BOYHOOD WITH GURDJIEFF
IN ADDITION TO the group of children, Mr. Gurdjieff's relatives, and a few adult Americans, the only people who had not gone to America with Mr. Gurdjieff were older people -- mostly Russians -- who did not seem to fit into the category of students. I did not know why they were there except that they appeared to be what might be called "hangers-on", practically camp-followers. It was difficult, if not impossible, to imagine that they were in any sense interested in Gurdjieff's philosophy; and they constituted, along with Gurdjieff's family, what we called simply "The Russians". They seemed to represent the Russia that no longer existed. Most of them, I gathered, had escaped from Russia (they were all "White" Russians) with Gurdjieff, and they were like an isolated remnant of a prior civilization, justifying their existence by working, without any apparent purpose, at whatever chores were given them, in return for which they received food and shelter.
Even during the active summers, they led their own, private existence: reading the Russian newspapers, discussing Russian politics, gathering together to drink tea in the afternoons and evenings, living like displaced persons in the past, as if unaware of the present or the future. Our only contact with them was at meals and at the Turkish baths, and very occasionally they did participate in some of the group work projects.
Notable among these "refugees" was one man, about sixty years of age, by the name of Rachmilevitch. He was distin guished from "The Russians" because he was inexhaustibly curious about everything that took place. He was a mournful, dour type, full of prophecies of disaster, dissatisfied with everything. He complained, continually, about the food, the conditions in which we lived -- the water was never hot enough, there was not enough fuel, the weather too cold or too hot, people were unfriendly, the world was coming to an end; in fact anything at all -- any event, or any condition -- was something that he seemed to be able to turn into a calamity or, at least, an impending disaster.
The children, filled with energy, and without enough to occupy them during the long winter days and evenings, seized on Rachmilevitch as a target for their unused vitality. We all mocked him, aped his mannerisms, and did our best to make his life one long, continuous, living hell. When he would enter the dining-room for a meal, we would begin on a series of complaints about the food; when he attempted to read his Russian newspaper, we would invent imaginary political crises. We withheld his mail when we were on concierge duty, hid his newspapers, stole his cigarettes. His unending complaints had also irritated the other "Russians" and, subversively, they not only did nothing to restrain us, but, subtly and without ever mentioning his name directly, approved, and urged us on.
Not content with badgering him during the day, we took to staying up at night at least until he had turned off the light in his room; then we would gather in the corridor outside his bedroom door and have loud conversations with each other about him, disguising our voices in the hope that he would not be able to pick out any individuals among our group.
Unfortunately, and understandably, he was not able to disregard our activities -- we never gave him a moment's peace. He would appear at meals, enraged by our night-time excursions in the halls, and complain in a loud voice about all of us, calling us devils, threatening to punish us, vowing to get even with us.
Seeing that no other adults -- not even Miss Madison -- sympathized with him, we felt emboldened, and were delighted with his reactions to us. We "borrowed" his glasses, without which he was unable: to read -- when he hung out his clothes to dry, we hid them, and we waited for his next appearance and his violent, raging, frustrated reactions with great anticipation and delight, moaning in a body with him as he complained about and raged at us.
The torture of Rachmilevitch came to a climax, and an end, when we decided to steal his false teeth. We had often mimicked him when he was eating -- he had a way of sucking on these teeth, which made them click in his mouth -- and we would imitate this habit to the great amusement of most of the other people present. There was something so whole-heartedly mischievous about our behaviour that it was difficult for anyone not to participate in our continually high, merry, malicious spirits. Whenever poor Rachmilevitch was present in any group, invariably his very presence would make all the children begin to giggle, irresistibly and infectiously. His very appear ance was enough to start us laughing uncontrollably.
Whether I volunteered for the teeth-stealing mission or whether I was chosen, I no longer remember. I do remember that it was a well-planned group project, but that I was the one who was to do the actual stealing. To accomplish this, I was secreted in the corridor outside his room one night. A group of five or six of the other children proceeded to make various noises outside his room: wailing, blowing through combs which had been wrapped in toilet paper, pretending we were ghosts and calling out his name mournfully, predicting his immediate death, and so on. We kept this up interminably and as we had foreseen, he was unable to contain himself. He came tearing out of the room, in the dark, in his nightshirt, screaming in helpless rage, chasing the group down the corridor. This was my moment: I rushed into his room, seized the teeth from the glass in which he kept them on the table by his bed, and rushed out with them.
We had had no plan as to what to do with them -- we had not gone so far as to think that we might keep them forever -- and after a long consultation, we decided to hang them on the gas fixture above the dining-room table.
We were, of course, all present the following morning, eagerly awaiting his appearance and squirming in anticipation. No one could have been a more satisfactory target for our machinations: as expected, he came into the dining-room, his face shrunken around the mouth by his lack of teeth, the very living embodiment of frustrated rage. He lashed out at us verbally and physically, until the dining-room was in an uproar as he chased us around the table, demanding in high-pitched screams the return of his teeth. All of us, as if unable to stand the combination of suspense and delight, began casting glances upward, above the table, and Rachmilevitch finally calmed down for long enough to look up and see his teeth, hanging from the gas fixture. Accompanied by our triumphant shouts of laughter, he got up on the table and removed them and replaced them in his mouth. When he sat down again, we realized that we had -- for once -- gone too far.
He managed to eat his breakfast with a certain cold, silent, dignity, but although we continued, as if our motors were running down, to poke fun at him rather listlessly, our hearts were not in it any longer. He looked at us coldly, with a feeling that was even beyond hatred -- the look in his eyes was like that of a wounded animal. He did not, however, let it go at that. He took the matter up with Miss Madison, who then cross-questioned us unendingly. I finally admitted to the actual theft, and although we all received black marks in her little black book, she informed me that I now led the list by an enormous margin. She kept me on in her room when she had dismissed the other children, to enumerate the list of things which she had marked up against me. I did not keep the stables sufficiently clean; I did not sweep the courtyard regularly; I did not keep Gurdjieff's room properly dusted; the chicken yard was a general mess; I was careless about my own room, my clothes and my appearance. In addition, she felt sure that I was the ring-leader in all the offences that had been committed against poor old Mr. Rachmilevitch.
As it was already early in the spring and Gurdjieff's arrival from America was imminent, I did pay some attention to her words. I cleaned up the chicken-yard, and made at least a small improvement in most of my jobs generally, but I was still living in some sort of dreamworld and I put off as many things as I could. When we learned that Gurdjieff was going to arrive on a particular day -- it was told to us the morning of the very day that he was to reach the Prieure -- I surveyed the condition of my various chores and I was horrified. I realized that it would be impossible for me to get everything in order before he arrived. I concentrated on cleaning his rooms thoroughly, and sweeping the courtyard; my most "visible" projects. And, filled with guilt, instead of dropping my work when I knew he was arriving, I continued sweeping the courtyard, and did not go to greet him as everyone else had done. To my horror, he sent for me. I went to join the group, shamefacedly, expecting some immediate retribution for my sins, but he only embraced me warmly and said that he had missed me and that I was to help take his baggage up to his room and bring him coffee. It was a temporary reprieve, but I dreaded what was to come.