Madame Chauchat

Two incidents occurred during the main meal and attracted Hans Castorp’s attention as far as his constitution permitted. The first was the glass door slamming again—this was during the fish course. Hans Castorp twitched with resentment and then told himself in his fervent rage that he really must identify the culprit this time. But he didn’t just think these words; in his earnestness they slipped his lips. ‘I have to know!’ he whispered with exaggerated fervour, causing Miss Robinson and the teacher to peer at him in astonishment as he rotated his entire upper body to the left and opened his bloodshot eyes wide.

It was a lady who was now crossing the dining room—a woman or more like a girl of only medium height in a white sweater and a colourful skirt, with strawberry-blonde hair that she wore in simple plaits coiled around her head. Hans Castorp could see very little of her profile—almost nothing, in fact. She made no sound as she walked, in curious contrast to the fracas of her entrance, advancing with a strange slinking gait, her head tilted slightly forward, to the outermost left-hand table aligned with the veranda door—the ‘good’ Russian table—with one hand in the pocket of her close-fitting cardigan, whereas the other she raised to the back of her head to push up and arrange her hair. Hans Castorp gazed at this hand: he had great appreciation and a critical eye for hands, and he tended to look at this part of the body first when making a new acquaintance. The hand that was pushing up the hair was not particularly feminine, not as trim and refined as women’s hands tended to be in the social circles young Hans Castorp moved in. It was relatively broad, the fingers quite short, and there was something primitive and childish about it, reminiscent of a schoolgirl’s hand; her nails had obviously never seen a manicure and were cut in a rough-and-ready fashion, like a schoolgirl’s, and the skin along the sides of them seemed a little chafed, almost as if they had been prey to the minor vice of nail-biting. Hans Castorp actually sensed this more than he could observe it—the distance was too great. The latecomer greeted her table companions with a nod, and as she sat down on the near side of the table, with her back to the room, next to the presiding Dr Krokowski, she glanced over her shoulder, hand still on her hair, and surveyed the gathered diners—and Hans Castorp noticed that she had wide cheekbones and narrow eyes . . . A vague recollection of something or someone brushed his mind when he spotted this . . .

A woman, I knew it! Hans Castorp thought, and once again he mumbled this audibly to himself so that the teacher, Fräulein Engelhart, overheard what he had said. The stick-like old spinster was touched and smiled.

‘That’s Madame Chauchat,’ she said. ‘She is so languid. A delightful lady.’ As she said this, the downy blush of Fräulein Engelhart’s cheeks darkened a shade—although this happened whenever she opened her mouth.

‘French?’ Hans Castorp said harshly.

‘No, she’s Russian,’ the Engelhart woman said. ‘Her husband may be French or of French descent, I don’t know for sure.’

Was he that man over there, Hans Castorp asked, still somewhat worked up, pointing to a man with rounded shoulders at the ‘good’ Russian table.

Oh no, he wasn’t here, the teacher replied. He had never visited and was completely unknown here.

‘She should close the door properly!’ Hans Castorp said. ‘She keeps slamming it. It’s so rude.’

The teacher accepted this admonishment with a submissive smile as if she were the guilty party, and Madame Chauchat was mentioned no more.

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