BOYHOOD WITH GURDJIEFF
ALTHOUGH THERE WERE many people at the Prieure who were considered important for one reason or another, such as Madame de Hartmann, his secretary, and her husband, the pianist and composer, M. de Hartmann, who arranged and played the various pieces of music which Gurdjieff composed on his small "harmonium", the most impressive permanent resident was his wife, who was always known to us as Madame Ostrovsky.
She was a very tall, big-boned, handsome woman, and she seemed to be ever-present, moving almost silently along the corridors of the buildings, supervising the operation of the kitchens, the laundry-rooms and the general housekeeping work. I never knew exactly how much, or what, authority she had. On the few occasions when she actually said anything to us, which were rare, there was no question in our minds but that her word was law. I remember being particularly fascinated by the way she moved; she walked without any perceptible movement of her head and without the slightest jerkiness in her movements; she was never hurried, but at the same time she worked at incredible speed; every movement she made in whatever she was doing was absolutely essential to that particular activity. During the first summer at the Prieure she usually prepared Gurdjieff's meals and took them to his room, and it was when she was in the kitchen that we had an opportunity to observe her at work. She rarely spoke, in fact, she did not seem to use words as a means of communication unless it was absolutely essential, and when she did speak, she never raised her voice. She seemed surrounded by an aura of gentle firmness; everyone regarded her with a certain awe, and she inspired a very real feeling of devotion, although it was hardly ever expressed outwardly, among all the children.
Although most of us had no contact with her in the usual sense-for example, I doubt that she ever even addressed me personally-when we learned that she was seriously ill, it was a matter of concern to all of us. We missed the feeling of unspoken authority that she had always carried with her, and the lack of her presence gave us a feeling of definite, if indefin able, loss.
Her illness, in addition, made a great change in Gurdjieff's routine. Once she was confined to her room-which faced his room and was of equal size, but at the opposite end of the main building-Gurdjieff began to spend several hours with her each day. He would go to her room for a short visit each morning, supervise the persons who were delegated to taking care of her-his two eldest nieces and, on occasion, others- and would then return after lunch, usually to spend the entire afternoon with her.
During this period, our contact with Gurdjieff was rare, except for the evenings in the salon. He was preoccupied and withdrawn and left almost all of the details of the running of the Prieure to others. We occasionally saw him when we were on kitchen duty as he would come to the kitchens to supervise, personally, the preparation of her food. She was on a diet which included a large amount of blood, pressed in a small hand press from meat which had been especially selected and purchased for her.
At the beginning of her illness, she did make occasional appearances on the terrace, to sit in the sun, but as the summer went on she finally took to her room permanently. Gurdjieff informed us, one evening, that she was incurably ill with some form of cancer and that the doctors -- some two months before -- had given her only two weeks to live. He said that although it might take all his strength, he was determined to keep her alive for as long as possible. He said that she was "living through him" and that it took almost all of his daily energy, but that he hoped to keep her alive for another year, or at least for six months.
As I was still in charge of his rooms, I necessarily had a certain amount of contact with him. He would often send for coffee during the night, which was now the only time he gave to his writing -- often staying up until four or five in the morning, having worked from about ten o'clock the night before.
In addition to the chickens, the donkey, the horse, a number of sheep, and for a time one cow, there were a number of cats and dogs around the Prieure. One of the dogs, a rather ugly black and white mongrel, had always tended to follow Gurdjieff around, but not to such an extent that he could have been called Gurdjieff's dog. At this period, with Gurdjieff rarely absent from the Prieure -- he had cut his trips to Paris to an absolute minimum -- this dog, named Philos by Gurdjieff. became his constant companion. He not only followed him everywhere, but also slept in Gurdjieff's room unless Gurdjieff put him out personally, which he usually did, telling me that he did not like anyone or anything sleeping in the same room with him. Upon being put out of the room, Philos would curl up directly in front of the door, and then go to sleep against it. He was a reasonably fierce watchdog and became very protective of Gurdjieff. He was, however, extremely tolerant of me as I was -- obviously with Gurdjieff's permission -- constantly coming and going to and from Gurdjieff's room. When I would enter it late at night with my tray of coffee, he would glare up at me, yawn and permit me to step over him and enter the room.
One night, it was very late and the entire Prieure was silent and dark with the exception of Gurdjieff's room, Gurdjieff set aside his work when I came in and told me to sit on the bed beside him. He talked at some length about his work, how hard his writing was, how exhausting his daily work with Madame Ostrovsky, and then, as usual, asked me about myself. I recapi. tulated the various things that I was doing, and he commented that since I had a great deal to do with animals -- I took care of the chickens, the horse, the donkey, and recently had been feeding Philos, too -- he would like to know what I thought of them. I said that I thought of them all as my friends and told him, to his amusement, that I even had names for all the chickens.
He said that the chickens were not important -- very stupid creatures -- but that he hoped that I would take good care of the other animals. The donkey did not matter too much, but he was concerned with the horse and the dogs. "Horse and dog, and sometimes also true of cow," he said, "are special animals Can do many things with such animals. In America, in Western world, people make fools of dogs -- make learn tricks, other stupid things. But these animals truly special -- no longer just animals." He then asked me if I had ever heard of reincarnation and I said that I had. He said that there were people, some Buddhists for example, who had many theories about reincarnation, some "even believe animal can become man or sometimes that man in next reincarnation can become animal." He laughed when ht. said this, and then added: "Man do many strange things with religion when learn a little -- make up new things for religion, sometimes things that have little truth, but usually come from original thing that was true. In case of dogs, they not all wrong," he said. "Animals have only two centres -- man is three-centred being, with body, heart, and mind, all different. Animal cannot acquire third brain and become man; but just because of this, because of this impossibility to acquire third brain, is necessary always treat animals with kindness. You know this word, 'kindness'?"
I said that I did, and he said: "Never forget this word. Very good word and not exist in many languages. Not in French, for instance. French say 'gentil' but this not mean same thing. Not kind, kind come from kin, like family, like same thing. Kindness mean to treat like self."
"Reason for necessity treat dog and horse with kindness," he went on, "is because unlike all other animal, and even though he know cannot become man, cannot acquire third brain like man, in his heart all dog and horse who associate with man wish become man. You look at dog or horse and you always see, in eyes, this sadness because know not possible for them, but even so, they wish. This very sad thing to wish for impossible. They wish this because of man. Man corrupts such animals, man almost try to make dog and horse human. You have heard people say 'my dog almost like human' -- they not know they speak near-truth when say this, because is almost truth, but still impossible. Dog and horse seem like human because have this wish. So, Freets," -- as he always pronounced my name -- "you remember this important thing. Take good care of animals; always be kind."
He then spoke about Madame Ostrovsky. He said that his work with her was extremely tiring and very difficult "because I try to do thing with her which almost not possible. If she alone, already she be long time dead. I keep alive, make stay alive, with my strength; very difficult thing. But also very important -- this most important moment in life for her. She live many lives, is very old soul; she now have possibility ascend to other world. But sickness come and make more difficult, make impossible for her do this thing alone. If can keep alive few months more will not have to come back and live this life again. You now part of Prieure family -- my family -- you can help by making strong wish for her, not for long life, but for proper death at right time. Wish can help, is like prayer when for other. When for self, prayer and wish no good; only work good for self. But when wish with heart for other, can help."
When he had finished, he looked at me for a long time, patted my head in that affectionate animal way, and sent me to bed.