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

Down and Out in Paris and London

Chapter XXIII




As soon as I left the Auberge de Jehan Cottard I went to bed and slept
the clock round, all but one hour. Then I washed my teeth for the first
time in a fortnight, bathed and had my hair cut, and got my clothes out of
pawn. I had two glorious days of loafing. I even went in my best suit to
the Auberge, leant against the bar and spent five francs on a bottle of
English beer. It is a curious sensation, being a customer where you have
been a slave's slave. Boris was sorry that I had left the restaurant just
at the moment when we were LANCES and there was a chance of making money. I
have heard from him since, and he tells me that he is making a hundred
francs a day and has set up a girl who is TRES SERIEUSE and never smells of
garlic.

I spent a day wandering about our quarter, saying good-bye to
everyone. It was on this day that Charlie told me about the death of old
Roucolle the miser, who had once lived in the quarter. Very likely Charlie
was lying as usual, but it was a good story.

Roucolle died, aged seventy-four, a year or two before I went to
Paris, but the people in the quarter still talked of him while I was there.
He never equalled Daniel Dancer or anyone of that kind, but he was an
interesting character. He went to Les Halles every morning to pick up
damaged vegetables, and ate cat's meat, and wore newspaper instead of
underclothes, and used the wainscoting of his room for firewood, and made
himself a pair of trousers out of a sack--all this with half a million
francs invested. I should like very much to have known him.

Like many misers, Roucolle came to a bad end through putting his money
into a wildcat scheme. One day a Jew appeared in the quarter, an alert,
business-like young chap who had a first-rate plan for smuggling cocaine
into England. It is easy enough, of course, to buy cocaine in Paris, and
the smuggling would be quite simple in itself, only there is always some
spy who betrays the plan to the customs or the police. It is said that this
is often done by the very people who sell the cocaine, because the
smuggling trade is in the hands of a large combine, who do not want
competition. The Jew, however, swore that there was no danger. He knew a
way of getting cocaine direct from Vienna, not through the usual channels,
and there would be no blackmail to pay. He had got into touch with Roucolle
through a young Pole, a student at the Sorbonne, who was going to put four
thousand francs into the scheme if Roucolle would put six thousand. For
this they could buy ten pounds of cocaine, which would be worth a small
fortune in England.

The Pole and the Jew had a tremendous struggle to get the money from
between old Roucolle's claws. Six thousand francs was not much--he had
more than that sewn into the mattress in his room--but it was agony for
him to part with a sou. The Pole and the Jew were at him for weeks on end,
explaining, bullying, coaxing, arguing, going down on their knees and
imploring him to produce the money. The old man was half frantic between
greed and fear. His bowels yearned at the thought of getting, perhaps,
fifty thousand francs' profit, and yet he could not bring himself to risk
the money. He used to sit in a comer with his head in his hands, groaning
and sometimes yelling out in agony, and often he would kneel down (he was
very pious) and pray for strength, but still he couldn't do it. But at
last, more from exhaustion than anything else, he gave in quite suddenly;
he slit open the mattress where his money was concealed and handed over six
thousand francs to the Jew.

The Jew delivered the cocaine the same day, and promptly vanished. And
meanwhile, as was not surprising after the fuss Roucolle had made, the
affair had been noised all over the quarter. The very next morning the
hotel was raided and searched by the police.

Roucolle and the Pole were in agonies. The police were downstairs,
working their way up and searching every room in turn, and there was the
great packet of cocaine on the table, with no place to hide it and no
chance of escaping down the stairs. The Pole was for throwing the stuff out
of the window, but Roucolle would not hear of it. Charlie told me that he
had been present at the scene. He said that when they tried to take the
packet from Roucolle he clasped it to his breast and struggled like a
madman, although he was seventy-four years old. He was wild with fright,
but he would go to prison rather than throw his money away.

At last, when the police were searching only one floor below, somebody
had an idea. A man on Roucolle's floor had a dozen tins of face-powder
which he was selling on commission; it was suggested that the cocaine could
be put into the tins and passed off as face-powder. The powder was hastily
thrown out of the window and the cocaine substituted, and the tins were put
openly on Roucolle's table, as though there there were nothing to conceal.
A few minutes later the police came to search Roucolle's room. They tapped
the walls and looked up the chimney and turned out the drawers and examined
the floorboards, and then, just as they were about to give it up, having
found nothing, the inspector noticed the tins on the table.

'TIENS,' he said, 'have a look at those tins. I hadn't noticed them.
What's in them, eh?'

'Face-powder,' said the Pole as calmly as he could manage. But at the
same instant Roucolle let out a loud groaning noise, from alarm, and the
police became suspicious immediately. They opened one of the tins and
tipped out the contents, and after smelling it, the inspector said that he
believed it was cocaine. Roucolle and the Pole began swearing on the names
of the saints that it was only face-powder; but it was no use, the more
they protested the more suspicious the police became. The two men were
arrested and led off to the police station, followed by half the quarter.

At the station, Roucolle and the Pole were interrogated by the
Commissaire while a tin of the cocaine was sent away to be analysed.
Charlie said that the scene Roucolle made was beyond description. He wept,
prayed, made contradictory statements and denounced the Pole all at once,
so loud that he could be heard half a street away. The policemen almost
burst with laughing at him.

After an hour a policeman came back with the tin of cocaine and a note
from the analyst. He was laughing.

'This is not cocaine, MONSIEUR,' he said.

'What, not cocaine?' said the Commissaire. 'MAIS, ALORS--what is it,
then?'

'It is face-powder.'

Roucolle and the Pole were released at once, entirely exonerated but
very angry. The Jew had double-crossed them. Afterwards, when the
excitement was over, it turned out that he had played the same trick on two
other people in the quarter.

The Pole was glad enough to escape, even though he had lost his four
thousand francs, but poor old Roucolle was utterly broken down. He took to
his bed at once, and all that day and half the night they could hear him
thrashing about, mumbling, and sometimes yelling out at the top of his
voice:

'Six thousand francs! NOM DE JESUS-CHRIST! Six thousand francs!'

Three days later he had some kind of stroke, and in a fortnight he was
dead--of a broken heart, Charlie said.

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