BOYHOOD WITH GURDJIEFF
VERY EARLY ONE Spring morning, I awakened while it was still dark, with only the very faint light of the sun beginning to be visible on the horizon. Something troubled me that morning, but I could not imagine what it was; I had a vague feeling of restlessness, a sensation that something unusual was happening. In spite of my usual, lazy, comfortable habit of staying in bed until the very last moment -- which was about six o'clock -- I got up with the dawn and went down to the still-silent, cold kitchens. As much for my comfort as to help whoever was assigned to kitchen-boy duty that day, I began to build the fire in the big iron cook-stove, and while I was stoking it with coke, my buzzer rang (it rang simultaneously in my room and in the kitchen). It was early for Gurdjieff, but the ring fitted my sense of uneasiness, and I raced to his room. He was standing in the open doorway to the room, Philos at his side, and he looked at me urgently. "Go bring Dr. Schernvall right away," he commanded, and I turned to leave, but he stopped me, saying: "Madame Ostrovsky is dead. Better tell."
I raced out of the building, and ran to the house where Dr. Schernvall lived; a small house, not far from the chicken yard, which was named, probably by the French years before, "Paradou". Dr. and Mme. Schernvall, together with their young son, Nikolai, lived on the top floor of this building. The rest of the building housed Mr. Gurdjieff's brother, Dmitri, and his wife and four daughters. I awakened the Schernvalls and told them the news. Mme. Schernvall burst into tears, and the doctor began to dress hastily, and told me to go back and tell Mr. Gurdjieff that he was on his way.
When I got back to the main house, Mr. Gurdjieff was not in his room, so I went down the long hall to the opposite end of the building and knocked, timidly, on the door of Madame Ostrovsky's room. Mr. Gurdjieff came to the door, and I told him the doctor was on his way. He looked impassive, very tired, and very pale. He told me to wait near his room and tell the doctor where he was. The doctor appeared a few minutes later and I directed him to Mme. Ostrovsky's room. He had only been there a few minutes when Mr. Gurdjieff came out of the room. I was standing in the corridor, undecided, not knowing whether to wait for him or not. He looked at me without surprise and then asked me if I had the key to his room. I said that I did, and he said that I was not to come in and also that I was not to let anyone else in the room until he sent for me. Then, followed by Philos, he went down the long hall to his room, but did not allow Philos to go in with him. The dog, looking angrily at me, settled himself against the door as Mr. Gurdjieff locked it, and growled at me for the first time.
It was a long, sad day. We all performed our assigned tasks but a heavy cloud of sorrow hung over the school. It was one of the first real Spring days that year, and even the sunshine and the unaccustomed warmth of the day seemed inappropriate. All our work was done in a hushed silence; people spoke to each other in whispers, and an air of uncertainty spread through all the buildings. Presumably, the necessary arrangements for the funeral were being handled by someone, Dr. Schernvall, or Madame de Hartmann, but most of us were unaware of them. Everyone waited for Mr. Gurdjieff to appear, but there was no sign of life from his room, he had not had breakfast, did not ring for lunch or for dinner, or for coffee at any time during the entire day.
The following day, in the morning, Madame de Hartmann sent for me and said that she had knocked on Mr. Gurdjieff's door and had received no answer and asked me to give her my key. I said I could not give it to her and told her what Mr. Gurdjieff's instructions had been. She did not argue with me, but said that she was worried because they were going to move Madame Ostrovsky's body to the study-house where it would remain overnight until the funeral the following day; she thought that Mr. Gurdjieff should know about this, but in view of what he had told me she decided that she should not disturb him.
Late that afternoon, when there had still been no sign from Mr. Gurdjieff, I was sent for again. This time, Mme. de Hartmann said she would have to have the key. The Archbishop, presumably from the Greek Orthodox Church in Paris, had arrived, and Mr. Gurdjieff would have to be notified. After an inner struggle with myself, I finally gave in. The Archbishop's appearance was almost as forbidding as Gurdjieff's could be at times, and I could not stand up against his apparent importance.
A short while later, she found me again, She said that even with the key she was unable to get into the room. Philos would not let her come close enough to the door to get the key in the lock; that I would have to go, since Philos knew me well, and tell Mr. Gurdjieff that the Archbishop had arrived and must see him. Resigned and fearful of the consequences, I went up to his room. Philos looked at me without friendliness when I approached. I had tried to feed him the day before and also that morning, but he had refused to eat or even to drink water. Now, he watched me as I got the key out of my pocket, and seemed to decide that he would allow me to pass. He did not move, but as I opened the door he did allow me to step over him into the room.
Mr. Gurdjieff was sitting in a chair in his room -- the first time I had ever seen him sitting in anything other than the bed -- and looked at me without surprise, "Philos let you in?" he asked.
I nodded, and said that I was sorry to disturb him and that I had not forgotten his instructions but that the Archbishop had arrived and that Madame de Hartmann ... He interrupted me with a wave of his hand. "Is all right," he said quietly, "must see Archbishop." Then he sighed, stood up, and said: "What day today?"
I told him that it was Saturday and he asked me if his brother, who was in charge of the fires at the Turkish bath, was preparing for the baths as usual. I said that I did not know, but that I would find out. He told me not to let him know, simply to tell Dmitri to have the baths ready as usual, and also to tell the cook that he would be down for dinner that night and that he wanted a very special meal to honour the Archbishop. Then he told me to feed Philos. I said that I had tried to feed him but that he had refused to eat. Gurdjieff smiled. "When I leave room, will eat. You feed again." Then he left the room, walking slowly and thoughtfully down the stairs.
This was my first experience with death and while Gurdjieff had changed -- he seemed unusually pensive and extremely tired -- more so than I had ever seen him -- he did not fit my preconceived notions of grief. There were no manifestations of sorrow, no tears, just an unusual heaviness about him, as if it required great effort for him to move.