The Magic Mountain Whims of Mercurius

OCTOBER began as months do: their entrance is, in itself, an unostentatious and soundless affair, without outward signs and tokens; they, as it were, steal in softly and, unless you are keeping close watch, escape your notice altogether. Time has no divisions to mark its passage, there is never a thunder-storm or blare of trumpets to announce the beginning of a new month or year. Even when a new century begins it is only we mortals who ring bells and fire off pistols.

To Hans Castorp the first day of October and the last day of September were as like as two peas; both were equally cold and unfriendly, and those that followed were the same. In the rest-cure one used one’s overcoat and both camel’s-hair rugs, not only in the evening, but in the day-time. The fingers that held the book were stiff and clammy, however the cheeks burned; and Joachim was strongly tempted to resort to his fur sack, but resisted, in order not to pamper himself thus early in the season. Some days later, however—that is, between the beginning and middle of the month—

there came another change: a latter summer set in, with amazing splendour. The praises of this mountain October, which Hans Castorp had heard, were not idly sung. For some two and a half weeks all the glories of heaven reigned over valley and mountain, one day outvied another in blueness and clarity, and the sun burned down with such immediate power that everyone felt impelled to don the lightest of wear, muslin frocks and linen trousers already put aside. The adjustable canvas parasol without a handle was called into requisition, and fitted by its cunning device of holes and pegs on to the arm of the reclining-chair; and even its shelter was felt to be insufficient against the midday glare.

“I’m glad I’m here still, for this,” said Hans Castorp to his cousin. “It has been so wretched at times, and now it is as though we had the winter behind us, and only good weather to look forward to.” He was quite right. There were indeed not many signs that pointed to the true state of the calendar; and even those there were did not strike the eye. Aside from the few oak-trees that had been set out down in the Platz, where they had just managed to survive, and long before now had despondently shed their leaves, the whole region held no deciduous trees to give the landscape an autumnal cast; only the hybrid Alpine alder, which renews its soft needles as though they were leaves, showed a wintry baldness. The other trees of the region, whether towering or stunted, were evergreen pines and firs, invincible against the assaults of this irregular winter, which might scatter its snow-storms through all the months of the year: only the many-shaded, rust-red tone that lay over the forest gave notice, despite the glowing sunshine, of a declining year. Yet, looking closer, there were the wild flowers, speaking, though softly, yet to the same effect; the meadow orchis, the bushy aquilegia were no longer in bloom, only the gentian and the lowly autumn crocus, bearing witness to the inner sharpness of the superficially heated air, that could pierce one to the bone as one sat, like a chill in fever, though one glowed outwardly from the ardour of the sun.

Hans Castorp did not keep inward count of the time, as does the man who husbands it, notes its passing, divides and tells and labels its units. He had not heeded the silent entry of the tenth month, but he was arrested by its appeal to the senses, this glowing heat that concealed the frost within and beneath it. It was a sensation which, to anything like this degree, he had never before experienced, and it aroused him to the culinary comparison which he made to Joachim, of an omelette en surprise, holding an ice concealed within the hot froth of the beaten egg. He often made such comments, talking headlong and volubly, as a man does in a feverish chill. But between whiles he was silent; we shall not say self-absorbed, for his attention was presumably directed outwards, though upon a single point. All else, whether of the animate or the inanimate world, swam about him in a mist—a mist of his own

making, which Hofrat Behrens and Dr. Krokowski would doubtless have explained as the product of soluble toxins, as the befuddled one himself did also, though without having the slightest power or even desire to rid himself of the state they induced. For that is an intoxication, by which one is possessed, under the influence of which one abhors nothing more than the thought of sobriety. It asserts itself against impressions that would weaken its force, it will not admit them, it wards them off. Hans Castorp was aware, and had even spoken of the fact, that Madame Chauchat’s profile was not her strong point, that it was no longer quite youthful, was even a little sharp. And the consequence? He avoided looking at her in profile, he literally closed his eyes when he caught that view of her, even at a distance; it pained him. Why?

Should not reason have leaped to take advantage of the favourable moment to reasert itself? But what do we ask? He grew pale with rapture when, tempted by the brilliant weather, she appeared at second breakfast in the white lace matinée which made her look so ravishing—appeared late, accompanied by the banging of the door, smiling, her arms raised in a pretty posture, and presented herself thus to the dining-room before she glided to her seat. But he was enraptured not so much because she looked so charming, as because her charm added strength to the sweet intoxication in his brain, the intoxication that willed to be, that cared only to be justified and nourished. An authority of Ludovico Settembrini’s way of thinking might have characterized as depravity, as a “form of depravity,” such a lack of good intention. Hans Castorp sometimes pondered over the literary things the Italian had said about illness and despair—which he had found incomprehensible, or at least pretended to himself to find them so. He looked at Clavdia Chauchat—at the flaccidity of her back, the posture of her head; he saw her come habitually late to table, without reason or excuse, solely out of a lack of order and disciplined energy. He saw the same lack when she let slam every door through which she passed, when she moulded bread pellets at the table, when she gnawed her fingers; and he had a suspicion, which he did not put into words, that if she was ill—and that she was, probably incurably, since she had been up here so often and so long—her illness was in good part, if not entirely, a moral one: as Settembrini had said, neither the ground nor the consequence of her “slackness,” but precisely one and the same thing. He recalled the

contemptuous gesture of the humanist when he spoke of the “Parthians and Scythians” in whose company he was forced to take the rest-cure. It had been a gesture not only of deliberate, but also of natural and instinctive disdain; and that feeling was quite comprehensible to Hans Castorp. Had he not once, who always sat so erect at table, loathed and despised the banging of doors, and never, never was tempted to gnaw his fingers, because to that end Maria had been given him instead, had he not once taken deep offence at the unmannerly behaviour of Frau Chauchat, and felt an unconquerable sense of superiority when he heard the narrow-eyed one essay to speak his mother-tongue?

The present state of his feelings, however, had put on one side any such sentiments as these; it was now the Italian who was the object of his irritation, because he, in his benightedness, had spoken of Parthians and Scythians and had not meant thereby the persons at the “bad” Russian table, the shock-headed, linenless students, who sat there disputing endlessly in their outlandish tongue, which was obviously the only one they knew, and which, in its soft, spineless character reminded Hans Castorp of the thorax without ribs Hofrat Behrens had described to him. True, the manners and customs of such people might readily awaken feelings of disgust in the breast of a humanist. They ate with their knives, and unmentionably messed the front of their blouses. Settembrini asserted that one of them, a medical student well on in his training, was so ignorant of Latin, as not to know, for example, what the word vacuum meant. As for the married couple in number thirty-two, Hans Castorp’s own daily experience of them was such as to render quite credible Frau Stöhr’s report, that when the bathingmaster entered their room in the morning for the usual massage, they received him lying in bed together.

All this might well be true. But after all, the distinction between “good” and “bad” was a plain one, it did not exist for nothing. Hans Castorp assured himself that he felt only contempt for any propagandist of the republic and the bello stile who went about with his nose in the air, and calmly—with particular calm, although at the same time both febrile and fuddled—lumped the members of both tables together under the title of Parthians and Scythians. Hans Castorp understood only too well the sense in which he used it, since he had begun to understand the connexion between Frau Chauchat’s illness and her “slackness.” But as he had one day put it to Joachim: one begins by being angry and disgusted, and then all at once “something quite different enters in,”

that has “nothing to do with moral judgment,” and it is all up with your severity; you are simply not at home to pedagogic influences, however republican, however eloquent. But, we are impelled to ask, probably again in the spirit of Ludovico Settembrini, what sort of questionable experience is this, which palsies a man’s judgment, robs him of all claim to it, or even makes him waive that claim, and experience in so doing the abandonment of ecstasy? We do not ask its name—for that everyone knows. Our question rather refers to its moral quality; and we confess that we do not anticipate any very self-confident reply. In Hans Castorp’s case its nature was evident in the extent to which he not only ceased to exercise his judgment, but even began to experiment for his own part and upon his own mortal vesture. He tried, for instance, how it would feel to sit at table with his back all relaxed, and discovered that it afforded sensible relief to the pelvic muscles. Again, one day, instead of punctiliously closing a door behind him, he let it slam; and this too he found both fitting and agreeable. It corresponded to the shoulder-shrug with which Joachim had greeted him at the station, and which was so habitual among those up here.

In brief, our traveller was now over head and ears in love with Clavdia Chauchat— we may still use the phrase, since we have already obviated any possible misunderstanding on the score of it. We have seen that the essence of his passion was something quite other than the tender and pensive mood of that oft-quoted ditty: rather it was a wild and vagrant variation upon the lovesick lute, it was mingled frost and fire, like the state of a fever patient, or the October air in these high altitudes. What he actually lacked, in fact, was an emotional bridge between two extremes. On the one hand his passion dwelt, with an immediacy that left the young man pale and staring, upon Frau Chauchat’s knee, the line of her thigh, her back, her neck-bone, her arms that pressed together her little breasts—in a word, it dwelt upon her body, her idle, accentuated body, exaggerated by disease and rendered twice over body. And, on the other hand, it was something in the highest degree fleeting and tenuous; a thought, nay, a dream, the frightful, infinitely alluring dream of a young man whose unspoken, unconscious questioning of the universe has received no answer save a hollow silence. We have as much right as the next person to our private thoughts about the story we are relating; and we would here hazard the surmise that young Hans Castorp would never have overstepped so far the limits originally fixed for his stay if to his simple soul there might have been vouchsafed, out of the depth of his time, any reasonably satisfying explanation of the meaning and purpose of man’s life.

For the rest, his lovesick state afforded him all the joy and all the anguish proper to it the world over. The anguish is acute, it has, like all anguish, a mortifying element; it shatters the nervous system to an extent that takes the breath away, and can wring tears from the eyes of a grown man. As for the joys, to do them justice, they were manifold, and no less piercing than the anguish, though their occasion might be trifling indeed. Almost any moment of the Berghof day might bring one forth. For example, about to enter the dining-room, Hans Castorp would perceive the object of his dreams behind him—an experience clear and simple in anticipation, but inwardly ravishing to the point of tears. Their eyes meet at close range, his own and her greygreen ones, whose slightly oriental shape and position pierce him to the very marrow. He is incapable of connected thought, but unconsciously steps back to give her precedence through the door. With a half-smile, a half-audible “Merci,” she accepts his conventional courtesy and, passing him by, enters the room. He stands there, within the aura of her personality as it sweeps past, idiotic with happiness at the encounter, and at the word which has been uttered by her mouth directly for his ear. He follows her, he moves unsteadily to his own table and, sinking into his chair, becomes aware that Clavdia, as she too takes her place, has turned to look at him. He thinks she wears an expression as though musing on their encounter at the door. Oh, unbelievable adventure! Oh, joy, rapture, and boundless exaltation! Ah, no, this drunkenness of fantastic bliss Hans Castorp could never have experienced at the glance of any healthy little goose down in the flat-land, to whom he might have, calmly, correctly, and with most definite intentions, “given his heart,” and devoted the sentiments described in the song. He greets the schoolmistress with feverish sprightliness—she has seen the whole thing, and her downy old cheek wears its dusky signal—and then bombards Miss Robinson with English conversation, so absurdly that she, not versed in the ecstatic, fairly recoils, and measures him with mistrustful eyes.

Another time, as they sit at the evening meal, the serene rays of the setting sun fall upon the “good” Russian table. The curtains have been drawn over the window and the verandah door, but somewhere there is a little crack, and through it the red gleam finds its way, not hot, but dazzling, and falls upon Frau Chauchat’s face, so that she shields it with her hand as she sits talking with the concave countryman on her right. It is annoying but not serious, nobody troubles about it, probably not even the fair one herself. But across the dining-room Hans Castorp sees it—quiescent awhile, like the others. He examines the situation, follows the course of the ray of light, makes up his mind where it enters. It comes from the bay-window in the right-hand corner, between the verandah door and the “bad” Russian table, at a goodish distance from Frau Chauchat’s place, and almost equally far from Hans Castorp’s. Without a word he gets up and, serviette in hand, crosses over among the tables, draws the creamcoloured curtains so that they lap well over one another, convinces himself by a glance over his shoulder that the ray from the setting sun is shut out and Frau Chauchat relieved, and with an air of perfect equanimity goes back to his place. An observant young man, who takes it upon himself to perform a needful courtesy neglected by others. But few of them even noticed his act; Frau Chauchat, however, instantly felt the relief, and turned round, remaining in that position until Hans Castorp had resumed his place and, sitting down, looked over at her, when she thanked him, with a friendly, rather surprised smile, and a bow that was less an inclination than a shoving forward of the head. He acknowledged by a bow in his turn. His heart stood stock-still, it seemed not to beat. Only after the whole thing was over did it begin again, and hammered, and only then did he become conscious that Joachim had kept his eyes directed upon his plate. Afterwards, too, he realized that Frau Stöhr had nudged Dr. Blumenkohl in the side, and then looked about at their own and other tables, trying to catch people’s eyes.

All this is the sheerest commonplace; but the commonplace becomes remarkable when it springs from remarkable soil. There were periods of strain and periods when the tension between them beneficently relaxed—though perhaps the tension existed less between them than it did in Hans Castorp’s fevered imagination, for how far Madame Chauchat was affected we can only guess. In these days of fine weather the majority of the guests betook themselves to the verandah, after the midday meal, and stood about in groups, sunning themselves, for a quarter-hour or so, in a scene much like that on the Sunday afternoons of the fortnightly concerts. All these young people, absolutely idle, overfed on a meat and sweet diet, and without exception feverish— chattered and laughed, philandered, made eyes. Frau Salomon from Amsterdam would perch on the balustrade, hard pressed on the right by the knees of the thicklipped Gänser, on the left by the Swedish minion—who, it appeared, was quite recovered, but extending his cure for a little space before going home. Frau Iltis was apparently a widow; for she had rejoiced only lately in the visit of a “fiancé”—a melancholy, inferior-looking person, whose presence had not in the least prevented her from accepting the attentions of the hook-nosed, fiery-eyed Captain Miklosich, him of the waxed mustachios and swelling chest. New figures turned up on the terrace: ladies of various nationalities from the general rest-halls, and new arrivals since the first of October, whom Hans Castorp barely knew by name. Then there were cavaliers of Herr Albin’s kidney, monocled youths of seventeen, a spectacled, rosyfaced young Dutchman with a mania for collecting postage stamps; certain Greeks, with pomaded hair and almond-shaped eyes, inclined to overreach at table; and a pair of young dandies who were nicknamed Max and Moritz, and bore a great reputation for breaking out of bounds. The humpbacked Mexican, whose ignorance of any language save his own lent him the facial expression of a deaf person, took endless photographs, dragging his tripod from one point to another on the terrace. Sometimes the Hofrat would appear, and perform his “stunt” with the bootlaces. And somewhere in the thick of the crowd would lurk solitary the religious devotee from Mannheim; Hans Castorp would watch disgustedly to see his great sad eyes take their secret way. But to return, by way of example, to some of those strains and stresses to which Hans Castorp’s state was prone. Our young man was sitting on a painted garden chair, with his back against the wall, talking with his cousin, whom he had forced, against his will, to come outside; in front of him; by the balustrade, Frau Chauchat stood smoking with her table-mates. He talked for her benefit; she turned her back. His thirst for conversation was not satisfied by Joachim; he must needs make an acquaintance—and whose? No other than Hermine Kleefeld’s. He directed a casual word toward that young lady, then presented himself and his cousin by name, and drew up another chair, in order to carry on the game. Did she know, he asked, what a deuce of a fright she had put him in, at their first encounter, when she had whistled him such an inspiriting welcome? He did not mind owning that she had accomplished her purpose; he had felt as though someone had hit him on the head—she might ask his cousin! He called it an outrage, frightening harmless strangers like that, piping at them with her pneumothorax! And so forth and so on. Joachim, quite aware of the rôle that was being forced upon him, sat with his eyes on the ground; even Fräulein Kleefeld gradually perceived, from Hans Castorp’s distraught and wandering eye, that she was being made a tool of, and felt piqued accordingly. And still the poor youth went on smirking and turning phrases and modulating his voice, until at last he actually succeeded in making Frau Chauchat turn round and look him in the face. But only for a moment. Her Pribislav eyes glided rapidly down his figure, as he sat there one knee over the other, with a deliberate insouciance which had all the effect of scorn; they paused for a space upon his yellow boots, and then carelessly, with perhaps a smile in their depths, withdrew.

It was a bitter, bitter blow. Hans Castorp talked on awhile, feverishly. Then, inwardly smitten by the power of that gaze upon his boots, he fell silent almost in the middle of a word, and lapsed into deep dejection. Fräulein Kleefeld, bored and offended, went her way. Joachim remarked, not without irritation, that perhaps they might go up to the rest-cure now. And a broken spirit answered feebly that they might. Hans Castorp anguished piteously for two days. Nothing occurred in that time to be balsam for his smarting wound. What had she meant by her look? Why, in the name of reason, had she visited him with her scorn? Did she regard him merely as a healthy young noodle from down in the flat-land, whose receptivity was sure to be of the harmless sort; as a guileless, ordinary chap, who went about laughing and earning his daily bread and filling his belly full; as a model pupil in the school of life, with no comprehension of anything but the tedious advantages of a respectable career? Was he, he asked himself, a mere feckless tourist and three-weeks’ guest, or was he a man who had made his profession on the score of a moist spot, a member of the order, one of those up here, with a good two months to his credit—and had not Mercurius only yesterday evening climbed up to 100°? Ah, here, even here, lay the bitter drop that overflowed his cup: Mercurius had ceased to mount! The fearful depression of these days had a chilling, sobering, relaxing effect upon Hans Castorp’s system, which, to his profound chagrin, displayed itself in a reduced degree of fever, scarcely higher than normal. He had the cruel experience of proving to himself that all his anguish, all his dejection, had no other result than to separate him still further from Clavdia, and from that which was significant in her existence.

The third day brought the blessed release. It was early upon a magnificent October morning, sunny and fresh. The meadows were covered with silvery-grey webs. The sun and the waning moon both hung high up in a lucent heaven. The cousins were abroad earlier than usual, meaning to honour the fine weather by extending their morning walk a little further than the prescribed limits, and continuing the forest path beyond the bench by the watercourse. Joachim’s curve, too, had lately shown a gratifying decrease; he had accordingly suggested this refreshing irregularity, and Hans Castorp had not said no.

“We seem to be cured,” he said, “no fever, free of infection, as good as ripe for the world again. Why shouldn’t we have our fling?” They set out with walking-sticks, and hatless—for since his “profession” Hans Castorp had resigned himself to the prevailing custom, despite the original assertion of his own contrary-minded conventions. But they had not yet covered the initial ascent of the reddish path, had arrived only at about that point where the novice had once encountered the pneumatic crew, when they saw at some distance ahead of them, slowly mounting, Frau Chauchat; Frau Chauchat in white, a white sweater and white flannel skirt, even white shoes. Her redblond hair gleamed in the morning sun. To be precise, Hans Castorp saw her; Joachim was made aware of her presence by an unpleasant sensation of being dragged and pulled along by his cousin, who had started up at a great pace, after having suddenly checked and almost stood still on the path. Joachim found the compulsion exceedingly annoying. His breath came shorter, he began to cough, Hans Castorp, with his eyes on his goal, and his breathing apparatus apparently in splendid trim, gave little heed; and Joachim, having recognized the situation for what it was, drew his brows together and kept step for step, feeling it out of the question to let his cousin go on alone. The lovely morning made Hans Castorp sprightly. And his soul, in that period of black depression, had secretly assembled its powers. He felt a sure intuition that the moment was come to break the ban. He strode on, dragging the panting and reluctant Joachim in his train, and they had as good as overtaken Frau Chauchat, at the point where the path grew level and turned to the right along the wooded hillock. Here the young man slackened his pace, not to be breathless with exertion in the moment of carrying out his purpose. And just beyond the bend in the path, between mountain and precipice, where the sunlight slipped athwart the boughs of the rust-coloured firs, it actually fell out, the wonder came to pass, that Hans Castorp, on Joachim’s left, overtook the fragile fair one, he went by her with a manly stride, and then, at the moment when he was beside her, on her right, greeted her with a profoundly

respectful, hatless inclination of the head, and a murmured “good-morning,” to which she answered by a friendly bow, that showed no trace of surprise, and a good-morning in her turn. She said it in Hans Castorp’s mother-tongue, and smiled with her eyes. And all that was something different, something fundamentally and blessedly other than that look she had bent upon his boots—it was a gift of fortune, an unexampled turn in affairs, a joy well-nigh beyond comprehending, it was the blessed release. Transported by that word, look, and smile, half blinded by his senseless joy, Hans Castorp trod on winged feet, hurrying the misused Joachim with him, who uttered not a word, and gazed away down the steep. It had been a manœuvre of a rather

unscrupulous sort; in Joachim’s eyes, as Hans Castorp well knew, it looked very like treachery. Yet it was not the same thing as borrowing a lead-pencil of a perfect stranger; one might even say it would have been ill-bred to pass by a lady with whom one had been for months under the same roof and not salute her. They had even been in conversation with her, that time in the waiting-room. That was why Joachim could say nothing; but Hans Castorp well knew another reason that made his honour-loving cousin walk on in silence with averted head, while he himself was so supremely happy, so glad all over, at the success of his manœuvre. Never a man down in the flatland who had “given his heart” to some healthy, commonplace little goose, been successful in his suit, and experienced all the orthodox and anticipatory gratifications proper to his state, never could such a man be blissfuller, no, not half so blissful, as Hans Castorp now over this momentary joy which he had snatched.—And so, after a while, he clapped his cousin heartily on the shoulder and said: “Hullo, what’s the matter with you? Isn’t it magnificent to-day? Let’s go down to the Kurhaus

afterwards, there will probably be music. Perhaps they’ll play that thing from Carmen.— What’s the matter? Has anything got under your skin?”

“No,” Joachim answered. “But you look so hot, I’m afraid your curve has gone up again.”

It had. The greeting he had exchanged with Clavdia Chauchat had overcome the mortifying depression; it was at bottom the consciousness of this which had lain at the root of Hans Castorp’s gratification. Yes, yes, Joachim was right, Mercurius was mounting again: when Hans Castorp consulted him, on their return from their walk, he had climbed up to 100.4°.