The Unconquerable (41)

By: Helen MacInnes
April 9, 2015

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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!

This is the book’s final installment.

ALL INSTALLMENTS

***

Chapter 41: Never Too Long

Uncle Matthews pushed aside the forgotten cup of coffee and rested his elbows on the table-cloth which he had liberally sprinkled with cigarette-ash. Sheila’s voice had ended, and her hands played with the rose petal in the finger-bowl. Even if there was a war in Europe, at least the candles and the best crystal and all the other table trimmings had been set forth for the prodigal’s return.

“Well,” Uncle Matthews said at last. “Interesting story.”

Sheila looked at the serious face opposite her, always grim in repose, in spite of the pink cheeks, blue eyes, and white hair. “You don’t quite believe it,” she said with a smile.

“Why not? It’s interesting, but not unusual. I’ve heard more incredible tales than that in the last four weeks.”

Sheila raised an eyebrow, and her uncle laughed suddenly at the expression on her face. “You don’t quite believe that,” he challenged.

She remembered Mr Olszak and his friends. “Why not?” she echoed, imitating her uncle’s voice.

“I don’t want to hurry you, but there’s a couple of chaps I’d like you to meet. To-morrow. While the details you’ve given me are still fresh in your head. Do you feel up to seeing them?”

“Of course. Are they British?”

“One is. The other is Polish.”

Suddenly Sheila felt pleased. “Do you think what I have to tell could possibly be of some use?” she asked eagerly.

Uncle Matthews suppressed a smile. “Possibly,” he said, and lit another cigarette.

“I wish,” she said abruptly, “I do wish I could really have been of some use.”

He took a long time to extinguish the match.

“I mean,” she went on, “when I had a chance to do some
thing… In Warsaw. Just when I was getting into that Gestapo
 circle… If I hadn’t gone to Korytów to warn the village, if 
I hadn’t met Reymont and his men, if ——”

“Too many ifs,” said Uncle Matthews quietly. “You wouldn’t have lasted very long in that Gestapo circle, as you call it. You’d need a couple of years’ training first for that kind of work. Personally, I don’t think you did so badly. Olszak doesn’t think so, anyway. I had a message from him yesterday.”

“Yes?” Sheila’s eyes widened impatiently.

“He sent you his love.”

“He didn’t!”

“Well, words to that effect. He thinks you saved him.”

“Oh… if I hadn’t found out about Dittmar… then I suppose some one else would have.”

“Would they?” Uncle Matthews was smiling openly now. “By the way, I like that fellow Stevens. Good man. Works hard.”

Sheila smiled. “Yes,” she said warmly.

“He’s engaged to be married, you know.”

“Steve?” Sheila studied the woven water-lily on the white table-cloth. What right had she to be so surprised? She smiled, and then laughed at herself. “I’m so glad,” she said. “I hope she’s as nice as Steve deserves.”

“Pretty girl. American. Writes for some newspaper.”

There was a pause. “Any other news?” Sheila hoped her voice sounded disinterested.

“We made a short advance yesterday against the Siegfried Line.”

“Uncle Matthews!”

“Be careful of that finger-bowl. It spills quite easily.” And then he relented. “Your husband is well. He has gone farther east now. Madame Aleksander is well. Mr Hofmeyer is well and doing remarkably good business. In fact, so far things have been going nicely for all of them. Olszak’s organization is building up slowly and surely. He isn’t trying for any spectacular successes just now. He’s preparing for the future. Clever fellow, Olszak.”

“Yes.” Sheila could agree about that. Farther east, she was thinking. She must get hold of a map, a nice, detailed map. She waited patiently, hoping for some more crumbs of good news. But that was all she was to be allowed.

“One point we’d better discuss before you start seeing people again. You know, of course, that no one must learn how you lived, or what you’ve been doing, or how you travelled out of Poland to Italy.”

“Of course.”

“Also, Sheila, I think it better for you to keep your old name, Matthews. Wisniewski is on the German records as having been killed in Warsaw towards the end of the siege. We want to keep him officially dead. So, until the war ends, you had just better remain Miss Matthews. Agreed?”

Sheila looked strangely at him. She seemed to be trying to say something, without succeeding very well.

“Couldn’t we invent a name?” she suggested at last.

“What’s wrong with Matthews?” said her uncle in amusement. “It was good enough for you for more than twenty years.”

“It isn’t the Matthews part that worries me.” She half smiled. “Unless, of course, you don’t mind introducing us to your friends as Miss Matthews and son.”

Uncle Matthews stared at her. All his amusement had gone.

“Or Miss Matthews and daughter,” Sheila added quietly. “You never can tell about such things, I believe.”

Uncle Matthews still said nothing. It was the only time in her life, Sheila thought, that she had ever succeeded in surprising him.

He recovered quickly. “And that,” he was saying, as if to himself, “was the real reason why we managed to get you out of Poland.”

Sheila didn’t deny it.

Uncle Matthews suddenly laughed. “I thought it was because of my pressure on Olszak. Olszak thought it was all a matter of security. Your husband thought it was to ensure your safety. You weren’t thinking anywhere along our lines, were you?”

“No,” Sheila answered.

Uncle Matthews laughed again. There is no joke which a Scotsman enjoys more than a pleasant one against himself.

Sheila smiled. “Well, that’s a relief, Uncle Matthews. I wasn’t quite sure whether you’d rage like a bull or roar like a lion.”

He looked slightly startled at the idea. “Come now,” he said, “apart from a natural resentment at being kicked upstairs into the great-uncle class, I’m delighted.” He was keeping his voice especially mild, to prove to himself the exaggeration of her description.

Sheila rose and came round to where he sat, and laid a hand on his shoulder. She wondered what he would say if she planted a kiss on his cheek. He’d probably like it, although he’d never admit it. She tried it. She was right.

“Picking up Polish customs, I see,” he said, as she left him to cross over to the window.

“If we put out the lights,” she called over her shoulder, “we could draw back the curtains and I could see my first London black-out.”

“What’s so wonderful about that?” he grumbled; but he extinguished the candles one by one.

The frost gleamed on the sloping slate roofs. The grey stone was whitened by the moon. The soot-marks became black shadows. The stars seemed brighter over the darkened city, like the stars over the sea, or the stars above silent mountains. The same moon and the same stars would be fading now as the dawn began in the Carpathians.

Unexpectedly he had come over to stand beside her at the window. Together they looked at the bright stars.

“It may be a long time,” he said gently. “You know that, Sheila? The war hasn’t really begun for us over here. Not yet.”

“I know.” Her voice was even. “It will be long,” she was saying. She turned abruptly away from the window. “Never too long,” she added quietly; so quietly that he wondered if he had really caught the whole phrase. He puzzled over that for a moment; never too long to wait if… ? If what you waited for Was really worth while? That, he decided, must be the implication. He felt a sudden relief. At least she wasn’t going to lament or complain, she wasn’t going to dramatize. To-night she had talked about Korytów and Madame Aleksander, of Barbara and Uncle Edward and Olszak, of Reymont, and Jan, of Casimir and his dog Volterscot, of Kati and Zygmunt, of Andrew and Stefan and little Teresa, of Madame Olszak, of the men in the forest and Adam Wisniewski. He knew now that once their story had been told she wasn’t going to keep on talking about them. She had her own thoughts about the past. She had her own beliefs about the future. She wanted no one to invade them.

She faced him again, and she was smiling as she looked up at the night sky.

He had the strange feeling that, for the moment, he didn’t exist.

ALL INSTALLMENTS

***

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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