BOYHOOD WITH GURDJIEFF
JANE HEAP HAD returned to France at the same time as Gurdjieff, and had, of course, been to the Prieure to see us. With her return, and to my regret, the visits to Paris to see Gertrude Stein and Alice Toklas had come to an end. I was very surprised when I was sent for one afternoon by the concierge, and told that I had a visitor. I was very pleased to learn that it was Gertrude and was very happy to see her, but my happiness was dispelled almost at once. Gertrude took a short walk with me in the grounds of the school, gave me a box of candy which she told me was a "farewell" gift for both of us from herself and Alice. She did not give me any opportunity to remonstrate with her, and said that she had made the trip to Fontainebleau especially to see us (I do not remember now whether she actually saw Tom or not) because she did not want to part from us by simply writing a letter.
When I asked her what she meant, she said that because of some difficulty she was having with Jane, and also because she still thought that we were not being properly brought up, she had decided that she could no longer go on seeing us. Any relationship with her, because of her disagreement with Jane -- and, I gathered, with Gurdjieff as well -- would inevitably only make trouble for us. There was nothing that I could say to this. Gertrude cut my protests short, said that she was very sorry to have to do what she was doing, but that there was no other way out.
I was shocked and saddened by this sudden, unexpected end to what had been a very happy, exciting and rewarding relationship, and, perhaps mistakenly, I think I blamed Jane for it. I cannot remember whether I ever mentioned it to Jane, or whether she explained it to me, but I do remember feeling, perhaps mistakenly, that she -- not Gurdjieff -- was the cause. Whatever the cause, my relationship with Jane deteriorated steadily from that time on, and while she was still my legal guardian, I rarely saw her. Looking back on my behaviour at that time, it now seems to me that I was being uncivilized to a high degree -- I don't know about Jane. Jane made her usual periodic visits to the Prieure on weekends but while I actually did see her -- that is, I saw her with my eyes from a distance -- we hardly spoke to each other for a period of about two years. She did, of course, see Tom and Gurdjieff, and I knew from the general gossip at the school and from Tom that the "problem of Fritz" was frequently discussed and also that Gurdjieff had been brought into these discussions; however, during that entire time, when I was still in very close contact with Gurdjieff because of my room-cleaning duties, he never mentioned Jane to me, and his behaviour towards me never altered. Not only did it not alter, but, partly because of the break with Jane, my feelings of respect and love for him only increased.
When Gurdjieff returned from his first trip to Paris after the "Rachmilevitch affair", to our surprise, he brought Rachmilevitch back with him. In the short period that he had been absent from the Prieure he seemed to have changed a great deal. He now appeared to be resigned instead of contentious and quarrelsome, and in the course of time we even began to feel a certain affection for him. I was very curious about his return and while I did not have the temerity to bring up the subject directly when I was with Gurdjieff, he brought it up himself. He simply asked me, unexpectedly, if I were not surprised to see Rachmilevitch back at the Prieure, and I told him that I was very surprised and admitted that I was, also, curious as to how it had happened; his resolve to leave for ever had been very definite.
Gurdjieff then told me the story of Rachmilevitch. According to this tale, Rachmilevitch had been a Russian refugee who had located in Paris after the Russian revolution and had become a prosperous merchant dealing in such merchandise as teas, caviar, and various other products for which there was, primarily, a demand among displaced Russian persons. Gurdjieff had apparently known him for a long time -- he may have been one of the people who came to France with Gurdjieff from Russia some years before -- and had decided that his personality was an essential element in the school.
"You remember," he said, "how I tell you that you make trouble? This true, but you only child. Rachmilevitch grown man and not mischievous, like you, but have such personality that he constantly cause friction whatever he do, wherever he live. He not make serious trouble, but he make friction on surface of life, all the time. He cannot help this -- he too old to change now.
"When I tell you that though Rachmilevitch is already rich merchant I pay him to stay here, you are surprised, but this so. He very old friend and very important for my purposes. I cannot pay him what he can already make, all by self, in tea business in Paris; so when I go to see him I humble self, have to beg him to make sacrifice for my sake. He agree to do this, and I now have obligation to him for life. Without Rachmilevitch, Prieure is not same; I know no one person like him, no person who just by existence, without conscious effort, produce friction in all people around him."
I had by this time acquired the habit of always assuming that in anything that Gurdjieff did there was always "more than meets the eye" ; I was also familiar with his theory that friction produced conflicts which, in turn, agitated people and, as it were, shocked them out of their habitual, routine behaviour; also I could not help but wonder what rewards were in this for Rachmilevitch, besides money, that is. Gurdjieff's only answer to this was to say that it was also a privilege for Rachmilevitch to be at the Prieure. "Nowhere else can his personality perform such useful work." I was not particularly impressed by this answer, but I did have a picture in my mind of Rachmilevitch's every move being of great importance. It seemed, at best, a curious destiny -- he must, I assumed, live in a constant state of cataclysm, creating havoc incessantly.
There was no question that his presence not only created trouble, but also seemed to attract it. Very shortly after his return, he and I were again the focal points in another "incident".
It was my day on kitchen duty. As was customary for the "kitchen-boy" I got up at four-thirty in the morning. Since I was lazy by nature and also at that age, the only way I could be sure of awakening on time for kitchen duty was to drink as many glasses of water as I could before I went to bed at about eleven the night before. Alarm clocks were unheard of at the Prieure, and this recipe for early rising (which someone had suggested to me) never failed to work. As the nearest toilet was at a considerable distance from my room, there was no doubt of my actual waking up and I did not fall asleep again. The only difficulty was in regulating the amount of water. Too often I awakened at three, instead of four-thirty. Even on those mornings I did not dare to go back to bed again, and could not face drinking another quantity of water sufficient to waken me in another hour or so.
The kitchen boy's first duties were to build the fires in the coke stoves, fill the coal scuttles, make the coffee and heat the milk, slice and toast the bread. The water for the coffee took a long time to come to a boil as it was heated in twenty-five litre enamelware pots, which were also used to make the soup for the midday meal. The cook -- there was usually a different cook every day, but the menus were written down, with recipes, in advance for each day of the week -- normally was not required to appear in the kitchen until breakfast was over. On this particular day, the cook had not appeared by nine-thirty and I began to worry. I looked at the menu, and the recipe for the soup of the day, and since I had often seen the various cooks prepare the meal that was scheduled for that day, I made the necessary preliminary preparations.
When the cook had still not appeared by about ten o'clock I sent some child to find out what had happened to her and was told that she was sick and would not be able to come to the kitchen. I took my dilemma to Gurdjieff, and he said that since I had already started the meal I might as well return to the kitchen and finish it. "You be cook today," he said grandly.
I was very nervous about the responsibility, as well as rather proud of being entrusted with it. My greatest difficulty was in having to move the enormous soup kettles around the top of the large coal stove when I had to add coal to the fire, which was frequently necessary in order to keep the soup cooking. I worked hard all the morning and was reasonably proud of myself when I managed to finish the meal and deliver it, intact, to the serving table. The cook being absent, it was also necessary for me to serve it.
Habitually, the students formed a line, each person with his soup plate, silver, etc., in his hands, and as they passed by the serving table the cook would serve them one piece .of meat and a ladleful of soup. Everything went well for a time. It was not until Rachmilevitch appeared -- among the last to be served -- that my difficulties began. The soup pot was almost empty by the time he reached me and I had to tilt it in order to fill the ladle. When I served him -- it seemed to me that it was decreed by our mutual fates -- the ladle also brought up a fair-sized lump of coke. It was a thick soup and I did not see the coke until it was deposited, with a hard, clanking sound, in his soup plate.
Judging by Rachmilevitch's reaction, his world came to an end at that instant. He started in on a tirade against me that I thought would never end. Everything that all of the children had done to him during the past winter was brought up, hashed over in detail; and as he cursed and raged I stood helplessly behind the soup kettle, silent. The tirade came to an end with Gurdjieff's appearance. He did not usually appear at lunch -- he did not eat lunch -- and he explained his appearance by saying that we were making so much noise that he was unable to work.
Rachmilevitch turned on him immediately, beginning his recital of woes and wrongs all over again from the beginning. Gurdjieff watched him steadily, unblinking, and this seemed to have a calming effect. Rachmilevitch's voice gradually lowered in tone, and he seemed to run down. Without saying anything to him, Gurdjieff picked the lump of coke out of Rachmilevitch's soup plate, threw it on the ground, and asked for a plate of soup himself. He said that since there was a new cook today, he felt that it was his responsibility to taste his cooking. Someone went for a soup plate for him, I served him what remained in the soup pot and he ate it, silently. When he had finished, he came over to me, congratulated me loudly, and said that the soup -- this particular soup -- was a favourite of his and was better than he had ever tasted.
He then turned to the assembled students and said that he had great experience and training in many things, and that in the course of his life he had learned a great deal about food, chemistry, and proper cooking, which included, of course, the taste of things. He said that while this particular soup was one that he had, personally, invented and which he liked very much, he now realized that it had always lacked one element to make it perfect. With a sort of obeisance in my direction, he praised me saying that I, by a fortunate accident, had found the perfect thing -- the one thing that this soup needed. Carbon. He ended this speech by saying that he would instruct his secretary to change the recipe to include one piece of coke -- not to be eaten, but to be added for flavour only. He then invited Rachmilevitch to have after-dinner coffee with him, and they left the dining area together.