Contributed by Marilyn McPhie
It was late in the afternoon on the last day of the year, when a man trudged through the snow into a small village in the highlands of Scotland. He was shabbily dressed in an old coat and a ragged hat and gloves, and he walked with a slow, tired step. He stopped at a large house at the edge of the village. It was the grand house of the local laird – or rather, the laird’s widow and the richest woman in the village. Althouu The man knocked at the door and waited.
The door was opened just a crack, and a sharp-faced woman frowned at what she saw. “Begone,” she said, “We have nothing for beggars here.” And she shut the door.
The man turned and made his way down the path to the next house – this one much smaller, with a single lighted candle in the window. Hesitantly, he knocked. The door was opened, and there he saw a rosy-cheeked woman with three small children clinging to her skirts. Not waiting for him to say a word, she exclaimed, “Oh, do come inside. You must be cold.”
The man gratefully stepped inside. “We were just sitting down to supper. We don’t have much, but we’re glad to share.” And another place was set at the rough-hewn wooden table. Supper was simple – a thin stew and bread. Nothing more.
Then the woman said, “It’s dark and cold now. You must stay the night.” She brought out a few blankets and fixed a space in the corner of the room. The next morning, there was porridge for breakfast – nothing more, and again the woman offered the man a place to stay for a day or two more. The children clambered in agreement, for at bedtime the night before, the stranger had told them stories of enchantment and magical creatures. But the man said that he had to be off.
“I’d like to pay you something for the food and lodging,” he said, and he reached into his pocket. “Oh, I couldn’t take money from you – not on New Year’s Day especially.”
“Well then at least take this small memento – with my blessing that whatever you begin today will continue all day long.” And he pulled out of his pocket a small, smooth, white stone. He laid it down on the table.
And with that, he was gone.
The woman waved and smiled – and then set about the day’s tasks. The first thing she did was churn the butter. She had milked the cow before dawn. New Year’s Day was no different from any other day for a cow. The cow always needed milking first thing. And churning the butter followed.
So the woman set about churning, and after a time, she removed the butter from the churn, placing it in the stoneware crocks. But when she went to clean the churn, she discovered to her surprise that there was more cream to be churned. More cream, more churning, more butter. More cream, more churning, more butter. And that repeated. Now she remembered the stranger’s blessing, and indeed what she had begun, she had continued all day long.
Now she had butter for her family – a great luxury – and plenty to sell and trade in the market. So much butter, that she made more money than she had ever imagined for a day’s work.
In the days and weeks that followed, the New Year’s Day butter bonanza did not repeat – exactly, but every day’s churning was surely more bountiful than expected, and bit by bit, the family prospered.
Of course, the other townsfolk noticed, and the woman told them truthfully about the stranger who had appeared on New Year’s Day – his gift and blessing. When the laird’s widow heard that, she remembered the man and cursed her ill fortune that she had turned him away.
“If I have another chance, I’ll be ready,” she told herself, and when a year was gone and it was the last day of that year, she WAS ready.
Again, the shabby stranger walked through the village. He would not have even paused at the laird’s house this time, but the rich woman had been waiting and watching for him. As he came up the path, she threw open the door and ran outside.
“Oh, my,” she exclaimed. “You must be very weary. Please come inside.” And she practically shoved the man into her house. There the table was set beautifully with platters and bowls and tureens filled with food – the finest, richest, most luxurious food available. When the man had eaten his fill, the rich woman said, “You must stay the night.” Not waiting for a response, she showed him to a guest room with a bed piled high with the finest wool blankets and the softest down pillows. In the morning, the breakfast was as grand as the supper had been the night before.
Before the stranger could say anything, the woman announced, “I could not accept money from you for the food and lodging, but if you have a small token and a blessing, I’d take that.”
Still saying nothing, the man pulled a small, smooth stone out of his pocket. The woman reached out to grab it. “And a blessing?” “Whatever you begin this morning will continue for the day.”
Now that she had what she wanted, the woman practically shoved the stranger out the door with a curt “Good-bye.”
She could hardly wait to begin what she’d been planning for months, which was getting richer. She had set out on the table in the library a large silver box and six gold coins. She planned to count the money over and over all day long, and she figured that before night, the large silver box would be filled with gold coins.
She sat down in the chair by the library table. She made sure she had the coins to count and the silver box to hold them. But as she opened the lid of the box, she noticed that the silver was tarnished. “This will never do for all my money,” she thought, and getting a cloth, she began to polish the silver. And she rubbed and polished until the tarnish was gone, but as she started to put down the cloth and begin counting the money, she found that the silver box appeared tarnished again, and she felt compelled to keep polishing. And polishing. And polishing. And this continued all day long. When night fell, she still had the six gold coins – and a very shiny silver box.
And that was that – although as the days and weeks passed, the rich woman sometimes again felt an inexplicable urge to polish the silver box again and again and again.
So the poor, kind woman’s generosity had made her – if not exactly rich – at least somewhat prosperous. Her butter was the finest, creamiest, richest for miles around, and it was much in demand.
As for the rich, stingy woman – well, she was still rich, if not as rich as she had wished and planned to be. Was she happy? I don’t know, but I can tell you that everyone did say that her silver was always very, very shiny.