Will N. (Will Nathaniel) Harben.

The Cottage of Delight: A Novel online

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* * * * *







_Author of "Ann Boyd," "Abner Daniel,"
"The Triumph," "The Hills of Judgment," etc._



Copyright 1919, by Harper & Brothers



John Trott waked that morning at five o'clock. Whether it was due to the
mere habit of a working-man or the blowing of the hoarse and mellow
whistle at the great cotton-mills beyond the low, undulating hills
half a mile away he did not know, but for several years the whistle
had been his summons from a state of dead slumber to a day of toil.
The morning was cloudy and dark, so he lighted a dingy oil-lamp with a
cracked and smoked chimney, and in its dim glow drew on his coarse
lime-and-mortar-splotched shirt and overalls. The cheap cotton socks he
put on had holes at the heels and toes; his leather belt had broken and
was tied with a piece of twine; his shoes were quite new and furnished
an odd contrast to the rest of his attire.

He was young, under twenty, and rather tall. He was slender, but his
frame was sinewy. He had no beard as yet, and his tanned face was
covered with down. His hair was coarse and had a tendency to stand erect
and awry. He had blue eyes, a mouth inclined to harshness, a manner
somewhat brusk and impatient. To many he appeared absent-minded.

Suddenly, as he sat tying his shoes, he heard a clatter of pans in the
kitchen down-stairs, and he paused to listen. "I wonder," he thought,
"if that brat is cooking breakfast again. She must be, for neither one
of those women would be out of bed as early as this. It was three
o'clock when they came in."

Blowing out his light, he groped from the room into the dark passage
outside, and descended the old creaking stairs to the hall below. The
front door was open, and he sniffed angrily. "They didn't even lock it.
They must have been drunk again. Well, that's their business, not mine."

The kitchen was at the far end of the hall and he turned into it. It was
almost filled with smoke. A little girl stood at the old-fashioned
range, putting sticks of wood in at the door. She was about nine years
of age, wore a cast-off dress, woman's size, and was barefooted. She had
good features, her eyes were blue, her hair abundant and golden, her
hands, now splotched with smut, were small and slender. She was not a
relative of John's, being the orphaned niece of Miss Jane Holder, who
shared the house with John's mother, who was a widow.

The child's name was Dora Boyles, and she smiled in chagrin as he stared
down on her in the lamplight and demanded:

"Say, say, what's this - trying to smoke us to death?"

"I made a mistake," the child faltered. "The damper in the pipe was
turned wrong, and while I was on the back porch, mixing the
biscuit-dough, it smoked before I knew it. It will stop now. You see it
is drawing all right."

With an impatient snort, he threw open the two windows in the room and
opened the outer door, standing aside and watching the blue smoke trail
out, cross the porch floor, and dissolve in the grayish light of dawn.

"The biscuits are about done," Dora said. "The coffee water has boiled
and I'm going to fry the eggs and meat. The pan is hot and it won't take

"I was going to get a bite at the restaurant," he answered, in a
mollified tone.

"But you said the coffee was bad down there and the bread stale," Dora
argued, as she dropped some slices of bacon into the pan. "And once you
said the place was not open and you went to work without anything. I
might as well do this. I can't sleep after the whistle blows. Your ma
and Aunt Jane waked me when they came in. They were awfully lively. The
fellows were singing and cursing and throwing bottles across the street.
Aunt Jane could hardly get up the stairs and had one of her laughing
spells. I think your ma was sober, for I could hear her talking steady
and scolding Aunt Jane about taking a dance from her with some man or
other. Did you see the men? They were the same two that had 'em out last
Friday night, the big one your ma likes and the one Aunt Jane says is
hers. I heard your ma say they were horse-traders from Kentucky, and
have lots and lots of money to spend. That jewelry drummer - do you
remember, that gave me the red pin? - he sent them with a note of
introduction. The pin was no good. The shine is already off of
it - wasn't even washed with gold."

John was scarcely heeding what she said. He had taken a piece of paper
from his pocket, and with a brick-layer's flat pencil was making some
calculations in regard to a wall he was building. The light was
insufficient at the door and he was now bending over the table near the

"Do you want me to make you some flour-and-cream gravy?" she asked,
ignorant of his desire to be undisturbed. "The milk looks good and rich
this morning."

"No, no!" And he swore under his breath. "Don't you see I'm figuring?
Now I'll have to add up again."

She made the gravy, anyway. She took out the fried bacon, sprinkled
flour in the brown grease, stirred the mixture vigorously, and then
there was a great sizzling as she added a cup of milk, and, in a cloud
of fragrant steam, still stood stirring. "There," she said, more to
herself than to him. "I'm going to pour it over the bacon. It is better
that way."

He had finished his figuring and now turned to her. "Are your biscuits
done?" he asked. "I think I smell them."

"Just about," she answered, and she threw open the door of the oven,
and, holding the hot pan with the long skirt of her dress, she drew it
out. "Good! Just right!" she chuckled. "Now, where do you want to
eat - here or in the dining-room? The table is set in there. Come on. You
bring the coffee-pot."

Still absently, for his thoughts were on his figures, he followed her
into the adjoining room. It was a bare-looking place, in the dim light
of the lamp which she placed in the center of the small, square table
with its red cloth, for there was no furniture but three or four chairs,
a tattered strip of carpeting, and an old-fashioned safe with perforated
tin panels. Two windows with torn Holland shades and dirty cotton
curtains looked out on the side yard. Beneath the shades the yellowing
glow of approaching sunlight appeared; a sort of fog hovered over
everything outside and its dampness had crept within, moistening the
table-cloth and chairs. John poured his own coffee while standing, and
Dora went to bring the other things. His mind was busy over the work he
was to do. Certain stone sills must be placed exactly right in the
brickwork, a new scaffold had to be erected, and he wondered if the
necessary timbers had arrived from the sawmill which his employer,
Cavanaugh, had promised to have delivered the night before in order that
the work might not be delayed. John sat down. He burnt his lips with the
hot coffee, and then pouring some of it into his saucer, he drank it in
that awkward fashion.

"How is it?" Dora inquired. "Is it strong enough?" She was putting down
a dish containing the fried things and eyed his face anxiously.

"Yes, it is all right," he said. "Hurry, will you? Give me something to
eat. I can't stay here all day." He took a hot biscuit and buttered it
and began to eat it like a sandwich. She pushed the dish toward him and
sat down, her hands in her lap, watching his movements with the stare of
a faithful dog.

"Your ma and Aunt Jane almost had a fist-fight yesterday while they was
dressing to go out," she said, as he helped himself to the eggs and
bacon and began to eat voraciously. "Aunt Jane said she used too much
paint and that she was getting fat. Your ma rushed at her with a big
hair-brush in her hand. She called her a spindle-shanked old hag and
said she was going to tell the men about her false teeth. It would
really have been another case in court if the two horse-men hadn't come
just then. They quieted 'em down and made 'em both take a drink
together. Then they all laughed and cut up."

"Dry up, will you?" John commanded. "I don't want to hear about them.
Can't you talk about something else?"

"I don't mean no harm, brother John." She sometimes used that term in
addressing him. "I wasn't thinking."

"Well, I don't want to hear anything about them or their doings," he
retorted, sullenly. "By some hook or crook they manage to get about all
I make - I know that well enough - and half the time they keep me awake at
night when I'm tired out."

She remained silent while he was finishing eating, and when he had
clattered out through the hall and slammed the gate after him she began
to partake daintily of the food he had left. "He's awfully touchy," she
mused; "don't think of nothing but his work. Bother him while he is at
it, and you have a fight on your hands."

Her breakfast eaten, Dora went to the kitchen to heat some water for
dish-washing. She had filled a great pan at the well in the back yard
and was standing by the range when she heard some one descending the
stairs. It was Mrs. Trott, wearing a bedraggled red wrapper, her
stockingless feet in ragged slippers, her carelessly coiled hair falling
down her fat neck. She was about forty years of age, showed traces of
former beauty, notwithstanding the fact that the sockets of her gray
eyes were now puffy, her cheeks swollen and sallow.

"Is there any hot coffee?" she asked, with a weary sigh. "My head is
fairly splitting. I was just dozing off when I heard you and John making
a clatter down here. I smelled smoke, too. I was half asleep and dreamed
that the house was burning down and I couldn't stir - a sort of
nightmare. Say, after we all left yesterday didn't Jim Darnell come to
see me?"

"No, not him," Dora replied, wrinkling her brow, "but another fellow
did. A little man with a checked gray suit on. He said he had a date
with you and looked sorter mad. He asked me if I was your child and I
told him it was none of his business."

"That was Pete Seltzwick," Mrs. Trott said, as she filled a cup with
coffee from the pot on the stove and began to cool it with breath from
her rather pretty, puckered and painted lips. "You didn't tell him who
we went off with, did you?"

"No, I didn't," the child replied, then added, "Do you reckon Aunt Jane
would like some coffee before she gets up?"

"No. She's sound asleep, and will get mad if you wake her. Oh, my head!
My head! And the trouble is I can't sleep! If I could sleep the pain
would go away. Did John leave any money for me? He didn't give me any
last week."

"No," Dora answered, "he said the hands hadn't been paid off yet. You
know he doesn't talk much."

Mrs. Trott seemed not to hear. Groaning again, she turned toward the
stairway and went up to her room.


John had passed out at the scarred and battered front door, crossed the
floor of the veranda, and reached the almost houseless street, for he
lived on the outskirts of the town, which was called Ridgeville. On the
hillside to the right was the town cemetery. The fog, shot through with
golden gleams of sunlight, was rising above the white granite and marble
slabs and shafts. Ahead of him and on the right, a mile away, could be
seen the mist-draped steeples of churches, the high roof and cupola of
the county court-house. He heard the distant rumble of a coming
street-car and quickened his step to reach it at the terminus of the
line near by before it started back to the Square. The car was a toylike
affair, drawn by a single horse and in charge of a negro who was both
conductor and driver.

"Got a ride out er you dis time, boss," the negro said, with a smile, as
John came up. "Met some o' yo' hands goin' in. Want any mo' help ter
tote mortar en' bricks? 'Kase if you do, I'll th'o' up dis job. De
headman said maybe I was stealin' nickels 'kase de traffic is so low dis
spring, en' I didn't turn in much. If you got any room fer - "

"You'll have to see Sam Cavanaugh," John answered, gruffly. "If you
climb a scaffold as slow as you drive a car you wouldn't suit our job."

"Huh! dat ain't me; it's dis ol' poky hoss. I'm des hired to bresh de
flies offen his back."

The negro gave a loud guffaw over his own wit and proceeded to unhitch
the trace-chains and drive the horse around to the opposite end of the
car. John entered and took a seat. He drew from the pocket of his short
coat a blue, white-inked drawing and several pages of figures which
Cavanaugh had asked him to look over. A rather pretentious court-house
was to be built in a Tennessee village. Bids on the work had been
invited from contractors in all directions and John's employer had made
an estimate of his own of the cost of the work and had asked John's
opinion of it. John was deeply submerged in the details of the estimate
when the car suddenly started with a jerk. He swore impatiently, and
looked up and scowled, but the slouching back of the driver was turned
to him and the negro was quite unconscious of the wrath he had stirred.
For the first half-mile John was the only passenger; then a woman and a
child got aboard. The car jerked again and trundled onward. The woman
knew who John was and he had seen her before, for he had worked on a
chimney Cavanaugh had built for her, but she did not speak to him nor he
to her. That he had no acquaintances among the women of the town and few
among the men outside of laborers had never struck John as odd. There
were gaudily dressed women who came from neighboring cities and visited
his mother and Jane Holder now and then, but he did not like their
looks, and so he never spoke to them nor encouraged their addressing
him. A psychologist would have classified John as a sort of genius in
his way, for his whole thought and powers of observation pertained to
the kind of work in which he was engaged. Cavanaugh half jestingly
called him a "lightning calculator," and turned to him for advice on all

Reaching the Square, John sprang from the car and, with the papers in
his hand and the pencil racked above his ear, he hurried into a
hardware-store and approached a clerk who was sweeping the floor.

"We need those nails and bolts this morning," he said, gruffly. "You
were to send them around yesterday."

"They are in the depot, but the agent hasn't sent 'em up yet," the clerk
answered. "We'll get them around to you by ten o'clock sharp."

"That won't do." John frowned. "We could have got them direct from the
wholesale house, and have had them long ago, but Sam would deal with
you. He is too good-natured and you fellers all impose on him."

"Well, I'll tell you what I'll do," the clerk proposed. "I'll send a
dray for them this minute and you'll have them on the ground in a

"All right," John said, coldly, and turned away.

The building on which he was at work was a brick residence in a
side-street near by which was being erected for a wealthy banker of
Ridgeville, and as John approached it he saw a group of negro laborers
seated on a pile of lumber at the side of the half-finished house.

"Here comes John now," one of them said, and it was significant that his
given name was used, for it was a fact that a white man in John's
position would, as a rule, be spoken of in a more formal manner, but to
whites and blacks alike he was simply "John" or "John Trott." This was
partly due, perhaps, to his youth, but there was no doubt that John's
lack of social standing had something to do with it. He had been nothing
but a dirty, neglected street urchin, a playmate of blacks and the
lowest whites, till Cavanaugh had put him to work and had discovered in
him a veritable dynamo of physical and mental energy.

"Good morning," several of the negroes said, cordially, but John barely
nodded. It was his way, and they thought nothing of it.

"Has Sam got here yet?" he inquired of a stalwart mortar-mixer called

"No, suh, boss, he 'ain't," said the negro. "I was gwine ter see 'im.
I'm out o' sand - not mo' 'n enough ter las' twell - "

"Four loads will be dumped here in half an hour," John broke in. "Did
you patch that hose? Don't let the damn thing leak like it did

"It's all right, boss. She won't bust erg'in." The negro smiled.
Evidently he had not washed his face that day, for splotches of
whitewash with globules of dry mortar were on his black cheeks and the
backs of his hands.

The whistle at a shingle-factory blew. It was eight o'clock, the hour
for work to begin.

"Mort'!" John's command was directed to two mortar-carriers, who
promptly grasped their padded wooden hods and made for the mortar-bed
where Tobe was already shoving and pulling the grayish mass to and fro
with a hoe.

John hung up his coat on the trunk of an apple-tree into which some
nails had been driven, and took his trowel and other tools from a long
wooden box with a sloping water-proof lid. He was about to ascend the
scaffold when he saw Cavanaugh approaching and signaling to him to wait.

The contractor was a man of sixty years, whose beard and hair were quite
gray. He was short and stocky, slow of movement, and gentle and genial
in his manner. He had been a contractor for fifteen years, and had
accumulated nothing, which his friends said was owing to his good nature
in not insisting on his rights when it came to charges and settlements.
Widows and frugal maiden ladies would have no one else to build for
them, for Sam Cavanaugh was noted for his honesty and liberality, and he
was never known to use faulty material.

"Mort' there! Get a move on you, boys!" John was eying his employer with
impatience as he approached. "Fill all four boards and scrape the dry
off clean!"

"Wait a minute, John!" Cavanaugh said, almost pleadingly. "I want to see
you about the court-house bid. I want to mail it this morning."

"What! And hold up this whole gang?" John snorted, impatiently.

"Oh, let 'em wait - let 'em wait this time," Cavanaugh said. "Where are
the papers?"

With a suppressed oath, John went to his coat and got them. "I haven't
time to go over all that, Sam," he answered. "Wait till dinner-time."

"But I thought you was going to look it over at home," the contractor
said, crestfallen, as he took the papers into his fat hands.

"Oh, I've looked them over, all right," John replied, "and that's the
trouble - that's why it will take time to talk it over."

"You mean - I see." Cavanaugh pulled at his short, stiff beard
nervously. "I'm too high, and you are afraid I'll lose the job."

"Too high nothing!" John sniffed, with a harsh smile. "You are so damned
low that they will make you give double security to keep you from
falling down on it. Say, Sam, you told me you was in need of money and
want to make something out of this job. Well, if you do, and want me to
go up there in charge of the brickwork, you will have to make out
another bid. I'm done with seeing you come out by the skin of your teeth
in nearly every job you bid on. When a county builds a court-house like
that they expect to pay for it."

"Why, I thought - I thought - " Cavanaugh began.

But John broke in: "You thought a thousand dollars would cover the
ironwork. It will take two. The market reports show that steel beams
have gone out of sight. Nails are up, too, and bolts, screws, locks, and
all lines of plumbing material."

"Why, John, I thought - "

"You don't keep posted." John glanced up at the scaffold as if anxious
to get to work. "Then look at your estimate of sash, doors, blinds, and
glass. You are under the cost by seven hundred at least. And where in
God's world could you get slate at your figure? And the clock and bell
according to the requisition? Sam, you made those figures when you were

"Then you think I could afford - I want the job bad, my boy - do you
reckon I could land it if I raised my offer, say by fifteen hundred?"

"You will have to raise it four thousand," John said, thoughtfully.
"Think of the risk you would be running. If the slightest thing goes
crooked the official inspectors will make you tear it down and do it
over. Look at your estimate on painting," pointing with the tip of his
trowel at a line on the quivering manuscript which the contractor held
before his spectacled eyes. "You are away under on it. White lead is
booming, and oil and varnish, and you have left out stacks of small
items - sash cords, sash weights, and putty."

"Then you think this won't do?" Cavanaugh's face was turning red.

"Do? It will do if you want to present several thousand dollars to one
of the richest counties in Tennessee. Why, one of those big farmers up
there could build that house and give it to the state without hurting
himself, while you hardly own a roof over your head."

"You may be right about my figures," Cavanaugh muttered. "Say, John, I
want to get this bid off. Leave the bricklaying to Pete Long and come
over to the hotel and write it out for me."

"And let him ruin my wall?" John snorted. "Not on your life! His mortar
joints are as thick as the mud in the cracks of a log cabin. I'll do it
to-night after I go home, but not before. I don't believe any man ought
to let one job stand idle in order to try to hook another. To-morrow is
Saturday. They couldn't get the bid anyway till Monday. There will be
plenty of time."

As John finished he was turning to the scaffold. "Well, all right,"
Cavanaugh called after him. "That will have to do."


When the steam-whistles of the shops and mills of Ridgeville blew that
afternoon at dusk John descended from the scaffold and put his tools
away. He was the last of the workers on the spot, and when he had put on
his coat he went around to the side of the building and with a critical
eye scanned the wall he had worked on that day.

"It will look all right when it is washed down with acid," he mused.
"That will straighten the lines and tone it up."

He was too late for the car and walked home. He found Jane Holder in the
kitchen, preparing supper. She was a slight woman of thirty-five, dark,
erect, with brown, twinkling eyes and short chestnut hair which had not
regained its normal length since it was cut during a spell of fever the
preceding winter. Touches of paint showed on her yellowish cheeks, and
her false teeth gave to her thin-lipped mouth a rather too full, harsh

"Oh, here you are!" She smiled. "I know you are hungry as a bear, but I
had my hands full with all sorts of things. I was sewing on my new
organdie and got the waist plumb out of joint. Your ma promised to help
fit it on me, but Harrington, one of those horse-dealers, come by in a
hurry to drive her to Rome behind two brag blacks, and she dropped me
and my work to get ready. She is always doing me that way. She makes a
cat's-paw of me. May Tomlin is going to have a dance at her house
to-night and wrote Harrington to bring her. She left me clean out,
though when May stayed here that time I was nice to her and introduced
her to all my friends. Your ma didn't care a rap about me. She was
going, and that was enough for her."

John simply grunted and turned away. He had not heard half she said. On
the back porch was a tin wash-basin and a cedar pail. He wanted to bathe
his face and hands, for his skin was clammy and coated with sand and
brick-dust, but the pail was empty, so he took it to the well close by
and filled it. He was about to return to the porch when he saw Dora, the
woman's skirt pinned up about her slight waist, coming from the cow-lot
with a tin pail half filled with milk.

"I had trouble with the cow," she said, wistfully, in her quaint,
half-querulous voice. "While I was milking, she turned around to see her
calf and mashed me against the fence. I pushed and pushed, but I
couldn't move her. Once I thought my breath was gone entirely. The calf
run along the fence, and she went after it, and that let me loose. I
lost nearly half the milk, and Aunt Jane will give me the very devil
about it. Well, Liz - I mean your mother's gone for the night, and we

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