BOYHOOD WITH GURDJIEFF
THERE WERE TWO additions to the usual "winter" population of the Prieure after the exodus of the summer students in the fall of 1927. One of them was a woman, whom I only remember as being named Grace, and a new arrival, a young man by the name of Serge. There was a certain amount of gossip about both of them. In the case of Grace, who was the American wife ofone of the summer students -- also American -- she interested us because she was not a new arrival but had stayed on after her husband had gone back to America; also, because she was a rather "unusual" student. None of us knew what she was doing at the Prieure, as she had never participated in any of the group work projects, and was also exempt from such duties as working in the kitchen or performing any household activities. And, while no one questioned her status or her privileges, there was a good deal of speculation about her.
Serge was a different matter. While I do not remember any specific announcement from Gurdjieff about his arrival at the Prieure, we all knew, through the "student grapevine", that he was on parole from a French prison; in fact, the gossip was that his parole had been arranged by Gurdjieff personally as a favour to an old friend. None of us had any exact information about him; we did not know what his crime was (the children all hoped it was something at least as lurid as murder) and he, like Grace, was apparently also exempt from participation in any regular functions at the school. We only saw these two "students" (if that is what they were -- we did not really know) at meals and in the salon in the evenings. Grace, in addition, used to make what we thought of as mysterious trips to Paris at frequent intervals -- mysterious only because, in the case of most people, such trips were not only not frequent but their purpose was usually known to all of us.
They both turned out to be very unusual additions to our winter group. Late in the fall, when I was on concierge duty, Grace was brought back to the Prieure in the custody of two gendarmes. She and the gendarmes had an interview with Mr. Gurdjieff immediately after their arrival, and when the gendarmes left, Grace retired to her room and did not even appear for dinner that evening. We did not see her again until sometime the next day, when she appeared once more at the concierge with all her bags packed and departed. We did not learn until a few days later that she had been picked up in a department store in Paris for shop-lifting and, according to the gossip (Gurdjieff never so much as mentioned her name), it had been necessary for Gurdjieff to guarantee her immediate departure from France back to America as well as to pay some large sum to the department store. The mystery of her isolated work at the Prieure was also cleared up at that time. She had spent her time sewing, mostly making clothes for herself, with the materials she had been "lifting" in Paris. She was a topic of general conversation for some time after her departure -- it was the first contact that any of us had ever had with crime in the school.
Since Serge was known to be -- or at least to have been -- a criminal, our attention now focused on him. We had heard that he was the son of French.Russian parents, that he was in his early twenties, but other than that we knew nothing about him. He did not reward our interest by doing anything spectacular -- for several weeks at least -- until, just before Christmas, he simply disappeared.
His disappearance was first noticed when he failed to appear at the usual Saturday evening Turkish bath. That particular Saturday was somewhat unusual for winter-time because of the large number of guests that had come down from Paris for the weekend, among them several Americans who lived in Paris permanently. Although the fact of Serge's non-appearance at the bath was mentioned, no one was particularly concerned ; we did not think of him as a full-fledged member of the group and he seemed to have a special status which had never been defined and which might, therefore, include such eccentricities.
As the next day was a Sunday -- the one day when we did not have to get up and go to work at six o'clock in the morning -- it was not until quite late, sometime before the customary "guest" lunch, that we learned that several of the Americans had lost money and jewels, or both, and that Serge had not reappeared. There was a great deal of talk about this at lunch and many of the guests inevitably concluded that the disappearance of their valuables and the disappearance of Serge were, of course, connected. Only Gurdjieff was adamant, maintaining that there was no connection at all. He insisted firmly, and, it seemed to most of us, unreasonably, that they had simply "misplaced" their money or jewelry, and that Serge would reappear in due course. In spite of the arguments and talk about Serge and the "robberies" everyone managed to eat a big lunch and there was even more drinking than usual. By the time lunch was over and Gurdjieff was ready to retire for the afternoon, the Americans who had been, as they by this time insisted, robbed, could not talk of anything else and were considering taking such measures as calling the police in spite of Gurdjieff's command that Serge was not to be implicated.
When Gurdjieff had retired to his room, it seemed natural enough for this group of Americans to sit together in one of the smaller salons and commiserate with one another as well as discuss whatever action they might take, and to drink during these discussions. Mostly because I spoke English and was also well known to all of them, they sent me to the kitchen for ice and glasses, having produced several bottles of liquor -- mostly Cognac -- from their rooms or their cars. For some reason or other, they began to insist that I should drink with them, and since I felt, as they did, that Gurdjieff was wrong about Serge, I was glad to join their group and even felt honoured to be invited to share their liquor. By mid-afternoon, I was drunk for the second time in my life, and enjoying it very much. Also, by that time, the liquor had fanned our feelings against Gurdjieff.
Our drinking bout was interrupted very late in the afternoon when someone came to get me, announcing at the same time that Gurdjieff was preparing to leave for Paris in a few minutes and that he wanted to see me. At first I refused to go with them, and did not go to the car to see him until he had sent a second person to get me. When I got to the car, followed this time by all my adult drinking companions, Gurdjieff looked at us all sternly, and then told me to go to his room and get a bottle of Nujol. He said that he had locked his door, and now could not find the key, and I had the only other existing key to his room.
I had my hands in my pockets at the time, and was feeling very courageous and also still angry with him. Although I was actually clenching the key in one hand I said, for no explicable reason, that I had also lost my key. Gurdjieff became very angry, began to shout at me, talking about my responsibilities and saying that losing his key was practically a crime, all of which only served to make me more determined. He ordered me to go and search my room and to find the key. Feeling very exuberant by then, and with the key still firmly in one hand in my pocket, I said I would gladly search my room but that I knew I would not find the key because I remembered losing it earlier in the day. Whereupon I went to my room, and actually made a search of the bureau drawers, and then returned to tell him that I could not find it anywhere.
Gurdjieff went into another tantrum, saying that the Nujol was very important -- that Madame de Hartmann had to have it while she was in Paris. I said that she could buy some more at a drugstore. He said, furiously, that since there was already some in his room he was not going to buy any more and, further, that the drugstores were closed on Sundays. I said that even if there was some in his room, we could not get it without his key or my key, which were both lost, and that since even Fontainebleau had a "pharmacie de garde" open on Sundays, there must surely be a similar one in Paris.
All the spectators, particularly the Americans with whom I had been drinking all afternoon, seemed to find all this very amusing, particularly when Gurdjieff and Madame de Hartmann drove off, finally, in a rage without the Nujol.
I remember nothing further about that day except that I staggered to my own room and went to sleep. Sometime during the night I was very ill and the following morning I had my first experience with a real hangover, even though I didn't call it by that name at the time. When I appeared the next day, the Americans had departed and I was the centre of everyone's attention. I was warned that I would be severely punished and that I would most certainly lose my "status" as Gurdjieff's "caretaker". Sober, but with an aching head, I agreed and looked forward with horror to Gurdjieff's arrival that evening.
When he did arrive, I went to the car, like a lamb to slaughter. Gurdjieff did not say anything to me immediately and it was not until I had carried some of the luggage to his room and opened the door with my key and we were alone, that he held up his key, shook it at me, and said: "So, you find key?"
At first I said, simply, "Yes." But after a momentary silence I was unable to contain myself and added that I had never lost it. He asked me where it had been when he had wanted it the day before, and I told him that I had had it in my pocket all the time. He shook his head, looked at me incredulously, and then laughed. He said he would think about what he was going to do to me and would let me know later.
I did not have to wait for very long. It was just about dusk when he sent for me to come to see him on the terrace. I met him there and, without saying a word at first, he held out his hand. I looked at it and then looked up at his face inquiringly. "Give key," he said flatly.
I was holding the key in my hand in my pocket, as I had done the day before, and although I did not say anything, I did not hand it over, but simply looked at him, silent and imploring. He made a firm gesture with his hand, also without speaking, and I took the key out of my pocket, looked at it, and then handed it to him. He put it in his pocket, turned away from me and started to walk down one of the long paths, paralleling the lawns, in the direction of the Turkish bath. I stood in front of the terrace, watching his back fixedly, as if unable to move, for a very long time. I watched him until he had almost disappeared from sight and then I ran to the bicycle rack near the students' dining-room, jumped on my bicycle, and raced down the path after him. When I was within a few yards of him, he turned to look at me, I slowed down, got off my bicycle and went up to him.
We stared at each other silently for what seemed to me a very long time, and then he said, very quietly and seriously: "What you want?"
The tears came into my eyes and I held out my hand. "Please give me the key," I said.
He shook his head, very slowly, but very firmly. "No."
"I'll never do anything like that again," I pleaded. "Please."
He put his hand on my head, a very faint smile on his face. "Not important," he said. "I give you other work. But you now finished with key." He then took the two keys out of his pocket and held them up. "Have two keys now," he said, "you see, I also not lose key." Then he turned away from me to continue his walk.