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George Orwell > Down and Out in Paris and London > Chapter XVIII

Down and Out in Paris and London

Chapter XVIII

Charlie told us a good story one Saturday night in the BISTRO. Try and
picture him--drunk, but sober enough to talk consecutively. He bangs on
the zinc bar and yells for silence:

'Silence, MESSIEURS ET DAMES--silence, I implore you! Listen to this
story, that I am about to tell you. A memorable story, an instructive
story, one of the souvenirs of a refined and civilized life. Silence,

'It happened at a time when I was hard up. You know what that is like
--how damnable, that a man of refinement should ever be in such a
condition. My money had not come from home; I had pawned everything, and
there was nothing open to me except to work, which is a thing I will not
do. I was living with a girl at the time--Yvonne her name was--a great
half-witted peasant girl like Azaya there, with yellow hair and fat legs.
The two of us had eaten nothing in three days. MON DIEU, what sufferings!
The girl used to walk up and down the room with her hands on her belly,
howling like a dog that she was dying of starvation. It was terrible.

'But to a man of intelligence nothing is impossible. I propounded to
myself the question, "What is the easiest way to get money without
working?" And immediately the answer came: "To get money easily one must be
a woman. Has not every woman something to sell?" And then, as I lay
reflecting upon the things I should do if I were a woman, an idea came into
my head. I remembered the Government maternity hospitals--you know the
Government maternity hospitals? They are places where women who are
ENCEINTE are given meals free and no questions are asked. It is done to
encourage childbearing. Any woman can go there and demand a meal, and she
is given it immediately.

'"MON DIEU!" I thought, "if only I were a woman! I would eat at one of
those places every day. Who can tell whether a woman is ENCEINTE or not,
without an examination?"

'I turned to Yvonne. "Stop that insufferable bawling." I said, "I have
thought of a way to get food."

'"How?" she said.

'"It is simple," I said. "Go to the Government maternity hospital.
Tell them you are ENCEINTE and ask for food. They will give you a good meal
and ask no questions."

'Yvonne was appalled. "MAIS, MON DIEU," she cried, "I am not

'"Who cares?" I said. "That is easily remedied. What do you need
except a cushion--two cushions if necessary? It is an inspiration from
heaven, MA CHERE. Don't waste it."

'Well, in the end I persuaded her, and then we borrowed a cushion and
I got her ready and took her to the maternity hospital. They received her
with open arms. They gave her cabbage soup, a ragout of beef, a puree of
potatoes, bread and cheese and beer, and all kinds of advice about her
baby. Yvonne gorged till she almost burst her skin, and managed to slip
some of the bread and cheese into her pocket for me. I took her there every
day until I had money again. My intelligence had saved us.

'Everything went well until a year later. I was with Yvonne again, and
one day we were walking down the Boulevard Port Royal, near the barracks.
Suddenly Yvonne's mouth fell open, and she began turning red and white, and
red again.

'"MON DIEU!" she cried, "look at that who is coming! It is the nurse
who was in charge at the maternity hospital. I am ruined!"

'"Quick!" I said, "run!" But it was too late. The nurse had recognized
Yvonne, and she came straight up to us, smiling. She was a big fat woman
with a gold pince-nez and red cheeks like the cheeks of an apple. A
motherly, interfering kind of woman.

'"I hope you are well, MA PETITE?" she said kindly. "And your baby, is
he well too? Was it a boy, as you were hoping?"

'Yvonne had begun trembling so hard that I had to grip her arm. "No,"
she said at last.

'"Ah, then, EVIDEMMENT, it was a girl?"

'Thereupon Yvonne, the idiot, lost her head completely. "No," she
actually said again!

'The nurse was taken aback. "COMMENT!" she exclaimed, "neither a boy
nor a girl! But how can that be?"

'Figure to yourselves, MESSIEURS ET DAMES, it was a dangerous moment.
Yvonne had turned the colour of a beetroot and she looked ready to burst
into tears; another second and she would have confessed everything. Heaven
knows what might have happened. But as for me, I had kept my head; I
stepped in and saved the situation.

'"It was twins," I said calmly.

'"Twins!" exclaimed the nurse. And she was so pleased that she took
Yvonne by the shoulders and embraced her on both cheeks, publicly.

'Yes, twins...'

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