He was known for thirty miles round was father Toine—fat Toine, Toine-my-extra, Antoine Macheble, nicknamed Burnt-Brandy—the innkeeper of Tournevent.
It was he who had made famous this hamlet buried in a niche in the valley that led down to the sea, a poor little peasants’ hamlet consisting of ten Norman cottages surrounded by ditches and trees.
The houses were hidden behind a curve which had given the place the name of Tournevent. It seemed to have sought shelter in this ravine overgrown with grass and rushes, from the keen, salt sea wind—the ocean wind that devours and burns like fire, that drys up and withers like the sharpest frost of winter, just as birds seek shelter in the furrows of the fields in time of storm.
But the whole hamlet seemed to be the property of Antoine Macheble, nicknamed Burnt-Brandy, who was called also Toine, or Toine-My-Extra-Special, the latter in consequence of a phrase current in his mouth:
“My Extra-Special is the best in France:”
His “Extra-Special” was, of course, his cognac.
For the last twenty years he had served the whole countryside with his Extra-Special and his “Burnt-Brandy,” for whenever he was asked: “What shall I drink, Toine?” he invariably answered: “A burnt-brandy, my son-in-law; that warms the inside and clears the head—there’s nothing better for your body.”
He called everyone his son-in-law, though he had no daughter, either married or to be married.
Well known indeed was Toine Burnt-Brandy, the stoutest man in all Normandy. His little house seemed ridiculously small, far too small and too low to hold him; and when people saw him standing at his door, as he did all day long, they asked one another how he could possibly get through the door. But he went in whenever a customer appeared, for it was only right that Toine should be invited to take his thimbleful of whatever was drunk in his wine shop.
His inn bore the sign: “The Friends’ Meeting-Place”—and old Toine was, indeed, the friend of all. His customers came from Fecamp and Montvilliers, just for the fun of seeing him and hearing him talk; for fat Toine would have made a tombstone laugh. He had a way of chaffing people without offending them, or of winking to express what he didn’t say, of slapping his thighs when he was merry in such a way as to make you hold your sides, laughing. And then, merely to see him drink was a curiosity. He drank everything that was offered him, his roguish eyes twinkling, both with the enjoyment of drinking and at the thought of the money he was taking in. His was a double pleasure: first, that of drinking; and second, that of piling up the cash.
You should have heard him quarrelling with his wife! It was worth paying for to see them together. They had wrangled all the thirty years they had been married; but Toine was good-humored, while his better-half grew angry. She was a tall peasant woman, who walked with long steps like a stork, and had a head resembling that of an angry screech-owl. She spent her time rearing chickens in a little poultry-yard behind the inn, and she was noted for her success in fattening them for the table.
Whenever the gentry of Fecamp gave a dinner they always had at least one of Madame Toine’s chickens to be in the fashion.
But she was born ill-tempered, and she went through life in a mood of perpetual discontent. Annoyed at everyone, she seemed to be particularly annoyed at her husband. She disliked his gaiety, his reputation, his rude health, his embonpoint. She treated him as a good-for-nothing creature because he earned his money without working, and as a glutton because he ate and drank as much as ten ordinary men; and not a day went by without her declaring spitefully:
“You’d be better in the stye along with the pigs! You’re so fat it makes me sick to look at you!”
And she would shout in his face:
“Wait! Wait a bit! We’ll see! You’ll burst one of these fine days like a sack of corn-you old bloat, you!”
Toine would laugh heartily, patting his corpulent person, and replying:
“Well, well, old hen, why don’t you fatten up your chickens like that? just try!”
And, rolling his sleeves back from his enormous arm, he said:
“That would make a fine wing now, wouldn’t it?”
And the customers, doubled up with laughter, would thump the table with their fists and stamp their feet on the floor.
The old woman, mad with rage, would repeat:
“Wait a bit! Wait a bit! You’ll see what’ll happen. He’ll burst like a sack of grain!”
And off she would go, amid the jeers and laughter of the drinkers.
Toine was, in fact, an astonishing sight, he was so fat, so heavy, so red. He was one of those enormous beings with whom Death seems to be amusing himself—playing perfidious tricks and pranks, investing with an irresistibly comic air his slow work of destruction. Instead of manifesting his approach, as with others, in white hairs, in emaciation, in wrinkles, in the gradual collapse which makes the onlookers say: “Gad! how he has changed!” he took a malicious pleasure in fattening Toine, in making him monstrous and absurd, in tingeing his face with a deep crimson, in giving him the appearance of superhuman health, and the changes he inflicts on all were in the case of Toine laughable, comic, amusing, instead of being painful and distressing to witness.
“Wait a bit! Wait a bit!” said his wife. “You’ll see.”
At last Toine had an apoplectic fit, and was paralyzed in consequence. The giant was put to bed in the little room behind the partition of the drinking-room that he might hear what was said and talk to his friends, for his head was quite clear although his enormous body was helplessly inert. It was hoped at first that his immense legs would regain some degree of power; but this hope soon disappeared, and Toine spent his days and nights in the bed, which was only made up once a week, with the help of four neighbors who lifted the innkeeper, each holding a limb, while his mattress was turned.
He kept his spirits, nevertheless; but his gaiety was of a different kind—more timid, more humble; and he lived in a constant, childlike fear of his wife, who grumbled from morning till night:
“Look at him there—the great glutton! the good-for-nothing creature, the old boozer! Serve him right, serve him right!”
He no longer answered her. He contented himself with winking behind the old woman’s back, and turning over on his other side—the only movement of which he was now capable. He called this exercise a “tack to the north” or a “tack to the south.”
His great distraction nowadays was to listen to the conversations in the bar, and to shout through the wall when he recognized a friend’s voice:
“Hallo, my son-in-law! Is that you, Celestin?”
And Celestin Maloisel answered:
“Yes, it’s me, Toine. Are you getting about again yet, old fellow?”
“Not exactly getting about,” answered Toine. “But I haven’t grown thin; my carcass is still good.”
Soon he got into the way of asking his intimates into his room to keep him company, although it grieved him to see that they had to drink without him. It pained him to the quick that his customers should be drinking without him.
“That’s what hurts worst of all,” he would say: “that I cannot drink my Extra-Special any more. I can put up with everything else, but going without drink is the very deuce.”
Then his wife’s screech-owl face would appear at the window, and she would break in with the words:
“Look at him! Look at him now, the good-for-nothing wretch! I’ve got to feed him and wash him just as if he were a pig!”
And when the old woman had gone, a cock with red feathers would sometimes fly up to the window sill and looking into the room with his round inquisitive eye, would begin to crow loudly. Occasionally, too, a few hens would flutter as far as the foot of the bed, seeking crumbs on the floor. Toine’s friends soon deserted the drinking room to come and chat every afternoon beside the invalid’s bed. Helpless though he was, the jovial Toine still provided them with amusement. He would have made the devil himself laugh. Three men were regular in their attendance at the bedside: Celestin Maloisel, a tall, thin fellow, somewhat gnarled, like the trunk of an apple-tree; Prosper Horslaville, a withered little man with a ferret nose, cunning as a fox; and Cesaire Paumelle, who never spoke, but who enjoyed Toine’s society all the same.
They brought a plank from the yard, propped it upon the edge of the bed, and played dominoes from two till six.
But Toine’s wife soon became insufferable. She could not endure that her fat, lazy husband should amuse himself at games while lying in his bed; and whenever she caught him beginning a game she pounced furiously on the dominoes, overturned the plank, and carried all away into the bar, declaring that it was quite enough to have to feed that fat, lazy pig without seeing him amusing himself, as if to annoy poor people who had to work hard all day long.
Celestin Maloisel and Cesaire Paumelle bent their heads to the storm, but Prosper Horslaville egged on the old woman, and was only amused at her wrath.
One day, when she was more angry than usual, he said:
“Do you know what I’d do if I were you?”
She fixed her owl’s eyes on him, and waited for his next words.
Prosper went on:
“Your man is as hot as an oven, and he never leaves his bed—well, I’d make him hatch some eggs.”
She was struck dumb at the suggestion, thinking that Prosper could not possibly be in earnest. But he continued:
“I’d put five under one arm, and five under the other, the same day that I set a hen. They’d all come out at the same time; then I’d take your husband’s chickens to the hen to bring up with her own. You’d rear a fine lot that way.”
“Could it be done?” asked the astonished old woman.
“Could it be done?” echoed the man. “Why not? Since eggs can be hatched in a warm box why shouldn’t they be hatched in a warm bed?”
She was struck by this reasoning, and went away soothed and reflective.
A week later she entered Toine’s room with her apron full of eggs, and said:
“I’ve just put the yellow hen on ten eggs. Here are ten for you; try not to break them.”
“What do you want?” asked the amazed Toine.
“I want you to hatch them, you lazy creature!” she answered.
He laughed at first; then, finding she was serious, he got angry, and refused absolutely to have the eggs put under his great arms, that the warmth of his body might hatch them.
But the old woman declared wrathfully:
“You’ll get no dinner as long as you won’t have them. You’ll see what’ll happen.”
Tome was uneasy, but answered nothing.
When twelve o’clock struck, he called out:
“Hullo, mother, is the soup ready?”
“There’s no soup for you, lazy-bones,” cried the old woman from her kitchen.
He thought she must be joking, and waited a while. Then he begged, implored, swore, “tacked to the north” and “tacked to the south,” and beat on the wall with his fists, but had to consent at last to five eggs being placed against his left side; after which he had his soup.
When his friends arrived that afternoon they thought he must be ill, he seemed so constrained and queer.
They started the daily game of dominoes. But Tome appeared to take no pleasure in it, and reached forth his hand very slowly, and with great precaution.
“What’s wrong with your arm?” asked Horslaville.
“I have a sort of stiffness in the shoulder,” answered Toine.
Suddenly they heard people come into the inn. The players were silent.
It was the mayor with the deputy. They ordered two glasses of Extra-Special, and began to discuss local affairs. As they were talking in somewhat low tones Toine wanted to put his ear to the wall, and, forgetting all about his eggs, he made a sudden “tack to the north,” which had the effect of plunging him into the midst of an omelette.
At the loud oath he swore his wife came hurrying into the room, and, guessing what had happened, stripped the bedclothes from him with lightning rapidity. She stood at first without moving or uttering a syllable, speechless with indignation at sight of the yellow poultice sticking to her husband’s side.
Then, trembling with fury, she threw herself on the paralytic, showering on him blows such as those with which she cleaned her linen on the seashore. Tome’s three friends were choking with laughter, coughing, spluttering and shouting, and the fat innkeeper himself warded his wife’s attacks with all the prudence of which he was capable, that he might not also break the five eggs at his other side.
Tome was conquered. He had to hatch eggs, he had to give up his games of dominoes and renounce movement of any sort, for the old woman angrily deprived him of food whenever he broke an egg.
He lay on his back, with eyes fixed on the ceiling, motionless, his arms raised like wings, warming against his body the rudimentary chickens enclosed in their white shells.
He spoke now only in hushed tones; as if he feared a noise as much as motion, and he took a feverish interest in the yellow hen who was accomplishing in the poultry-yard the same task as he.
“Has the yellow hen eaten her food all right?” he would ask his wife.
And the old woman went from her fowls to her husband and from her husband to her fowls, devoured by anxiety as to the welfare of the little chickens who were maturing in the bed and in the nest.
The country people who knew the story came, agog with curiosity, to ask news of Toine. They entered his room on tiptoe, as one enters a sick-chamber, and asked:
“Well! how goes it?”
“All right,” said Toine; “only it keeps me fearfully hot.”
One morning his wife entered in a state of great excitement, and declared:
“The yellow hen has seven chickens! Three of the eggs were addled.”
Toine’s heart beat painfully. How many would he have?
“Will it soon be over?” he asked, with the anguish of a woman who is about to become a mother.
“It’s to be hoped so!” answered the old woman crossly, haunted by fear of failure.
They waited. Friends of Toine who had got wind that his time was drawing near arrived, and filled the little room.
Nothing else was talked about in the neighboring cottages. Inquirers asked one another for news as they stood at their doors.
About three o’clock Toine fell asleep. He slumbered half his time nowadays. He was suddenly awakened by an unaccustomed tickling under his right arm. He put his left hand on the spot, and seized a little creature covered with yellow down, which fluttered in his hand.
His emotion was so great that he cried out, and let go his hold of the chicken, which ran over his chest. The bar was full of people at the time. The customers rushed to Toine’s room, and made a circle round him as they would round a travelling showman; while Madame Toine picked up the chicken, which had taken refuge under her husband’s beard.
No one spoke, so great was the tension. It was a warm April day. Outside the window the yellow hen could be heard calling to her newly-fledged brood.
Toine, who was perspiring with emotion and anxiety, murmured:
“I have another now—under the left arm.”
His’ wife plunged her great bony hand into the bed, and pulled out a second chicken with all the care of a midwife.
The neighbors wanted to see it. It was passed from one to another, and examined as if it were a phenomenon.
For twenty minutes no more hatched out, then four emerged at the same moment from their shells.
There was a great commotion among the lookers-on. And Toine smiled with satisfaction, beginning to take pride in this unusual sort of paternity. There were not many like him! Truly, he was a remarkable specimen of humanity!
“That makes six!” he declared. “Great heavens, what a christening we’ll have!”
And a loud laugh rose from all present. Newcomers filled the bar. They asked one another:
“How many are there?”
Toine’s wife took this new family to the hen, who clucked loudly, bristled her feathers, and spread her wings wide to shelter her growing brood of little ones.
“There’s one more!” cried Toine.
He was mistaken. There were three! It was an unalloyed triumph! The last chicken broke through its shell at seven o’clock in the evening. All the eggs were good! And Toine, beside himself with joy, his brood hatched out, exultant, kissed the tiny creature on the back, almost suffocating it. He wanted to keep it in his bed until morning, moved by a mother’s tenderness toward the tiny being which he had brought to life, but the old woman carried it away like the others, turning a deaf ear to her husband’s entreaties.
The delighted spectators went off to spread the news of the event, and Horslaville, who was the last to go, asked:
“You’ll invite me when the first is cooked, won’t you, Toine?”
At this idea a smile overspread the fat man’s face, and he answered:
“Certainly I’ll invite you, my son-in-law.”