The Great Cook Claude
What! Would this perfidious scoundrel insult the pea soup so magnificent of M. Corbeil? Away with the vile wretch!
IT IS settled, then,” said Claude Corbeil. “This winter I cook for the Saint Monique Lumber Company.” Homer Philion went limp with relief. His brain reeled with the intoxication of triumph. He wanted to rush out and turn handsprings in the road, shout the news to all Montville, telephone the tidings to President M. J. Flanagan of the Saint Monique Lumber Company, inform the pretty Widow Picard of his success . . .
“We must celebrate the arrangement,” beamed Claude. “A little dinner, perhaps?”
Picture if you can, mesdames et messieurs, three hundred pounds of massive dignity bulging the very sides of a vast
easy chair beside the stove in the Corbeil living room. Picture that huge bulk surmounted by a head so pallid, so bald and so oval that it resembled an enormous egg upon which some artist had painted two brows of shaggy black, two slits of sleepy eyes, a blob of a nose, a variable quantity of chins and an heroic mustache all sleekly black and magnificently curled at the ends—you have him, then! The great cook Claude!
Genius of johnnycake and gingerbread, colossus of cookies and crullers, prince of pea soup and pie, behemoth of baked beans! The incomparable Claude—king of the shanty cooks!
An important personage this, you comprehend. No mere bacon-scorcher to be hired indifferently, fired casually and replaced at random. The best cook on the Rivière Saint Monique, worth his weight in gold to any outfit lucky enough to get him—for the best shantymen follow the best cooks.
And Homer Philion, junior clerk in sole charge of the Montville office, had landed this prize for his company with every other concern on the river coaxing and wheedling for the master’s services. It was indeed a great moment in his career.
“But yes,” the great Claude was saying. “A little dinner. Have you ever tasted my pea soup? No! Then you have never tasted pea soup at all. And my baked beans à la Claude. Hah!” The great man rolled his eyes. If he had been wearing a hat, assuredly he would have removed it in salute to the very mention of baked beans à la Claude. “When would it suit your president, M’sieu Flanagan, to arrive with the contract for me to sign?”
“It is for you to say.” Homer Philion knew very well that M. J. Flanagan would cancel any engagement at any time, to come to Montville for the purpose of getting the great Claude’s signature to a contract. In such dire straits was the lumber industry that the Saint Monique Company would never survive another bad season, but with such a chief cook as the great Claude it would scrajxi through.
“Today is Saturday,” mused Claude. “Let us say next Wednesday evening at seven. Does M’sieu Flanagan appreciate good food?”
“There is no one who appreciates a good dinner more.”
“I was about to cook for the Saint Monique Company ten years ago,” reminisced the great man. “The affair was arranged. They sent a vice-president, an imbecile by the name of O’Reilly, and I invited him to dinner. I baked an apple pie for dessert.” Claude’s face clouded at the recollection. “You will find this difficult to believe, Homer, but that dolt, that man without soul—he neglected to eat the crust!"
“No!” exclaimed Homer, properly horrified.
“But yes! Naturally, I refused to sign his contract. And in ten years, Homer, you are the first representative of the Saint Monique who has been permitted to cross my doorstep. So, let us say Wednesday at seven. And now—a little glass, yes?”
Homer said that a little glass would be very acceptable, so Claude Corbeil bellowed jovially to his daughter Marguerite, at her ironing board in the kitchen. She appeared presently, a shy young thing in a crisp print dress, with glasses and a bottle of the dandelion wine for which Claude Corbeil had won first prize at the County Fair for twenty years.
“So?” smiled Marguerite, for the dandelion wine could have but one significance. “My father will cook for the Saint Monique, then? I am glad, Homer.”
Homer Philion, as a man of affairs now well on his way to wealth and eminence in the lumber industry, told himself that Marguerite was a sensible child. Pretty, too, for a youngster of eighteen. Almost as pretty, in an immature sort of way, as the Widow Picard.
“I am giving a dinner to celebrate,” announced Claude. “You may invite that young man of yours, Marguerite —young Tantivy. It is as easy to cook for four as for three.”
Marguerite blushed. Homer did not rejoice when he learned that Adolphus Tantivy would be invited to the dinner. He regarded the moon-faced, bustling Tantivy as a great nuisance; the flibbertigibbet fancied himself a great fellow with the ladies, he had courted every girl in Montville above the age of twelve, and now merely because his scatterbrained affections were centred for the moment upon Marguerite he was to be permitted to spoil a perfectly good dinner by his presence.
It was a pity Marguerite could not have found someone else—
Homer accepted his glass of wine and thought he detected admiration in the girl’s downcast eyes. It was clear that she recognized future greatness when it was before her.
He rose and elevated his glass politely.
“To the daughter of the greatest cook in all Quebec !” he said, and downed his dandelion wine.
When Homer departed he strode the flagstones in the walk as if they were clouds. With his square jaw and the crest of red hair that jutted defiantly from the top of his head like the comb of a truculent rooster, he looked the sort of young man of whom it would be said, “Ah, that one can take care of himself.” He bristled with confidence. The world was at his feet. And when he communicated his triumph to M. J. Flanagan by telephone to Montreal a few minutes later, the exuberant praise of his chief caused him to feel like a balloon ready to ascend.
“My boy,” whooped Flanagan, “I’m raisin’ your pay ! A good chief cook is more important to the Saint Monique right now than me myself, and now we’ve got the best cook in the business. Will I come out and eat one of Claude’s dinners? Lad, I’ll be there with the contract.”
“You will understand,” cautioned Homer, “that M’sieu Claude is very sensitive. It is necessary that one appreciate his art—”
“I won’t leave no pie crust on my plate, if that’s what you mean. I won’t eat a bite all day Wednesday—you say Wednesday is the day?”
“Wednesday at seven.”
“I’ll be in Montville at six, hungrier’n a she-bear in spring. And listen, Homer, you’d better lay off eatin’ on Wednesday too, so we’ll hit that dinner hungry. I don’t want to take one single chance of not gettin’ his John Henry on that contract.”
Sweet, too, was the praise of that lovely widow, Madame Berthe Picard. She was a small, plum)) woman, very blond, still on the sunny side of thirty, sister of Schoolmaster Tremblay, and ever since she had arrived in Montville as housekeeper for her brother, Homer Philion had been her slave. In this moment of triumph, then, he hastened to the Tremblay cottage for the praise he had learned to expect there.
“But this is marvellous, Homer!” cried the widow. “I have always said you were clever. You will be president of the company some day. I am sure of it.”
She plucked a speck of lint from his coat lapel. She had a way of gazing up at Homer with such enraptured enchantment that he felt as if he were seven feet tall, owned the Saint Monique Lumber Company, possessed a million dollars in the bank and had just been appointed to the Senate. No one in Montville appreciated him as did the widow. It was not often, he reflected, that a woman so pretty was also possessed of such rare judgment.
“And it is not as if she was a giddy young girl,” he mused on his way home. “Besides being beautiful she is an excellent housekeeper. And she understands me. Now that my salary is raised—one could do worse.”
Not, however, until the great Claude actually signed the contract would his future be assured. He reminded himself of that. Claude Corbeil was a temperamental fellow.
“I shall go to that dinner with the appetite of a crocodile,” he resolved.
BEHOLD, then, Homer Philion declining breakfast on Wednesday morning of the following week.
“But what is this?” cried his mother in great astonishment. “You do not desire breakfast?”
Ham and eggs were spluttering in the frying pan. The
fragrance was so delicious that a weaker man. even with his future at stake, would have succumbed. But not Homer Philion. It is true that he drooled at the mouth a little but his resolution did not falter. Stem self-denial would be necessary that day if the great Claude was to be pleased.
“I wish to have an appetite that will do justice to Claude’s table,” he explained, and fled before the tempting aroma could overwhelm him.
Behold him, then, haunted by visions of ham and eggs as he occupied himself with his duties in the office that morning.
Behold him remaining at his desk at noon, nibbling the end of a lead pencil that lacked nourishment.
Behold him trying to thrust from his mind all thoughts of the tables of Montville, that would be even then steaming with rich soups and savory stews, with juicy steaks and
ILLUSTRATED BY HAROLD McCRAE
succulent pork chops, tender pigs’ feet, crisp lamb chops and golden sausages; fragrant with bowls of cabbage, of beets and beans, of peas and corn, of potatoes mashed and boiled; delectable with toothsome pies and luscious puddings, crunchy buns and homemade bread. Behold him. in short, enduring torment.
Nevertheless, one who is truly ambitious to rise in the world can accomplish miracles of abnegation. I lomer drank three cups of water, tightened his belt and fortified himself with visions of a grateful Flanagan, an admiring Widow Picard and a flattered Claude.
By three o’clock, incapable of work, he was wrestling sternly with the temptation to purchase a chocolate bar. After all, one might endanger one’s health by this sort of nonsense.
“No!” declared Homer, and thrust the devil behind him. “Claude Corbeil must be convinced that he is dealing with men of unlimited capacity.”
He was certain that he, at least, had already achieved this state. If M. J. Flanagan arrived only half as ravenous the contract was as good as signed.
Within the next hour Homer ate most of the paint off the lead pencil, following that with a light dessert of an eraser and part of a blotter. At five o’clock, on the chance that M. J. Flanagan might arrive ahead of schedule, he went to the door and gazed up the street. A small dog that had been drowsing in the roadway took alarm at the gleam of wild hunger in his eye and scuttled nervously out of sight. And then came Télèsphore Tanguay, the village half-wit, beaming foolishly as he wheeled down the sidewalk on a bicycle.
“Hi !” said Télèsphore, and came to a stop.
Homer acknowledged the greeting in a weak voice.
“Claude Corbeil says you are to eat dinner with him tompirow night,” giggled Télèsphore. He rubbed his stomach happily. “Take me with you.”
“The dinner,” said Homer, "is tonight.”
Télèsphore Tanguay giggled joyously.
“Tomorrow night,” he insisted. “Claude himself told me. How can he cook dinner when he has gone to Champeau for the evening to visit his brother? I saw him drive off in the car with Marguerite. He said his brother raises the finest chickens in Quebec and he has gone to get a pair of them. ‘Tomorrow night, Télèsphore,’ he told me. ‘I give a big dinner.’ He said you would be there, and Adolphus Tantivy also.”
Homer Philion was staggered.
“You are sure of this?” he demanded incredulously.
“But certainly,” the crackpot giggled. “Did you think the dinner was tonight? Ho-ho!” Tanguay giggled so heartily that he almost fell off the bicycle. “You would get very little to eat if you went to Claude’s place tonight, because there is nobody at home.”
He departed, chortling merrily. Homer sagged weakly against the door frame, veritably ill with hunger and consternation.
But it was imjxissible! Claude Corbeil had said Wednesday. He was sure of it. That dolt Tanguay did not know one day from another . . .
And just then, clattering down the road in his rattletrap of a car familiar to all Montville, with his moon face and his horn-rimmed spectacles and his black hair parted slickly in the centre, came that insufferable squire of dames, Adolphus Tantivy himself.
“Hi, Philion!” bawled Tantivy, and swung blithely on the wheel. The car darted across the road so abruptly that a woman with a baby carriage fled squawking, and a lawabiding cat scrambled halfway up a telephone pole. One fender scraped the pole and the car screeched to a stop. Above the roar of the ancient engine Tantivy shouted: ‘Are you going to Grosillier’s barn dance: tonight?”
“Why—that is,” gulped Homer, “I was invited to dinner tonight—”
“Ho!” yelled Tantivy. “You eat well, Philion. One dinner today, another tomorrow. Do not forget that we eat at Claude’s house tomorrow night. 1 met him just now on his way to Champeau for the chickens.”
“But,” stuttered Homer, “I thought— it was my understanding —”
The car. however, was already lurching off with a clatter that almost drowned Tantivy’s hearty bellow: “See you tomorrow night, Philion. I’m off to get ready for the barn dance.”
The rattletrap swoojxxl into the roadway again, aroused an aged farm horse from slumber in front of the post office and sent the animal into violent convulsions of terror, scattered three hens and a cow in panic, vanished tipsily around the corner like a small cyclone.
Homer stumbled back into the office, collapsed in a chair.
“What a catastrophe !” he groaned, shuddering. He had mistaken the date! Incredible error! And M. J. Flanagan was already on the way.
r"PHAT great captain of industry, M. J. Flanagan, was a short, stout, ]x>t-bellied man with a pink face to which a silvery mustache lent an asjxrt of great benevolence. When he drove into Montville at six o clock, weariness and hunger had failed to ruflle his good humor. Jovial in the prospect of a colossal dinner prepared by a master, he entered the Saint Monique office beaming with good will toward men.
But when this lord of logs and lumber learned that he had denied himself nourishment since morning and endured the abominable rigors of a journey to Montville merely to arrive a whole day early for dinner, he became annoyed. When he realized that all this was due to the insufferable stupidity of a lunatic clerk who didn’t know Wednesday from Thursday—ah, then M. J. Flanagan Ix'camederanged.
“What?” he howled. “You mean to tell me I don’t get nawthin’ to eat? After starvin’ myself all day until I’m hungry enough to eat a stuffed owl ! After riskin’ my life on seventy-eight miles of road that’s a cross between a roller coaster and a stone quarry ! I can’t even see the man, much less eat his grub, unless I lay over in this infernal hamlet until tomorrow. You numskull! Why, you addlepated gossoon ”
His face became crimson. His mustache bristled. He uttered strange moans and yel|)s. He threshed the air with his cane. He exploded into language that would have singed the ears of a cast-iron dog. He cursed Homer Philion up the backstairs of purgatory and down again with such fluent vigor that his own teamsters would have raised their hats in awe.
"Hegrettable error,” mumbled the unhappy Homer, sweating. “I am unable to understand positive he said Wednesday—”
“Positive!” snorted Flanagan. “You'll get mixed up on the date of your own funeral, wait and see. You scatterbrained lunkhead,” he bawled, “I’ve a gxxl mind to fire you !” The old gentleman whacked the desk with his cane so ferociously that an inkwell keeled over in a swoon and three* pen nibs leaped briskly into the wastebasket for safety. “What sort of benighted, feeble-witted gook are you, that can’t tell Wednesday from Thursday? Mistake, y’say? The mistake was made the day I was fool enough to hire you — ”
I lomer would have been grateful for any sort of interruption just then, from an earthquake toa bolt of lightning. One can understand his profound gratitude at that moment when there was a light footfall on the office steps, a little gasp of confusion, and the Widow Picard appeared in the doorway saying: “Ah, but I beg pardon, Homer! You are occupied?”
Blushing demurely, murmuring apologies for her intrusion. she was a plump angel of deliverance in a red hat. What a woman! M. J. Flanagan swallowed his wrath with a mighty gulp and bowed gallantly. “Ma’am!” he said, in a voice of admirable politeness.
Feminine curiosity when she spied the Flanagan automobile may have prompted the widow’s visit. But she could not have arrived at a moment more opportune.
“But you are both hungry, then!” she cried, when she learned of the deplorable crisis that had arisen. “You are starving, M’sieu Flanagan. You and Homer must permit me to give you a dinner.”
“Ma’am,” said Flanagan, “this is mighty good of you, but—”
“I insist !” The widow fluttered her blue eyes. “I shall be desolate if you refuse. It will be a very poor meal, I am afraid. Potato soup, merely, with pork and beans which have been in the oven all afternoon, and a little dessert perhaps. Rice pudding with raisins—”
Homer uttered a low moan. M. J. Flanagan emitted noises like a bulldog in a meat market.
“Ma’am,” he said hoarsely, “you have guests.”
NEVER had Homer been so steeped in grateful worship of any woman as when he waited in the living room of the schoolmaster’s cottage, with the Widow Picard bustling in the kitchen and a mollified Flanagan sprawled in an easy chair, sniffing the fragrance of potato soup.
“I still think you’re a stupid loon,” grunted Flanagan, “but you show sense in pickin’ your lady friend. What I’m goin’ to do to this meal, it’ll be a sin and a shame.”
Fortunately, the widow realized that this emergency demanded rapid action. Homer did not have to endure Flanagan’s comments on his imbecile mistake for more than a quarter of an hour before she appeared in the doorway.
“Come!” she said. “You are hungry men, and the dinner is ready.”
Her brother, she explained, had gone fishing and would not be home until late. Homer did not feel bereaved. The schoolmaster was a lank, sad, dyspeptic man who would have been no asset to such a jolly dinner as this promised to be. They sat down to steaming bowls of potato soup. Flanagan be amed as he seized his spoon.
“Ma’am,” he declared. “You have saved a life!”
“Two lives,” amended Homer. He told himself that if he retained his job he would certainly ask her to marry him as rapidly as possible.
So famished was Homer Philion that it was not until he had gulped down several spoonfuls of the widow’s soup that he began to take note of the flavor. He tried another spoonful, doubtfully. He peeped across the table at M. J. Flanagan. Their eyes met. From the expression on the face of Flanagan it became evident to Homer that he was not alone in his disappointment
The soup of the Widow Picard was abominable.
Had a cake of soap been left in the pot by accident? Had one of Schoolmaster Tremblay’s socks fallen into it from the kitchen clothesline? One could not be positive, although the flavor hinted at either explanation. Certainly the widow had been much too lavish with the salt.
Certainly she could not make potato soup.
But they were hungry. Starving explorers in the Northland have been known to devour stewed moccasins with thankfulness if not with relish. It was with vast relief, nevertheless, that Homer saw the bottom of the bowl at last.
“My soup is a failure, I know,” sighed the widow, who had eaten very little of hers. “I do my best, but—”
“But no, it was splendid soup,” lied Homer heartily.
“Magnificent soup, ma’am,” declared Flanagan. “Best I ever tasted.”
“You like it, then?” she cried, delighted. “Then you must have more. I insist.”
She went bustling to the kitchen to refill the empty bowls.
“Good lord !” whispered M. J. Flanagan, with a shudder.
The Widow Picard was not only a deplorable cook. She was that most dreadful of social menaces—a woman of domineering hospitality. They were obliged to gulp down more of that atrocious soup. And when she brought forth enormous platters of pork and beans, M. J. Flanagan cried hopefully, “Pork and beans, ma’am! My favorite dish!” But the beans had been insufficiently boiled, inadequately baked, smothered in mustard, drenched with molasses. They were villainous beans. Heroically, her guests downed them and prayed that there would be no more. The widow, who confessed that she had an appetite like a bird, ate very few of them herself. Some people, she said, objected to mustard on beans—for herself she preferred plenty of flavoring—
“Delicious!” choked Flanagan, whereupon the good woman glowed. She pounced upon their empty plates like a hawk, brushed aside their feeble protests, bustled to the kitchen for more beans. They were appalled. Flushed and sweating, they stared across the table at each other dismally.
“But you are hungry men !” she chirped, returning with loaded plates. “All day without food—imagine! Do not be
One must be polite. At all costs, one must be polite. Her exhausted guests were obliged to stuff themselves to the brim. And then that terrible woman produced another horrorrice pudding of her own preparation! Homer Philion turned pale.
“In many ways.” declared the Widow Picard, dimpling, “I am afraid I am a very poor cook. But I can at least make a rice pudding.”
She prided herself without cause. A spoonful of that soggy stuff weighed upon the stomach like lead. And such is the tyranny of good manners that they got it down, feeling that they never cared to look upon food again. But when the widow said, “What? Only one helping of dessert? Nonsense! For hungry men, you are too polite”—Flanagan, already red in the face and a trifle pop-eyed from second helpings of everything, belched inadvertently and begged her to desist.
And then, mercifully, the telephone rang.
“Saved by the bell!” groaned Flanagan as the widow went to answer it. “I feel as if I’ve swallowed a flatiron.” He sank back weakly in his chair. “Before I suffocate, Philion,” he said bitterly, “you are fired !”
Homer scarcely heard sentence pronounced. He was listening in consternation to the excited voice of the widow at the telephone.
“But yes, they are here . . . Your father is impatient? . . . Ah, but Marguerite, it was understood that a mistake was made ... At once? . . . Tonight? . . . But they have just had dinner here . . . They must? . . .He did? ...”
As the awful truth dawned upon Homer, his mouth opened and shut like that of an expiring trout. The widow bounced into the room.
“But such a frightful mistake!” she cried. “It was Marguerite. She has been telephoning all over the village in search of you. Her father becomes impatient— the dinner is ready—mon dieu! The dinner is tonight after all !”
Homer stagger«! to his feet.
“That scoundrel Tantivy !” he wailed. He saw it now. Neither Télèsphore Tanguay nor Adolphus Tantivy had passed his doorway by accident. And they had spoken their lines well. A joke! A low, villainous practical joke of the sort for which Tantivy was notorious.
“Dinner?” muttered Flanagan, in the voice of one whose reason is tottering. “But I can’t eat another dinner. I’ve just had one.”
“Tantivy, yes!” cried the widow'. “Marguerite says it is very important that you say nothing about having dinner here. Because her father will be insulted, and he will give Adolphus the contract.” “Adolphus? The contract?” croaked Homer.
“But yes. She says Adolphus wishes her father to cook for the Racicot Timber Company.”
A thunderbolt could not have stunned Homer more completely.
This was no mere joke. The cat was out of the bag now. Tantivy a secret agent of the Racicot Timber Company! It was explained now why that serpent had wormed his way into the household of the great Claude. Why this was the most unscrupulous trick in the history of the lumber business—ah, indeed it was no joke!
“Philion!” bawled M. J. Flanagan. “Explain this!”
"DLANAGAN was eloquent as they drove L hurriedly to the home of the great cook Claude.
What had he done, he demand«! piteously of his Maker, to deserve a clerk of such appalling stupidity? He referred to the discomforts he had endured to reach Montville in time. He spoke of the Saint Monique Lumber Company’s dire need of Claude’s services and the expert, contented labor those services would ensure. Bitterly, he mentioned the ghastly hospitality of the Widow Picard. But what he confessed himself unable to understand were the weird processes of thought that had enabled Homer Philion to perpetrate such a fiendish blunder.
“Didn’t you know this guy Tantivy was try in’ to sign him up for the Racicot outfit? You didn't? Well, it w'as your business to know. It’s certainly a mighty lucky thing we found out in time.”
"But it is too late now,” said Homer dismally. “We cannot eat Claude's dinner. He will be angry.”
“And won't he be sore at this Tantivy smart-aleck when I explain why we can’t eat his dinner? Why else do you think I’m headin' for Claude’s house right now?”
It was Marguerite who greeted them in the hall and took their hats. Anxiously, she whispered, "I did not tell him you have already had a dinner. He must not know.”
“But listen, miss.” muttered Flanagan. “We’re full to the ears. We can’t eat—” “It is impossible!” whispered Homer, wretchedly.
“You must. You must try. How in heaven’s name did you make such a dreadful mistake?”
“It was no mistake,” Homer informed her dolefully. “It was Tantivy.”
The great Claude appeared in the doorway. The frown on his massive face was discouraging. It was evident that he was already on the brink of one of his famous fits of temperament. Hurriedly, he shook hands, acknowledged his introduction to Flanagan, waddled ahead of them into the dining room.
“It is a pleasure to welcome you, gentlemen,” he mumbled, tugging at his mustache—a sure sign of agitation. “It is already twenty minutes past seven. I am worried about the dinner.”
“M’sieu Corbeil,” said Flanagan, with the air of one about to dive into cold water from a great height. “You are entitled to an explanation and an apology. The fact is—”
“No apologies!” commanded Claude, with a magnificent wave of his hand. “No apologies. You are late. Very well— it cannot be helped. But now you are here, and we shall have dinner. Naturally I was impatient. I was afraid Homer had mistaken the time. But Adolphus assured me that this was not so.”
The round, bespectacled face of Adolphus Tantivy smirked blandly at them from across the dining room.
“Ha !” chortled Tantivy. “You are here at last! Claude was indeed worried. ‘But no!’ I told him. ‘They will arrive. I myself spoke to Homer on the street at five o’clock and reminded him of the dinner. Have no fear, my good Claude,’ I said. ‘Homer understands perfectly that the dinner is tonight at seven. He will not fail.’ ”
The sublime impudence of the smirking scoundrel would have jolted a statue from its base. M. J. Flanagan’s eyes bulged. He gurgled. He had arrived simmering with explanations, plain statements of truth that would blast that scheming Tantivy into oblivion. And now the wind was out of his sails. His powder was damp. Mechanically, he acknowledged an introduction to the beaming Tantivy. What would they gain by accusing Tantivy now? Even Flanagan began to wonder if Homer Philion had been victimized, if he had not made a witless blunder after all.
“Yes,” panted Claude. “If it had not been for Adolphus I would have been greatly upset. We shall begin now. The soup is ready. And the chickens—ah, the chickens—I hope they will not be too dry. One must serve fowl at the correct moment, and already we are late. But the beans—the beans à ¡a Claude—”
Again Flanagan opened his mouth as if to speak. And again he closed it. As for Homer, he had long since resigned himself to the worst. It was useless to contradict Tantivy now.
“Come!” cried Claude. “M’sieu Flanagan, you will sit here. And Homer, you will sit there, beside Adolphus. Marguerite, you may serve the soup.”
No men ever embarked upon a forlorn cause more heroically than did Homer Philion and M. J. Flanagan as they sagged heavily into their chairs, weighed down with gloom and the Widow Picard’s dinner. They were doomed and they knew it. One might, by a tremendous effort of will, find room for a few spoonfuls of pea soup and avert the master’s wrath for the moment. But chicken? Vegetables? Baked beans à la Claude? Impossible !
“M’sieu Claude.” blurted Flanagan desperately, “I must apologize—”
“No, no!” boomed Claude. “No apologies ! 1 insist. You were late but now you are here. It is forgiven. At my table the only subject of importance is food.” And as Marguerite entered with the steaming bowls of soup Claude tucked a vast napkin beneath his chins. “If you do not think this is the most noble pea soup you have ever tasted, if you do Rot agree that no one can make pea soup to compare with the soup of Claude Corbeil, I shall be desolate with disappointment.”
Homer shut his eyes and grimly seized his spoon.
Even if one faced inevitable defeat and disgrace, only a poltroon would give up without a struggle. Apparently Flanagan was of the same mind. For a moment silence fell upon the room, broken only by those strange garglings and gurglings peculiar to the consumption of soup among men.
There was a stifled exclamation.
All eyes were turned in polite astonishment upon Adolphus Tantivy. He was sitting bolt upright in his chair, with an indescribable expression of bewilderment and misery upon his face. The great Claude raised his eyebrows.
“The soup,” gasped Tantivy. “It was so delicious that I swallowed too quickly. It went down the wrong way.”
He dabbled with a napkin and picked up his spoon again, coughing slightly. Homer murmured that it was indeed the most superb soup he had ever encountered, which was nothing less than the truth. Flanagan observed that he had never, even in the finest restaurants of Montreal, been served soup of such inimitable excellence.
The great Claude beamed. Homer wondered if by some miracle of capacity he would be able to manage an entire bowlful and survive. Again they devoted themselves to that delicious soup.
Homer cast a baleful glance at Adolphus Tantivy. And then he saw, with consider-
able wonderment, that his arch-enemy appeared to be in difficulties. An expression of acute dismay, as if he had just bitten into a lemon, flashed across Tantivy’s face at every mouthful.
But what was this? Homer became interested. Tantivy seemed to have lost all enthusiasm for soup. He seemed to carry each spoonful to his mouth by a great effort. His face was pale. Sweat was on his brow. There was another strangled splutter. Tantivy put down his spoon.
Claude Corbeil gazed across the table, frowning.
“You do not enjoy your soup, Adolphus?” he enquired coldly.
Tantivy achieved a ghastly smile.
“It is a joke, Claude?”
Tantivy uttered a wild and hollow laugh. “But, of course. An excellent joke, too.” He wagged a reproving finger at his host. “You cannot fool me, Claude.” There was a forced ring to Tantivy’s laughter, but he slapped his knee and put on a very creditable show of amusement. “Ho-ho! As if I would not know that Claude Corbeil can do better than that. Such awful stuff. It will take a good many bowls of your real soup to take the taste of that dreadful bilge from my mouth.” He called to Marguerite in the kitchen. “Very well. Marguerite. The joke is over. Now you may bring me some good soup.”
The great Claude stared. His face became slowly crimson. He blinked several times, as if stupefied.
“Joke?” he bellowed suddenly. “Bilge! You call my soup bilge!”
Tantivy was horrified.
“But yes,” he stammered. “You mean —it is not a joke, Claude?”
The great Claude, purple with wrath, heaved himself out of his chair.
“You insolent dolt!” he bellowed. “You insult my soup! You call my soup bilge!” He snatched up a fork and went waddling around the table with such a ferocious expression upon his face that it seemed he meditated a dreadful revenge. “Such impudence! In my own home! At my own table! No one has ever dared offer such an insult to Claude Corbeil in forty years. Get out, you scoundrel ! Leave this house ! If I ever catch you on my doorstep again I shall tweak your nose.”
“But, my good Claude—”
“Out!” bawled the indignant Claude, brandishing the fork menacingly.
TT WAS while the unfortunate Tantivy was being ejected, protesting, out the front door, that Marguerite hurried into the dining room and removed the offending soup. When the great Claude returned, puffing with exertion and indignation, she peeped in and said mildly:
“Is Adolphus ill, papa? Is he not coming back?”
“He is never coming back !” thundered her father. “Never! If he sets foot in the house again I shall certainly tweak his nose and kick him soundly into the bargain. My soup—bilge!”
The great Claude looked suspiciously at his remaining guests.
“You find the soup good?” And when they assured him that it was superb he bellowed at Marguerite. “Bring back that bowl. It is impossible, of course. But nevertheless—”
Marguerite returned with Tantivy’s bowl. The great Claude cautiously tasted the contents. His face cleared.
“Why there is nothing wrong with this. Taste it, gentlemen. Taste it yourselves. Do not take my word for it. Now how could that imbecile call this delicious soup bilge?”
They tasted the soup. Homer Philion, mystified, could find no fault with it. He said so.
“Why, it is perfect soup!” declared Claude Corbeil. “Never have I made better.”
Homer was seized with a brilliant inspiration.
“M’sieu Claude,” he said, “it is such delicious soup that I know M’sieu Flanagan will not breathe comfortable until it is settled that you will make soup like that for the men of the Saint Monique this winter.”
“Claude,” declared Flanagan solemnly, “I won’t be able to eat another bite until you sign this contract. No man who can make soup like this is going to get away from me.” And he whipped contract and fountain pen from his pocket.
The great Claude was astonished. Then he smiled vastly. A chuckle rumbled from his huge interior. His great body shook.
“At least, gentlemen,” he said, “I know that I am dealing with men who recognize good soup when they taste it.” He scrawled his signature upon the contract. “And now,” he said briskly, “let us continue our dinner.”
“Claude,” said Flanagan, thrusting the contract into his pocket. “There is an a¡x)logy coming to you. That fellow Tantivy can’t appreciate a good dinner himself and he didn’t want us to appreciate it either. Homer and I can’t eat another bite. And I’ll tell you why—”
rT'HE GREAT Claude, naturally, was tremendously upset. In fact, when he thought of the baked beans à la Claude, the roast chickens and the apple pie that would be obliged to wait until the morrow, he wept. But manifestly one cannot expect guests to continue dinner if they nave already eaten dinner. And having already signed the contract, there was nothing to be done but to condemn the perfidious Tantivy. Which he did, at great length and with vehemence.
Homer Philion slipped out into the kitchen.
He shuddered when he thought of the indigestion that would have been in store for the rest of his days if he had been so insane as to marry the Widow Picard. But that charming Marguerite, now. There was a girl to rank with the angels.
Blushing demurely, she faced him in the kitchen.
“Marguerite,” he said fervently. “I shall never forget this. Never ! You have saved my job, my life—”
“But Homer!” she said innocently. “What do you mean?”
“Why did you do it? Because you discovered that he courted you merely to have influence with your father?”
“Partly,” whispered Marguerite. Her eyes adored him.
“It was clever of you to get rid of Tantivy’s soup and fill the bowl again before your father asked to taste it.” Homer Philion was gazing over her shoulder at three bottles and a small tin can upon a shelf behind the stove. He read the labels. “Castor oil, vinegar, lemon extract and Epsom salts,” he said reverently in a hushed voice. “Ah, Marguerite, all my life I have hoped to find a girl who knew the proper ingredients for soup !”