THERE was once a bishop at Skalholt who was extremely harsh and merciless to his stewards. Unwillingly, therefore, they lived with him, and left him dishonoured. Many wished evil to the bishop for his harshness, and prayed that the Devil himself might come to him in their stead; and at last it fell out that the bishop, being in want of a steward, was at a loss to get one.
Then came there a man to him, elderly, red-haired, and broad-shouldered, offering his services as a steward. This offer the bishop accepted, the more gladly as he was in so great a strait.
The man had nought to say concerning his wages, but that the matter would rest till he left. Nor did he tell the bishop anything of his family and descent, nor mentioned whence he came ; saying that this was of no consequence, inasmuch as all the bishop wanted to know was how he performed his duties.
He now took charge of the household concerns, and for a while it was clear that the bishop was satisfied.
In the same parish there dwelt an old peasant, an acquaintance of the bishop, skilled in the ancient arts; and the relations between this farmer and the steward soon waxed unfriendly.
Once the farmer had an interview with the bishop, in order to inform him that he strongly feared his steward would prove no gain to him at last. He asked the bishop; furtherrnore, wherefore he never chid the man ; for that he always entered the church after the Gospel was read, and left it before the blessing was pronounced upon the people.
The bishop answered that he had never taken heed of thus. But when he found that the farmer's words were true, he chid his steward, who gave back a peevish and wrathful answer, and said that he had so many things to taks care of, that it would ill suit him to lounge about in church a needlessly long while : said too, that he would have his own will as to the time he spent in church, or else would speedily take his leave.
Hereat the bishop's anger calmed down. And now for six years more did the steward continue to serve him.
Nothing of note meanwhile came to pass.
But at the end of this time the steward was hated by all men, save alone the bishop; although his patience was nearly worn out by the man's violent and headstrong temper and behaviour.
In the middle of the Easter-night the old farmer, who had formerly spoken to his Reverence about his steward, came to Skalholt, and stole on the sly up to the church, yard, where he watched three men moving round about the church, of whom the steward was one. He saw that they were casting ropes and cables over the church at the command of the steward; wherefrom the farmer judged that the others were his servants. Both were ugly and rascally-looking fellows.
When they had corded the church as much as they thought fit, the farmer heard the steward say that tomorrow, when he came out of the church, they should stand one at each side of it, ready to pull the ropes, while he himself would stand at the door looking after his own rope; and by this plan they would be sure to sink the church, with all the people therein.
When the farmer saw their preparations, and knew what plot lurked in them against the bishop and his flock, he stole away alone from the churchyard, up to the house, and going into the bishop's bedroom, roused him, and told him what fate awaited him on the morrow.
This unlooked-for news put the bishop out of countenance, but the farmer deemed redelessness the worst policy in this strait. He told the bishop to watch all the rest of the night, and prepare himself for preaching the sermon the next day, minding that it were a hard one.
"But I," said the farmer, "will sit on the corner bench, and if it should happen that the steward meet with some hindrance from me as he goes out, then watch well, and pronounce at once your blessing from the pulpit, and this will, by God's grace, suffice."
Now the bishop did as the farmer bade him, and when the peal of bells told out the worship to the people the farmer went to the church, took forth his pocket-knife and cut cross-marks upon the church, in sundry places. None but himself knew wherefore he did this; but he hereby cut the ropes which the steward had girt about it in the night.
The bishop mounted the pulpit, and, after the Gospel was read, the steward entered the church. In a mighty bustle he came in, and fiendish he looked, and much struck he was that the bishop had mounted the pulpit, already.
The bishop seeing him enter, preached with great force and inspiration. No man's child in the church listened to the preacher without tears; but the steward was now pale as death, and now black and gloomy as soot, and as the sermon approached its end, he jumped up, in order to go out. The farmer stood up from his corner and moved against the door, telling the steward that he had no need to hurry, and that it would be as well for him, by way of a change, to await the out-giving of the blessing. Thereat the steward became violent, and would thrust the farmer away from the door, but with no avail.
The bishop seeing what was going on, pronounced at once the blessing with uplifted hands; and, at the same moment, the steward began to sink into the earth.
Now the farmer had in his bosom the book of the Psalms of David; this he took forth, and dealt the steward a goodly blow therewith on the crown, and, at the last syllable of the benediction, the skull of the Devil-steward vanished into the ground, under the repeated psalm-thumps of the old farmer.
After this the bishop began a good sermon of thanks, giving for this manifest salvation of himself and of his flock, from the vile plot and plan of the devil; and became, thenceforth, the best of masters to his stewards.