WHEN, SEVERAL WEEKS AGO, astrologer Patric Walker wrote his Oct. 8 horoscope column for his fellow Libras, telling them that "a loved one's grief is not contrived," he had no idea he would be a source of sorrow himself. On that day, Walker, 64, who is widely credited with lifting astrology's image to an upscale pursuit, died at his London flat after a long illness that began last summer with a severe case of salmonella, which was complicated by a weak heart.

In a few months, when the last of his erudite—and, devotees insist, uncannily accurate—columns have run in newspapers and magazines worldwide, his readers, estimated at over a billion, will be on their own. "His death is like a huge door opening and a cold wind blasting in," says astrologer Michael Lutin of Vanity Fair. "He stood between a lot of people and that cold wind."

Born in Hackensack, N.J., of British parents and raised in England,.Walker toiled as an astrologically ignorant and professionally miserable accountant until age 29, when he met astrologer Helene Hoskins at a dinner party. "You get into astrology when you're confused and unhappy," Walker told PEOPLE last year. He found fulfillment in reading the stars, and after starting his first column in the early '70s, the affable and flamboyant Walker became a London party-scene fixture. But he soon discovered, he said, that "I was expected to be infallible, and it made me...a terrible drunk." He dried out after moving to Rhodes, Greece, in 1982, where he rose each day at 5:30 to write his columns by hand. "He was a genial and generous man," says fellow astrologer Shelley von Strunckel, "but when he wanted to be alone, he could be mightily elusive. He was a classic Libra."

Walker returned to England often, but made his final trip last summer for hospitalization. Toward the end, said his assistant Carolyne Ward, he was "very weak...but in a very good frame of mind." Death seemed to hold no fear. "There is no such thing as a life cut short," he once said. "Only a life that has been lived for the perfect length of time."