Sampo - James Baldwin

The Golden Maiden

Far away in northern inlets Ilmarinen and his friend the Minstrel were catching salmon for the winter's store. The days were growing shorter and the nights were getting cold. Ice was beginning to form in the sheltered creeks and coves and frost lay white on the shaded slopes of the hills.

Fishes were scarce and shy and the fishermen were disheartened. For five days—yes, for six toilsome days—they had sailed hither and thither, casting first on the landward side and then on the seaward, and still the boat's hold was far from being filled.

"I wish I were at home," sighed the master Smith.

"There is no place so sweet as one's own fireside," responded the Minstrel.

"I long to see the faces of those whom I love," said the Smith. "I am impatient to hear their voices."

"Sweeter than the chirping of song-birds—yes, sweeter than the warbling of meadow larks—is the merry prattling of one's own home folk," returned the Minstrel.

They drew in the net. Not a salmon did it contain. Naught but seaweed did they get.

"Oh, I am sick of this business," complained Ilmarinen. "I am sick of fishing, sick of sailing on these barren waters, sick of life itself."

"Take heart, brother, take heart," answered the Minstrel cheerily. "To-morrow we shall have better luck; we shall make a great catch, and soon we shall sail back to Wainola with a full cargo and great plenty of salmon."

But on the morrow their bad luck continued. Their net was broken, they lost their best whalebone hook, their boat was grounded in the shallows, and half the day was wasted.

Suddenly from the shore they heard some ravens calling among the storm-beaten pines. They listened to the voices of the ill-omened birds.

"See those fishermen," said one. "See how they toil in these empty waters."

"Caw! caw! caw!" answered its mate. "They are foolish. They know not what is going on at home."

"If they were wiser they would spread sail and hasten back to Wainola," croaked a third.

"Hasten back to Wainola!" echoed the cold, gray cliffs and the ragged rocks on the shore.

"Back to Wainola!" came a voice from the waveless waters.

"To Wainola!" shouted Ilmarinen, as he seized the ropes and hurriedly hoisted the sail.

"Wainola! Wainola!" sang the ancient Minstrel as he wielded the long rudder and deftly turned the vessel before the wind.

All night, all day, the willing little ship speeded southward, cutting through the waves with lightning swiftness, throwing the foam to the right and the left, leaving a track of boiling waters behind it. And the word that was oftenest on the lips of Smith and Minstrel was "Home! home! home!"

Three days they sailed, and then—ah, then! Who shall depict that home-coming? Who shall describe the dismay, the grief, the heart-breaking of the hero, Ilmarinen?

As the boat neared the shore he shouted a great, sky-shaking shout as was his custom when arriving home from a long voyage. But no answering cry of welcome came to his ears. He saw no faces of loved ones waiting at the landing-place to greet him. Quickly, he leaped ashore. He paused not a moment, but hastened along the silent pathways towards the grove that sheltered his roomy farmhouse. But ere he reached it his eyes detected many a sign of the fearful scenes that had been enacted there. The hedges had been torn down, the flower-beds had been trampled and destroyed, the bordering fields were laid waste. The farmhouse itself had been ransacked from kitchen to attic chamber, and not one article of ornament or use had been left untouched or unbroken.

Frantically the hero ran from one spot to another loudly calling to his mother, to his sister, the maid of the morning, to his wife, the best beloved, the beautiful. But no voice answered him save the echoes of his own words. The floor of the farmhouse was reddened with blood; on every side were the marks of cruel teeth, the imprint of sharp and pitiless claws. In the farmyard, he found the milking stool and the pails, all battered and scarred and broken; and there, too, he found a long lock of blood-covered hair which he knew too well had once belonged to the Maid of Beauty, the mistress of his household and his life. Then despair took hold of him and hope was dead. He looked no farther, but sat down upon the ground and gave expression to his overwhelming grief.

Thus, all day and for many days, Ilmarinen mourned and wept. Through sleepless nights he bewailed his great misfortune, and through all the hated mornings he lamented the loss of his wife, his mother, his sister, his loved household. In his smithy the fire no longer burned, the anvil no longer echoed his song. His hammer was idle and his forge was cold. The beauty of life had departed and he longed to die—to meet the shades of his loved ones in the land of Tuonela.

For two, four—yes, six—long and dreary months he mourned, and his strength waned and he grew weak from sorrow. He ate little, slept little, talked not at all, mingled never with his friends and neighbors. Often, in the still hours of midnight, he fancied that he heard the voice of his dear one calling him by name. Often in fitful dreams he reached his hand out in the darkness thinking to touch hers, but grasping nothing, seizing only empty air.

At length, in his madness, he said to himself: "With gold and magic and smithing skill I will shape a body like hers—beautiful beyond compare—and then perhaps she will return from Tuonela and dwell therein as she did in her former body of flesh and blood."

And so, from the rocks by the seaside, he gathered flakes of gold, scales of gold, nuggets of gold, until he had filled a basket almost as large as himself. Then from the forest he cut and brought together many logs of willow and white maple and mountain ash, and of these he made charcoal for his smithy. With much care he prepared his furnace, and in the midst of it he set a magic caldron, large and round and deep. He heaped the wood around it, he threw on coal, he kindled the fire; and all the while he sang runes and songs of wizardry and power which no lesser man would have dared to recite.

Then he called loudly to his slaves and working men: "Now, my faithful ones, start the bellows to blowing. Make it roar like a storm at sea, like a whirlwind in a mountain valley. Blow, blow, and cease not until I command you."

The men obeyed. With their bare hands they laid hold of the long lever, they put their naked shoulders against it and worked steadily with might and main. And Ilmarinen stood by his magic caldron, throwing into it great handfuls of gold, smaller handfuls of silver, cakes of fine sugar from the red mountain-maple, honey and honeycomb, daisies, buttercups, wild flowers of every hue, and a hundred strange and potent articles the names of which I have not the courage to pronounce.

For a brief hour the workmen toiled and paused not. Then one said, "I am tired," and slunk away in the darkness; and the second said, "I am faint with the heat," and let his hands fall from the bellows; and the third said, "The work is too hard for one man alone to perform," and he, too, abandoned his post. The bellows ceased blowing, the fire was fast dying down.

"Blow, my men, blow!" cried Ilmarinen, and then, lifting his eyes, he saw that he was alone in the smithy.

Angry and half-despairing, he seized the lever of the bellows in his own hands, he put his own naked shoulder to the work, and again the flames leaped up, the fire glowed, the caldron quaked and trembled in the terrible heat. For hours and hours he toiled, till the sweat poured in torrents from his brow, and his hands were blistered and his fingers cramped with grasping the long, unyielding lever of iron. At length he paused from his labor and looked down into the furnace. He lifted the lid from the caldron and sang a wild, weird song, every word of which was a word of enchantment. And what do you think arose from the mixture in the vessel, from the gray clouds of vapor which filled it?

It was not that which the Smith had hoped to see, for the ill-working serving-men had broken the spells that he was weaving. It was not a golden war-steed with shoes of silver. It was not a monstrous eagle with beak of hardest iron. It was only a young lamb, small and feeble, with fleece of mingled gold and silver.

Ilmarinen looked at the tiny beast and felt no pleasure. A child might have liked it as a plaything, but a hero delights not in useless toys.

"I did not call for you, my lambkin," he said, disappointed and sorrowing. "You are gentle, you are harmless, but my magic spells should have wrought something far better and more beautiful. I desire a golden maiden and no other form will please me."

So saying, he thrust the lamb back into the boiling caldron, forcing it down to the very bottom. Then he threw in more gold, and with each handful of the yellow metal he muttered a new rune of magic words and magic import. The fire burned fitfully beneath and around the caldron. Tongues of blue flame encircled it, sheets of white flame enveloped it, a sound like the humming of bees issued from its broad mouth.

Ilmarinen threw fresh coal into the furnace and heaped it high above the draught hole. He worked the bellows, steadily, gently, persistently. The fire roared, the flames danced; the heat became intense. For hours the hero labored without cessation; for hours he muttered spells of enchantment, suffering nothing to break in upon his thoughts or distract from the mystic power of his words. When he at last, had reached the end, had recited all the proper runes and sayings, he stopped blowing the bellows, and with great caution stooped down and looked into the caldron.

The flames died suddenly away, and out of the vessel there sprang a wonderful image—the image of a beautiful maiden. In face and form she was indeed lovely—lovelier than any other woman, save one, that Ilmarinen had ever seen. Her head was of silver and her hair was golden. Her eyes sparkled like precious stones and were blue as the summer sky, yet she saw nothing. Her ears were dainty and blushing like pink rose leaves, yet she heard nothing. Her lips were tender and sweet and red like twin cranberries meeting beneath her faultless nose, yet she tasted not, smelled nothing. Her mouth served not for speaking nor yet for eating or smiling. Her fingers were long and tapering and her hands small and shapely, yet she felt nothing. Her feet were well-formed and comely, yet they would not support her, she could not stand.

[Illustration] from The Sampo by James Baldwin


"O my loved one! O my lost one! O thou who wert once the Maid of Beauty, come and dwell in this golden body!" cried the enraptured Smith. "Come, and once more be the joy of my poor life!"

He lifted the Golden Maiden and placed her in the cushioned seat wherein his lost wife had often reposed. He put his arm around her waist, but she did not return his caress. He kissed her cherry red lips, but they were cold, cold, cold. He spoke many endearing words in her ear, but she gave him no answer. He took her hands between his own, but there was no throbbing of life in them.

"She is cold, so cold!" he muttered. "She is like ice, like snow in midwinter!"

Then he laid her on a silken couch, put soft pillows beneath her head, and covered her with warm blankets and quilted coverlets. And as he did so he prayed unceasingly to the dear dead one whom he had loved so much:

"O thou who wert once the Maid of Beauty, come and dwell in this body of gold! Come and give life to this precious maiden; fill her veins with blood, give warmth to her body, sight to her eyes, hearing to her ears!"

All night long he sat beside the couch, holding the maiden's hands and breathing his own warm breath into her face. All night long he moaned and wept and called the name of his lost wife whom the beasts had devoured. At length the new day dawned and the sunlight streamed into the room and fell upon the couch. The Golden Maiden was as cold as before, her face was white with frost, her body was frozen to the blankets.

"Ah, me! there is no hope!" said the Smith, despairing utterly; and he lifted the image from its resting place. "Never will the dead come to life again, never will my loved one return to me. Henceforth I shall walk alone upon the earth."

He took the Golden Maiden gently in his arms, he smoothed the drapery about her, and carried her to his old friend, the Minstrel.

"O Wainamoinen, tried and true!" he cried. "Here I bring you a present—a maiden of great worth, golden and beautiful. See her fair face, her comely form, her feet so small and shapely."

The Minstrel, wise and steadfast, looked at the image closely, admiringly. Then he said, "She is indeed a pretty maiden, and the likeness is perfect. But wherefore do you bring her to me?"

"Dear brother, friend, companion," answered the Smith, "I bring her to you because I love you, because I would make you happy. Years ago we both wooed the same Maid of Beauty. I won her because I was young; you lost her because you were old. I know what must have been your sorrow and disappointment. Now, when there can be no more joy for me, I bring you this Golden Maiden to be your solace and delight. She has the form and features of the Maid of Beauty, and I doubt not she will please you. She will sit on your knee and nestle dovelike in your arms—and she is worth her weight in gold."

"I want no golden maiden!" cried the Minstrel half angrily, sternly. "For what is gold without sense, without soul? I have heard of young fools who wedded silly maidens, brainless women, soulless ladies, just for gold. But think you that one in my position would stoop to such folly?"

"I know that you are wise, my brother," said the Smith, "and you are the master of all magic. Perhaps you might endow this Golden Maiden with sense, with warm blood, with a noble soul."

"Jumala alone has that power," answered Wainamoinen, "and to Jumala let us give all praise. Carry this image back to your smithy, thrust the Golden Maiden into your furnace, and then you may forge from her all sorts of objects, beautiful, useful, precious. For never will your Maid of Beauty return from Tuonela to dwell in a body so base and worthless."

Sorrowfully, regretfully, Ilmarinen obeyed. Back to his smithy he carried the golden image; he thrust it into his furnace; he watched it melt and disappear in the terrible heat. Then he turned himself about and walked out silently into the darkness. And for many a sad day the people of Wainola sought him in vain and then mourned him as dead.