Gurdjieff International Review

Monsieur X

The Fortune-Teller

By Richard Heron Ward

The attic I occupied in a small hotel at the junction of two narrow streets not far from St Germain-des-Prés had several advantages. It was cheap; it was the only room on the top floor of the hotel, so that one could work in it undisturbed; its low door and sloping ceiling gave it a certain old-fashioned air of the romantic, of the student’s or the poor artist’s retreat as it had been thought of since the time of Chatterton; and its window looked into the sunshine and over a confusion of roofs and trees to the church of St Germain, a prospect of great character and beauty. The hotel itself was near to everything one needed. The Sorbonne was only a few minutes’ walk away, so were the Luxembourg Gardens and the Odéon, and so in the other direction were the quays with their bookstalls, the river itself, and the Théâtre Français; while only a little further off than these were the cafés of Montparnasse, which seemed at that time to be the centre of the artistic and intellectual world.

But there were other cafés, nearer home, at which many of the people whom I knew were to be found, and one of these was the Café de Flore in the Boulevard St Germain. This café has since become famous as a haunt of M Sartre and other notable persons, and has, I believe, raised its prices to meet its interesting situation, but a generation ago it was inexpensive and seldom crowded, it was small and comfortable, the patron was hospitable, and the orchestra of three players, led by a young violinist who had considerable talent, had so large a repertoire that it never, I think, failed to play any customer’s request; Fauré’s Elégie, Tchaikovsky’s Chant sans Paroles, selections from Traviata, Padilla’s Ça c’est Paris, or Beethoven’s Turkish March from The Ruins of Athens, in one evening one might hear all these and many other things. And since I went so often to this café I do not know why, one autumn evening, I went instead to Deux Magots and went there by myself. This café, though it was attractive in many ways and had long been famous, was more expensive and somehow more formal than the Café de Flore. The past was already a little oppressive there; at that time one might still be served by a waiter who had served Wilde during his last decaying days at the Hôtel des Beaux-Arts. But the terraces of the Deux Magots were spacious, and the eastern one overlooked the Place St Germain and the grey stones of the church’s western façade; and the glass screens and glowing braziers made it possible, even in autumn or winter, to avoid the café’s interior, which was rather too pompous and rather too frowned down upon by the two grotesques themselves. It was on this eastern terrace that I encountered, for the first and only time, the curious elderly gentlemen whom, since I never heard his name, I must call Monsieur X. This encounter was certainly one of the strangest of my life, and will be difficult to set convincingly on record.

I was sitting near one of the braziers, and its warmth was grateful since the chill of October was in the air, though the evening was fine. Beyond the lights of the café, the church was vague in a blue darkness punctured by the lamps of taxis and bicycles. There were few people in the café, but presently I was aware that someone had taken the table next to mine. Perhaps it was because I was reading that I was in fact aware of him only after this new customer had installed himself and ordered a coffee. That is to say, I did not see him arrive; it was simply that, when I looked up, he was there. Yet it seemed to me afterwards that, just as his departure was extraordinarily complete and final, so his arrival must have had about it something of the same quality of completeness, of happening, as it were, all at once; one notices that there are certain rare people whose movements, whose coming and goings, are of this order.

I suppose I knew by sight most of the habitués of that quarter, and particularly of that café terrace, for although I was seldom a customer there, I passed it more than once a day on my way to my lodging. But I had never seen this man before. Once I had noticed him, however, there was something about him which made me look at him again. He sat, for one thing, with peculiar stillness, and the expression of his eyes had a quality which I could not define. He was perhaps sixty and almost wholly bald, with a large grey moustache which hid his mouth. His body was thickset, but not fleshy, and he wore good but roughish clothes which, while they were highly individual, still were not exactly remarkable. Doubtless he became aware that I had done more than merely note his arrival, and was watching him over the top of my book, for it was not long before he leaned forward and addressed me; which, a moment afterwards, I realized that I had somehow known he would do. He spoke fluent French with a foreign accent; perhaps it belonged to some other part of Europe, perhaps to some country further east; I was unable to tell. His manner was pleasantly friendly, and we talked for a few moments of those trivialities which strangers know to be nothing more, but use as a means of adjustment, and as an opportunity to find a real topic of conversation. Yet I had the odd idea that it was only I who needed to make this adjustment, and that Monsieur X himself was a person who “knew where he was” with another person without such preliminaries.…

[The complete text is available in the printed copy of this issue.]

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This essay is taken from A Gallery of Mirrors: Memories of Childhood, Boyhood and Early Youth by Richard Heron Ward, London: Victor Gollancz Ltd, 1956, pp. 205–214. Mr. Ward’s book documents eighteen remarkable persons who greatly influenced his early life.

Copyright © 2004 Gurdjieff Electronic Publishing
Featured: Fall 2004 Issue, Vol. VIII (1)
Revision: November 1, 2004