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James Baldwin

The Maid of Beauty

S WIFTLY as a shooting star did the reindeer rush through the forest ways. In his sledge, the Minstrel sat upright and deftly handled the whip and the reins. His eyes were upon the road before him, and all his thoughts were about his home land and his own pleasant fireside so far, far away.

Now he was among the snowy mountains; and now his sledge was skimming along untravelled paths in the deep and shadowy valleys. Suddenly his thoughts were disturbed by a strange sound in the air above him. Was it the song of a bird? Was it the sighing of the wind? Was it the humming of wild bees? Or was it the sound of some distant waterfall?

He listened. Could it be the buzzing of a weaver's shuttle shooting through some loom on the craggy heights above him? It certainly sounded so; and yet it was so loud, so musical. Forgotten, then, was Dame Louhi's latest caution. Quickly the Minstrel checked his reindeer steed; quickly, and in wonder, he lifted his eyes and looked aloft. High in the sky he saw a rainbow, and on it sat the Maid of Beauty, busily weaving with a golden shuttle. Swiftly, to and fro, she drove the shuttle, and the fabric which she wove was wondrously fine. Threads of silver, threads of gold, threads of every brilliant color were mingled in that web of magic. But fairer than that fairy fabric, fairer than all else in that radiant vision was the maiden's radiant face.

Wainamoinen pulled upon the reins with all his might; his steed stopped short upon a hillside. Then he called loudly to the maiden on the rainbow.

"Come hither, come hither, most beautiful one," he said. "Come down and sit in this sledge by my side."

Faster and faster flew the magic shuttle, and the buzzing sounded louder; but the maiden had heard the Minstrel's call. She turned her face towards him and spoke disdainfully.

"Who are you?" she asked. "And why should I sit in your sledge?"

"I am Wainamoinen, chief of singers, master of wizards," answered the hero. "I am now on my way to my sweet home country, the Land of Heroes. I know you would love that land, and I would rejoice to take you thither with me. You shall be the queen of my house. You shall bake my honey cakes, fill my cups with barley-water, sing at my table. All my people will honor you."

The Maid of Beauty looked down from her rainbow seat and laughed.


The Magician and the Maid of Beauty

"You are a foolish old man," she said, "to think that I care for you or for all that you promise. Let me tell you a story."

"Certainly," said the Minstrel.

"Well, yesterday I was walking in the meadows of the West. I was picking flowers and making this wreath which you see on my head. Suddenly I heard a thrush singing sweetly to his mate and nestlings. I stopped and listened to the little songster, and this is what I heard him sing:

"Summer days are warm and bright;

A maiden's heart is always light.

Winter days are bitter cold;

Beware, beware of the suitor bold—

Beware the more if he is old."

"That was a very silly bird," said Wainamoinen, "and I wonder that his mate listened to such foolish chatter."

"But his song was very pretty," laughed the maiden.

"I too can sing," said Wainamoinen. "I am the sweet singer of Hero Land. I am a great wizard. I am a hero. Come with me to my dear home and be my queen."

The Maid of Beauty looked down from her rainbow throne, and the mountains echoed with her laughter.

"If you are indeed a wizard," she said, "show me some of your magic arts. Can you split a hair with a knife which has no edge? Can you snare a bird's egg with a thread too small to be seen?"

"Nothing is easier to one skilled in magic," answered the hero. And thereupon he picked up a golden hair which the maiden had let fall, and with a blunted knife he split it into halves and quarters. Then from a bird's nest on the side of the cliff he drew up an egg with a snare too fine for eyes to see.

"Now I have done what you wished," he said. "Come and sit in my birchwood sledge. Swiftly will we speed to Hero Land, and great honor shall be yours, for you shall be a minstrel's queen."

"Not yet, not yet, O matchless hero," she answered, still laughing. "Let me see some more of your wonderful magic. Split this cliff of sandstone with your bare fingers. Then cut a whipstock from the ice in the gorge below you and leave no splinter."

"Nothing is easier to one skilled in magic," answered the hero. Then he climbed the tall cliff and split the sandstone with his fingers; and next he leaped upon the river of ice beneath him and cut therefrom a slender whipstock, losing not the smallest fragment.

"You have done well," said the Maid of Beauty, and she smiled from her rainbow throne. "But I will give you another task. Here is my spindle and here is my shuttle. See, I break them into splinters and I throw the fragments at your feet. If you wish me to go home with you, you must pick up these fragments and build a boat from them. Then you must launch the boat, using neither arm nor foot to set it floating. Is your magic equal to that?"

Wainamoinen stroked his gray beard, for he was puzzled. "Your task is very hard," he said, "and I am the only person under the sun who can perform it. But perform it I will, and you shall see what a master of magic I am."

Then he picked up the fragments of the spindle, he took the splinters of the shuttle in his hands, and began to build the fairy boat. But such a task could not be done in a moment. It required time. One whole day he swung his hammer; two whole days he plied his hatchet; three days and more he worked to join the many pieces together.

At length the boat was almost finished. Proudly the Minstrel looked upon it. He hewed it on this side, he shaped it on that, he smoothed it fore and aft; and the Maid of Beauty looked on and smiled. Suddenly the hero's sharp-edged hatchet of iron flew from his grasp. It broke the fairy boat in pieces, undoing the work of many days. It struck the Minstrel's knee, cutting a red gash that was both wide and deep.

A stream of blood gushed forth; it flowed like a crimson torrent down the mountain side; it stained the snow in the forest and the brown grass in the meadows. Great pain fell upon the Minstrel, and yet he was fearless and undaunted. He quickly gathered lichens and mosses from the tree trunks and the rocks, and these he bound upon the wound to stanch the bleeding.

"O cruel hatchet," he cried, "why were you so disobedient, so ungrateful? You may cut the pine tree and the willow; you may cut the birch tree and the cedar; but turn not your edge against your master."

He looked upward. The rainbow had vanished and the Maid of Beauty had fled. Then, too late, he remembered Dame Louhi's caution: "Keep your eyes upon your pathway. If you should gaze towards sky or mountain top, sad misfortune will befall you."

His wound was very painful, so painful that he groaned with anguish. He felt that he must find help, and find it quickly. He looked about for the reindeer which the Mistress had lent him and which had wandered into the woods while he was working magic. When he had found the beast he harnessed it to the sledge again. Then he climbed in carefully, painfully, and sat down on the soft furs. He cracked his whip, he shouted, and the long-legged racer flew swiftly over meadows and forests, over mountains and lowlands.