BOYHOOD WITH GURDJIEFF
By mid-summer, 1924, my whole life was centred on grass. By that time, I was able to mow my four lawns in a total of four days. The other things I did: taking my turn as "kitchen boy" or as "gate keeper" at the small gate house which we called the "concierge," were unimportant. I have little memory for anything other than the sound of that mowing machine.
My nightmare came to an end suddenly. Early one morning, as I was pushing the lawn mower up towards the front of the chateau, I looked up at Gurdjieff's windows. I always did this, as if hoping for some miraculous sign. This particular morning, I saw it at last. He was standing in the open window, looking down at me. I stopped, and stared back at him, flooded with relief. For what seemed a long time, he did not do anything. Then, with a very slow movement of his hand and arm, he brought his right hand to his lips and made a gesture which I later learned had always been characteristic of him: with his thumb and index finger, he, as it were, parted his moustache from the centre, and then his hand fell to his side and he smiled. The gesture made him real -- without it, I might have thought the figure standing there simply an hallucination or a figment of my imagination.
The sensation of relief was so intense that I burst into tears, gripping the lawn mower with both of my hands. I continued to watch him through my tears until he moved slowly away from the window. And then I started to mow again. What had been the dreadful noise of that machine now became joyous to me. I pushed the lawn mower up and down, up and down, with all my strength.
I decided to wait until noon to announce my triumph, but by the time I went in to lunch I realized that I had no proof, nothing to announce, and, with what now seems surprising wisdom, I did not say anything, although I was unable to contain my happiness.
By evening, it was generally known that Mr. Gurdjieff was out of danger, and the atmosphere at dinner-time was one of gratitude and thankfulness. My part in his recovery -- I had become convinced that I, alone, would be responsible in great part for whatever happened to him -- was lost in the general rejoicing. All that happened was that the animosity which had been directed towards me disappeared as suddenly as it had arisen. If it had not been for the fact that I had actually, some weeks before, been forbidden to make any noise near his windows, I would have thought that the whole thing had existed only in my mind. The lack of any kind of triumph, of any recognition, was a blow.
The incident was not, however, completely closed even then. Mr. Gurdjieff appeared, warmly dressed and walking slowly, a few days later. He came to sit at the little table where he had interviewed me. I was, as usual, trudging up and down with my lawn mower. He sat there, seemingly oblivious of everything around him, until I finished the lawn which I had been mowing that day. It was the fourth and, thanks to the impetus of his recovery, I had shortened my mowing time to three days. As I pushed the mowing machine ahead of me, taking it back to the shed where it was kept, he looked at me and motioned me to come over to him.
I dropped the lawn mower and went to stand at his side. He smiled, again I would say "benevolently," and asked me how long it took me to mow the lawns. I answered, proudly, that I could mow all of them in three days. He sighed, staring ahead of him at the expanse of grass, and stood up. "Must be able to do in one day," he said. "This important."
One day! I was appalled, and filled with mixed emotions. Not only was I given no credit for my accomplishment -- at least for having, in spite of everything, kept my promise; I was practically being punished for it.
Gurdjieff paid no attention to my reactions, which must have been visible on my mobile face, but put one hand on my shoulder and leaned rather heavily on me. "This important," he repeated, "because when can cut lawns in one day, have other work for you." He then asked me to walk with him -- to help him walk -- to a particular field, not far away, explaining that he was unable to walk easily.
We walked together slowly, and with considerable difficulty, even with my help, we ascended a path by the field he had mentioned. It was a sloping hill, filled with rocks, near the chicken yard. He sent me into a tool shed never the chicken coops and told me to bring him the scythe, which I did. He then led me into the field, took his hand from my shoulder, took the scythe in both of his hands and made a sweeping, cutting gesture with it. As I watched him, I felt that the effort he was making was very great; I feared his pallor and his obvious weakness. He then handed the scythe back to me and told me to put it away. When I had done so, I came back to stand beside him, and once more he leaned heavily on my shoulder.
"When you cut all lawns in one day, this will be new work. Scythe this field every weak."
I looked up the slope at the long grass, the rocks and trees and bushes. I was also aware of my own size -- I was small for my age, and the scythe had seemed very large. All I could do was to stare at him, amazed. It was only the look in his eyes, serious and pained, that prevented me from making an immediate, angry, tearful protest. I simply bowed my head and nodded, and then walked with him, slowly, back to the main house, up the stairs and to the door of his room.
At eleven, I was no stranger to self-pity, but this development was almost too much for me. In fact, self-pity was only a small part of my feelings. I also felt anger and resentment. Not only had I had no recognition, no thanks -- I was practically being punished. What kind of place was this school -- and what sort of man was he, after all? Bitterly, and rather proudly, I remembered that I would be going back to America in the fall. I would show him. All that I had to do was never to manage to mow the lawns in one day!
Curiously, when my feelings subsided and I began to accept what appeared to be the inevitable, I found that my resentment and anger, although I still felt them, were not directed against Mr. Gurdjieff personally. There had been a look of sadness in his eyes as I had walked with him, and I had felt concerned about him, about his health; once again, although there had been no admonitions to the effect that I must do this work, I felt that I had taken on some kind of responsibility; that I would have to do it for his sake.
The following day there was another surprise in store for me. He summoned me to his room in the morning and asked me, sternly, if I was able to keep a secret -- from everyone. The firmness and the fiery glance he gave me as he asked me the question were completely unlike his weakness of the day before. I assured him, valiantly, that I could. Once more I felt a great challenge -- I would keep his secret no matter what!
He then told me that he did not want to worry the other students -- and particularly his secretary, Madame de Hartmann -- but that he was almost blind, and that I was the only one who knew this. He outlined an intriguing plot to me: He had decided to reorganize all the work then going on at the Prieure. I was to go everywhere with him, carrying an armchair; the excuse for this being that he was still very weak, and would need to rest from time to time. The real reason, however, which was part of the secret, was that I was to follow him because he could not actually see where he was going. In short, I was to be his guide, and his caretaker; the keeper of his person.
I felt, finally, that my reward had come; that my conviction had not been a false one, and that the keeping of my promise had been as important as I had hoped. The triumph was solitary since I could not share it, but it was genuine.