Larger Font   Reset Font Size   Smaller Font  

While Still We Live, Page 2

Helen Macinnes

  “Aunt Marta doesn’t. She says he is a radical.”

  “I think all the nicest old men I’ve met were radicals when they were young.”

  “But it seems so odd, Sheila, to bury yourself in a little village like this if you have talent.”

  Sheila, watching the anxious face, thought: You yourself do a very good job of burying, Madame Aleksander. She said, “Jan Reska was a farmer’s son. He hasn’t been able to free himself of his love of the land. That’s why he chooses to teach in a country village.”

  Madame Aleksander nodded. She looked as if she could understand and believe that. Suddenly she raised her hands in a quick gesture to her face. “Oh, how dreadful... I nearly forgot. Sheila, would you hurry after Barbara? Tell her to visit Kawka’s house. His mother is very ill. I want to know how she is. And if Father Mazur is there, tell Barbara to invite him to dine with us.” She paused, and then added: “Tell her to invite Jan Reska, too.”

  * * *

  Sheila hurried down the curving staircase and through the square entrance hall. Behind her was the kitchen, the smell of spiced fruit newly bottled, Maria’s voice raised in anger. Zofia’s weeping followed Sheila out of doors into the warm air. As she crossed the shaded veranda, with its four white pillars rising to support the overhanging roof, and descended the shallow steps, hot to the touch of her thin shoes, she was thinking how strange it was that one servant should be so arrogant with another. Madame Aleksander ruled the kitchen with a firm hand, but she never reduced Zofia to wailing. Maria could, and frequently did.

  Sheila hesitated on the sandy surface of the drive. Barbara had probably taken the short cut, past the small west wing of the house, past the stables and the duckpond. My friend Wanda was there, sitting under the shade of a willow that wept into the dark water. A yellow kerchief hid her tightly plaited hair, her bare legs were straight and wide apart before her, like a ballet girl on a Degas canvas. One of the geese hissed angrily at the running Sheila. “Boo to you,” she called in English over her shoulder. Wanda looked up from her knitting, and her face crinkled. She didn’t understand, but she laughed, anyway. Sheila gave the child a wave of her hand, as she passed through the line of linden trees and entered the path which edged Kawka’s long, narrow stretch of land. His was the first house in the straight row of rye-thatched cottages which formed the village of Korytów.

  She saw Kawka and his wife and his sister, working half-way up the field. And then, just as she was wondering if her hesitating attempts to speak Polish would be understood by them, or if they wouldn’t object to hearing some German instead, she saw Barbara. And with Barbara was the schoolmaster. They were standing under one of the broad linden trees. They waved, as if they had noticed her indecision. She went forward slowly, thankful that it had been she, and not Aunt Marta, who had found them standing hand-in-hand so openly. But as she saw the numbed, helpless look in their eyes, she knew that the time for discretion was past. Time was too short. They knew it.

  “Jan cannot come,” Barbara replied to Sheila’s message from Madame Aleksander. “He leaves within the hour. The call came this morning. Just a piece of paper handed silently into his house. That was all.”

  Sheila didn’t know what to say. Anything seemed trite. She looked at Reska. He had the strong body, the quiet, large-boned face of a countryman. The sweat still glistened on his throat. His hands and forearms were covered with harvest dust. He had been working with Kawka. He had chosen to help on that piece of land because it lay nearest to the manor house, and he had desperately hoped to see Barbara, or Sheila, or even Teresa, to give them the news of his going.

  His blue eyes were fixed on the horizon, as if he could see the German waves ready to roll over these plains. “I wonder just how many men they really have,” he said softly, almost to himself. “There’s been so much bluster and talk.” Then he smiled as if to cheer the anxious girls, and the hard line of his high cheekbones and strong chin softened.

  “If things were desperate, I’m sure the Polish armies would be fully mobilised and at the frontier now,” Sheila said hopefully.

  “It’s a long frontier.” Reska’s voice was not dejected, only philosophic. “And we have been mustering the troops slowly, almost secretly. We are far from being mobilised. The democracies have asked us to give the Germans no excuse for attack, so we leave ourselves vulnerable in trying to keep the peace. Personally, I think we would have been wiser to have mobilised weeks ago. If the Germans don’t find an excuse, they invent one.”

  Sheila suddenly felt she shouldn’t be here with them. Hurriedly she said, “I’ll go down to Kawka’s house. Father Mazur will understand me if I talk German, won’t he?”

  Barbara nodded.

  To Reska, Sheila spoke the Polish goodbye phrases, which she had been mastering in the last few days. He bowed with unexpected grace, and gave a neat reply which embraced Poland, her allies, his good wishes for her safe journey to London, his hope to see her again in Poland once victory was won. He raised her hand, and kissed the cuff of her sleeve.

  By the time she left Kawka’s house, Barbara was waiting alone for her under the linden tree. Neither of them appeared aware of the heavy tears on Barbara’s cheeks. Sheila found herself staring at the western horizon as Reska had done.



  Andrew Aleksander and Mr. Stevens had arrived. The car had driven up in a swirl of warm dust, Teresa and Stefan had rushed outside, the stable dogs had barked, the ducks and geese had added their contribution of noise from the pond. In the kitchen, women’s high voices had subsided with their hurrying footsteps. Everything was ready.

  In her room, Sheila pretended to make a last search through the drawers of the dressing table. She was increasingly nervous about going downstairs. She persuaded herself that she must give Andrew and his friend time to meet the family. One drawer, forgotten in its smallness, roused a vague suspicion. She crossed over to the little rosewood writing desk. She was right. She had almost left her diary. Small wonder that she had forgotten it: she hadn’t entered a thing in it for weeks. In London, where she had always been so busy, she had yet managed to keep an account of what she had done each day. Here, there had never seemed to be any time for writing a diary. She smiled at that. Diaries must be for lonely people.

  She opened the book, crossing over to the window to have better light to read. What had she been doing one year ago today? That was always amusing to find out August 30, 1938... The Sudeten question. Enrollment in a class for voluntary nursing. An appointment with a newspaper editor, in the hope of being accepted as a very minor member of his staff... Not a very good entry... The Sudeten question was now solving itself in Danzig. The voluntary nursing hadn’t been much of a success—why did other people not turn sick at the sight of blood? As for the newspaper job...too many would-be correspondents, too few openings.

  A movement from the clump of bushes near the American’s car caught her eye. There was a glimpse of white loose sleeve, as an arm grabbed a small, tow-headed boy, and pulled him back into the thick shrubbery. There was a giggle; children’s voices trying to be subdued and not succeeding; and once more the head of the boy struggling into view. This time, he evaded the arm, and dashed towards the running-board. By standing on tiptoe, he could just see over the edge of the open car.

  “Red,” he squeaked excitedly over his shoulder. He stared inside once more, his small hands clutching the car’s side tightly. “Leather!” he added. There was a flurry of excitement in the bushes. Yellow-topped Wanda darted forward, followed by an older girl in the wide-sleeved blouse. Then Felix appeared, charging round from the stable end of the house with a yell like a factory whistle. The children vanished. Felix, growling into his long moustache, searched in the bushes. But the birds had indeed flown. My friend Wanda’s high laugh sounded from the straggling pinewoods beyond.

  Sheila laughed too, and Felix looked up. He had dressed himself in his best clothes—tight, black trousers tucked into ti
ght, high boots; a sleeveless jacket over a clean, white shirt—and he had combed his few remaining hairs into a toothy parting.

  “Felix, you do look handsome,” Sheila called down, and won a broad gap of a smile.

  “The young lady is ready to leave?”

  “Yes.” Sheila heard the sound of galloping horses. They were coming from the east, but the pine woods which hid the children also blocked any clear view.

  “That is sad. Everyone is going away. All the young people, once more.” He stood shaking his upturned head.

  The hoof beats struck the road, and two horses swept into the driveway. Sheila held her breath. The horses reared as they were tightly reined in, stood erect on their quivering haunches for a long moment, and then dropped their forefeet slowly to the ground. A white-haired man dismounted and gave the reins over to Felix. But the dark young man in uniform still sat on his horse. He was looking up at Sheila with sufficient interest to freeze the smile on her lips into self-consciousness. She drew back half a pace. Then, with a smart salute to the tip of his smart cap, the officer vaulted lightly off his horse, threw the reins over Felix’s waiting arm, and followed the older man into the house.

  Sheila placed the diary on top of a suitcase. Before the mirror, she combed her fair hair, added more powder to an already perfect skin. Her brown eyes looked back at her reprimandingly. “You had no need,” they said severely, “to keep staring at him.”

  Barbara, white-faced, sad-mouthed, interrupted her thoughts. “Sheila, aren’t you ready? We are waiting. And we have other guests, too, now. Adam Wisniewski and his father have ridden over from their house. Adam’s regiment is moving north, and it is stationed tonight near Lowicz. It is requisitioning more horses. Adam got leave to see his father, and they have come over here to say goodbye. He’s Andrew’s greatest friend. Did you meet him when Andrew was in London last year? Adam passed through there on his way to the Dublin Horse Show. He rides, you know.”

  “So I saw.”

  “Mother would like me to marry Adam. Can you see any reason why I don’t fall in love with him?” Barbara was half-smiling.

  “None.” Sheila paused. “Except that you fell in love with Jan Reska.”

  Barbara must have been thinking of Reska too. Her voice wasn’t very steady now. “It’s funny...” She took Sheila’s arm, and together they walked slowly towards the staircase.

  “What is?” Sheila asked gently.

  “Falling in love. How you do it, with whom...” Barbara managed to control her voice better. “Mother wants to see all her children married to people she likes. Of course you knew that was why she asked you to visit us this summer? She was so eager to see you, after Andrew came home from London and talked about you most of the time.”

  “Oh.” Sheila had wondered about that. After all, that was one of the reasons which had made her decide to accept Madame Aleksander’s invitation: she had wanted to find out, too, if she were really in love with Andrew.

  “You would have been just my choice for a sister-in-law,” Barbara was saying. She watched Sheila’s face as if hoping for a denial that Sheila wouldn’t be her sister-in-law. She saw, instead, a look of embarrassment and unhappiness well mixed. In some things, Barbara thought, the British girl seemed so much older than she did—in other things, such as falling in love and recognising it, Sheila was so much younger. It was incredible that people should be afraid of their emotions, instead of enjoying them.

  “Don’t worry, Sheila.” Barbara’s sun-tanned arm went round Sheila’s shoulder. “Don’t worry. Mother has other things to think about now. She is talking downstairs about leaving for Warsaw to do hospital work if war comes. She nursed in the last one, you know.”

  In the hall, there was the sound of many voices, even laughter.

  “Is the news better?” Sheila asked, as a heavily laden Maria, followed by a twittering Zofia, bustled past the girls.

  Barbara shook her head slowly. All pretence of lightheartedness was gone. Then Maria’s broad back had pushed the dining-room door wide open, and Madame Aleksander had seen them, was coming forward to welcome Sheila.

  “You aren’t shy?” she asked gently, looking at the girl’s wide eyes. And Sheila immediately lost the composure she had been mustering. The faces around her were so many, so vague. Then suddenly, they focused sharply. She found herself looking into the brown eyes of the tall cavalry officer. She would have to pick on him, she thought angrily, and looked quickly away. She had the feeling that it wasn’t quickly enough. He was smiling.

  Andrew was beside her now, looking very strange and serious in his uniform. There were the introductions to be completed: Father Mazur, Pan Wisniewski, Mr. Russell Stevens, Captain Adam Wisniewski. There was a scraping of chairs. The last party in Madame Aleksander’s house was about to begin. As if everyone were admitting it secretly to himself, there was a sudden restraint, a hush that continued after the priest’s blessing was over.

  Teresa ended it. Her eyes, round with excitement at having been included in a real grownup party, were examining the elaborately embroidered cloth, the silver vases and candlesticks.

  “When did you get all this, mother?” she asked suddenly.

  The men roared with laughter. The priest’s serious face relaxed into a smile. Aunt Marta, looking more Roman matron than ever in her best black dress, said severely, “Teresa, they were your great-great-grandmother’s. At times, they have been buried deep in the earth to save them from the Cossacks. But when it was safe to bring them out, they came out for special occasions. Tonight is a special occasion.” With that, Aunt Marta turned to Pan Wisniewski and began a conversation about the requisitioning of horses, the low price of hogs, and the long summer drought. Madame Aleksander was talking with Father Mazur, their voices so low that Sheila guessed the latest news was under discussion. Captain Wisniewski was doing his best to entertain Barbara with his most recent troubles. Now and again, the captain would glance across the table to Sheila, as if including her; and then Sheila would hastily renew her conversation with Andrew on her right. The American on her left seemed to understand that Andrew had a lot to say, for he kept silent and devoted himself to the variety of food which Maria and the other women were serving. Maria’s habit of entering into the conversations with a crusty comment or two seemed to amuse Mr. Stevens. His Polish, Sheila noted, was more fluent than her own efforts. His appetite was certainly better.

  The pinpricks of light from the tall white candles had spread into a rich glow as the sunset faded. There was a steady flow of talk, but the animation was tense and strained. Andrew was quiet, gentle, sympathetic, but there was a hard look in his eyes whenever the subjects of present news, probable war, or Germany were introduced. So he and Sheila talked of London, of the friends he had made there last winter, when he had visited England with a Purchasing Commission for army supplies. Then Andrew spoke of her Uncle Matthews, who, he was sure, would blame him for not having made Sheila leave Poland ten days ago.

  “No,” Sheila said quickly, emphatically. “No, Andrew. Please don’t worry about that. My uncle knows by this time that you did try to get me to leave two weeks ago, when you left Warsaw for Gdynia. He also knows me. I think...”

  Andrew smiled at that Sheila avoided Captain Wisniewski’s very direct look.

  “I must say I had rather a shock today when I got back to Warsaw and discovered you had never gone to England,” Andrew admitted. “Why didn’t you go when you said you would?”

  “I meant to. But somehow there were so many things I still had to do. And there was a wedding in the village to which I was invited. It is strange, isn’t it, how a village can catch you up in a way that a big city never touches you?” Sheila was suddenly aware that the American was listening, too. She turned to him and smiled to excuse her neglect. “Hello,” he said very seriously. “I’m Russell Stevens. Remember me? I’m the fellow that came in with Andrew.”

  “I’m Sheila Matthews,” she countered weakly.

  “I know
. I’m a friend of Andrew’s.” He watched the heightening colour in her cheeks with matter-of-fact interest. “And how does our English friend enjoy the Polish countryside? It’s all too marvellous?”

  The mocking note of quotation in his voice annoyed Sheila. I am not an impressionable schoolgirl, she thought irritably. She glanced involuntarily across the table, and then wished she hadn’t. Captain Wisniewski had given up all pretence of talking to Barbara, and was watching her quite openly. The calm scrutiny opposite, with its implied masculine confidence, had its effect. The neat little speech which she was preparing for Mr. Stevens’ benefit suddenly disintegrated.

  “Go on,” Mr. Stevens said encouragingly. “You look very charming when you are indignant.”

  She checked her next words in embarrassment. At a time like this, she would only argue emotionally. Perhaps Mr. Stevens had guessed what she was thinking, for he gave her an unexpected smile and glanced at his watch. That was the third time he had looked at it in the last half-hour.

  Sheila said, “I’m sorry I am giving you all this trouble. The journey to Warsaw, I mean. But you don’t have to put me on a train. I’ve caught midnight trains abroad, before now.”

  “On the eve of a war? And what a war!”

  Sheila was silent.

  “I’m not worrying about you, Miss Matthews. You are one of the lucky ones. You are leaving.” He looked round the room. Food and wine had slackened the tense conversations. The animation was gone. A calm fatalism had taken its place.

  “They’ve suffered more than our countries have,” Sheila said slowly.

  “We’ll learn.” The American’s voice was grim. Suddenly he was alert. “What’s that?”

  Sheila listened tensely. So did Madame Aleksander and Barbara. But it was only the engine of a high-powered car.

  “Someone to visit you, Madame Aleksander,” Stevens said, more for the sake of ending the sudden silence than for anything else.

  “An emergency, perhaps?” Wisniewski’s strong, deep voice suggested. Both he and Andrew had risen to their feet as the brakes screeched on the driveway. Their uniforms emphasised the serious look they interchanged.