The Zwergs.

4 Jul

Early in the spring of 1517, Theo von Hohenheim received a surprising assignment from his employer. The latter was Gustav Bergmann, superintendent of Fugger mines in the Swiss Alps. An order arrived from the headquarters in Augsburg to start on a new, unexpected project as soon as possible.

Theo, serving as a secretary, resided in the house of Bergmann in the town of Schwaz.

“We are to re-open the old mine on Gipfel Mountain,” declared the tall, muscular mining chief. “It has been closed and derelict for fifteen years. The veins of copper gave out back then. But now the Fugger family wants us to find some rare metals and minerals that are suspected to lie deep in the interior of the old caves.

“So, Theo, you and I must climb up and inspect the remains. It will be hard work getting up there. I do not look forward to the task.”

The secretary, youthful and lanky with sky blue eyes and yellowish hair, smiled at his boss.

“It is an opportunity to visit the upland,” he mused aloud. “Are there any inhabitants left up on Gipfel, sir?”

“There may still be a tiny hamlet near the mine site,” replied the superintendent. “The name of the place is Zwerg, named for the ex-miners living in the place.”

Theo gave a look of surprise. “Is it haunted by Zwerg dwarves?”

“The inhabitants are unfriendly toward outsiders. Closed and taciturn, I understand. Most are of short stature. In the past, this helped them work in the shafts. But today they are poor, mostly idle mountaineers. I doubt they can ever again work in any mine.”

“Why is that so, sir?”

“You will see for yourself when we climb up on Gipfel,” darkly muttered Gustav Bergmann.

The pair trudged through melting snow past the church of Schwaz with its new copper roof. Theo stared at the two separate chancels: the northern one for the upper class with money and education, the southern for the town’s miners. He ruminated on how little the medical profession did for them and their lives.

Theo, with his own education as a physician, knew the weaknesses of conventional medicine. Growing up in Schwyz canton, he had witnessed how few remedies existed for the men in the lead mines there. His own father had practiced medicine with little success. Before her marriage, his mother had been superintendent of a hospital. She instilled in him the idea of looking to folk tradition for wisdom about health.

Emulating his father, Theo attended the University of Basel, but quit upon finding the instruction inadequate. His mother then sent him to Trithemius, the abbot at Spendheim, to study the secrets of ancient alchemy. The young man acquired a lifelong dream: to become a spagyric healer, a student of natural cures, of chemical and botanical remedies.

His mind became steeped in knowledge of the occult teachings of the ancient Pythagoreans. He became adept in the hidden arts of Hermes Trismegistus. His dream was to combine popular folk tradition with alchemy for the benefit of the people of the Alps. Arcane cures were his goal.

Following trail markers, the two hikers climbed up the Gipfel. The snow-covered peaks were resplendid in the glare of the spring sun. Pure white snow shone all about.

All of a sudden, a small form appeared before them. Both men halted, peering forward. A short bantam shape approached them. It was a diminutive, dwarfish person in rough, dark brown fur. He stood on the trail, blocking their way.

“Greetings, friend,” shouted Bergmann. “We are going up the mountain for a look at the old shaft. I am superintendent for the Fugger family interest. Our aim is to bring employment and prosperity back to the area.”

The slight figure, around four feet high, remained motionless. His triangular face was sallow and anemic. There was something eery in his dark, reddish eyes. All at once, a hollow voice came forth from his thin, palid lips.

“There is nothing in the Gipfel worth digging for. Go back. Our ground is barren. Nothing remains in the old cave and its shafts. Do not waste your efforts up here.”

Bergmann tried to divert the small man with questions.

“How is everyone in Zwerg? How is the supply of food and necessities? Last year there was a lot of sickness on the mountain, I understand. My assistant here is a student of medicine. Why don’t we all climb to your hamlet and let him have a look at those who are ill?” He smiled at the small man. “What is your name, my good fellow?”

“I am called Hans. Yes, it is good to have someone come to Zwerg and examine the sick. But only he should come. You must go back to Schwarz. I will take him back once he has looked at those who are ill.”

Reluctantly, the superintendent agreed, giving Theo over to the mountaineer.

Sunken in snow, the huddled hovels provided bare shelter to the inhabitants of the hamlet. Hans led the visitor to the first building and then explained why.

“An old man and his wife live here. Neither has any strength left. Death threatens both of them.”

Hans knocked and the pine door opened. A little woman in rags stood there. It took only a moment for the purpose of their appearance to be clarified. The tiny wife stood aside and let the two in.

In the center of the one-room dwelling was a straw cot. A sickly-looking face protruded from a thick wool blanket. It had a jaundice-like cast, a hollow look about it.

The woman brought stools for the visitors.

Theo explained that he was a physician and wished to examine the husband’s body. He uncovered first of all the feet and legs, then the middle and upper torso. Internal organs were felt and probed.

The examination proceeded quickly, then Theo turned to the wife.

“May I return? I can bring capsulae that I myself made. They can reduce his pain.”

The old woman looked at him with hope gleaming in her dark eyes and nodded yes.

“I shall bring him back,” he said rising and walking to the door.

Theo and he were soon outside in the cold. A whisper came from the lowlander.

“He has a serious illness. Pray God it is not fatal.”

That morning and afternoon saw a dozen more examinations of invalids. Theo went about his task with alacrity. He promised to make a return at each hut he entered.

Before returning to Schwaz, the physician asked a favor of Hans.

“Could I bring some instruments and medicaments with me?”

The little man seemed puzzled, but gave his consent.

“I shall apply all the healing arts I know,” vowed the outsider before joining Bergmann for the descent from the mountain.

That evening, the superintendent and his secretary discussed their separate plans at supper.

“Yes,” agreed Bergmann. “You can try to treat the ill in Zwerg. But tomorrow I intend to take a team of shaftworkers to the mine. They will be restoring the damaged logs around the entrance. I believe that digging can be soon renewed. But we have to avoid any trouble with the strange, stubborn natures of the hamlet. They blame the mine for their suffering. Their health has seriously deteriorated. Labor in the mine is impossible for them. It would help if you could better their condition and pacify their fierce hatred for the Fuggers and our enterprise. Do you think any cures may be possible?”

Theo thought awhile before answering. He decided to speak candidly.

“I have delved into the alchemists. They teach that mercury and sulphur are the basic materials in the human body. I myself have added a third element: salt. I call these the Tria Prima. It is the balance or imbalance between them that results in health or illness.”

“That is interesting!” exclaimed Bergmann. “But what can you do for the people in Zwerg?”

Theo grinned. “First of all, I need to take blood from them in order to test for these three elements. That is why I shall take distillation equipment with me tomorrow.”

It took several trips back and forth to convey the spagyric gear to the hut of Hans in the mountain hamlet. No help was offered Theo, because none of the small ones was willing to descend into Schwaz. He was about to begin alchemic testing when a man of Zwerg he had never seen before stepped into the room, surprising him. There was a malefic, malignant cast about the somber dark eyes of the pocket-sized figure dressed in ragged brown. The man stood staring at Theo until Hans appeared from behind him.

“This is my brother, Felsen,” announced the familiar face. “You have not met him because he does not stay at home much. He is always out cutting trees for wood.”

Theo nodded at the taciturn brother, then turned his attention to Hans.

“I am ready to begin my study of body fluids from the ailing inhabitants,” he notified his first friend in Zwerg. “You will have to be my intermediary and spokesman.”

The brothers suddenly turned to each other, silently exchanging unspoken thoughts with invisible signs.

Theo sensed an inner malevolence radiating from the one called Felsen. The latter unexpectedly turned his face toward the outsider.

“Why are you here?” he coldly demanded. “What do you want from us?”

His brain spinning in turbulence, Theo groped for convincing words.

“I believe that a knowledge of medicines can be of benefit to those who are marked with disease in your hamlet. But to accomplish that, a study of the imbalances within the ailing bodies must be made. My beginning impression is that there is a common element in all the suffering. There must be a shared sickness here in Zwerg. My aim is to identify it and find out how to combat it.”

Hans spoke before his brother did.

“We must allow him to proceed. No harm can possibly stem from it, because the man is a true friend. He has no ulterior motive. We have to trust him.”

Falsen turned to his brother with flaring eyes. “How can anyone be certain? This young physician is an employee of the Fuggers, isn’t he? His loyalty is to our enemy.”

“We must trust him,” countered Hans. “He is sincere, and comes here as an individual.” He turned his face to Theo. “The opening of the Gipfel mine was the beginning of our trouble. We have declined from the happy state of our forefathers. A mist of death surrounds our hamlet. There appears to be nothing for us to live for, nothing at all.”

A faraway voice seemed to emerge from the throat of Felsen.

“The silver mine was our doom, damning us to extinction,” he lamented. “But we will not disappear without…”

He stopped, not completing his sentence, and turned around. Soon he was gone from the hut of his brother.

Theo and Hans exchanged searching looks, then went on to the gathering of blood samples.

Gustav Bergmann was excited about the progress at the mine site.

“I am about to recruit more men for the support and substruction work,” happily announced the superintendent one evening. “Spring is almost upon us, and the pace will be quickening. I am collecting a supply of timbers for pillars, posts, braces, and struts. The outer vault already has new beams and rafters of outstanding strength, but additional crossbeams and trusses are needed. I want this to be a safe, secure mine again, without any weakness in the underpinning. Without even the possibility of another catastrophe.”

“That was what shut down the mine fifteen years ago, I understand,” reflected Theo. “You must have assurance it will not happen again.”

Gustav frowned. “A central stringpiece timber collapsed, bringing down the entire mainstay. There was not enough support buttressing it. Until now, there have been no repairs to the shaft. My highest hope is that silver can once again be found and extracted.” He studied the face of his assistant. “How is your work with the Zwergs proceeding?”

Theo’s face became icy and passive.

“I am trying to find the agents of disease among them, the semina that are the cause of sickness. These poisonous emanations can come from distant stars as astral rays, or from the salts and minerals found in the earth. Every kind of illness has a specific external source. I do not hold internal humors responsible, as do the writings of the ancients. By use of distillation and coagulation I look for imbalance in the quantity of sulphur, hydragyrium, and salt in a sick person’s body. That is the seed of all disease, the main cause.

“I have determined that salt gives one solidity and consistency in the body, whereas sulphur causes combustibility and inflammability. And what results from mercury, our name for hydragyrium? That is the most spiritual and volatile of the Tria Prima. A surplus or insufficiency of that primal substance can lead to maladies of the mind and soul, as well as the body.”

“Which of these substances is affecting the mountaineers?” inquired Bergmann.

“That I do not know yet,” admitted Theo. “There exists an imbalance that the archeus is unable to adjust or compensate. I speak of an internal organ that controls all of the body processes taking out external poisons that enter and cause disease. The archeus cleans and filters all that we digest. It is located in the vicinity of the stomach.”

“What you say is all new to me!” declared the amazed superintendent.

“A few more days of work,” promised Theo, “and I will have the answer.”

Snow had melted on most of the lower portions of Gipfel Mountain, but the hamlet of the Zwergs was still covered by a blanket of slushy mud that was rapidly melting. Theo slogged ahead with heavy high boots. He noticed a dwarfish figure approaching him on the liquefying trail. As it came near, the small man became recognizable.

Felsen halted, blocking the narrow pathway drenched in disappearing snow.

In order to avoid collision, Theo also stopped. He felt the weight of the other’s glare.

When the gnome-like bachelor spoke, his voice was a feral, canine growl.

“You think it is easy to fool us, but I can see through you,” grumbled Felsen. “Why did the Fuggers send you to our mountain? They want us out of the way, in our graves. A poisoner can pretend to be a physician and give us anything he wants, telling us it is a medicine to cure the sick. But I am too clever for that, and the others will believe me when the deaths start to come. You are not crafty enough to deceive me, you Quacksalber.”

Theo reacted with angry indignation.

“That is a lie. I am a qualified spagyric physician, familiar with remedies of all sorts. My medicaments will save lives in Zwerg. There is nothing to fear from me.”

“Liar!” screamed the other, rushing forward toward Theo. The two bodies struck each other. Amazingly, the smaller form with momentum knocked over the larger torso of the surprised outsider. Theo had been unable to shield or defend himself. He lay in the slushy snow, gasping for breath. It took time for his shock to clear away.

What was the meaning of this insane physical attack?

He lifted himself to his feet, concluding that Felsen’s madness was an odd variety of the general illness in the hamlet.

Theo carried out a series of distillations in the hut of Hans, then had a little to eat with his host. He decided to question Hans about his brother.

“I cannot understand what makes Felsen so ill-tempered, so vitriolic. He is highly suspicious of me and my intentions. What can be behind all his spleen? I wonder.

Hans bit his lip. “Many of us used to be like that, but our anger has almost died out because of the hopelessness of life here in Zwerg. Only Felsen still has fire inside him.”

“Why is it that he is so different from the rest of the hamlet?”

Hans thought a moment.

“It may be because of his leading position when the Gipfel mine was in operation. He was a forward digger, the Obmann in charge of the miners at the face of the mine. He suffered humiliation when the shaft was closed. He thought that the reason was to keep up the price of what would have soon be excavated.”

“What is that?” asked Theo with heightened curiosity.

“Quecksilber,” answered the Zwerg. “My brother believed its presence was the real cause of the shut down by the Fuggers. An oversupply of the mineral was feared in Augsburg, according to my brother. It threatened to upset the going price on the market.”

“Tell me, Hans, is there much of that substance in the region?”

The short man nodded yes. “The people have a legend that it is everywhere about us.”

Interesting, thought Theo. Very interesting.

The collapse took but a few seconds.

A sudden crack in the mainstay Hauptstuetze was imperceptible, but instantly the trouble spread to the supporting Strebe and Stuetze seams. All the Binder and Sparren split and fell in. Dust filled the vault until the Gruft became sealed off.

Five bodies inside the shaft died in a few moments.

Only one person, the superintendent, was close enough to the opening to manage escape from the catastrophe. He was severely injured in the head by a broken Balken beam.

Gustav, dazed and traumatized, began to wander about in a circle and shout for help. Something seemed to lurk in the darkened snow a little distance from the closed mine entrance. Was it a person? It seemed so small. Was that one of the minim inhabitants of Zwerg?

The confused, disoriented official watched the tiny shape hurry away at a brisk run. What did this mean? What was going on?

All at once, a voice came from somewhere below on the mountain.

“What happened up there? We heard a strange rumbling from the mine. Is everyone safe inside? It sounded like an Erdbeben from far down below.”

The stupefied superintendent, unable to say anything, was led down to Schwaz by a pair of workers who had been bringing tools up to the mine site.

When Theo descended that evening and learned of the disaster, he realized at once who was the individual responsible. And he knew what was causing such criminality.

Bergmann, accompanied by several housewives, was not able to provide any description for him. An assistant gave him a compound to calm his nerves and encourage sleep, then left the house for the darkness outside.

Theo had to confront Felsen that night, that was inescapable.

As he climbed back up to Zwerg, the mind of Theo went over and over what he had uncovered already.

The factor enervating the little people was Hydragyrum, the mercuric Quecksilber throughout the mountain. It must be in the water taken from the springs near the hamlet.

But there was a second factor in what the mountaineers drank. He had discovered it that very afternoon, perhaps at the time of the mine calamity.

There were no lights in any papered window. The denizens went early to bed that evening.

Theo headed for the last hut, the one where Hans made his home. A single light knock brought the short man to the door. Astonished, the latter let the downlander in.

“Something has happened at the mine, something horrible,” whispered the visitor. He then informed him of the deaths and the miraculous escape of the superintendent.

“I heard something loud,” admitted Hans, frightened and excited. “Fear of something terrible was in the back of my mind all the time.” He paused a moment. “Now I know what my brother was up to, what he has planned to do in recent days, since the mine was re-opened.”

Theo leaned forward, overshadowing the Zwerg in the darkness of the hut.

“We must arrest him and take Felsen down to the town,” he muttered. “He is responsible for what he has caused. It is tragic, but must be done at once. Where is Felsen?”

Hans looked at the floor. “I have not seen him since this morning. Let’s go to his place and see if he is there.”

The two exited, the local leading the way to a nearby structure. The little man rapped on the door, but no answer came forth. He pushed the door in, entered, and searched the four corners. Theo, standing in the opening, realized that the maddened brother had not returned. Where could he be?

All at once, the two caught sight of a strange illumination in the clear night sky. They looked down the mountain, into the valley where Schwaz lay.

Flames rose into the air from the vicinity of the new church, licking upward under the copper cover of the roof. The building was burning in an eerie fire never seen before by either Hans or Theo. It was a conflagration of a strange, uncontrollable character.

“We must go down at once and find out if…” The physician did not have to complete his statement. Hans had already started walking. Theo followed close behind him.

Theo never understood how Felsen managed to catch fire and fry himself to death. Was it completely accidental or a strange form of suicide from some instinct? Did a high level of hydragyric poison cause his mad behavior? Did it alter his thought and behavior?

Hans identified the smoldering body of his brother, then departed to return to Zwerg.

That night Theo decided to leave Schwaz at once. Since Bergmann was still in delirium, it proved impossible to part with him personally. A year later, though, the recovered superintendent received a letter from his ex-assistant, by then practicing as a physician in Basel.

“My dear Herr Bergmann,

“I am delighted to learn of your full recovery. The tragedy is a year past, yet it lingers in the minds of all who witnessed it, and will never be lost from memory. My medical conclusions were reached the same day as the mine collapse and the church fire, so it is doubtful if any action was possible to avert those events as they occurred.

“An imbalancing surplus of Quecksilber brought a madness into the hamlet of Zwerg. Mining unloosened the element and allowed it to drain into the springs supplying water to the mountain people. It is wise not to reopen the old shaft anytime in the future. Before leaving Schwaz, I mixed an amount of compound needed to treat the ill. This is a substance that I call Laudanum, an extract of the soporific Opium. It should ease much of the physical suffering among the little folk. But there is a more fundamental medical problem that stuck my mind while I was investigating at Zwerg. That is the question of the stunted growth of the entire community.

“I concluded that these people have for generations suffered from strong spirits of salt in their water. This has resulted in calcined synovia in their bone joints. Here in Basel our water does not contain such tartarous incrustations that cause dwarfing of the body. But a tartaric salt in the springs of Gipfel Mountain has turned the individual Zwerg into what I can now call by an old Greek term, a Pygmy. The condition matches that of what in folk traditions is the dwarfish Gnomus or Gnome.

“Unless the Zwergs leave their homes, they are doomed to their present condition.

“My best wishes go to you for good health and fortune.

“I progress each day in my practice and hope soon to teach a new system of medicine at the University of Basel, without the mistakes of the past.

“My dream is to liberate medicine so that it can rest on direct observation and proven therapeutics. Cordially, Theophrastus Philippus Aureolus Bombastus von Hohenheim Paracelsus.”

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