Sampo - James Baldwin

The Barking Dogs

Springtime had dawned in the Frozen Land. The sun was riding high in the sky, and the air was balmy with the breath of the south. The snow had melted on the meadows, and the ice had floated out of the inlets. The sea was no longer gray and shivering, but pale blue and motionless. The wild geese honked noisily in the marshy lakes and sought their nesting places by the creeks. Swallows twittered under the eaves and cuckoos called to each other among the budding bushes.

On her couch beside the door Dame Louhi, the Wise Woman of the North, sat reclining. Very ugly she was, toothless and grim, wrinkled with age and altogether unlovely. The Maid of Beauty was busy at her housework, sweeping, spinning, baking, weaving. The doors were open and warm breezes from southern seas breathed through the low-raftered hall, playing with the deerskin curtains and with the maiden's silken hair.

Suddenly an uproar was heard, a sound feeble at first but every moment growing louder. It was not an unusual sound, but it was unusually disturbing, unusually persistent and annoying.

"What is that, my daughter?" inquired Dame Louhi, sitting up and listening.

"Oh, it is naught but the dogs barking," answered the maiden. "They are over at the fishermen's huts by the shore. Perhaps they see some beggar or wild man coming down the path from the forest."

The noise increased, it was spreading. It sounded as though a score of watchdogs were barking in concert.

The Wise Woman was disturbed and growing nervous. "Daughter," she said, "I never heard such barking. Surely something strange is happening. Go out to the gate, look down the road, and see what is the matter."

The Maid of Beauty heeded not, but kept right on with her household duties.

"Mother," she said, "I am too busy to bother with barking dogs. The bread must be baked, and this pile of wool must be spun, and from its yarn six new blankets must be woven this very day. I have no time to stand gaping at the gate, listening to the noise of barking curs."

The uproar increased. The ancient housedog, infirm and toothless as his mistress, rose from his place in the ashes; he dragged himself to the door and set up a mournful howling.

"O my daughter, what indeed can be the matter?" cried the Wise Woman.

"I know not," answered the maiden.

In his hut beside the reindeer paddock the keeper of the herds was sitting. He was old and fat and lazy, and the noise of the dogs awakened him from pleasant reveries.

"Wife, wife!" he cried. "Do you hear that barking? Go quickly to the door and see what is the matter!"

But the aged woman kept on with her knitting. "I am too busy to run to the door every time a dog barks," she said. "I must earn something to feed our children, to clothe them, to keep them neat. I have no time to listen to the prattle of dogs."

Still the clamor grew and grew. The black watchdog in the courtyard of Louhi's dwelling joined his voice to the general uproar. He pulled at his chain and howled most dismally.

By the smouldering fire in his own small hut the head serving-man was sitting; his eldest son was working beside the door. "My son," said the older man, "do you hear the black watchdog? Surely some stranger is coming this way. Run out to the road and see what manner of man he is."

The youth kept on with his work. "I am too busy to listen to watchdogs," he said. "My axe is dull and I must grind it. The wood must be brought for the kitchen fire; and who will split it if I go running after dogs? Let old Growler howl; I have no time to bother with dogs."

Louder and still louder waxed the tumult. All the puppies, all the house-curs, all the sledgedogs, all the watchdogs were barking, baying, yelping, howling.

The head serving-man was greatly disturbed, and yet he liked not to rise from his seat, for he was old and his limbs were stiff.

"In my lifetime I have heard much barking," he said, "but never such barking as this. Perhaps the dogs have scented a bear escaped from an ice-floe; perhaps they see a band of robbers coming up from the shore. Kuli, my little daughter, listen to me!"

"What is it, papa?" answered the child, sitting still on the floor.

"Run out to the turf pile, Kuli," said her father, "climb up on the very top of it and look around. See what the dogs are barking at, and then run back quickly and tell your tired father."

"O papa, I am too busy," answered Kuli. "I want to play with my dolly; I want to put her to sleep. I have no time to run after dogs."

The head serving-man was perplexed, he was uneasy and half-way angry.

"Everybody is busy to-day," he said. "Nobody has the time to do anything. Nobody cares for the dogs and nobody cares for me. But I must find out what all the noise is about."

He rose from his seat, grumbling because of the pains in his joints. He drew on his boots, he pulled his fur cap over his head. Then he went stamping out of the door and across the broad yard. The black watchdog was still tugging at his chain, still howling dolorously. The old serving-man took notice of his actions.

The brute first pointed his nose towards the sea, then he looked far away at the meadows and the misty, mysterious hills. The serving-man did likewise. He looked seaward, then landward—but naught did he behold save, on this side, the blue water and the sloping shore and the fishermen's huts, and, on that side, the brown marsh lands and the long, winding, indistinct roadway that led nowhere and came from everywhere.

"How now, old Growler?" he said angrily. "Why is all this clamor? Why is all this tumult? Hush your barking, I bid you."

But the beast still tugged at his chain, and all the smaller dogs joined him in a chorus of howling. Then the serving-man looked again and with greater care. On the broad face of the sea he discerned a strange speck, white, yellow, and scarlet, gliding swiftly landward, glistening bright on the blue and silent water. On the winding meadow pathway he saw another speck, scarlet, yellow, and blue, moving fleetly towards Pohyola, smoothly gliding like a flying bird.

"Oh, surely the dogs are right!" said the astonished man. "Here is cause enough for barking; plenty of cause for yelping and snarling. One stranger comes by sea, another comes by land, and the poor beasts have scented both while yet they are far away."

A third time he looked this way, then that. He put his half-closed right hand to his eye and looked through it as men sometimes in these later days look through a spy-glass. Now he could see quite clearly; soon he could discern what manner of wayfarers those were that had caused the doggish clamor.

The speck upon the meadows was a sledge of many colors drawn by a fleet and tireless racer. The speck upon the waters was a fairy ship, its prow all golden, its hull bright scarlet, its sails blue and red.

"How strange!" said the faithful man. "Be it war or be it peace, I must hasten and warn the Mistress."

He found the Wise Woman at her door, gazing sharply at the sky, the sea, the earth, to learn for herself the reason for the unusual uproar. To her he told his story quickly, briefly, adding also a word of warning. The face of the woman grew grayer, grimmer as she listened, and in her eyes was a look of puzzled apprehension.

She called loudly, shrilly to the Maid of Beauty, now busy with her weaving, busy with the wool and the blankets.

"Daughter, daughter, do you hear?"

"Truly, mother, I hear the dogs," answered the maiden. "Let them bark if it pleases them."

"They bark because they have scented some strangers coming. A ship is approaching by sea, and a wonderful sledge is bringing some hero hither by land."

"Oh, how fine!" said the maiden.

"But who can these strangers be? How shall we receive them? Shall we welcome them as friends or flee from them as foes?"

"I know not," said the daughter. "I know not why such strangers should come to Pohyola."

"Try the rowan branch!" croaked a voice from the dark corner beyond the hearth. It was the voice of old Sakko, the dwarf, the last daughter of the race of earth men. No guest came oftener than she to Dame Louhi's dwelling, no other was more welcome to the Wise Woman's table and fireside. "Try the rowan branch," she repeated. "The rowan branch is the sure omen that never fails. If drops of red sap ooze from it, then look for foes and trouble. If only clear water bubbles, hissing, from its tiny pores, then be sure that friends are coming bringing rich gifts and joyful tidings. Try the rowan branch."

"Yes, let us try the rowan branch," said the Mistress, anxious, uneasy, trembling with alarm.

Quickly the Maid of Beauty ran to the woodpile beside the door. With much care she chose a stick of rowan, straight, smooth-barked, and full of sap. She carried it to the hearth and laid it on the coals; then all stood round to watch it.

The brown bark crackled with the heat, it shriveled and began to burn. The smoke curled lightly upward, the coals grew redder, the heat of the fire increased.

"O thou magic branch of rowan, tell us truly, tell us quickly, who those are who come so swiftly—friends or foes who come so swiftly!" chanted Sakko, the dwarfish wise one.

"O noble branch of rowan, bring only friends. Let naught but clearest water ooze from thy pores so tiny," muttered the Mistress of Pohyola.

"O thou pretty branch of rowan, bring good luck, bring fortune only, bring peace to all who dwell here—bring joy to our home and home land," softly murmured the Maid of Beauty.

The smoke grew blacker, it curled round the branch of rowan, the green wood was growing hot amid the heaped-up coals. Then there came a whistling, sizzling sound, and the sap began to trickle slowly from the tiny pores. The dwarf Sakko deftly seized the heated branch and held it aloft that all might see the oozing drops.

"They are not red!" cried the Mistress, Dame Louhi.

"They are not clear water!" said the Maid of Beauty.

"I see only common sap," said the head serving-man.

"Nay, nay!" muttered Sakko, the dwarf woman. "They are neither crystal nor crimson, but sweetest honey. And what do the honey-drops tell? They tell us that these strangers are better than friends, that they are suitors and have come hither as wooers."

"Look again and tell me whom they will woo," said Dame Louhi.

Sakko lifted the branch again and turned it this way and that, carefully examining the sizzling sap. She listened to the shrill little sound that came from it.

"Three women are in this house," she said, "and one of them is she whom the strangers seek. Is it the Mistress? Her youth has fled. Is it poor Sakko, the earth woman? Never has she known a lover. Is it the Maid of Beauty, the rainbow maiden? All the world adores her."

She twirled the rowan branch once, twice, thrice in the air above her head, and then cast it upon the hearth, scattering the ashes to right and left and sending a cloud of cinders upward through the smoke hole.

"The strangers will soon be at your door," she croaked. "Be ready to welcome them."

"Truly, my daughter," said Dame Louhi, "it becomes us to give these heroes joy after their perilous journey."

"Yes, mother," answered the Maid of Beauty.