The Homesick Hero
T HE sunlight was streaming white and yellow, over sea and land. The wild geese were honking among the reeds. The swallows were twittering under the eaves. The maids were milking the reindeer in the paddock behind Dame Louhi's dwelling. Ilmarinen had slept late. He rose hurriedly and hastened to go out, not to listen to the varied sounds of the morning, but to ponder concerning the great problem that was soon to be solved.
He opened the door, but quickly started back, trembling, and pale. What had he seen to give him pause, to cause him to be frightened? Right before him, so near that he might have touched her with his hand, stood the Maid of Beauty. Her cheeks were like the dawn of a summer's morning; her lips were like two ripe, red berries with rows of pearls between; her eyes were like the glorious suns, shining softly in the midst of heaven. Who would not have trembled in the presence of such marvellous beauty?
Ilmarinen was overcome with bashfulness. He stammered, he paused, he looked into those wonderful eyes and was covered with confusion. Then he spoke to his own heart and said, "Why am I so cowardly—I who have hitherto feared nothing under the sun? I will be brave. I will ask her the momentous question and abide by her answer."
So, with quivering lips and downcast eyes he spoke: "Fairest of maidens, my task is done. I have forged the Sampo, I have hammered its marvellous lid, I have proved myself worthy to be called the Prince of Smiths. Will you not now go with me to my far distant home—to the Land of Heroes in the sunny south? There you shall be my queen; you shall rule my house, keep my kitchen, sit at the head of the table. O Maid of Beauty, it was for you that I forged the Sampo and performed those acts of magic which no other man would dare to undertake. Be kind, and disappoint me not."
The maiden answered softly, and she blushed as she spoke: "Why should I leave my own sweet home to go and live with strangers, to be a poor man's wife in a poor and distant land? My mother's hall would be desolate; her kitchen would be cold and ill-cared for were I to go away. She herself would grieve and die of loneliness."
"Nay," said Ilmarinen, "she is not the sort of woman to feel sorrow; her heart is too hard to be crushed so easily."
"But there are others who would miss me," said the maiden softly. "If I should go away, who would feed the reindeer at the break of day? Who, in the early springtime, would welcome the cuckoo and answer his joyous song? Who, in the short summer, would caress the wildflowers in the wooded nooks and sing to the violets in the meadows? Who, in the autumn, would pick the red cranberries in our marshes? Who, at winter's beginning, would tell the songbirds to fly southward, and who would cheer the wild geese on their way to summer lands?"
The Smith had now grown bolder, and he answered wisely: "The cuckoo comes to my country as well as yours. There are flowers in the forests of Wainola more beautiful than any in this chilly land. There are cranberries in our marshes also, redder and larger than any you have ever picked. The songbirds live in the Land of Heroes half of every year, and the wild geese tarry there and build their nests in the sedgy inlets."
"All that may be true," said the Maid of Beauty, "but your cuckoo is not my cuckoo, and so how could I welcome it in the springtime? All things in Wainola would be strangers to me, while all things in Pohyola are friends. The North Country, the Frozen Land as you call it, would be very lonely if I were to leave it; the meadows would be joyless, the hills would be forlorn, the shores would be desolate. Were I not here to paint the rainbow, the storm clouds would never vanish. Were I not here to note the change of seasons, the songbirds would surely forget to come, the flowers would neglect to bloom, the cranberries would perish ungathered. No, Ilmarinen, I must not go with you. You are skilful, you are wise, you are brave, you are the prince of wizards and of smiths—but I love my native land. Say no more; I will not go with you."
The Smith was speechless; his tongue was motionless, and he could not make reply. He turned slowly away, and with head bowed down and cap pulled over his eyes, he sought his favorite place by the side of the smouldering hearth-fire.
All day he sat there, pondering, wondering how now by any makeshift he could escape from Pohyola and return to his native land. The longer he thought, the larger his troubles appeared. He had no boat to sail by sea, no sledge nor reindeer to travel by land, no money in his purse, no knowledge of the road. Would not magic avail him? Could he not call upon the winds to carry him, as they had once done against his will? Alas, no! All his magic lore, all his magic power, had been exhausted in the forging of the Sampo; he was utterly bankrupt.
While he sat thus, homesick, disappointed, and forlorn, Dame Louhi came suddenly into the hall. She was white with flour and laden with silver, and she wore a look of triumph on her grim and unlovely face.
"Ha! forger of the Sampo!" she cried. "Why do you sit here moping day after day? What ails you—you, who hammered out the sky and set the stars in their places—you, the prince of wizards, the king of boasters?"
Ilmarinen groaned and pulled his cap still lower over his eyebrows; but he answered not a word.
The mistress went on with her bantering; she laid salt on the poor man's wounds and briskly rubbed it in. "Why do you groan so like an ice-floe breaking up at the end of winter? Why do you weep salt tears, extinguishing the fire on my hearth? Have you the toothache, earache, heartache, stomach-ache? Did you eat too much at dinner? Surely, the prince of wizards ought to curb his appetite."
The Smith's heart was filled with anger; his brain burned, his cheeks were flushed with shame. Much had he suffered from this woman's greed and cunning; painfully was he stung by her bitter words. Yet he answered her with becoming gentleness—for was she not the mother of the Maid of Beauty?
"I have no ache nor bodily pain," he said; "but I am sick of this wretched country, this Frozen Land. I am sick of its mists, of its storms, of its long nights and its cheerless days. And, most of all, I am sick of its thankless people."
"Ah! I understand," answered the woman; and she closed her toothless jaws tightly, restraining her anger. "In other words, you are homesick; your heart is filled with longing for your own country and your own fireside."
"You speak rightly," answered Ilmarinen. "My heart is in the South Land, in the Land of Heroes. Unwillingly did I come to your bleak and chilly Pohyola; unwillingly have I remained here, cheered by a single hope which has at last been blasted. And now my only wish is to return home, to see once more the friends whom I love, to cheer my mother in her loneliness."
"Surely, the lad who cries for his mother should be comforted," said the Mistress derisively, "At what moment would you like to start on your homeward journey?"
"At the break of day?" answered the Smith, his face brightening as his hopes were strengthened.
"It shall be as you wish," said the woman, and her tones were uncommonly tender and kind. "I will see that everything is in readiness. At the break of day a boat will be waiting for you at the landing. Delay not a moment, but go on board and ask no questions. You shall be safely carried to the haven that is so dear to you."
Ilmarinen stammered his thanks. His eyes grew brighter, his heart was cheered with hope.
Very impatiently the hero waited through the short hours of night, and gladly did he hail the first gray streak of dawn that heralded the morning.
He hastened out to the shore. The promised boat was there, moored to the landing by a hempen rope. It was a small vessel, but roomy enough for one passenger who would also be captain and crew. Its hull was of cedar and the trimmings were of maple. Its prow was tipped with copper, sharp and strong. The oar also was of copper, and the sail was painted red and yellow.
In the boat a great store of food was packed—deer meat, smoked herring, cakes of barley, toothsome victuals enough for many days.
Ilmarinen asked no man any questions, although many persons were gathered on the shore, wondering whence came the strange vessel and whither it was going. He climbed over the polished gunwales and stepped boldly on board. Then, as the sun was peeping out of the sea, he raised the square sail of red and yellow. He cut the mooring rope, and took the copper paddle in his hands; he sat down in the stern to do the steering.
A gentle wind filled the sail, and the boat glided smoothly, swiftly away from the land. Ilmarinen looked back; he saw all the folk of Pohyola standing along the shore, and he heard them shouting their good-byes and bidding him god-speed. He looked again, and saw the Maid of Beauty among them; she was waving her hand, and her face seemed to him tenfold more beautiful than before; her cheeks were wet with tears, and there was a look of great regret in her wonderful eyes.
And there also stood the Mistress of Pohyola, gray and grim and toothless, but noble in mien and of queenly appearance. She lifted her arms, she raised her eyes towards heaven, and called to the North Wind to prosper the voyage for her departing guest:
The North Wind heard her, and he came, strong, swift, and steady. Like a waterfowl in some sheltered cove, the boat glided with incredible smoothness over the chilly waters. Joyfully the prince of smiths handled the oar, and loudly he shouted to the wind as he saw the red prow cleaving the waves and knew that he was speeding homeward.
Three days the voyage lasted. As the morning of the fourth was dawning, Ilmarinen beheld on his left the lofty headland and pleasant shore of his native land, green with summer-leafing trees and odorous with the breath of wildflowers. The sun rose above the eastern hills, and then his eyes were rejoiced with the sight of the weather-stained roofs of Wainola, and curling clouds of smoke rising from the hearths of many well-known dwellings.
Gently, then, the glad voyager guided his boat into the harbor. He dismissed the North Wind with warm thanks for his friendly service; and then with a few skilful strokes of the oar, he drove his stanch little boat high up on the sloping beach.
"Home! home at last!" he cried as he leaped out. He paused not a moment, he took no care to tie his little vessel to the mooring-post, but with eager, impatient feet he hastened towards the village.
Scarcely had he walked half-way to the nearest dwelling, when a man stepped suddenly into the road before him. It was Wainamoinen, the cunning wizard, the first of all minstrels.
"O Ilmarinen, dearest of brothers!" shouted the aged man, so wise, so truthful, so skilled in tricks of magic. "How delighted I am to behold your face again! Where have you been hiding through all these anxious months?"
The Smith answered curtly, coldly, yet politely: "You know quite well my hiding-place, for it was you who sent me thither. I thank you for the journey; but it will be long ere I climb another one of your magic trees."
"Wisest and skilfulest of metal workers, why do you speak in riddles?" asked the Minstrel, appearing to be hurt. "Never have I sought to harm you; but all that I did was for your own good. Now, I welcome you back to Wainola. Let us be brothers as in the days of yore. Come! here is my hand; let us forgive and forget!"
The generous Smith could not cherish ill-feeling in his heart. He loved the aged Minstrel as he would have loved a father. So he grasped the proffered hand, gently, warmly; he embraced his friend twice, three times, as had been his wont whenever fondness prompted his warm heart. Then he said, "I forgive you, sweetest of minstrels."
Side by side, arm in arm, the two old comrades walked homeward.
"Tell me, Ilmarinen," asked the Minstrel, "did you perform my errand? Did you fulfil my promise and forge the magic Sampo? Did you win the prize?"
"Yes, I forged the Sampo," answered Ilmarinen; "and I hammered its rainbow cover. Therefore your debt is paid, and you are freed from your promise. But as for me—well, as you see, I have not won the Maid of Beauty."