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James Baldwin

Mistress and Minstrel

"Y OU must rise early in the morning," said Dame Louhi, the Wise Woman of the North. She stood at the door of her chamber and looked back into the low-raftered hall where her daughter was spinning. Her face was wrinkled and grim, her thin lips were puckered over her toothless mouth, her gray-green eyes sparkled beneath her shaggy eyebrows.

She paused and listened. No answer came from her busy daughter. The day was almost ended. Already the swallows were asleep under the eaves, the reindeer were lying down in their paddock, all the underlings of Dame Louhi's household had retired to rest. So near was her dwelling to the sea that she could hear the waves lapping on the beach and the ice-floes crunching and grinding and pounding against the shore. But other sounds there were none.

The Mistress, Dame Louhi, grew impatient. She stamped her foot angrily, and loudly repeated her command: "You must rise early in the morning, my daughter."

This time the maiden heard her. She ceased twirling her spindle, and sweetly answered, "Yes, mother, for there is a great deal to be done tomorrow."

The Mistress was satisfied; and as she turned to enter her chamber you should have seen how unlike the mother was the fair daughter whom men called the Maid of Beauty. Nature had given to the maiden all the loveliness that had been denied to the dame. And she was not only surpassingly beautiful, but she was wise and skilful and very industrious. The housekeeping in the roomy dwelling beside the sea would have been shabbily attended to had it not been for her daily care; and the sun would have shone but seldom in the Frozen Land had not the Maid of Beauty encouraged it with her smiles.

So, on the morrow, long before any one else had risen, she was up and bustling hither and thither, attending to this thing and that and putting the house in order. She went out to the sheepfold and sheared six fat lambs. She spun their six white fleeces into snowy yarn, and of the yarn she wove enough cloth for six warm garments.

Then she went into the kitchen and rekindled the fire upon the hearth. She swept the floor and dusted the long benches. She scrubbed the birchwood tables till they were as white and glistening as the frost-covered meadows. She made the rooms neat and tidy and set the breakfast things to cooking. By this time the day was dawning; the sky in the east was becoming flecked with yellow and red; the cock was crowing, wild ducks were quacking by the shore, sparrows were chirping under the eaves.

The maiden paused and listened—listened long and intently. She heard the joyful sounds of the morning; she heard the cold waves lapping and splashing upon the shore. She looked out of the door and saw the first rays of the sun dancing and glancing upon the uneasy surface of the sea. Away from the shore, she saw the broad meadows lying lonely and still under the lonely sky and beyond them the dark line which marked the beginning of the forest and the rugged land of mountains.

Suddenly, as she looked and listened, she heard a wailing which was not the wailing of the sea. She held her breath and listened again. She heard a cry which was not the cry of a sea-bird.

"Oh, mother," she called, "what is that strange sound? The wild geese never call so hoarsely; the waves never make such moaning. Listen mother! What can it be?"

Wise old Louhi, grim and toothless, rose quickly and hastened to the door, chattering and mumbling and grumbling. She paused and listened, but the sound seemed very faint. She ran down to the landing-place before the house, and there she listened again. Soon the sound came to her ears, louder and more distinct, and yet hard to make out. Once, twice, thrice she heard the call; and then she knew what it meant.

"It is a man's voice," she said. "Some hero has been shipwrecked near our shore. He is in distress; he calls for help."

She leaped nimbly into her boat. She pushed it from the shore and rowed with speed out of the little inlet and around the rocky point which jutted far into the sea. The cries grew louder, the calls were more frequent as she urged her boat forward over the sullen, icy-cold waves.

Soon she saw the shipwrecked man. He was not fighting the waves as she had supposed, but was clinging to the branches of a tree that had been uprooted and carried to sea. Ah, the sad plight of the poor man! He seemed wounded and helpless; his face was gaunt and pale; his eyes were filled with sadness and salt-water; he was shivering with cold and deep despair.

Shouting words of cheer, the Mistress hurried to him. She lifted him from the place of danger and seated him in her boat. Then with steady arms and mighty strokes she rowed homeward, nor did she pause until the boat's keel grated on the beach before her door.

She carried the stranger into the house; she placed him by the warm fire; she bathed his limbs, his face, his head in tepid water and wrapped him up in soft skins of the reindeer. For three long days—yes, for four summer days—she tended him as though he were her son, and no questions did she ask. Then to her great joy, he sat up and soon grew well and strong.

"Now, friend and fellow of the sea, said the gray woman, "tell me your name. Tell me why and how you have come to our lovely land and to Pohyola, the sweetest of homes."

The stranger, who also was old and gray, answered, "My name is Wainamoinen, and all the world knows me; for I am the first of minstrels, the prince of wizards, the man whom other men delight to honor. Luckless was the hour when I embarked on a ship to go fishing; still more luckless was it when a storm overturned the vessel. Nine days did the sea toss me—yes, ten days did the waves buffet me—ere I was cast upon these shores."

"I welcome you, Wainamoinen!" cried the grim Mistress. "Welcome, welcome to this northern land! Your name is well known to me, and long have I honored it. Men call you the sweet singer of Hero Land, and they say that no other songs cheer the dreary hours of winter as yours do. You shall stay here in Pohyola and sing to me and my people. My house shall be your home and this delightful land shall be your country."

The gray-bearded Minstrel shook his head and sighed. He looked out and saw the lonely meadows and the snowy mountains and the cold gray sea. Then his eyes filled with tears and he wept.

"O singer of Hero Land, why are you so sad?" asked the woman. "Have I not been kind to you? Why, then, do you weep and gaze towards the sea?"

"I weep for my own dear country; I am sick for my home," answered the Minstrel. "I do not wish to remain in this Frozen Land. I am lonely and heart-broken."

"Cheer up, cheer up!" said Dame Louhi, trying to look pleasant. "Beautiful Pohyola shall be your country. This comfortable house shall be your home. My fireside shall be your fireside, and my friends shall be your friends."

But the Minstrel still wept.

"Stay here and be our honored guest," continued the Mistress. "You shall sleep in the warmest corner, you shall sit at the head of our table. Good food we will give you—choice bacon, fresh salmon from the sea, white cakes of barley, hot from the oven. Stay with us and cheer us with your sweet songs."

"Nay, nay!" moaned the sad Minstrel. "How can I sing in a strange land? My own country is the fairest; my own home is the dearest; my own table is the sweetest. All that I can ever do in this Frozen Land is to sigh and weep; and I shall sigh and weep till my eyes are out and my voice is gone forever."

"You are foolish," then said the unlovely Mistress. "Pohyola is the fairest place in all the world, and you must learn to love it."

The Minstrel still shook his head and sighed. All his thoughts were with his home land.

The summer passed swiftly, but to Wainamoinen the days were full of loneliness. He wandered over the silent meadows, he went out with the fishermen to catch salmon in the sea, he visited one place and another in the vast Frozen Land, vainly trying to forget his grief. And not once did he open his lips in song, for there was no music in his heart; and how shall a minstrel sing if his heart is empty?

At length Dame Louhi relented.

"How much will you give me if I send you back to your own country?" she asked. "Come, let us make a bargain."

"How much will I give?" answered he. "I have nothing here that is my own, but I promise to send you many rich treasures. I will send you gold, I will send you silver."

"But you claim to be a mighty wizard," said Dame Louhi. "Show us some of your work in magic."

"Never was there a greater magician than I," returned the Minstrel boastfully. "You have but to name some wonderful act and forthwith I will perform it. But first, I must have your promise to send me home. My heart is so full of the thought."

"Very well, then," answered the gray woman. "If you will make the magic Sampo for me, I promise to send you home at once. It must be the real, the wonderful Sampo; I will have nothing else."

"The Sampo! What is that?"

"Do you ask me what is the Sampo? Minstrels from the earliest times have sung of its power, and all the wizards of the North have tried their spells, hoping to make something equally precious and potent. And do you, a minstrel and a wizard, ask what it is?"

The Minstrel was cunning, and he answered: "In my own country we call it by another name. If you will describe it I will tell you what that name is and also some strange things which no other minstrel knows."

The Mistress was off her guard. "The Sampo," she said, "is the mill of fortune which wise men, since the beginning of things, have sought to invent. It is the magic mill which grinds out all sorts of treasures and gives wealth and power to its possessor. One has only to whisper his wishes to it, and they will all come true."

"Ah!" answered the Minstrel. "In our country we call it the Stone of the Wise Men."

"That is a good name. And now, if I promise to send you safe home, will you try your magic power and forge me such a mill? Have you the skill to fit it with wheels and levers? Can you hammer into shape a becoming lid for it—a lid of rainbow colors?"

Wainamoinen sat silent for a long time, shaking his head and thinking. Then he said:

"It is a thing so strange and so difficult that I must have time to consider my strength. In three days you shall have my answer."

He went out alone, and for many tedious hours he walked up and down by the seashore pondering upon the subject. He repeated all the magic runes that he remembered, and recited spells to the winds and the waves and the gray-blue sky, he recalled all the words of power that he had learned from the sages of old. Then, at length, on the third day, he went back to the house where Dame Louhi was still sitting by her fireside.

"I cannot make the Sampo for you," he said. "My magic is not strong enough; my skill is not of the kind that forges mills of fortune. But I have a friend who can do wonderful things. It was he who shaped the sky that bends above our country; and, surely, to forge the Sampo is no more difficult than that."

"Ah, that is the man whom I am looking for," cried the woman eagerly. "What is his name? Will you send him to me?"

"His name is Ilmarinen, and he is dear to me as a brother," answered the Minstrel. "He is the prince of all smiths, and there is nothing in magic or in smithing that he cannot do. If you will permit me to return to my dear home land, to the Land of Heroes, I will send him to you without delay."

"But suppose he doesn't wish to come?"

"Then I will send him against his will. My magic is strong enough to command him."

"Can I trust you? Do you promise?"

"You have my word, and I will perform," answered the Minstrel. "Never yet have I failed to do that which I have agreed to do."

"You shall go home, then, quickly," said the gray woman. "You may promise the skilful smith a rare reward if he will forge the Sampo for me. I will even give him, if he so desire, my daughter for his wife—this I promise."

Forthwith she hurried to the paddock. She chose the fleetest reindeer and harnessed it to her birchwood sledge. She brought warm furs for the Minstrel to wrap around him. She put the whip and the long reins in his hands.

"Now fare you well, and speed you to your home land!" she said. "Drive swiftly while the sun shines, but remember to keep your eyes upon your pathway, and do not look upward. If you should gaze towards the mountain top or the sky, sad misfortune will befall you. Fare you well, first of minstrels! Send me the wizard, the prince of smiths, and fail not, lest my curses follow you and blight your life."

The Minstrel cracked his whip joyfully, the reindeer sprang forward, the journey homeward was begun. Merrily did the birchwood runners whistle as they glided over the half-frozen earth. With a glad heart did Wainamoinen speed across the brown meadows and into the silent forest; his face beamed like the sunlight, his eyes glowed like twin stars, and a song was ready to burst from his lips.