BOYHOOD WITH GURDJIEFF
DURING THE TIME of Mme. Ostrovsky's illness and Mr. Gurdjieff's daily sessions with her, one person, who had been a close friend of his wife for many years, seriously objected to what Mr. Gurdjieff was doing; her argument was that Mr. Gurdjieff was prolonging his wife's sufferings interminably and that this could not possibly serve any worthy or useful purpose -- no matter what he had said about it. This woman was Mme. Schernvall, the doctor's wife, and her anger against Mr. Gurdjieff had reached such a pitch that, while she did continue to live at the Prieure, she never appeared in his presence and refused to speak to him for several months. She would argue her case against him to anyone who happened to be within earshot, and even once told me a long story to illustrate his perfidy.
According to her, she and her husband, the doctor, were two of the original group who had come with Gurdjieff from Russia some years before. We had heard about the incredible difficulties they had encountered escaping the various forces involved in the Russian revolution and how they had finally made their way to Europe through Constantinople. One of the things which Madame Schernvall now brought up against Mr. Gurdjieff, as proof of his unreliability and even of his evil nature, was that it was largely thanks to her that they had finally been able to make their escape. Apparently, by the time they had reached Constantinople they were entirely out of funds and Mme. Schernvall made it possible for them to continue to Europe by lending a pair of very valuable earrings to Mr. Gurdjieff, which enabled them to hire a boat and cross the Black Sea. Even Madame Schernvall admitted, however, that she had not offered the earrings spontaneously. Mr. Gurdjieff had known of their existence and, as a last resort, had asked her for them, promising that he would leave them in Constantinople in good hands and that he would, on his honour, return them to her someday -- as soon as he could raise the necessary money to redeem them. Several years had passed and, even though Mr. Gurdjieff had, in the meantime, raised large amounts of money in the United States, she had never seen the earrings again. Not only was this proof of his lack of good intentions; in addition she always brought up the question of what he had done with the money he had raised -- had he not, for instance, purchased all those bicycles with money that could have been used to buy back her jewels?
This story had been told to most of us at different times, and at the time of Mme. Ostrovsky's death I had completely forgotten it. A few weeks after the funeral, Gurdjieff asked me one day if I had seen Mme. Schernvall recently and inquired as to her health. He expressed his regret at the fact that he never saw her any more and said that it made his relations with the doctor very difficult, and that it was not a good situation. He gave me a long lecture about the vagaries of women and said that he had finally decided that it was up to him to make an effort to win back Mme. Schernvall's affection and her goodwill. He then handed me part of a chocolate bar , in a torn box, as if someone had already eaten the other half, and told me to take it to her. 1 was to tell her how he felt about her, how much he did respect her and value her friendship, and to say that this chocolate was an expression of his esteem for her .
I looked at the torn wrapping and thought, privately, that this was hardly the way to win back her friendship, but I had learned not to express such reactions. I took it from him and went to see her.
Before handing her the small package, I gave her his messages, quoting him as exactly as I could, which took some time, and then handed her the little, torn package. She had listened to me with obviously mixed emotions and by the time 1 handed her the package she was eager to receive it. When she saw it, however, her features assumed a look of disdain. She said that he was never serious about anything, and that he had forced me to give her this long, elaborate message just as a preliminary joke to giving her a half-eaten piece of chocolate) which she did not like in any case.
I then said that I was surprised because he had told me that she liked this particular brand of chocolate above anything else in tile world. She gave me an odd look when I said this and then opened the package hastily. He had chosen the right messenger; I had so completely forgotten her tale about the jewels that I was as astonished as she when she found, of course, the earrings. She burst into tears, hugged me, became almost hysterical; she made up her face, put on the earrings, and then proceeded to tell me the entire story all over again, but this time with the significant difference that this was proof of what a wonderful man he was, and how she had always known that he would keep his promise to her. I was as surprised by her switch of feelings as I had been when I saw the earrings.
I went back to him, as he had instructed me, and told him the whole story in detail. He was greatly amused by it, laughed a great deal, and then told me, at least in part, his story .He said that her facts were correct, but that she had no conception of the difficulties he had experienced in trying to get the earrings back. He had "pawned" them for a very large sum of money to a trusted friend in Constantinople and when he had, finally, been able to return the money, together with the proper interest, he had learned that his friend was dead. It had taken him, from then on, several years of unflagging effort to locate the jewels and to persuade the present owner, apparently a usurer, to return them for a sum far exceeding their value.
I could not help but blurt out my obvious reaction: Why had he done this? Were any jewels worth such a price, and, in addition, did Mme. Schernvall fail to realize that whatever the value of the jewels, the very lives of Gurdjieff's group at that time had probably depended on them?
He told me then that the value of the jewels wag not an important element in the story. One reason he had redeemed them was because of his wife's friendship for Mme. Schernvall ; that friendship could not be evaluated, and that it was necessary to do this for the sake of the memory of his wife. Further, he said that any man had an obligation to keep any promise that was made truthfully and solemnly, as he had made that particular promise. "I not do this for her only," he said, "also do for sake of my soul."
"You remember," he said then, "how I tell about good and evil in man -- like right hand, left hand ? In other sense, this also true of man and woman. Man is active, positive, good in Nature. Woman is passive, negative, evil. Not evil in your American sense like 'wrong', but very necessary evil; evil that make man good. Is like electric light -- one wire passive or negative; other wire active, positive. Without such two elements not have light. If Mme. Schernvall not evil for me, perhaps I forget promise, serious promise, I make to her, So without her help, because she not let me forget what I promise, I not keep promise, not do good for own soul. When give back earrings I do good thing: good for me, for memory of wife, and good for Mme. Schernvall who now have great remorse in heart for bad things she say about me. This important lesson for you."