IN THE days when St. Peter walked about on earth he came late one evening to a large farm, and asked for shelter for the night. The master was not at home, but his wife was sitting all alone; and although she was very rich and had an abundance of everything one could wish, she was niggardly beyond all belief. She could not give him shelter--was it likely she could?--and what should she give him to eat, and where should she put him? No, he would have to try somewhere else, she said; and, as there was no help for it, so he did.
When he had gone a little way he came to a small cottage, where there lived a poor widow, who struggled and toiled at spinning and weaving in order to scrape together a little food for herself and her children. St. Peter went into the parlour and told her his errand. The woman said, what was only too true, that she had little either of money or of food, but the little she had she would willingly share with him, since he had to go from house to house and beg for scraps of food--for she did not know it was St. Peter, nor did he say anything about it himself either.
So he got permission to stop there for the night, and he was quite welcome to what she could give him to eat. Early next morning he thanked her for her kindness and got ready to go.
"I have no money to pay you with," he said; "but what I can give I will give you. The first thing you do to-day you shall be doing all the day," he said.
The woman could not understand what he meant by this; but as soon as he was gone she took her yard-measure, for she had finished a piece of weaving and was going to take it off the loom in the evening, as she wanted to know how long it was.
She began to measure and to count, and she got to seventy, eighty, ninety and one hundred; but it was the most remarkable piece of cloth she had ever seen, for the more she measured the longer it became. The whole room became full of it, so that she had to go into the passage, but still there was no end to the piece.
The passage, too, became filled, so she had to go out on the grass. She measured and measured, but still the cloth grew longer, much longer than she could measure. She would not give in, but kept unceasingly at it the whole day. Towards evening the rich farmer's wife came past the cottage, and when she saw what the widow was doing she stopped all at once and wondered greatly at what she saw, for such a piece of weaving no human being had surely ever seen.
"What in all the world are you doing?" she asked.
"Twenty-three, twenty-four, twenty-five! Measuring a piece of weaving," said the widow. She was far on in the thirteenth hundred.
"Where in all the world have you got such a long piece from?" asked the woman.
"Twelve and twenty, thirteen and twenty, nineteen and twenty," said the widow--she had lost count, but still she kept on measuring. "Yes, you may well ask that," she said, and went on measuring. "A man came here last night and got a night's lodging, and when he left here this morning he said that the first thing I began with I should be doing the whole day; and now I have been measuring this cloth, which seems never to come to an end."
"Oh dear! oh dear! How stupid I was! How terribly stupid I was to let him go!" said the farmer's wife; "for he came to our place also, you must know. But, my dear, if he should ever come this way again and look in upon you you might send him to me, since you have been so lucky," she said.
Yes, that she would be glad to do, said the widow. She wished other people might be just as fortunate as she herself had been, although she had nothing to thank the farmer's wife for.
Of course, the widow could not use all the cloth herself, so she went to some of her neighbours to hire some oxen to cart it to town; and, just fancy, the cloth filled three cart-loads! Such a quantity of cloth had never been seen in one day in the market place; but she got rid of every yard for all that, and returned home with so much money that she had no longer any need to trouble about clothes and food.
But the rich farmer's wife went home and began to bustle about and get things ready, so that she should be able to treat the stranger in good style if he should come back to her; but she knew no more than the widow that the stranger was St. Peter.
She went about in great expectation, and dared scarcely go out of the room, so afraid was she that he should come in her absence and that she should miss him. She had bought a very fine piece of cloth and placed it on the loom, and the measure was lying on the top of it, so she was fully prepared for him; but day after day passed and week after week, and she grew angry and impatient because he was such a silly fellow not to have the sense to find his way there.
Late one evening there was a knock at the door.
The woman went out into the passage and pulled back the bolt. It was St. Peter, who asked for shelter for the night. Yes, that he should have, sure enough; and the woman curtseyed and behaved in a way that was quite ridiculous.
She then put the best she had on the table, so that he should be quite satisfied. In the morning he thanked her for her kindness and the good food, and prepared to go.
"Just one word, my good man," said the woman; "when you got shelter at my neighbour's some time ago you gave her a promise, and you might as well give me one," she said, and curtseyed and made herself most agreeable and pleasant.
"What promise might that be?" asked St. Peter.
"Well, you said that whatever she began with she should be doing all the day," said the woman.
"Would you also like that?" said St. Peter.
"Should I like it? Why, my good man, of course, I should," said the woman. "I have the measure in my hand and the cloth handy."
"Well, I suppose I must do the same for you as for her then," said St. Peter; "so the first thing you do when I am gone you shall be doing the whole day. But, whatever you do, think it well over first," he said.
The woman curtseyed and thanked him, and was very happy and contented.
"Now I shall measure so much cloth that I shall have more than the poor body over yonder," she thought; and turned round and went back into the room.
Suddenly she remembered she ought to have drawn some water from the pump for her kettle, so that she could go on measuring the cloth without being disturbed. So she went to the pump and began to draw the water; but as this was the first thing she did after St. Peter was gone, there was no help for it--she must go on pumping water the whole day. The water came rushing out of the pump and ran all over the yard. It rose higher and higher as the hours crept by, and the woman began to shout and cry for help; but no one came to her assistance, and probably no one could have helped her either. When the sun was about to set the water had reached up to her chin. She was now quite exhausted, and all of a sudden she sank back into the water and was drowned. The yard measure and the cloth floated about on the water, and they may be floating there still for all I know.