Sampo - James Baldwin

The Slave Boy

Happy, happy Ilmarinen! With her who had been the Maid of Beauty as queen of his household, naught but good fortune was his. Wherever he went, whatever he did, he was sure to prosper. His smithy was full of rare and beautiful things, the work of his own skilful hands. His barns were full of grain, barley, and wheat, hay, and soft straw for his horses. His farmyard was full of lowing cattle, broad-horned milk cows, fat beeves, and sleek-coated yearlings. And his house was full of joy, the abode of peace, the home of plenty.

Now among the servants of the hero was a young slave whose name was Kullervo. A worthless fellow he was, ill-favored, ill-natured, selfish, and unkind. When any work was given him to do he was sure to spoil it; he could not be trusted, he seemed to be unfit for any duty. Ilmarinen had bought him for a small price: two old cracked kettles, three broken books, four dull-edged scythes, and five toothless rakes.

"It is a good price for him, more than he is worth," said all his neighbors, for they knew that the slave would serve him ill. "Never will he earn the food that is given him, never will his master have any joy from his labor."

Ilmarinen smiled and said nothing. He gave the boy an axe and bade him cut an armload of kindlings for the fire; but the worthless fellow began chopping the beams of the house. He sent him into the garden to pull up weeds; but the worthless fellow destroyed the useful plants and flowers and left the weeds untouched. He sent him to pick berries in the marshes; but the worthless fellow picked only the green fruit and trampled upon the ripe.

"The new slave is good for nothing," said Dame Lokka, Ilmarinen's busy mother.

"No, no!" answered his wife, the mistress of his household. "Every man has his place in the world, and surely there is something for this poor fellow to do."

And so, one day when Ilmarinen was far away, she said to the mother, "I have a mind to send Kullervo out with the cattle. Surely he can drive them to the hill pastures and the marshes, he can watch them while they graze, he can keep them from wandering in the woods and thickets."

"Do as you like," answered Dame Lokka. "A herdsman's task requires neither skill nor wearying labor, and perhaps the slave will find his proper place among the cattle in the quiet pastures."

Forthwith the wife and mistress called to the old cook, the kitchen wench, and said "The new slave, Kullervo, is to go with the cattle to-day. Make haste and put up a luncheon for him—something that will stay his hunger in the middle of the day, for he will be far from home and the noon sun is hot in the lonely hill pastures."

"Yes, my mistress," answered the cook, "I will fill a basket for him with food good enough and wholesome enough for any such slave as he. I will bake a fresh, hot cake for him and have it ready when he starts with the herd."

So to her task she went, chuckling and growling, for she hated Kullervo and not without reason. First, she rolled out the dough and then she baked the cake. The upper half was of wheaten flour, the lower half was of coarse oatmeal, and in the centre was a round black sandstone cunningly concealed.

"He will enjoy that when he comes to it," laughed the wicked wench, holding her sides and grinning with mirth.

When the cake was baked very hard and dry she took it from the oven and rolled it in butter, laying a slice of raw bacon around it. The she put it in a small basket and covered it with green oak leaves.

"He must needs have strong teeth to eat it," she muttered, "but it is good enough for him."

Soon Kullervo come to get his luncheon. The cattle were waiting to be driven to the pasture, the milk cows were lowing impatiently, the yearlings were browsing beside the hedges.

"Here's your luncheon, you worthless fellow," said the old cook. "It is fresh and hot, and far too good for such as you; keep the green leaves over it till you're ready to eat, for the flies are many and very bad to-day."

The slave took the basket. Although ill-favored, his face was not wholly bad, for his father had been a freeman and a hero. His coat was of coarsest cloth, much patched; his trousers were of reindeer skin; his stockings were of blue-dyed wool; his shoes were heavy and serviceable. No beard was yet on his chin or sun-browned cheeks; his eyes were blue with shades of savagery lurking in their depths; his uncombed hair was yellow, long, and frowzy.

With the basket on his arm he opened the farmyard gate and shouted to the cattle. The broad-horned oxen crowded themselves out into the road and walked briskly but sedately down the well-worn pathway towards their accustomed pasture, the mild-eyed milk cows followed, and the calves and yearlings hurried impatiently to the front.

The wife and mistress, she who had been the Maid of Beauty, was sitting in her chamber counting the days that must pass before her husband's return. She heard the tinkling of the bells and the hoarse discordant mooing of the beasts. She heard the shouts of the slave boy and the trampling of the younger cattle. She rose quickly and hurried to the door, waving her hand to Kullervo and calling to him in shrill, commanding tones:

"Have a care that you do your work well to-day, young man. Drive the milkers to the high meadows where the grass is green and sweet. Drive the oxen and the yearlings to the woodlands; let them browse among the bushes and lie down in shady places. See that you guard them all to keep them safe from wily wolves and lurking bears. Watch them well, and when the day is almost done, bring them home. Woe be to you if you leave one of them behind. Bring them home and drive the milkers into the paddock; then call loudly, and I will come down with the milkmaids to milk them. Do you hear, Kullervo?"

The slave boy growled a surly answer, and went slouching behind the herd, shouting to the laggers and casting stones at the browsing oxen.

slave boy


He drove the milk cows to the meadow pastures where the grass was tall and green, but the oxen and the younger cattle he allowed to wander as they would in the open fields or the marshy thickets. Then, at length, when all were peacefully feeding, he sat down upon a grassy hummock and looked around him, sad, lonely, vindictive. The autumn sun beamed hot upon his head, and the fresh sea breeze fanned his face and played in his yellow hair. The grasshoppers chirped at his feet and the crows scolded him harshly from the treetops. Kullervo looked and listened, but he saw nothing beautiful, he heard nothing musical. His heart was filled with dismal thoughts, and he loudly bewailed his wretched fate.

"Ah, me! ah, me! Wheresoever I go I am still a miserable slave and hard tasks are set for me to do. While others are happy and free I am forced to trudge unwillingly among briars and thorns, over hills and through marshes, watching the tails of hateful cattle. O Jumala, giver of good! Let the sun shine gently upon me, a wretched slave boy; but make it scorch and blister my master and my master's household. Turn their boasting into grief and their success into dire misfortune. So hear me, O Jumala, friend of the friendless!"

The noon hour came, the sun began its downward course. In the farmhouse the Smith's mother, Dame Lokka, was sitting in sweet content. On her right sat Anniki, the maid of the morning, and on her left was Ilmarinen's wife and mistress whom he had won in the far-off North Land. Joy beamed in every face and pulsed in every heart.

The table was spread and the mid-day meal was served—white bread fresh from the bake-oven, choice butter and yellow cream from the dairy, tid-bits of beef and smoked salmon. How good was everything!

"Praise be to Jumala for all these blessings!" said Dame Lokka, fervently.

"Praise be to Jumala!" echoed both the daughters.

Meanwhile the slave, Kullervo, was still sitting on his lonely hummock, keeping watch over the cattle and nursing his evil thoughts. The crows among the pines cawed loudly; the grasshoppers at his feet chirped mockingly.

"Wake up, sad slave boy! The day is past the noon," croaked an old crow.

And a thrush in the thicket of bushes sang, "O orphan boy, the luncheon hour has come! Take the fine cake from the basket where the old cook so kindly placed it. Eat it. Feast upon it and forget your sorrow."

Kullervo was hungry, for his breakfast had been light. He picked the oak leaves from the basket and took the round buttered cake in his hands. It was heavy, and he eyed it closely. He turned it over and examined the under side.

"It looks good, it smells sweet," he said. "But the handsomest of people are sometimes rotten at heart, and the handsomest of cakes are sometimes unfit to be eaten."

He took his hunting knife from the sheath that hung at his belt. It was but half a knife, the edge nicked deeply, the point broken off. But its temper was good, for it had been forged by a master smith in the days when men did honest work.

Kullervo cut through the upper crust of the cake, he cut through the wheaten layer at the top; but when the knife struck the stone in the centre it broke short off at the hilt and only the handle remained in his grasp. The slave looked at it, and as the blade fell to the ground he burst out weeping.

"Oh, sorrow upon sorrow!" he moaned. "This knife was my only friend. I had no one to love but this iron, so true, so ready to help. It was once my father's knife, and well it served him in the chase and in the fight. And now it is broken by this cake of stone which Ilmarinen's women have given me for food."

He picked up the broken blade and tried to fit it in the handle. It was vain; both blade and handle were useless. With a cry of despair he flung them far from him; with a cry of wrath he threw the stone-filled cake still farther, and it fell with a thud among the bushes. Then up flew a pair of ravens, one lighting upon a blasted pine and one taking shelter in a grove of oaks.

"Caw! caw!" cried the one in the pine. "What can ail the wretched slave boy?"

"He is angry," answered the other. "His mistress has treated him badly. She has given him a stone for bread."

"It is thus that the rich feed the poor," said the one in the pine. "But what will the slave do about it?"

"If he is wise he will pay them well for their cruel jest," cawed the one in the oak. "He will seek revenge, he will have it. Caw! caw! caw!"

Kullervo leaped up and stood upon the hummock. He stretched out his arms and shook his clenched fists in the face of the sky.

"Hear me, Jumala!" he cried. "O Jumala, friend of the friendless, help me. I will have revenge. I will pay those women well for the sorrow they have made me feel. The slave will whip the master, and the master shall serve the slave."

All the savagery that had been lurking in his blue eyes burst forth, as lightning bursts from the drifting clouds. He ran to the woody thicket and broke off a long branch of hemlock to serve him as a whip. Slashing it this way and that, he rushed hither and thither collecting his herd. With great ado he drove the lazy milkers far into the savage woods. He gathered the yearlings together and, after much shouting and cursing, chased them into the tangled thickets where the wild beasts had their lairs.

Out of the shady places wolves leaped up, howling, snarling, snapping their teeth. The bears were roused from their lurking holes and came forth growling, their tongues lolling out. The gentle milk cows, the timid yearlings, even the stolid oxen, were overcome with fear. They ran together in groups, trembling and helpless. Instantly the wild beasts leaped upon them with bared claws and gnashing teeth. If any escaped the wolves, they were seized by the bears; if any fled from the bears, they were devoured by the wolves. The whole herd perished.

From a safe seat in the crotch of a pine the slave boy looked on and watched the slaughter; and he laughed a wild, discordant, triumphant laugh. Then, clapping his hands together and knocking his knees against the trunk of the tree, he began to sing. He sang a wild, strange song of enchantment—a song he had learned from a witch woman in the land of mists and shadows. And as he sang, behold, a wonderful thing occurred: all the wolves so lately feasting were changed into sleek, fat yearlings, and all the bears so lately gorging themselves became fine milk cows with mild, soft eyes and pendent udders.

The slave boy descended from the tree, still singing, still shouting, still working the magic spell. The beasts with one accord looked up to him as their master. One after another, they marched slowly and orderly out of the marshes and out of the woods, the false milk cows going foremost calmly chewing their cuds, and the false yearlings gambolling behind. The sun was now well down towards the western hills, and the evening milking time was nigh at hand.

Homeward, over the hills and along the well-known pathways, the slave boy drove his herd. With noiseless steps he ran among the beasts, breathing words of magic, words of cunning in their ears.

"Spare not the mistress when she comes out to milk you," he whispered to one.

"Seize the maidens when they come with pails to milk you," he said to others.

"Seek the old cook in the kitchen and remind her of her cake," he muttered to still another.

"Be bold, be fierce, be very hungry," he counselled them all.

The sun was still above the hills when he drove the herd into the farmyard. He put the milkers inside the paddock, the yearlings following after. Then he closed the gate without locking it and climbed up on the fence. From his belt he unloosed his herdsman's whistle, a whistle carved from an ox's horn; he put it to his lips and blew it loudly, shrilly. It was the signal by which the mistress and her milkmaids would know that the cows had been brought home and were ready for the milking.

Five times—yes, six—Kullervo blew a long, piercing blast which might have been heard half-way across the sea. Then, as the last echoes died, he leaped nimbly to the ground and ran out of the farmyard. Half crouching, he slunk away behind hedges and bushes until his ungainly form was lost to sight among the evening shadows. Never more would his feet cross the threshold of Ilmarinen's dwelling.