BOYHOOD WITH GURDJIEFF
My QUESTIONS AND doubts about the Prieure and Mr. Gurdjieff, obsessive as they had been for a short time, subsided rapidly. I was not concerned about this, but relieved to slip back into the day-to-day working routine, as if a great load had been removed from my shoulders.
The only obvious changes in the general life at the Prieure after Madame Ostrovsky's death were that Gurdjieff began to take frequent trips for periods of several days or even as much as two weeks at a time; and that when he was in residence there were usually a great many more guests on weekends. When he would go on a trip, he would often take as many as five or six people with him, and almost everyone anticipated the possibility of being selected to accompany him. It became a kind of cachet to have been on a journey to Vichy or Evian or any of the popular resorts that he liked to visit. Gurdjieff's given reason for these trips was that he needed to travel and to see more people because of his writing, which he usually did now in cafes and restaurants, often sitting in the centre of a group of people, drinking coffee and writing interminably. Many of the people who went with him were actively engaged in the translation of his writings into various languages; in addition, he liked to travel with an entourage.
I saw less of him at this time, mostly because of his more frequent absences, but even when he was at the Prieure I did not have as much private contact with him as I had had in the past. On the whole, I was glad of this, for although my questions had subsided in the sense that they were no longer at the forefront of my mind, my fear of him and a general lurking suspicion of his motives had at least partially replaced my personal and, up to then, rather complete devotion to him. I continued, however, to have either an accidental or perhaps in some way purposeful series of experiences with him.
One day when he was expected to return from one of his journeys, I was working in the kitchen, helping in the preparation of one of the usual, elaborate dinners which were always served on the days he returned. As I was moving a large kettle full of boiling water in order to stoke the fires, I somehow spilled it on myself, mainly on my entire right arm. I dropped the kettle, howling with pain, and Madame Schernvall, the cook of the day, screamed for help and sent someone for the doctor. Instead of the doctor, Gurdjieff appeared, completely unexpectedly, in the kitchen. He had arrived much earlier than we had anticipated. Without a word, and not even seeming to listen to Madame Schernvall's almost hysterical explanation of what had happened, he strode over to me, pulled me over to the stove, removed the iron rings and exposed the red-hot fire. He then seized my burned arm and held it, with all his force, over the open fire -- probably not for more than a few seconds, although it seemed an eternity to me. When he released me, he said very seriously and calmly that the proper way to fight fire was with fire. "This way," he said, "you not have scar on arm. Burn already gone."
I was amazed and very much impressed -- not only with the painful treatment, but also because of his completely unexpected appearance at just that moment. Inevitably, it did seem to be one of those fateful occurrences which I could not simply charge off to coincidence. Madame Schernvall told me, after he had left, that she had had a similar experience with him several years before, and knew that what he had done to me was the proper treatment for a burn, but that she would never have had the force or the courage to do it. We both remained overawed for the rest of the day and Madame Schernvall certainly encouraged my temptation to feel that his appearance at that time had been in some way supernatural. We continued to talk about it for several days, mostly because, as he had predicted, there was not only no scar, there was no pain and no physical evidence of any burn at all.
Gurdjieff's treatment of me from then on took a different form, and, in spite of the lack of private, personal contact with him, it did seem to me that he often singled me out for no obvious reasons.
A few weeks after the "burn cure" we were again preparing a large dinner as there were to be a great many guests that evening. The principal guest was the gendarme who had discovered Gurdjieff after his automobile accident a few summers before. When he arrived, he was installed in one of the sumptuous guest rooms on the same floor as Gurdjieff's room, and was then introduced to all of us. Gurdjieff praised him and told us how much he, and all of us, owed to this man. If it had not been for him, he, Gurdjieff, might easily be dead, and so on. The gendarme, in turn, told his version of the story; and he was greatly impressed with Gurdjieff as a person because of two specific things that had happened. The first was his discovery of Gurdjieff. He had been riding home at night, going off duty, when he had come upon the wrecked automobile, and had of course stopped to investigate the accident. The amazing thing about it was that, although seriously injured, Gurdjieff had somehow managed, apparently in a state of shock, to get out of the car, take a pillow and blanket from the car and lie down at the side of the road -- the pillow under his head, and well covered with the blanket. Considering his injuries, the gendarme could not -- to this day -- bring himself to believe that Gurdjieff had done all this without assistance.
The second thing that had amazed him was that, although it had taken him almost two years after his recovery , Gurdjieff had managed to search him out, find him, and finally persuade him to come to the Prieure as his guest for the weekend. There was, apparently, some reason for astonishment in this conneccion, although I never fully understood it; the records did not give the gendarme's name or something of the sort. Whatever it was, it had taken a great deal of effort and persistence in this case, and the gendarme was almost unable to accept the fact that someone had gone to that much trouble to thank him for what was, after all, only the normal performance of his duty.
The gendarme was seated at a place of honour at the table and Gurdjieff, as the meal began, poured the usual glasses of Armagnac for everyone (customarily, it was necessary -- it was one of his rules -- to drink a great number of toasts during a meal, and he always filled the glasses himself), including the gendarme. But the gendarme balked. His respect and friendship for Mr. Gurdjieff were boundless, as he said, but he was totally unable to drink such strong liquor -- the most he ever drank was an occasional glass of wine.
Gurdjieff was always persistent when people objected to drinking these strong toasts with him, but in this case he was adamant. He argued, pleaded, even begged the gendarme to drink with him, and the gendarme categorically, and as politely as possible, refused. Finally, Gurdjieff said that the dinner could not proceed without the participation of the gendarme in these toasts, and, as if trying another tack with him, said that any man worth his salt had not only to be able to drink such toasts, but must actually drink them. He waved away the man's protests and said that he would show him that the liquor would not have any bad effects. "This not usual place," he said, meaning the Prieure, "here is such goodwill that anyone can drink without bad effects. Even children can drink here." To prove this point, he called me over to him -- I was serving at the table that night.
When I was standing next to him, he poured a water glass full of Armagnac, and told me in Russian to drink it down at one gulp. I did, although I had never tasted such strong liquor before. When I had swallowed it, the tears came to my eyes, and my throat was burning, but I managed to get to the kitchen where the horrified cook told me to eat bread rapidly to ease my throat. The cook was his sister-in-law and was often highly critical of him. She told me firmly that only a mad man would force a child to drink "that stuff" and then sent me back to my duties as waiter. The liquor had such an immediate effect on me that, while I did continue to pass various dishes to the assembled guests, I only did so by staggering around the table and shoving the platters at them, feeling giddy and completely unconcerned. I had never experienced such a sense of carefree well-being in my life. I thought it was particularly comical when Gurdjieff, each time I arrived near him, would direct attention to me and my complete sobriety. I remember having a strange feeling of separateness as if I had actually departed from the confines of my own body and was able to watch myself, as if from a distance, tottering gaily around the table with the heavy platters in my hands. I was especially pleased when the gendarme, apparently thanks to me, gave in and drank several toasts with Mr. Gurdjieff and the other guests. I felt that it was all thanks to me and congratulated myself on some great, but not very well defined, accomplishment.
Even so, and in spite of my high spirits, the dinner seemed interminable, and I was greatly relieved when I was able to stagger off to my bed at a very late hour. It seemed to me that I had only been asleep for a few minutes when I heard the insistent ring of my buzzer. I was amazed to see that it was daylight, and managed to get into my clothes and answer the inevitable coffee summons. Gurdjieff laughed at me when I appeared in his room, and asked me how I felt. I said that I supposed that I was still drunk and described to him the way I had felt the night before. He nodded sagely, and told me that the liquor had produced a very interesting state in me, and that if I could achieve that kind of self-awareness when sober, it could be a very important accomplishment. Then he thanked me for my part in his experiment with the gendarme and added that he had picked me, especially, because it was very important that I should learn how to drink, and to learn at my age what the effects of liquor could be. "In future, when drunk," he said, "try to see self this same way as you saw last night. This can be very good exercise for you, will also help to not get drunk."