and the Flood” | TELEPATHY CONTEST: Rachel Ellis Adams, “Fatima, Can You Hear Me?” | OIL SPILL CONTEST: A.E. Smith, “Sound Thinking | LITTLE NEMO CAPTION CONTEST: Joe Lyons, “Necronomicon” | SPOOKY-KOOKY CONTEST: Tucker Cummings, “Well Marbled” | INVENT-A-HERO CONTEST: TG Gibbon, “The Firefly” | FANFICTION CONTEST: Lyette Mercier’s “Sex and the Single Superhero”

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