A young woman passes through the countryside to visit her dying grandmother for a final time. A cabbie, exhausted from a long day’s work, fights to get an intoxicated woman out of his taxi. A man on his way to a bachelor party tries to come to grips with the brutishness that lies within every gentleman—and finds that Bacardi cocktails do nothing to help.
A master craftsman whose poetry and prose offer profound insight into the riddle of consciousness, Conrad Aiken thrills, disturbs, and inspires in all forty-one of these astute and eloquent tales.
Related collections and offers
|Publisher:||Open Road Media|
|Sold by:||Barnes & Noble|
|File size:||1 MB|
About the Author
Aiken published more than fifty works of poetry, fiction, and criticism, including the novels Blue Voyage, Great Circle, King Coffin, A Heart for the Gods of Mexico, and Conversation, and the widely anthologized short stories “Silent Snow, Secret Snow” and “Mr. Arcularis.” He played a key role in establishing Emily Dickinson’s status as a major American poet, mentored a young Malcolm Lowry, and served as the US poet laureate from 1950 to 1952. Aiken returned to Savannah eleven years before his death; the epitaph on his tombstone in Bonaventure Cemetery reads: Cosmos Mariner, Destination Unknown.
Read an Excerpt
The Collected Short Stories of Conrad Aiken
By Conrad Aiken
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1960 Conrad Aiken
All rights reserved.
Miss Rooker dreamed that she was on board the Falcon in Marblehead Harbor. Dr. Fish was uncorking a bottle of champagne, contorting his face grotesquely, his gray mustache pushed up so that it seemed to envelop his red nose. Dr. Harrington, tall and thin in his white flannels, stood beside the gramophone, singing with wide open mouth, his eyes comically upturned towards the low cabin ceiling; his white flannel arm was round Miss Paine's waist. As he sang he seemed to draw her tighter and tighter against his side, his face darkened, Miss Paine began to scream. The cork came out with a loud pop, froth poured onto the napkin. Miss Rooker held out her glass to be filled, and a great blob of champagne froth fell upon the front of her skirt. It was her white duck skirt which buttoned all the way down with large mother-of-pearl buttons. "Oh—Dr. Harrington!" she cried. Dr. Fish reached down a hand to wipe it away—she was transfixed with delight and horror when instead he unbuttoned one of the buttons, at the same time bringing his mustached face very close to hers and intensely smiling. She had no clothes on, and he was touching her knee. Dr. Harrington sang louder, Miss Paine screamed louder, the gramophone cawed and squealed, and now Dr. Fish was uncorking one bottle after another—pop! pop! pop! She sat in the stern of the tender, trailing one hand in the water of the dark harbor, as they rowed rapidly away from the yacht. Dr. Harrington, slightly drunk, was driving rather recklessly—from side to side of the Boulevard went the car, and Miss Rooker and Dr. Fish were tumbled together; he pinched her side. She would be late—they would be late—long after midnight. The sky was already growing light. Birds began singing. A sparrow, rather large, ridiculously large, opened his mouth wide and started shouting in through her window: "Bring! Bring! Bring! Bring! Bring! ..." She woke at this. A sparrow was chirping noisily in the wild cherry tree outside her window. She was in Duxbury. It was a hot morning in summer. She was "on a case"—Mrs. Oldkirk. Mrs. Oldkirk would be waking and would want her glass of hot milk. Perhaps Mrs. Oldkirk had been calling? She listened. No. Nothing but the sparrows and the crickets. But it was time to get up. Why on earth should she be dreaming, after all this time, of Dr. Harrington and Dr. Fish? Five years ago. Possibly because Mr. Oldkirk reminded her of Dr. Fish.... Brushing her black hair before the mirror, and looking into her dark-pupiled brown eyes, she felt melancholy. She was looking very well—very pretty. She sang softly, so as not to disturb Mrs. Oldkirk in the next room: "And when I told—them—how beautiful you were—they wouldn't be—lieve—me; they wouldn't be—lieve—me." Delicious, a deep cold bath on a sultry morning like this; and today the bathing would be good, a high tide about twelve o'clock. Mr. Oldkirk and Miss Lavery would be going in.... Miss Lavery was Mrs. Oldkirk's cousin.... Well, it really was disgraceful, the way they behaved! Pretending to "keep house" for Mrs. Oldkirk! Did anybody else notice it? And Mr. Oldkirk was very nice-looking; she liked his sharp blue eyes, humorous. "And—when—I—told—them—how beautiful you were—"
Mrs. Oldkirk was already awake, her hands clasped under her braided hair, her bare white elbows tilted upward.
"Good morning, Miss Rooker," she said languidly.
"Good morning, Mrs. Oldkirk. Did you sleep well?"
"No, it was too hot ... far too hot ... even without a sheet. The ice melted in the lemonade. It was disgusting."
"Will you want your hot milk this morning?"
"Oh, yes—certainly. What time is it, Miss Rooker?"
All the windows in the house were open, as Miss Rooker passed through the hall and down the stairs. The sea-wind sang softly through the screens, sea-smells and pine-smells, and the hot morning was like a cage full of birds. "Bring! Bring!" the sparrow had shouted—remarkable dream—and here she was, bringing, bringing hot milk on a hot morning, bringing hot milk to a lazy neurotic woman (rather pretty) who was no more an invalid than she was herself. Why did she want to stay in bed? Why did she want a nurse? A slave would have done as well—there wasn't the slightest occasion for medical knowledge. The massage, of course. But it was very queer. There was something wrong. And Miss Lavery and Mr. Oldkirk were always talking together till past midnight, talking, talking!
Hilda was lighting the fire in the kitchen range, her pale face saturated with sleep, her pale hair untidy. The green shades were still down over the windows, and the kitchen had the air of an aquarium, the oak floor scrubbed white as bone.
"Good morning, Hilda—how was the dance last night?"
"Lovely.... But oh, sweet hour, how sleepy I am!"
"You look it. You'll lose your beauty."
"Oh, go on!"
The fire began crackling in the range; small slow curls of blue smoke oozed out round the stove lids. Miss Rooker went to the ice-chest, took out the bottle of milk. Holding it by the neck, she returned upstairs. On the way she saw Mary setting the breakfast table; she, too, looked pale and sleepy, had been to the dance. "And when I told—them—" She poured the creamy milk into the aluminum saucepan and lit the alcohol lamp. Then she went to the window and watched the sea-gulls circling over the naked hot mud flats. Seals sat in rows. On the beach, fringed with eel-grass, near at hand, Mr. Oldkirk's green dory was pulled far up, and rested amid gray matted seaweed.
By the time she had given Mrs. Oldkirk her hot milk, bathed the patient's face and hands and wrists (beautiful wrists, languid and delicate) with cold water, and combed her hair, breakfast was half over.... Mr. Oldkirk, leaning forward on one elbow, was regarding Miss Lavery with a look humorous and intent. Iced grapefruit.
"Ah, here's Miss Rooker," said Mr. Oldkirk, glancing up at her quizzically, and pulling back her chair with outstretched hand.... "Good morning, Miss Rooker. Sit down. We have a problem for you to solve."
Miss Lavery was wearing her pale green satin morning gown. It was becoming to her—oh, quite disgustingly—set off, somehow her long, blue eyes, lazy and liquid, tilted up at the corners a little like a Chinaman's. But far too negligee. The idea of coming down to breakfast like that—with Mr. Oldkirk!
"I'm no good at riddles. Ask me an easy one."
"Oh, this is extremely simple," Mr. Oldkirk said, with just a hint of malice, "merely a question of observation—observation of one's self."
Miss Lavery thought this was very funny—she gave a snort of laughter, and stifled it behind her napkin. Really! thought Miss Rooker—when she leaned forward like that!—with that low, loose morning gown! Scandalous.
"You're good at observing, Miss Rooker—tell us, how long does a love affair last—a normal, you know, ordinary one, I mean?"
"Well, upon my soul!" cried Miss Rooker. "Is that what's worrying you?"
"Oh, yes, poor man, he's terribly worried about it." Miss Lavery snickered, eying Mr. Oldkirk with a gleaming mock derision. "He's been wrangling with me, all breakfast through, about it."
"Seriously, Miss Rooker"—he pretended to ignore Miss Lavery—"it's an important scientific question. And of course a charming young lady like you has had some experience of—er—the kind?"
Miss Rooker blushed. She was annoyed, she could not have said exactly why. She was annoyed with both of them: just slightly. Glancing at Mr. Oldkirk (yes, he certainly looked like Dr. Fish) she said shortly:
"You want to know too much."
Mr. Oldkirk opened his eyes. "Oh!" he said—then again, in a lower tone, "Oh." He frowned at his plate, breathed densely through his grayish mustache.... Then, to Miss Lavery, who had suddenly become rather frigid, and was looking at Miss Rooker just a little impudently:
"Any more coffee, Helen? ..."
"Not a drop."
"Damn." He got up, slow and tall.
"Berty! You shouldn't swear before Miss Rooker." Miss Lavery's words tinkled as coldly and sharply as ice in a pitcher of lemonade. Hateful woman! Were they trying to make her feel like a servant?
"Oh, I'm quite used to it, Miss Lavery. Doctors, you know!"
Miss Lavery, leaning plump, bare elbows on the mahogany table, clasping long, white fingers lightly before her chin, examined Miss Rooker attentively. "Oh, yes, you're used to doctors, of course. They're very immoral, aren't they?"
Miss Rooker turned scarlet, gulped her coffee, while Miss Lavery just perceptibly smiled.
"How's the patient this morning?" Mr. Oldkirk turned around from the long window, where he had been looking out at the bay. "Any change?"
"No. She's the picture of health, as she always is." Miss Rooker was downright. "I think she ought to be up."
"That's not my opinion, Miss Rooker, nor the doctor's either."
"She's been ordered a long rest."
"A rest, do you call it! With—" Miss Rooker broke off, angry and helpless.
"With what?" Mr. Oldkirk's tone was inquisitively sharp.
"Oh, well," Miss Rooker sighed, "I don't understand these nervous cases; I suppose I don't. If I had my way, though, I'd have her up and out before you could say Jack Robinson."
Mr. Oldkirk was dry and decisive.
"That's your opinion, Miss Rooker. You would probably admit that Dr. Hedgley knows a little more about it than you do."
He sauntered out of the dining room, hands in pockets, lazy and powerful.
"Another slice of toast, Miss Rooker? ..." Miss Lavery asked the question sweetly, touching with one finger the electric toaster....
"No, thank you, Miss Lavery. Not any more."
"Don't read, Miss Rooker, it's too hot, I can't listen. And I'm so tired of all those he saids and she saids and said he with a wicked smile! It's a tiresome story. Talk to me instead. And bring me a glass of lemonade."
Mrs. Oldkirk turned on her side and smiled lazily. Indolent gray eyes.
"It is hot."
"I suppose you enjoy nursing, Miss Rooker?"
"Oh, yes, it has its ups and downs. Like everything else."
"You get good pay, and massaging keeps your hands soft. You must see lots of interesting things, too."
"Very. You see some very queer things, sometimes. Queer cases. Living as one of the family, you know, in all sorts of out-of-the-way places—"
"I suppose my case seems queer to you." Mrs. Oldkirk's eyes were still and candid, profound.
"Well—it does—a little! ..."
The two women looked at each other, smiling. The brass traveling clock struck eleven. Mary could be heard sweeping the floor in Miss Rooker's room: swish, swish.
"It's not so queer when you know about it." She turned her head away, somber.
"No, nothing is, I suppose. Things are only queer seen from the outside."
"Ah, you're unusually wise for a young girl, Miss Rooker! I daresay you've had lots of experience."
Miss Rooker blushed, flattered.
"Do you know a good deal about men?"
"Well—I don't know—it all depends what you mean."
Mrs. Oldkirk yawned, throwing her head back on the pillow. She folded her hands beneath her head, and smiled curiously at the ceiling.
"I mean what damned scoundrels they are ... though I guess there are a few exceptions. ... You'd better go for your swim, if you're going.... Bring me some hot milk at twelve-thirty.... No lunch.... And I think I'll sit on the balcony for an hour at three. You can ask them to join me there for tea. Iced tea."
"You'd better try a nap."
"Nap! Not much. Bring me that rotten book. I'll read a little."
Miss Rooker, going into her room for the towel, met Mary coming out: a dark sensual face. "Oh, you dancing girl!" she murmured, and Mary giggled. The hot sea-wind sang through the screen, salt-smelling. She threw the towel over her shoulder and stood for a moment at the window, melancholy, looking past the railed end of the balcony, and over the roof of the veranda. The cherries in the wild cherry tree were dark red and black, nearly ripe. The bay itself looked hot—the lazy small waves flashed hotly and brilliantly, a wide lazy glare of light all the way from the monument hill to the outer beach, of which the white dunes seemed positively to be burning up. Marblehead was better, the sea was colder there, rocks were better than all this horrible mud—the nights were cooler; and there was more life in the harbor. The good old Falcon! "Them was happy days"—that was what Dr. Fish was always saying. And Mr. Oldkirk was extraordinarily like him, the same lazy vigorous way of moving about, slow heavy limbs, a kind of slothful grace. She heard his voice. He and Miss Lavery were coming out, the screen door banged, they emerged bare-headed into the heat, going down the shell path to the bathhouse. "Hell infernal," he was saying, opening one hand under the sunlight as one might do to feel a rain—"which reminds me of the girl whose name was Helen Fernald ... that's what you are: hell infernal." Miss Lavery opened her pongee parasol, and her words were lost under it. She was very graceful—provocatively graceful, and her gait had about it a light inviting freedom, something virginal and at the same time sensuous. She gave a sudden screech of laughter as they went round the corner of the bathhouse.
"It's not a nursing case at all," she thought, standing before her mirror—"they pay me to amuse her, that's all—or she pays me—which is it?" She leaned close to the mirror, regarding her white almost transparent-seeming temples, the full red mouth (she disliked her lower lip, which she had always thought too heavy—pendulous) and the really beautiful dark hair, parted, and turned away from her brow in heavy wings. "And when I told them—" Did Mr. Oldkirk like her eyes? That awful word—oh, really dreadful, but so true—Dr. Fish had used about her eyes! But Mr. Oldkirk seemed to like Chinese eyes better.... Ought she to stay—just being a kind of lady's maid like this? And it wasn't right. No; it wasn't decent. She would like to say so to their faces. "I think you'd better get another nurse at the end of the week, Mr. Oldkirk—I don't approve of the way things are going on here—no, I don't approve at all. Shameful, that's what it is!—you and Miss Lavery—" But what did she know about him and Miss Lavery? ... A pang. Misery. They were just cousins. A filthy mind she had, imagining such things. She had heard them talking, talking on the veranda, they went out late at night in the green dory; once, three nights ago, she had thought she heard soft footsteps in the upstairs hall, and a murmur, a long sleepy murmur.... "How beautiful you wer-r-r-r-r-re."
The bathhouse was frightfully hot—like an oven. It smelt of salt wood and seaweed. She took her clothes off slowly, feeling sand on the boards under her feet. She could hear Miss Lavery moving in the next "cell," occasionally brushing her clothes against the partition or thumping an elbow. Helen Lavery. Probably about thirty—maybe twenty-eight. A social service worker, they said—she'd be a fine social service worker! Going round and pretending to be a fashionable lady. Sly, tricky, disgusting creature! ... And that one-piece bathing suit—! She was too clever to miss any chance like that. Of course, she had a beautiful figure, though her legs were just a shade too heavy. And she used it for all it was worth.
Miss Lavery was already thigh-deep in the water (in the gap between two beds of eel-grass) wading, with a swaying slow grace, towards Mr. Oldkirk, who floated on his back with hardly more than his nose and mustache visible. She skimmed the water with swallow-swift hands, forward and back, as she plunged deeper. "Oo! delicious," she cried, and sank with a soft turmoil, beginning to swim. "Don't bump me," Mr. Oldkirk answered, blowing, "I'm taking a nap."
The sunlight beat like cymbals on the radiant beach. The green dory was almost too hot to touch, but Miss Rooker dragged and pushed it into the water, threw in the anchor, and shoved off. "Look out!" she sang, whacking a blade on the water.
"Hello! Where are you off to, Miss Rooker?" Mr. Oldkirk blew like a seal.
"Dangerous place for young ladies, Miss Rooker. Better not stay after dark!"
"Oh, Marblehead's an open book to me!" Miss Rooker was arch.
"Oh, it is, is it!" He gave a loud "Ha!" in the water, blowing bubbles. "Better take me, then!"
He took three vigorous strokes, reached up a black-haired hand to the gunwale, and hauling himself up, deliberately overturned the dory. Miss Rooker screamed, plunged sidelong past Mr. Old-kirk's head (saw him grinning) into the delicious cold shock of water. Down she went, and opening her eyes saw Mr. Oldkirk's green legs and blue body, wavering within reach—she took hold of his cold, hard knee, then flung her arms round his waist, hugged him ecstatically, pulled him under. They became, for a second, deliciously entangled under the water. The top of his head butted her knee, his hand slid across her hip. Then they separated, kicking each other, and rose, both sputtering.
Excerpted from The Collected Short Stories of Conrad Aiken by Conrad Aiken. Copyright © 1960 Conrad Aiken. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
- Bring! Bring!
- The Last Visit
- Mr. Arcularis
- The Bachelor Supper
- Bow Down, Isaac!
- A Pair of Vikings
- Hey, Taxi!
- Field of Flowers
- The Disciple
- The Anniversary
- Hello, Tib
- Smith and Jones
- By My Troth, Nerissa!
- Silent Snow, Secret Snow
- Round by Round
- State of Mind
- Strange Moonlight
- The Fish Supper
- I Love You Very Dearly
- The Dark City
- Life Isn’t a Short Story
- The Night Before Prohibition
- Spider, Spider
- A Man Alone at Lunch
- Farewell! Farewell! Farewell!
- Your Obituary, Well Written
- A Conversation
- No, No, Go Not to Lethe
- Pure as the Driven Snow
- All, All Wasted
- The Moment
- The Woman-Hater
- The Professor’s Escape
- The Orange Moth
- The Necktie
- O How She Laughed!
- West End
- Fly Away Ladybird
- About the Author