T HE short summer was ended and the days were growing cold. The song of the cuckoo was hushed, and the wild geese in the inlets were huddling together and preparing for flight. The cranberries had disappeared from the marshes. The meadows were purple and golden, but fast putting on their accustomed robes of dreary brown.
In the long, low dwelling by the sea the fires had been rekindled, for the air was crisp with frost and the wind of the North was blowing strong. Upon her couch the Mistress was reclining, grim and gray, toothless and unlovely, as of yore. Beside the hearth sat Wainamoinen, the prince of minstrels, sad of face, but resigned and wisely contented. And at her loom the Maid of Beauty plied her daily task, weaving fine blankets for winter wear, and sighing as she looked out from her narrow window and out upon the lonely sea and the lonelier land.
"Will he ever come?" she murmured, half aloud though speaking to herself; and her mother, Dame Louhi, from her couch echoed her words, "Will he ever come?"
Then suddenly up spoke a little child who was sitting on the floor—a little child too young to walk, too small to know the meaning of his words:
"I see an eagle coming to our house. He is a great eagle, a beautiful eagle. With one wing he fans the air, with the other he flaps the sea. He is coming nearer and nearer; he is hovering above our dwelling. Now he rests upon our roof. He is whetting his beak. He is looking down at our doves. Soon he will fly right into our house. He will seize the best one of all our birdlings—the rosiest, the whitest, the sweetest-voiced, the shapliest. He will fly away with her; he will carry her far, far away into his own country, there to live with him forever."
"What does the child mean?" queried the Mistress, rising half-way from her couch beside the fire. "Surely, never have I heard an infant speak in this way."
"He speaks in riddles," answered Wainamoinen, "yet he speaks wisdom and truth. No doubt we shall understand him soon."
"True! true!" croaked Sakko, the earth woman, from her snug corner beyond the hearth. "See you not that dark cloud hovering in the sky? It is the wing of the mighty eagle. See you not the shadow that has fallen on our threshold? It is the shadow of the eagle's noble form. He is peering in. He is looking for the birdling that is his own!"
The Minstrel rose from his seat and went quickly to the door. He threw it wide open and looked out. The Mistress also rose, slowly, painfully, her stiffened joints creaking. The Maid of Beauty rose from her loom, joyful because her task was finished. All three looked out through the narrow door. Before them was the bare ground, sloping gently towards the shore and the smooth gray surface of the little inlet; above them was the cloud-flecked sky, cold and cheerless, without sign of bird or other living creature.
The child on the floor laughed.
They looked a second time, and from the meadow pathway they saw the hero coming, even Ilmarinen the Smith, the mightiest of all wizards. Gaunt and tall he was, and pale and wan from long toil and endless wanderings. His garments were soiled and torn, his feet were bare and scarred with wounds, his head was uncovered. But his step was firm as the step of a conqueror, and his eyes glowed brightly with joy as the eyes of one who has been victorious in battle.
And on his shoulders he carried the monstrous head of the Pike.
"Welcome, welcome, friend and brother!" cried Wainamoinen, rushing out eagerly, boisterously, to meet him. "Long indeed have we waited for you."
"Welcome, welcome, hero of the later day!" muttered Sakko, small of stature, weak of body, wisest of earth women. "Bravely have you proved yourself a hero, thrice bravely have you shown your wizard power."
And Louhi, the gray Mistress, also cheerily cried, "Welcome, welcome! You have won the prize, Ilmarinen; your courage has been tested, your wisdom has been tried, and now you shall be rewarded. The duckling that I have cherished shall be yours, to sit on your knee, to nestle dove-like in your arms, to be the queen of your household, the mistress of your kitchen."
But where was the Maid of Beauty? She was not with those who stood at the door to welcome the conquering hero. Her seat at the fireside was empty; her place at the loom was vacant. She was hiding in her own room, her body all a-tremble, her face bathed in tears.
Proudly and joyfully then did the hero enter the low-roofed dwelling.
"O Jumala!" he murmured. "O giver of good gifts, grant thy blessing to this house! Bless all that live beneath this roof!"
"All hail, all hail!" cried the Mistress earnestly, but with voice cracked and broken. "Welcome to the great large man who deigns to enter this lowly cottage, this poor little house of wood, this humble hut so unworthy of the presence of one so noble!"
Then she called to her waiting-maiden, and bade her hasten to bring a light, that all might see the hero and be glad.
"Kindle the fattest knot of pine and fetch it hither blazing," she said. "Fetch it quickly that we may see the hero's eyes whether they are blue or grayish, whether they are green or brownish."
The waiting-maiden ran quickly to obey. She lighted a pine-knot that was always ready, and brought it blazing to her mistress.
"Ah! no, no!" shouted the aged wise one, grim and gray in the flickering light. "See how the ugly torch flares and sputters, and how the black smoke rises in clouds above it. The hero's face will be smutted, his eyes will be filled with soot. Take the cheap thing away and bring us better torches, torches made of white wax, cleanly and beautiful."
The maiden obeyed. She brought torches of the purest wax, white and clear, and held them before the Mistress, before the waiting hero.
"Now I see his eyes!" cried the wise one. "They are neither blue nor whitish. They are not green, they are not gray; but they are brownish like the sea-foam in the shadow of a rock, brownish like a bulrush in the early days of winter."
Then Ilmarinen took the head of the Great Pike from his shoulders and set it upon the floor by the side of the hearth. And all that were in the house admired its size and its wonderful shape and the mighty teeth that were set in the mighty jaws. But most of all, they wondered at the manner in which the bones were laid, this way and that, and knit firmly into a framework both neat and strong.
"It will serve you as a throne, O mother of my Maid of Beauty!" said Ilmarinen. "I will dress it, and polish the bones, and make of it a great chair wherein you can sit on winter evenings, feeling yourself the queen of all that is around you."
Then, while food was brought to him and the people of the household both high and low sat round him listening, he told the story of his adventure by the shore of Tuonela's river.