The Unconquerable (40)
April 3, 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!
The narrow, open platform of the small railway station was crowded. Uniforms, holiday clothes, and farewells jostled each other. Military boots, smartly polished and ready for duty once more, trampled on the hardened snow beside the ski-boots of those whose furlough was not yet over. There were women too. Women with confident eyes and voices, furs, lipsticks, and perfume strangely heavy in the crisp, pine-scented air. The voices became louder, gayer. Back-slapping, handshaking, good humour. Commands were kept for the thinly clad, overworked porters. These were Poles. Even the smartly dressed stationmaster and the man sitting in the warm ticket-office were Germans.
Sheila buried her chin more deeply into the fur collar of her coat as if to shield her neck from the cold wind. If fear caused seasickness, then she was liable to be violently seasick at any moment on the solid platform of Zakopane. The feeling of nausea which had attacked her so suddenly this morning when she rose and thought of this journey had returned once again. German voices everywhere. German faces. She looked away from the crowd of well-fed, well-clothed bodies and stared at the village of Zakopane with its restaurants and hotels, its balconies and terraces, its summer villas and winter chalets strung across the lower mountain slopes. The Poles had been proud of their Zakopane. Perhaps that was why the oversized black swastika in its round white circle was displayed so prominently over the ice-stadium.
“…another two weeks’ leave in early spring,” a captain was saying to a tall, blonde girl in well-cut skiing clothes. “We’ll have that in Berlin.”
White teeth showed evenly against golden skin. “Let me know when, Franz. I’ll be back in Danzig next week. Usual address…”
An immaculate major, thin-jawed, hawk-nosed, said to the pink-cheeked captain who kept slow pace with him, “Pity you must leave before you got any real skiing. Perhaps in a month or two… excellent in February.”
“Yes. I was here last winter for the World Ski-championship. Some of the jumps reached eighty-five metres. I remember…” Their steady pace drew them out of Sheila’s hearing.
A dark-haired, anxious woman passed with a lieutenant. “…better, Walter. But are you sure you’re fit to rejoin your unit?”
“Perfectly. Stop worrying, Lisa. Here’s Johann.”
“Walter! Seeing your wife off? When do you leave? Monday? So do I. Good. We’ll travel together. Here are Martin and Sigurd and Frieda to say good-bye to your Lis….” There was a torrent of phrases and laughter.
Sheila waited patiently. The attack of sickness had passed. She watched the platform carefully. Soon now. Surely soon. The train would be leaving in seven minutes. She walked a few paces across the platform, a few steps back. The clock was behind her now. She was standing in the right place. She tightened her hold on the book under her arm. Left arm… that was right. It was a novel in a dramatic jacket of Party colours — black, white, red. That was correct to. She pretended to ignore any glances in her direction from the unattached men near her. She was one of the wives whose husbands were still too ill to be able to come down to the station for a last parting. She was wearing the right clothes. “Quietly, but nicely dressed,” the man who had signed himself Aunt Valeria had said approvingly. “That and a purseful of money will ease the way. The German officials are always quick to differentiate between a woman and a lady. They admire the authority of good clothes. With your papers and escort, you probably will have a pleasant journey.”
Pleasant… Sheila tried to swallow the nervous lump in her throat. She was holding the new handbag so tightly in her neatly gloved hand that she felt it was growing on her, had indeed become a part of her arm. In the handbag was what she valued more than, the smart clothes or the money in her purse. In the handbag were the little pieces of paper which explained who she was, why she was here, where she was going — all so efficient with their flourish of signatures and authentic-looking stamps. Aunt Valeria had been pleased with them. “Beauties!” he had said, and kissed them mockingly as he presented them to her with an imitation-official bow. Stop thinking of Aunt Valeria, she warned herself. Stop thinking of the ghost-like journey from Madame Olszak’s house to the inn outside Zakopane. Stop thinking of Adam… of the parting that had come so swiftly that it was over before she knew it had come…. It was better like that. Neither of them could have endured a long-drawn-out farewell….
Five minutes. She walked a few paces once more. And then she saw him. A short, thick-set man with a heavy white face. Hair greying at the temples; black well-marked eyebrows; grey eyes, serious and thoughtful. His German uniform was carelessly worn, only to be excused by the insignia of the Medical Corps on his coat collar. A busy man, a hurried man, a man too preoccupied with the problems of medicine to be worried about the correct way to dress as a soldier. And an important man, to judge by the respectful salutes given him and acknowledged in his own way. He walked past her very slowly, buried deep in thought. The title of the book he carried was clearly shown against its white cover: System of Neuropathology. Newspapers were under his other arm, a bulging yellow cow-hide brief-case in his hand. This was the man. And he had seen her, dressed in the fur-collared black coat, and the neat little green felt hat pulled down over one eye. But he didn’t seem to notice her.
That was what she had expected. Aunt Valeria had gone over this routine so often with her that she thought she would scream if he asked her to repeat it once again; but now she was glad of the care that had been taken. Now all she had to do was to follow the man in uniform, let him do the talking as he saw fit. The irritating lump in her throat was gone. Contact had been made. The first stage of the journey was already completed.
She pretended to watch the train backing slowly into the station. A chorus of good-byes, advice, laughter surrounded her as she followed the Army doctor casually on board. She ignored the too loud remark of an officer walking beside her, avoided the bright smile he had given which meant to include her along with his friend in his joke. She had a last glimpse of the blonde ski-girl, with her strong teeth now in a firm smile, of the dark-haired Lisa with tears on her cheeks, of the pink-faced captain making a formal, heels-together good-bye. And then she was out of the cold wind and into the suffocating warmth of the long corridor.
She searched for a pleasant compartment and found the one in which the Army doctor had already installed himself and his brief-case. She sat opposite him and pretended to be interested in the emptying platform. An expansive colonel had followed her into the compartment. He disposed of himself amply, and greeted the doctor leisurely.
“Well, Dr Lilienkron, chasing back and forward to your Vienna, as usual?” He spoke with benevolent condescension and straightened his jacket with its row of decorations.
The doctor nodded and opened his newspaper. “Neurologists’ conference begins to-morrow,” he answered. “I shall be a day late, but I’ve been busy. Didn’t know if I could manage to be there at all. I’ve had some interesting cases recently.”
“Seems to me a waste of time to have those meetings during a war,” the colonel said bluntly. “What d’you do?”
Dr Lilienkron raised a black eyebrow. His voice had the Austrian thick softness. “Save lives,” he said, and tried unsuccessfully to study a newspaper column. The colonel talked on. Each phrase breathed success and satisfaction. He was quite conscious of the possible audience he had; the confident voice, the constant note of self-assertion showed he was aware of Sheila even if he did pretend to ignore her.
She, for her part, concentrated on Zakopane, wheeling out of sight as the train curved away from the sloping valley. On the dwindling platform, one of the Polish porters still stood, watching the train. At the last moment he had halted outside this compartment, and the apparently blank eyes had rested on her. Sheila had returned the look, and into the man’s eyes had come relief and happiness. For that one short moment Sheila knew that she had had a friend as she had stood on that platform. These eyes had watched her carefully, ready to report if the slightest thing had gone wrong. Nothing had. And now he stood watching the train, ready to report, “All well at Zakopane.”
She didn’t listen to the conversation which the colonel was relentlessly pursuing. She didn’t even worry now whether he would be a handicap or an asset to their plans. Dr Lilienkron would know how to decide, this was his problem. She glanced over at the tired white face with its dark-circled eyes. Dr Lilienkron was watching her with puzzled politeness.
He leaned over slightly and said, “I believe we have met…. Please excuse me. I forget names so easily. Your husband is one of my patients, isn’t he? Didn’t I see you when you visited him?”
“Yes,” Sheila heard herself saying. “Captain Hellmuth Kraus.” She managed a smile as she said the last name not too distinctly.
“But of course. How stupid of me. You must forgive my rudeness. I have a habit of forgetting names, but remembering faces.” Introductions followed to the waiting colonel, but Sheila was too nervous to catch his name. It didn’t matter, anyway. He did most of the talking. The ticket-collector was quickly chased out of their compartment with his what-the-devil-are-you-bothering-us-about-now stare. And no other traveller had either the courage to resist the colonel, or the inclination to be bored by him, for no one else entered the compartment, although the small train was well crowded.
“I forget where your home is,” Dr Lilienkron was saying to her with grave politeness.
“It’s near Vienna.”
“And that’s where I am going.” He smiled kindly. “So we are travelling companions.”
“I’m travelling as far as Bohemia myself,” the colonel informed them.
After that the doctor seemed willing to forget about both his newspaper and his patient’s wife. He listened constantly and politely to the colonel. It is possible that the colonel had never had such an attentive audience. His constant repetition of “out of the question,” “in my opinion,” never had more patient hearing. Dr Lilienkron of the sad eyes and tired face was turning the colonel into an asset.
Their journey led them back into Poland as far as Cracow. There they changed trains to travel towards the south-west. The colonel stayed with the doctor, and the doctor stayed with Sheila. She seemed worried and nervous and sad. That was sufficient excuse for him to see that his patient’s wife was escorted out of this strange, wild land. The colonel approved too. He had been impressed by Sheila’s restraint and by her clothes. Aunt Valeria had chosen well.
Sheila solved the problem of conversation by pretending to be tired. She spent the journey out of Poland either listening to the steady flow of opinions which passed for conversation in the colonel’s mind, or resting with her eyes closed and her head leaning wearily against the white mat which decorated the back of the compartment seat. She feigned sleep. It was all the more difficult that she should be really fighting against it. She mustn’t fall asleep or let her mind slip into Polish or English phrases. She mustn’t think of Adam, of the stark loneliness of these last two days when he was no longer with her. That was the price you had to pay, the more you loved, the greater this sense of loneliness.
“Are you all right?” Dr Lilienkron was asking gently. His observant eyes were studying hers with a doctor’s perception.
“You must not worry so much about your husband. He will be quite well very soon.”
She nodded again.
The colonel cleared his throat impatiently and brought the doctor back to the problems of keeping troops healthy under desert conditions. He kept talking of some Afrika Korps.
The rolling foot-hills of the countryside south of Cracow gave way to pine-trees and rocky crags. The white mountains and the huddling villages swept by. The train was once more in the Carpathians. They were approaching the south-westernmost corner of Poland, of the Poland that was — for all the names and signs in the villages were now in German. Soon they would be at the old border. The train would travel across the south-east tip of Germany into Czechoslovakia, into the country the Germans now called Bohemia to satisfy themselves that it was German too.
The rhythm of the train-wheels changed. There were movements in the corridor as some passengers prepared to descend at the old frontier town of Bohumin to catch the Breslau express.
A young lieutenant glanced into their compartment as he passed leisurely along the corridor. His face was familiar, and he had recognized her. She could feel he knew her. Sheila looked abruptly away, fear and worry once more churning inside her, and pretended to watch the station into which the train was now sliding slowly. Slowly it stopped. Impatiently she watched the passengers who dismounted, made their good-byes, joined other groups. She searched desperately for the known face. And then, as she saw the man’s slight figure walking confidently across the rails towards the waiting Breslau train, she remembered, and remembering, she could have cried out in relief. The man dressed as a German lieutenant had been at that Zakopane inn to meet Aunt Valeria. He had been nameless and uncommunicative. She had met him only once. He had been there for instructions, Aunt Valeria had said. Now she could guess what these had been: the young man was to proceed into Germany itself. She watched the slim shoulders with amazement and admiration. They moved so confidently, so calmly into the German express; somehow his assurance comforted her and gave her added courage.
She could smile now at her alarm. Frontiers, even in peacetime, had always worried her. If she hadn’t been so nervous she might have recognized him sooner and saved herself an unpleasant three minutes. And yet the man seemed so altered, so different, that she probably wouldn’t have recognized him easily, in any case. She leaned more comfortably against the arm-rest in her corner of the compartment. It was comforting to know that people could merge so successfully into a new background. And it was comforting to think that another friend had been so near her on this journey. First the porter at Zakopane. Now this young ‘German,’ whose journey had been arranged to coincide with hers. She began to wonder if this kind of supervision was going to follow her all the way to Vienna. Adam had said the journey would be safe: he certainly had made his arrangements.
She saw that the colonel was watching her. Her muscles tightened. Her right thumb pressed against the wedding-ring which Madame Olszak had given her as a farewell present. (“It brought me much happiness,” the faded voice had said, and the cold lips had kissed her gently.) She waited tensely.
“Going on manoeuvres,” the colonel said, and Sheila relaxed once more. He nodded towards the neat, double line of soldiers waiting patiently on the platform. They carried skis and other winter equipment. “Fine body of men,” he added. “Eh, Lilienkron?”
Lilienkron agreed. Sheila felt herself watching the platform too. So many uniforms, she thought bitterly, so many. The colonel looked with satisfaction at the numerous soldiers who paced about the station to keep warm in the cold wind.
It was then that she saw the two officers who were striding along the length of the train. The taller of them had turned his face boldly towards the carriages. He was looking for some one, his eyes keen, his face intent. For a moment, as he drew level with her, his brown eyes looked deeply into hers. Sheila’s thumb tightened on her ring. Her right hand clenched. She felt she had turned to stone. Then the officers’ steady pace carried them out of sight. She began to breathe again. Adam, dear God in heaven, Adam… How could you? How could you do anything so wild, so mad? She didn’t know whether she wanted to laugh or to cry.
The colonel’s voice was saying, “We build good soldiers. No doubt about that. Eh, Lilienkron?”
Again Lilienkron agreed.
Sheila was smiling now, her hands smoothing her gloves on her lap, her eyes watching the colonel. He took the smile as one of approval and nodded graciously.
“Leaving at last,” Dr Lilienkron said in relief as the train’s wheels groaned and strained. “Any more delays on this line, and I shall never reach Vienna in time for that meeting.”
The faces in the station seemed to be moving past the window. Sheila saw Adam and his companion salute another officer smartly as they were about to leave the station. Above them the giant swastika, taut in the cold afternoon wind, stretched its crooked arms. Sheila, her eyes on Adam as he paused for a moment to look at the departing train, kept her face expressionless. The imposing colonel couldn’t hear her heart singing.
Lilienkron had looked at her sharply. Then he was searching for some report in his hideously bright brief-case to interest the colonel. The two men read and talked intermittently until it was time for dinner. Rather surprisingly, it was the colonel who insisted that they should have the pleasure of her company.
The journey became stereotyped. It was like any journey in an express train across Europe on any winter holiday. Except that every one spoke German. Except that all the younger men were in uniform, and all the newspapers and menus and notices were in thick German script.
At Brno the colonel departed. To the very end, Sheila was glad to note, he had never got her name correctly once. Dr Lilienkron’s introduction had been a masterly study in ambiguity.
At Vienna the silent doctor made his farewell.
“Some one is meeting you?” he asked politely, as they joined the straggling stream of weary travellers.
Sheila noticed the tall, thin man with a green tie who had marked down the doctor and his companion and was now waiting for them to separate. “Yes,” she said. “My brother-in-law.”
Dr Lilienkron left her as vaguely as he had met her. The tall, thin man’s choice of welcoming phrase was what she had expected. She answered as she had been taught. His handshake was firm, friendly, comforting. The second stage of the journey was over.
Three days later two nuns left Vienna. They travelled south towards Italy. In the manner of nuns they were quiet, gently sad, and yet somehow contented. In comparison their fellow-travellers seemed over-excited, rudely energetic, violently unhappy. At the frontier their few earthly belongings were easily examined. Their papers were in correct order.
“Sometimes it seems a waste,” the younger customs official remarked as his eyes followed the two nuns departing from his table. “That young one…”
The old official shook his head. “Sometimes I think they are the lucky ones,” he said wearily, and turned his attention to an argumentative Rumanian.
In the local Italian train the two nuns sat silently amid the general uproar of a third-class carriage. Children clambered over the wooden seats. Peasants hugged their large bundles on their knees. A young man played disjointed tunes on a concertina. A girl with heavy black hair, a black shawl, and long jet ear-rings sang in a harsh, sharp voice. A baby cried on one high, sustained note. A fat goose waddled down the centre passage. Hens clucked noisily from wicker baskets. The carriage smelled of human bodies, sounded with high exclamations and denunciations. Scolding and laughter, garlic and sour red wine filled the air.
The older nun smiled tolerantly. But the younger nun seemed oblivious to everything around her. Only her eyes were alive in her face, and the thoughts that filled them were far removed from these surroundings. Once the older nun had touched the scarred left hand beside her and pointed to the neatly husbanded field with its row of cypress-trees, black in the faint winter sunlight. “A country at peace,” she said comfortingly.
The younger nun roused herself politely. Obediently she looked. Peace, she was thinking, and yet only the pretence of peace. There was no real peace anywhere, until there was peace everywhere. How long until then? She wondered, her eyes fixed on the cold blue winter sky. How long? Never too long, Adam had said. Sheila smiled sadly: she was going to learn the meaning of patience. She had learned fear and sorrow and hatred and love. Patience was still to be learned. At least she had already discovered that there was no use in trying to avoid these realities. Life was a hard school: the sooner you accepted that, the sooner you learned.
The older nun beside her shook her head. They were all like that, those who got out… silent, brooding, unseeing. Poor things, it was as if they had left their hearts and minds in the hell from which their bodies had escaped. It was as if they were ashamed that they had escaped at all.
She pointed to the sunset, deepening suddenly. “Eh! Com’è bello!!” she said.
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”