The Magic Mountain He Practises His French

NO, after all, he was by no means, even yet, adjusted to his surroundings. Neither in familiarity with the features peculiar to life as lived up here—a familiarity impossible to achieve in so few days, which, as he was quite aware, and had even said to Joachim, he could hardly hope to acquire in the three weeks of his stay—nor in the adaptation of his physical organism to the prevailing peculiar atmospheric conditions. For this adaptation was bitterly hard; so hard, indeed, that it looked as though it would never be a success.

The daily routine was clearly articulated, carefully organized; one fell quickly into step and, by yielding oneself to the general drift, was soon proficient. After that, indeed, within the weekly round, and also within other larger divisions of time, one discovered the existence of certain regular variations of the programme, which showed themselves, one at a time, a second one sometimes appearing only after the first had repeated itself. But even the phenomena of everyday life held much that Hans Castorp had still to learn: faces and facts already noted had to be conned, new ones to be absorbed with youth’s receptivity.

Those great-bellied vessels, for example, with the short necks, which he had noticed the first evening standing in the corridors before certain doors. They contained oxygen; he had asked, and Joachim informed him. That was pure oxygen, six francs the container. The reviving gas was given the dying in a last effort to kindle or reinforce their strength. They drew it up through a tube. For behind those doors where such vessels were placed lay the dying—the “moribundi,” as Herr Hofrat Behrens called them when Hans Castorp met him one day in the first storey. Purple of cheek, in his white smock-frock, he rowed along the corridor, and they went down the steps together.

“Well, and how are you, you disinterested spectator, you?” said Behrens. “Are we finding favour in your critical eye, what? Thanks so much. Yes, yes, our summer season, it’s not too bad, there’s something to be said for it. I’ve spent a little money myself to push it. But it’s a pity you won’t be here in the winter—you’re stopping only eight weeks, I hear? Ah, three? That’s nothing but a week-end!—won’t pay you to take off your hat. Oh well, just as you think. Only it is a pity you won’t be here for the winter; that’s when the nobs come,” he said comically, “the international nobs, down in the Platz; they don’t come except in winter—you ought to see them, if only for the sake of your education. Regular high-flyers. You ought to see the jumps they make with those skis of theirs. And then the ladies! O Lord, the ladies! Birds of paradise, I tell you, and regularly out for adventure. Well, I must go in here, to my moribundus, number twenty-seven. Last stage, you know—off centre. Five dozen fiascos of oxygen he’s had all together, yesterday and to-day, the soak! But he will be going to his own place by middle-day. Well, my dear Reuter,“ he was saying as he entered, “what do you say—shall we break the neck of another bottle?” The sound of his words died away as he closed the door. But Hans Castorp had had a moment’s glimpse into the background of the room, where on the pillow lay the waxen profile of a young man with a little chin beard, who slowly rolled his great eyeballs toward the open door.

This was the first dying man Hans Castorp had ever seen; for his father and mother, and his grandfather too had died, so to speak, behind his back. How full of dignity the young man’s head, with the little beard thrust upward, had lain upon his pillow! How speaking the glance those unnaturally great eyes had slowly turned upon the door!

Hans Castorp, still quite absorbed by that glimpse, instinctively tried to make his own eyes as large, as slowly gazing and meaningful as those of the dying man, walking on as he did so, toward the stairs, and encountering a lady who came out of a room behind him and overtook him at the landing. He did not at once realize that it was Madame Chauchat; she, on her side, smiled at the eyes he was making at her, put her hands to the braids at the back of her head, and passed before him down the stairs, soundless, supple, with her head somewhat thrust out.

Acquaintances he made scarcely any in these early days, nor for a long time afterwards. The daily routine was not favourable. Hans Castorp, too, was of a retiring disposition, felt himself very much the “disinterested spectator,” as Hofrat Behrens had called him, and was in general content with the society and conversation of his cousin Joachim. The corridor nurse, indeed, continued to crane her neck after them, until Joachim, who had already favoured her with a little converse now and then, introduced his cousin. She wore the ribbon of her pince-nez tucked behind her ear, and spoke with excruciating affectation. On closer acquaintance, indeed, one got the impression that her reason had suffered on the rack of continual boredom. It was hard to get away from her, she showed such evident distress whenever the conversation gave signs of languishing; when the cousins seemed about to go on their way, she sought to hold them by a stream of words, by glances and despairing smiles, until, for very pity, they refrained. She spoke at random, of her papa, who was a jurist, and of her cousin, who was a physician—obviously with the idea of presenting herself in a good light and impressing them with her cultured origin. Her present charge, she said, was the son of a Coburg doll-manufacturer, named Rotbein; the disease had attacked young Fritz’s intestinal tract. That was hard for all concerned; the gentlemen could understand how hard it was, for one who came from cultured surroundings and had the delicacy of feeling of the upper classes. And one couldn’t turn one’s back a minute. A little time ago she had just gone out a few minutes—to get some toothpowder, in fact; when she came back, there sat her patient in bed, with a glass of stout, a salame, a thick wedge of rye bread, and a pickle before him. All these clandestine dainties his family had sent to give him strength. The next day, of course, he was more dead than alive. He was himself hastening his own end. But that would be only a mercy for him, a blessed relief. For her, Sister Berta, however—whose real name was Alfreda Schildknecht—it would mean little or nothing; she would just go on to another case, in a more or less advanced stage, either here or elsewhere; such was the prospect that opened before her—and there was no other.

Yes, Hans Castorp said, her calling was a hard one, but satisfying, he should think. Of course, she answered, it was. Satisfying, but very hard.

Well, kind regards to the patient—and the cousins tried to take leave.

But she so hung upon them, with words and looks, that it was painful to see, putting forth all her powers to hold them only a little longer—it would have been cruel not to have vouchsafed her another few minutes.

“He is asleep,” she said. “He does not need me. I came out here for a second or so.”

She began complaining about Hofrat Behrens, whose manner with her was altogether too free, considering her origin. She much preferred Dr. Krokowski, she found him so full of soul. Then she returned to her papa and her cousin, her mental resources being exhausted. In vain she struggled to hold the young men, letting her voice rise until it was almost a shriek as she saw them moving. They escaped her finally and went; she kept on looking after them awhile, her body bent forward, her gaze so avid it seemed as though she would fairly suck them back with her eyes. Her breast was wrung with a sigh as she turned and went into her patient’s room.

Hans Castorp made but one other acquaintance in these days: the pale, black-clad Mexican lady he had seen in the garden, whose nickname was Tous-les-deux. It came to pass that he heard from her own lips the tragic formula; and being forearmed, preserved a suitable demeanour and was satisfied with himself afterwards. The cousins met her before the front door, as they were setting forth on their prescribed walk after early breakfast. She was restlessly ranging there, with her pacing step, her legs bent at the knee-joints, wrapped in a black cashmere shawl, a black veil wound about her disordered silver hair and tied under her chin, her ageing face, with the large writhen mouth, gleaming dead-white against her mourning. Joachim, bare-headed as usual, greeted her with a bow, which she slowly acknowledged, the furrows

deepening in her narrow forehead as she looked at him. Then, seeing a new face, she paused and waited, nodding gently as they came up to her; obviously she found it of importance to learn if the stranger was acquainted with her sad case, and to hear what he would say about it. Joachim presented his cousin. She drew her hand out of her shawl and gave it to him, a veined, emaciated, yellowish hand, with many rings, as she continued to gaze in his face.

Then it came: “Tous les dé, monsieur,” she said. “Tous les dé, vous savez.”

“Je le sais, madame,” Hans Castorp answered gently, “et je le regrette beaucoup.”

The lax pouches of skin under her jet-black eyes were larger and heavier than he had ever seen. She exhaled a faint odour as of fading flowers. A mild and pensive feeling stole about his heart.

“Merci,” she said, with a loose, clacking pronunciation, oddly consonant with her broken appearance. Her large mouth drooped tragically at one corner. She drew her hand back beneath her mantle, inclined her head, and turned away.

But Hans Castorp said as they walked on: “You see, I didn’t mind it at all, I got on with her quite well; I always do with such people; I understand instinctively how to go at them—don’t you think so? I even think, on the whole, I get on better with sad people than with jolly ones—goodness knows why. Perhaps it’s because I’m an orphan, and lost my parents early; but when people are very serious, or down in the mouth, or somebody dies, it doesn’t deject or embarrass me; I feel quite in my element, a good deal more so than when everything is going on greased wheels. I was thinking just lately that it is pretty flat of the women up here to take on as they do about death and things connected with death, so that they take such pains to shield them from contact with it, and bring the Eucharist at meal-times, and that. I call it very feeble of them. Don’t you like the sight of a coffin? I really do. I find it a handsome piece of furniture, even empty; when someone is lying in it, then, in my eyes, it is positively sublime. Funerals have something very edifying; I always think one ought to go to a funeral instead of to church when one feels the need of being uplifted. People have on good black clothes, and they take off their hats and look at the coffin, and behave serious and reverent, and nobody dares to make a bad joke, the way they do in ordinary life. It’s good for people to be serious, once in a way. I’ve sometimes asked myself if I ought not to have become a clergyman—in a certain way it wouldn’t have suited me so badly.—I hope I didn’t make any mistake in my French?”

“No,” Joachim answered, “ ‘ Je le regrette beaucoup’ was perfectly right as far as it went.”