Sampo - James Baldwin

The Triumph of Music

Old Dame Louhi, unlovely and unloved, sat in the doorway of her dwelling. She looked out and saw that which made her wrinkled, uncanny face beam with joy. Her toothless mouth expanded into the mockery of a smile. Her small, greedy eyes twinkled beneath her shaggy eyebrows. Her long, crooked fingers trembled nervously, they seemed to be grasping at something invisible.

She was pleased because where once were naught but vast brown meadows she now saw fields of ripening grain. Where once were miry marsh lands she saw green pastures with hundreds of sleek cattle grazing thereon. Where once were sandy barrens and wind-swept hills she saw fruitful orchards and blooming gardens. And in the village, instead of wretched huts she saw neat cottages and well-filled barns, the homes of contentment and plenty. Who can wonder that her face was wreathed with smiles while her heart was overflowing with joy?

"My mill of fortune has done all this," she muttered to herself. "This fair, sweet country shall now no longer be called the Frozen Land. It shall everywhere be known as the Land of Plenty, the home of the Sampo."

She turned her head and listened. A faint, musical sound, far away, came to her ears. It was the sound made by the magic mill, grinding, grinding forever in the cave beneath the hill of copper. She could hear its pictured cover turning, turning—pouring out wealth for all the people. She could hear the grains of gold dropping, dropping—the precious royal sap feeding the rootlets of the corn, filling the apple blossoms with nectar, and pervading the rich warm soil itself.

Suddenly she was startled by hearing another sound—a strange, unusual noise, a clamor as of the voices of many people all trying to speak at once, all trying to make themselves heard. The sound grew louder every moment. It became a confused uproar; it drew rapidly nearer. What could it be?

The Mistress, looking eagerly, soon saw whence the clamor came. A great crowd of excited people appeared coming up from the seashore. The road between the gardens was filled with half-grown boys, chattering little girls, shouting young men, singing maidens, hard-working women from the farms, and old men from the fishing boats; and all were using their voices vigorously, excitedly, as though some wonderful thing was happening.

The Mistress was alarmed. "Surely the world has gone mad!" she cried in dismay. "Who are these people, and what do they mean by their strange actions?"

The rabble came nearer. Dame Louhi could distinguish some of the faces. She was sure that the children and some of the old men and old women were her own subjects—she had seen them every day of their lives, but never in so jolly a mood as now. But who were those noisy young men and maidens, dressed in foreign garb, who formed the greater portion of the noisy company? And who were the two heroes who led them—one white-bearded and tall, the other sad-eyed and pale but with the limbs of a giant? Ah! Dame Louhi knew them only too well.

"Hail to you, heroes!" she said, as they paused beside her dwelling and silence fell upon the company. "Your faces are familiar to me and your names I have not forgotten. If you come in peace, I welcome you to this land of plenty."

"We come in peace," answered the Minstrel, wise and truthful. "We have heard strange stories in our country concerning the magic Sampo and the great changes it has wrought in Pohyola. Now our eyes see that which our hearts could not believe and we would fain rejoice with you and be glad because of your good fortune."

"Good fortune comes to those who labor for it and who most deserve it," said Dame Louhi coldly. "But tell me, what fresh news do you bring from the Land of Heroes?"

"There is no news but of famine and sorrow," answered the Minstrel. "The children are crying for food, and men and women perish because of the poverty of the land. Therefore we have come to ask you to share the Sampo with us. It has made you rich and happy, now give us a small portion of it that it may bless our suffering people also."

The face of the Mistress grew ashy-white with anger. "The Sampo is but a little thing," she said, "and never will I share it with another. Can two hungry men share a sparrow? Can three divide a tiny squirrel? You may hear the Sampo whirring, you may hear its pictured cover grinding in the cavern where I placed it—but it whirs for me alone, it grinds out wealth and plenty for my people and for no other."

"Surely you are unwise and selfish," then said the Minstrel, "and foolish it would be to waste words in argument. Since you will not share the Sampo with us I warn you that you shall lose the whole of it. We will take it out of the cavern where it is grinding and we will carry it far away to our own country to give comfort and joy to our neighbors and food and clothing to our loved ones."

When Dame Louhi heard this she rose up quickly and stood, furious, in her doorway. She clenched her bony fists and shook them high above her head, calling upon all her people, all her armed men, all her servants, to come quickly in their might and drive the robbers from the shores of Pohyola. Loud was her voice, stern were her commands, and there was no one who did not hear her. Instantly a hundred swords-men were at her side, a thousand spearsmen answered her call. They stood ready to smite and to slay, to drive the intruders into the sea.

But Wainamoinen, old and fearless, stood in his place unflinching and firm as a rock in the midst of a storm. He held the kantele in his hands and began to play upon it, softly, gently. Instantly every voice was hushed and every arm was stayed. He raised his fingers nimbly and moved them swiftly over the harp strings. One sweet note followed another, pleasures indescribable issued from the harp of fish-bone, while the Minstrel sang his rarest, richest songs—songs so melodious that every heart was entranced, bewitched, overcome with joy.

Forthwith all the creatures of the woods and fields came near to listen. The squirrels came leaping from branch to branch. Soft-furred ermines, minks, otters, and seals laid themselves down in the grass before him. Sharp-eyed lynxes looked out from the foliage of the thickets and drank in the wonderful music. Herds of reindeer came racing over the meadows. In the marshes the savage wolves awoke and stretched themselves, and then with one accord rushed out and ran with speed to the spot where the kantele was playing. There they squatted down in orderly rows, their ears pricked up, listening and rejoicing. Even the lazy bears came ambling from their lurking-places; they climbed upon the rocks and into the trees and sat there in solemn silence, drinking in the bewitching sounds.

The birds of the air also came on silent wings from the four corners of the sky. They flew backwards and forwards, soared in circles, and paused with outstretched pinions, looking down to enjoy the wondrous melodies. The eagle left her fledglings in her lofty eyry and came to listen to the hero's playing. Wild ducks from the deep inlets of the northern sea and snow-white swans from the marshes of Pohyola came in flocks to hearken to his singing. Sparrows and wrens and all the tiny birds of the fields and woods assembled by thousands; they perched on the Minstrel's head and shoulders, they filled the branches of the trees, they hovered in the air, forgetful of everything save the sweet notes that issued from the kantele.

The fairies of the rainbow and the mists also came, some riding on the yellow sunbeams and some resting on the crimson borders of the clouds. The slender daughters of the air, who weave the golden fabrics of each man's life, paused in their work to listen, and as they paused their shuttle fell from their hands and the precious thread of their spinning was broken.

Nor did the creatures of the sea fail to hear the all-entrancing melodies. Little fishes and large fishes came in shoals and lifted up their heads along the beach to rejoice and wonder. The slender pike, the graceful salmon, nimble herrings, all kinds of finny creatures, came crowding to the shore to listen to the songs of Wainamoinen. White whales from the icy seas, savage sharks, and squirming eels swam side by side and trembled with emotion. And the Old Man of the Sea, even the king of the boundless deep, came, and sitting upon a throne of water-lilies listened with joy to the ravishing melodies that issued from the kantele. The water nymphs, also, cousins of the reeds that grow in the still waters between the hills, they heard the sweet music and were enraptured by it. They left off playing with their silken tresses, they dropped their combs and their silver brushes and lifted their comely heads to enjoy the Minstrel's wondrous songs. And their mother, the Wave Mistress, terror of seafaring men, raised herself from the billows and listened. Then with speed she betook herself shoreward, hiding her awful head among the rushes, and there she lay until the music soothed her to deepest slumber.

For one whole day—yes, for two long, dreamy days—the Minstrel played thus upon the harp strings, upon the inimitable kantele, and as he played he sang the songs of truth and beauty which he had learned from the Wisdom Keeper, from the earth, the sea, and the sky. And all the creatures, all the people, were spellbound and motionless because of the great joy and comfort and wonder that had come upon them.

At length he changed his theme and sang of the grandeur and glory of life, of things mighty and things lowly, and of the great hereafter beyond the silent river. And from the kantele he drew forth such marvellous melodies that not one among all his hearers could refrain from weeping. The heroes wept, old men and matrons, swaggering youths and timid maidens, half-grown boys and lovely little girls, all wept, for their hearts were melted. Tears welled up even in the eyes of the beasts and the birds and fell like rain upon the leaves and the grass and the gray sand by the shore.

Meanwhile, as he played, the Minstrel himself was moved to weeping. Down his cheeks the water-drops went coursing, they ran down his beard and down his heaving breast. Round as cranberries and large as the heads of swallows his tears fell, chasing each other to the ground. They rolled like hailstones down upon his feet, they flowed in streams till they reached the margin of the sea, and there they fell tinkling and splashing into the sparkling water, down to the black ooze at the bottom.

"Who will bring my tears back to me?" asked Wainamoinen, his voice trembling while his long fingers still played upon the harp strings. "A dress of softest feathers shall be given to that one who gathers my tears from beneath the crystal waves."

The raven heard him and flew down, snapping with his sharp beak and trying to gather up the tears. But not one could he recover from the sparkling water.

The blue duck also heard him and with swift strokes swam to the spot where the tears had fallen. She dived deep down into the water and there she found the tear-drops lying on the black ooze at the bottom. Hastily with her spoon-like beak she gathered them up, she carried them to Wainamoinen and laid them on the grass before him. Lo! every tear-drop was a pearl of wondrous beauty—a pearl of priceless value, fit to adorn a queen or deck the crown of the mightiest king.

"O brave blue duck, friend and helper!" said the Minstrel. "You have done well and you shall be rewarded quickly." And so saying, he gave her a dress of feathers—a dress of wondrous beauty, well-fitting and soft and suited to one who lives in northern climates by icy seas. And all this while the music never ceased, the kantele kept pouring out its sweetest, rarest treasures, while Wainamoinen sang new songs to charm the listening multitude.

At length, however, the people could hold out no longer. Their strength forsook them and they sank, one by one, upon the ground, all overcome with weariness. They closed their eyes and gave themselves up to slumber. Children and young people and men and women, all lay drowsing. The hundred brave swordsmen and the thousand spearsmen of Pohyola were soundly sleeping. Even old Dame Louhi yawned and closed her eyes and sank back upon her couch overcome with slumber, forgetful of the Sampo, forgetful of everything. Of all the multitude none remained awake save the heroes and the young men and maidens that had plied the oars on board of the crimson ship.

Softly, more softly, the strains of music issued from the kantele; sweetly, more sweetly, the tones of the wonderful singer vibrated in the air. Then suddenly both stopped and silence reigned.