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

Down and Out in Paris and London

Chapter VI




We again failed to find work the next day, and it was three weeks
before the luck changed. My two hundred francs saved me from trouble about
the rent, but everything else went as badly as possible. Day after day
Boris and I went up and down Paris, drifting at two miles an hour through
the crowds, bored and hungry, and finding nothing. One day, I remember, we
crossed the Seine eleven times. We loitered for hours outside service
doorways, and when the manager came out we would go up to him
ingratiatingly, cap in hand. We always got the same answer: they did not
want a lame man, nor a man without experience. Once we were very nearly
engaged. While we spoke to the manager Boris stood straight upright, not
supporting himself with his stick, and the .manager did not see that he was
lame. 'Yes,' he said, 'we want two men in the cellars. Perhaps you would
do. Come inside.' Then Boris moved, the game was up. 'Ah,' said the
manager, 'you limp. MALHEUREUSEMENT--'

We enrolled our names at agencies and answered advertisements, but
walking everywhere made us slow, and we seemed to miss every job by half an
hour. Once we very nearly got a job swabbing out railway trucks, but at the
last moment they rejected us in favour of Frenchmen. Once we answered an
advertisement calling for hands at a circus. You had to shift benches and
clean up litter, and, during the performance, stand on two tubs and let a
lion jump through your legs. When we got to the place, an hour before the
time named, we found a queue of fifty men already waiting. There is some
attraction in lions, evidently.

Once an agency to which I had applied months earlier sent me a PETIT
BLEU, telling me of an Italian gentleman who wanted English lessons. The
PETIT BLEU said 'Come at once' and promised twenty francs an hour. Boris
and I were in despair. Here was a splendid chance, and I could not take it,
for it was impossible to go to the agency with my coat out at the elbow.
Then it occurred to us that I could wear Boris's coat--it did not match
my trousers, but the trousers were grey and might pass for flannel at a
short distance. The coat was so much too big for me that I had to wear it
unbuttoned and keep one hand in my pocket. I hurried out, and wasted
seventy-five centimes on a bus fare to get to the agency. When I got there
I found that the Italian had changed his mind and left Paris.

Once Boris suggested that I should go to Les Halles and try for a job
as a porter. I arrived at half-past four in the morning, when the work was
getting into its swing. Seeing a short, fat man in a bowler hat directing
some porters, I went up to him and asked for work. Before answering he
seized my right hand and felt the palm.

'You are strong, eh?' he said.

'Very strong,' I said untruly.

'BIEN. Let me see you lift that crate.'

It was a huge wicker basket full of potatoes. I took hold of it, and
found that, so far from lifting it, I could not even move it. The man in
the bowler hat watched me, then shrugged his shoulders and turned away. I
made off. When I had gone some distance I looked back and saw FOUR men
lifting the basket on to a cart. It weighed three hundredweight, possibly.
The man had seen that I was no use, and taken this way of getting rid of me.

Sometimes in his hopeful moments Boris spent fifty centimes on a stamp
and wrote to one of his ex-mistresses, asking for money. Only one of them
ever replied. It was a woman who, besides having been his mistress, owed
him two hundred francs. When Boris saw the letter waiting and recognized
the handwriting, he was wild with hope. We seized the letter and rushed up
to Boris's room to read it, like a child with stolen sweets. Boris read the
letter, then handed it silently to me. It ran:


My Little Cherished Wolf,

With what delight did I open thy charming letter, reminding me
of the days of our perfect love, and of the so dear kisses which I
have received from thy lips. Such memories linger for ever in the
heart, like the perfume of a flower that is dead.

As to thy request for two hundred francs, alas! it is
impossible. Thou dost not know, my dear one, how I am desolated to
hear of thy embarrassments. But what wouldst thou? In this life
which is so sad, trouble conies to everyone. I too have had my
share. My little sister has been ill (ah, the poor little one, how
she suffered!) and we are obliged to pay I know not what to the
doctor. All our money is gone and we are passing, I assure thee,
very difficult days.

Courage, my little wolf, always the courage! Remember that the
bad days are not for ever, and the trouble which seems so terrible
will disappear at last.

Rest assured, my dear one, that I will remember thee always. And
receive the most sincere embraces of her who has never ceased to
love thee, thy

Yvonne


This letter disappointed Boris so much that he went straight to bed
and would not look for work again that day. My sixty francs lasted about a
fortnight. I had given up the pretence of going out to restaurants, and we
used to eat in my room, one of us sitting on the bed and the other on the
chair. Boris would contribute his two francs and I three or four francs,
and we would buy bread, potatoes, milk and cheese, and make soup over my
spirit lamp. We had a saucepan and a coffee-bowl and one spoon; every day
there was a polite squabble as to who should eat out of the saucepan and
who out of the coffee-bowl (the saucepan held more), and every day, to my
secret anger, Boris gave in first and had the saucepan. Sometimes we had
more bread in the evening, sometimes not. Our linen was getting filthy, and
it was three weeks since I had had a bath; Boris, so he said, had not had a
bath for months. It was tobacco that made everything tolerable. We had
plenty of tobacco, for some time before Boris had met a soldier (the
soldiers are given their tobacco free) and bought twenty or thirty packets
at fifty centimes each.

All this was far worse for Boris than for me. The walking and sleeping
on the floor kept his leg and back in constant pain, and with his vast
Russian appetite he suffered torments of hunger, though he never seemed to
grow thinner. On the whole he was surprisingly gay, and he had vast
capacities for hope. He used to say seriously that he had a PATRON saint
who watched over him, and when things were very bad he would search the
gutter for money, saying that the saint often dropped a two-franc piece
there. One day we were waiting in the rue Royale; there was a Russian
restaurant near by, and we were going to ask for a job there. Suddenly,
Boris made up his mind to go into the Madeleine and bum a fifty-centime
candle to his PATRON saint. Then, coming out, he said that he would be on
the safe side, and solemnly put a match to a fifty-centime stamp, as a
sacrifice to the immortal gods. Perhaps the gods and the saints did not get
on together; at any rate, we missed the job.

On some mornings Boris collapsed in the most utter despair. He would
lie in bed almost weeping, cursing the Jew with whom he lived. Of late the
Jew had become restive about paying the daily two francs, and, what was
worse, had begun putting on intolerable airs of PATRONage. Boris said that
I, as an Englishman, could not conceive what torture it was to a Russian of
family to be at the mercy of a Jew.

'A Jew, MON AMI, a veritable Jew! And he hasn't even the decency to be
ashamed of it. To think that I, a captain in the Russian Army--have I
ever told you, MON AMI, that I was a captain in the Second Siberian Rifles?
Yes, a captain, and my father was a colonel. And here I am, eating the
bread of a Jew. A Jew...

'I will tell you what Jews are like. Once, in the early months of the
war, we were on the march, and we had halted at a village for the night. A
horrible old Jew, with a red beard like Judas Iscariot, came sneaking up to
my billet. I asked him what he wanted. "Your honour," he said, "I have
brought a girl for you, a beautiful young girl only seventeen. It will only
be fifty francs." "Thank you," I said, "you can take her away again. I
don't want to catch any diseases." "Diseases!" cried the Jew, "MAIS,
MONSIEUR LE CAPITAINE, there's no fear of that. It's my own daughter!" That
is the Jewish national character for you.

'Have I ever told you, MON AMI, that in the old Russian Army it was
considered bad form to spit on a Jew? Yes, we thought a Russian officer's
spittle was too precious to be wasted on Jews...' etc. etc.

On these days Boris usually declared himself too ill to go out and
look for work. He would lie till evening in the greyish, verminous sheets,
smoking and reading old newspapers. Sometimes we played chess. We had no
board, but we wrote down the moves on a piece of paper, and afterwards we
made a board from the side of a packing--case, and a set of men from
buttons, Belgian coins and the like. Boris, like many Russians, had a
passion for chess. It was a saying of his that the rules of chess are the
same as the rules of love and war, and that if you can win at one you can
win at the others. But he also said that if you have a chessboard you do
not mind being hungry, which was certainly not true in my case.

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