The Magic Mountain Herr Albin

BELOW in the garden the fanciful banner with the caduceus lifted itself now and again in a breath of wind. The sky was once more evenly overcast. The sun was gone, the air had grown almost inhospitably cool. The general rest-hall seemed to be full; talking and laughter went on below.

“Herr Albin, I implore you, put away your knife; put it in your pocket, there will be an accident with it,” a high, uncertain voice besought. Then: “Dear Herr Albin, for heaven’s sake, spare our nerves, and take that murderous tool out of our sight,” a second voice chimed in.

A blond young man, with a cigarette in his mouth, sitting in the outside easy-chair, responded pertly: “Couldn’t think of it! I’m sure the ladies haven’t the heart to prevent me from amusing myself a little! I bought that knife in Calcutta, of a blind wizard. He could swallow it, and then have his boy dig it up fifty paces from where he stood. Do look—it is sharper than a razor. You only need to touch the blade; it goes into your flesh like cutting butter. Wait a minute, I’ll show it you close by.” And Herr Albin stood up. A shriek arose. “Or rather,” said he, “I’ll fetch my revolver; that will be more interesting. Piquant little tool—useful too. Send a bullet through anything.—

I’ll go up and get it.”

“No, no, don’t, pray don’t, Herr Albin!” in a loud outcry from many voices. But Herr Albin had already come out to go up to his room: very young and lanky, with a rosy, childish face, and little strips of side-whisker close to his ears.

“Herr Albin,” cried a lady’s voice from within, “do fetch your greatcoat instead, and put it on; do it just to please me! Six weeks long you have lain with inflammation of the lungs, and now you sit here without an overcoat, and don’t even cover yourself, and smoke cigarettes! That is tempting Providence; on my word it is, Herr Albin!”

He only laughed scornfully as he went off, and in a few minutes returned with the revolver in his hand. The silly geese squawked worse than before, and some of them even made as if they would spring from their chairs, wrap their blankets round them, and flee.

“Look how little and shiny he is,” said Herr Albin. “But when I press him here, then he bites.” Another outcry. “Of course, he is loaded—to the hilt,” he continued. “In this disk here are the six cartridges. It turns one hole at each shot. But I don’t keep him merely for a joke,” he said noticing that the sensation was wearing off. He let the revolver slip into his breast pocket, sat down again, flung one leg over the other, and lighted a fresh cigarette. “Certainly not for a joke,” he repeated, and compressed his lips.

“What for, then—what for?” they asked, their voices trembling.

“Horrible!” came a sudden cry, and Herr Albin nodded.

“I see you begin to understand,” he said. “In fact, you are right, that is what I keep it for,” he went on airily, inhaling, despite the recent inflammation of the lungs, a mass of smoke and breathing it slowly out again. “I keep it in readiness for the day when I can’t stand this farce any longer, and do myself the honour to bid you a respectful adieu. It is all very simple. I’ve given the matter some study, and I know precisely how to do it.” Another screech at the word. “I eliminate the region of the heart, the aim is not very convenient there. I prefer to annihilate my consciousness at its very centre by introducing my charming little foreign body direct into this interesting organ.”—Herr Albin indicated with his index finger a spot on his close-cropped blond pate. “You aim here”—he drew the nickel-plated revolver out of his pocket once more and tapped with the barrel against his skull—“just here, above the artery; even without a mirror the thing is simple—”

A chorus of imploring protest arose, mingled with heavy sobbing. “Herr Albin, Herr Albin, put it away, take it from your temple, it is dreadful to see you! Herr Albin, you are young, you will get well, you will return to the world, everybody will love you! But put on your coat and lie down, cover yourself, go on with your cure. Don’t drive the bathing-master away next time he comes to rub you down with alcohol. And stop smoking cigarettes—Herr Albin, we implore you, for the sake of your young, your precious life!”

But Herr Albin was inexorable. “No, no,” he said “let me alone, I’m all right, thanks. I’ve never refused a lady anything yet; but you see it’s no good trying to put a spoke in the wheel of fate. I am in my third year up here—I’m sick of it, fed up, I can’t play the game any more—do you blame me for that? Incurable, ladies, as I sit here before you, an incurable case; the Hofrat himself is hardly at the pains any longer to pretend I am not. Grant me at least the freedom which is all I can get out of the situation. In school, when it was settled that someone was not to move up to the next form, he just stopped where he was; nobody asked him any more questions, he did not have to do any more work. It’s like that with me; I am in that happy condition now. I need do nothing more, I don’t count, I can laugh at the whole thing. Would you like some chocolate? Do take some—no, you won’t be robbing me, I have heaps of it in my room, eight boxes, and five tablets of Gala-Peter and four pounds of Lindt. The ladies of the sanatorium gave it to me when I was ill with my inflammation of the lungs—”

From somewhere a bass voice was audible, commanding quiet. Herr Albin gave a short laugh, a ragged, wavering laugh; then stillness reigned in the rest-hall, a stillness as of a vanished dream, a disappearing wraith. Afterwards the voices rose again, sounding strange in the silence. Hans Castorp listened until they were quite hushed. He had an indistinct notion that Herr Albin was a puppy, yet could not resist a certain envy. In particular, the school-days comparison made an impression on him; he himself had stuck in the lower second and well remembered this situation, of course rather to be ashamed of and yet not without its funny side. In particular he recalled the agreeable sensation of being totally lost and abandoned, with which, in the fourth quarter, he gave up the running—he could have “laughed at the whole thing.” His reflections were dim and confused, it would be difficult to define them; but in effect it seemed to him that, though honour might possess certain advantages, yet shame had others, and not inferior: advantages, even, that were well-nigh boundless in their scope. He tried to put himself in Herr Albin’s place and see how it must feel to be finally relieved of the burden of a respectable life and made free of the infinite realms of shame; and the young man shuddered at the wild wave of sweetness which swept over him at the thought and drove on his labouring heart to an even quicker pace.