The Wicked Hornet
T HIS is the tale which Wainamoinen, old and truthful, told to the listening Graybeard while the fire blazed and crackled on the hearth between them. It is a tale which he himself had learned from the minstrels of a former age.
The first of all mothers was Air, and she had three daughters. Of these three maidens there is much to be said. They were as lovely as the rainbow after a storm; they were as fair as the full moon shining above the mountains. They walked with noiseless feet among the clouds and showered gifts upon the earth. They sent the refreshing rain, the silent dew, and the nipping frost, each in its season. They gave life to the fields, and strength to the mountains, and grandeur to the sea. And because of their bounty the earth was glad and the stars twinkled for joy.
"What more can we do to make the land fit for men to dwell in?" asked the eldest of the sisters.
And the youngest said, "Let us send down iron—iron of which tools may be made, iron of which sharp weapons may be shaped. For without tools man will not be able to plough, to reap, or to build; and without weapons he cannot defend himself against the savage beasts of the forest."
So, when the sun was about going down, the sisters went forth in trailing robes of purple and crimson and gold; and in their hands they bore mighty vessels of foaming milk. The eldest sprinkled red milk in the brooks and marshes and along the banks of the rivers. The middle one scattered white milk on the wooded hills and the stony mountains. The youngest showered blue milk in the valleys and by the gray seashore. And on the morrow, where the red milk had been sprinkled, red and brittle ore of iron flecked the ground; where the white milk had been scattered, powdery ore of a yellow hue abounded; and where the blue milk had been showered, flaky masses of crude iron, tough and dark, lay hidden beneath the soil.
Thus came Iron into the world—Iron, the youngest of three brothers. Next older than he was Fire, a raging, dangerous fellow when free, but loving and faithful when held in bonds. Older still was Water, terrible in strength but, when not aroused, as gentle as a mother's caress.
Years upon years went by, and at length one day Iron set out to visit his brothers. He found Water at home in the deep sea, and by him he was welcomed kindly enough. But when he climbed a mountain to see his second brother he had quite another reception. Fire was in a raging mood. The terrible fellow leaped and roared, and stretched out his long red fingers as though he would devour his visitor.
Iron was so terrified that he turned and fled down the steep slopes, never stopping nor pausing to look behind. He ran on, hiding in clefts and chasms, creeping under rocks, and lurking in the dry beds of mountain torrents. When, by and by, he reached the level plain, he glanced backward. The hills and the whole mountain top were aflame.
Wild with terror, he hurried on, hiding himself in the woods and under the roots of trees, and resting at last in reedy marshes where swans build their nests and wild geese rear their young.
For ages and ages—nobody knows how many—Iron lay hidden in bogs and forests and lonely caverns. Fear of his raging brother made him lurk in lonely places, made him cover up his face. Lazy bears went ambling through the rocky places; wolves rushed madly over the oozy marshlands; and timid deer ran and leaped among the trees. In time the hiding-places of Iron were uncovered. Where the paws of bears had plodded often, where the feet of wolves had pattered, where the sharp hoofs of deer had trodden, there the timid metal, red, gray, yellow, black, peeped shyly out.
At length, into that same land there came a skilful Smith. He carried a hammer of stone in one hand and tongs of bronze in the other; and a song of peace was upon his lips. On a green hillock, where the south wind blew, he built him a smithy, and in it he placed the tools of his craft. His anvil was a block of gray granite; his forge was carefully builded of sand and clay; his bellows was made of the skins of mountain goats sewn together.
The Smith heaped live coals in his forge and blew with his bellows until the flames leaped up, roaring and sparkling, and the smoke rose in dense clouds over the roof of the smithy. "This forge will do its work well," he said. Then he checked the bellows and smothered the flames and raked ashes upon the fire until the red coals slumbered unseen at the mouth of the forge.
Out into the forest the Smith wandered. Closely he scanned the hillsides and the boggy thickets and the paths among the trees. And there, where the bears had trailed and the wolves had rushed and the deer had left their footprints, he found ruddy Iron, dusky Iron, yellow ore of Iron peeping, trembling, hiding. The heart of the Smith was glad. His eyes danced merrily, and he sang a song of magic to the timid metal:
Iron moved not, but timidly answered, "I dare not leave my hiding-places; for Fire, my brother, waits to devour me. He is strong and fierce. He has no pity."
The Smith shook his head and made reply, still singing:
These words made Iron feel much braver; and they were spoken in tones so sweet and persuasive that he was almost minded to obey without another word. But he asked, "Why should I leave these places where I have rested so long? What will become of me after I have made friends with Fire?"
The Smith answered:
Hearing this, Iron came out of his lurking-places and without more ado, bashfully followed the cunning Smith. But no sooner was he in the smithy than he felt himself a prisoner. The tongs of bronze gripped him and thrust him into the forge. The bellows roared, the Smith shouted, and Fire leaped joyfully out of the ashes and threw his arms around his helpless younger brother. And bashful, bashful Iron turned first red and then white, and finally became as soft as dough and as radiant as the sun.
Then the tongs of bronze drew him forth from the flames, and twirled him in the air, and threw him upon the anvil; and the hammer of stone beat him fiercely again and again until he shrieked with pain.
"Oh, spare me! spare me!" he cried. "Do not deal so roughly with me. Let me go back to my lonely hiding-places and lie there in peace as in the days of old."
But the tongs pinched him worse than before, and the hammer beat him still harder, and the Smith answered: "Not so, not so! Be not so cowardly. We do not hurt you; you are only frightened. Be brave and I will shape you into things of great use to men. Be brave and you shall rule the world."
Then, in spite of Iron's piteous cries, he kept on pounding and twisting and turning and shaping the helpless metal until at length it was changed into many forms of use and beauty—rings, chains, axes, knives, cups, and curious tools. But it was so soft, after being thus heated and beaten, that the edges of the tools were quickly dulled. Try as he might, the Smith did not know how to give the metal a harder temper.
One day a honeybee strolled that way. It buzzed around the smithy and then lit on a clover blossom by the door.
"O bee," cried the busy Smith, "you are a cunning little bird, and you know some things better than I know them. Come now and help me temper this soft metal. Bring me a drop of your honey; bring the sweet liquor which you suck from the meadow flower; bring the magic dew of the wildwood. Give me all such things that I may make a mixture to harden Iron."
The bee answered not—it was too busy with its own affairs. It gathered what honey it could from the blossom, and then flew swiftly away.
Under the eaves above the smithy door an idler was sitting—a mischief-making hornet who heard every word that the Smith said.
"I will help him make a mixture," this wicked insect muttered. "I will help him to give Iron another temper."
Forthwith he flew to the thorny thickets and the miry bogs and the fever-breeding marshes, to gather what evils he might. Soon he returned with an armload—the poison of spiders, the venom of serpents, the miasmata of swamps, the juice of the deadly nightshade. All these he cast into the tub of water wherein the Smith was vainly trying to temper Iron.
The Smith did not see him, but he heard him buzzing, and supposed it was the honeybee with sweets from the meadow flowers.
"Thank you, pretty little bird," he said. "Now I hope we shall have a better metal. I hope we shall make edges that will cut and not be dulled so easily."
Thereupon he drew a bar of the metal, white-hot, from the forge. He held it, hissing and screeching, under the water into which the poisons had been poured. Little thought he of the evil that was there. He heard the hornet humming and laughing under the eaves.
"Tiny honeybee," he said, "you have brought me such sweetness. Iron tempered with your honey will be sweet although sharp. Nothing shall be wrought of it that is not beautiful and helpful and kind."
He drew the metal from the tub. He thrust it back among the red coals. He plied the bellows and the flames leaped up. Then, when the metal was glowing again, he laid it on the anvil and beat it with strong, swift strokes; and as he worked he sang:
Forthwith, Iron leaped up, angry and biting and fierce. He was not a soft and ductile metal as before, but iron hardened into tough blue steel. Showers of sparks flew from him, snapping, burning, threatening; and from among them sprang swords and spears and battle-axes, and daggers keen and pointed. Out of the smithy and out through the great world these cruel weapons raced, slashing and clashing, thrusting and cutting, raging and killing, and carrying madness among men.
The wicked hornet, idling under the eaves, rejoiced at the mischief he had wrought. But the Smith was filled with grief, and the music of his anvil became a jangling discord.
"O Iron," he cried, "it was not for this that I caused you to leave your hiding-places in the hills and bogs! The three sisters intended that you should be a blessing to mankind; but now I greatly fear that you will become a curse."
At that moment the honeybee, laden with sweets of field and wood, came buzzing into the smithy. It whispered hopefully into the ear of the Smith: "Wait until my gifts have done their work."
Here the Minstrel paused.
"Is that all?" asked the Graybeard.
"Yes, it is all," was the answer; "for now I can think of nothing but my dear home land. My sweet country calls me, and I must hasten on my journey. So, let my sledge be made ready and the steed harnessed before it, and I will bid you good-bye."
"In the morning you may go," said the Graybeard.