BOYHOOD WITH GURDJIEFF
As THAT SUMMER came to an end, many of the visiting Americans prepared to leave the Prieure, probably never to see it again. They had been allowed to stay on even though the school had been reorganized, but it was not expected that thcy would be back the following year. It had again been decided, to my great relief, that we would not return to America that year, and I looked forward to the winter because Mr. Gurdjieff also was not planning to go away. Except for his occasional absences when it had been necessary for him to go to Paris on business, he had been in Fontainebleau constantly. His wife's condition, as he had predicted, was steadily worse all the time and we began to expect her imminent death.
In the several months that she had been confined to her room, I had only seen her once, when I had been sent to her room on some errand or other for Mr. Gurdjieff. The change in her had shocked and appalled me. She was incredibly thin, and although she did look at me with the semblance of a smile, even that small effort had seemed to exhaust her.
As the gardening and most of the outdoor projects came to an end for the winter, we began to make our usual preparations: drying fruit and vegetables, preparing meat for storage in large barrels in the cellars, cutting and splitting wood for all the stoves and fireplaces. Some of the floors of the school were closed off for the winter and some of the students even doubled up, sharing rooms to save on fuel. With the diminished number of students, most of our work was indoors as it had been the winter before; most of the available manpower was needed for general housekeeping and in the kitchens, stables, and the concierge.
The one event that loomed enticingly ahead of us, as the fall came to an end, was Christmas. It would be the first Christmas I had spent at the Prieure when Mr. Gurdjieff was also there, and we had heard many stories about the elaborate Christmas ceremonies -- there were always two celebrations, one for the "English" calendar and one for the "Russian" calendar which came two weeks later -- and there would also be two New Years to celebrate as well as Gurdjieff's birthday which was, appropriately, on the first day of January by one or the other of these two calendars.
As the time approached, we began to make elaborate preparations. Various traditional holiday candies were made, cakes were baked and stored, and all the children were allowed to help in the preparation of what were called "guest presents", usually gaily coloured paper sacks of candies to be hung on the Christmas tree. The tree itself was huge. We cut it in the forest on the grounds of the Prieure and it was set up in the main salon, so tall that it touched the very high ceiling. A day or so before Christmas, everyone helped with the trimming of the tree, which consisted mostly of hanging presents on the tree and also decorating it with hundreds of candles. A special, long pole was cut, to stand by the tree, to be used to put out any of the candles that threatened to set the tree on fire.
It was late on Christmas eve afternoon by the time that all the preparations had been made, and there was to be a feast that evening, after which everyone would join together in the salon for the distribution of presents, sometime that night. It was beginning to get dark when Mr. Gurdjieff sent for me. He talked to me about Christmas, asked me about previous Christmases in America and how I felt about that holiday, and when I had given him the expected answers, told me that, unfortunately, it was always necessary for some people to work on holidays in order that the others should be able to enjoy themselves. He mentioned the people who would be working in the kitchens, waiting on tables, cleaning up, and so forth, and then he said that someone would also, of course, have to be on duty at the concierge that evening. He was expecting a long distance telephone call and there would have to be someone there to answer it. He had chosen me because he knew that I could be trusted; also, I spoke English, French, and enough Russian to be able to deal with any telephone call that might come.
I was thunderstruck and could hardly believe what I was hearing. I could not remember ever having looked forward to any single celebration as I had looked forward to that one. He saw the disappointment in my face, of course, but said simply that while I would not be able to participate in the general festivities that night, I could look forward to Christmas that much longer, as I would get my presents on the following day. There was obviously no way in which I felt I could get out of this assigned duty, and I left him with a heavy heart. I had my supper early, in the kitchen, and then reported to relieve whoever had been assigned to the concierge that particular day. Normally, no one was on duty in the concierge at night. A Russian family lived on the upper floor of the building and answered the telephone or unlocked the gate on the few occasions when it might be necessary.
It had snowed the day before, and the front courtyard, between the concierge house and the main building, was covered with snow, glistening white, and lighted by the brilliant lamps in the long corridor and the main salon, both of which faced the courtyard. It was dark when I reported for duty, and I sat glumly, filled with self-pity, inside the small concierge house, staring at the lights of the big house. There was no activity there now, the rest of the students, at this time, would be about to go in to dinner.
It seemed an interminable time before I began to see people filing into the big salon. Someone began to light the candles on the tree, and I was unable to contain myself. I left the door to the concierge open, and approached as close to the main house as I could and still be reasonably certain that I would be able to hear the telephone if it should ring. It was very cold -- also I was uncertain about just how far away I would be able to hear the telephone bell -- and from time to time, as the tree was being lighted, I would run back to the concierge to warm myself and to stare angrily at the telephone. I was praying for it to ring, so that I would be able to join the others. All it did was to stare back at me, stern and silent.
When tile distribution of the presents began, starting with the smallest children, I was unable to control myself, and, forgetting all my responsibilities, I went right up to the windows of the main salon. I had not been there more than a minute when Gurdjieff's eye caught me and he stood up and strode across the salon. I left the window and, as if he had sent for me, went directly to the entrance of the chateau instead of back to the concierge. He arrived at the door at almost the same time as I did, and we stood, momentarily, looking at each other through the glass door. Then he opened it with a sudden, harsh movement. "Why not at concierge ? Why you here?" he demanded angrily.
I made some half-tearful protest about having to be on duty when everyone else was celebrating Christmas, but he cut me short. "I tell you do this thing for me, and you not do. Impossible hear telephone from here, maybe ring now and you stand here and not hear. Go back." He had not raised his voice, but there was no question that he was very angry with me. I went back to the concierge, hurt and overflowing with self-pity, determined that I would not leave my post again, no matter what might happen.
It must have been close to midnight when the family who lived on the upper floor returned and I was allowed to leave for the night. I went back to my room, hating Gurdjieff, hating the Prieure, and by this time almost feeling proud of my "sacrifice" for him. I vowed that I would never mention that evening to him or to anyone else; also, that Christmas would never mean anything to me again. I expected, however, that something would be done for me the following day, that Gurdjieff would explain it to me, or in some way "make it up to me". I still fancied myself as a sort of "favourite" because of my work in his rooms -- my special position.
The following day, to my further chagrin, I was assigned to work in the kitchen, since they would need extra help; I would have enough time off to clean his rooms, and would be able to deliver coffee to him at any time he might want it. I saw him several times, briefly, during the day, but always with other people, and no reference was made to the previous evening. At sorme point during the afternoon, someone, who said they had been delegated by Gurdjieff, gave me some Christmas presents, small things plus a copy of Jules Verne's Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea; and that was the end of Christmas, except for the interminable waiting on table that night at the Christmas dinner for all the students and various guests. Since I was, this time, not alone as a waiter, I was unable to feel that I had, once again, been singled out or "punished" as I felt I had been the night before.
While Gurdjieff never at any time made any reference to that evening, it did mark a change in my relationship with him. He no longer spoke to me as if I were a child, and my private "lessons" came to an end; nothing was said about this by Gurdjieff, and I felt too intimidated to bring up the question of the lessons. Even though there had been no telephone call of any kind on Christmas eve, I had a lurking suspicion that there might well have been one during one of the periods when I had strayed away from the concierge house, and it preyed on my conscience. Even if there had not been a telephone call at all, I knew that I had "failed" in the duty that had been assigned to me, and I could not forget it for a long time.