Contributed by Marilyn McPhie
Dan Brown didn’t own the land he farmed. He leased it from a landlord he’d never met. Dan’s dealings were only with the land agent. Dan and his wife had lived on the land for more than twenty years, and things had been good. He kept the wee house in good repair, and made sure that it was freshly whitewashed each year. He took care with the land, and he was always on time with the quarterly rent.
But one year the winter was harsh. Dan had to buy more firewood than usual to keep the house warm. And a late snow ruined the crops, so he had to get more seeds for planting. When the end of the quarter came, he didn’t have enough to pay the rent. He didn’t know what he would do, but his wife said that he should explain the circumstances to the land agent and surely, he’d be given an extension to give him a chance to get the money. Dan said that he doubted that it would do any good, but he promised his wife that he’d give it a try.
When the land agent came to collect, Dan told him that he didn’t have the full amount to pay the rent. He explained about the harsh winter, the extra seeds, everything.
The agent said, “Well, I know it’s been a bad year, Dan. I’ll talk to the landlord about it, but I can’t promise anything. A deadline is a deadline. If he gives you more time, pretty soon everyone will be asking for concessions. I’ll talk to him and let you know what he says.”
The land agent was as good as his word. When he told the landlord that Dan Brown had asked for more time to come up with the quarterly rent, the landlord was concerned. “A deadline is a deadline,” he said, “and if I’m soft on Brown, everyone will want more time. I can’t have that.”
“That’s what I told him,” said the land agent, “but couldn’t you figure out some way to help him out? Dan and his wife have been good tenants these twenty years. And you don’t want the tenants to think you’re mean and hardhearted, do you?”
“I don’t,” said the landlord. “I see what you mean. Here’s what I’ll do. Have Brown come to me in person., and I’ll give him a test. I’ll ask him three questions, and if he can answer them, I’ll forgive him the quarterly rent. And to make sure he has a fair chance, I’ll tell you now what the questions are so that he can figure out his answers. Here’s what I’ll ask. How much does the moon weigh? How many stars are in the sky? And finally, what am I thinking? Tell him the questions and tell him I’ll be expecting him here tomorrow afternoon.”
The land agent went back to Dan and told him the good news. The landlord was willing to forgive the quarter’s rent if he came there the next afternoon and could provide the answers to three questions. He told him the questions and advised Jack to get his answers ready.
Dan was relieved that the landlord was willing to work with him – but he was worried about the answers to the questions. And the more he thought about it, the more worried he became. How could anyone know what the moon weighed? And who could possibly count the numbers of stars in the sky? And then Dan thought that half the time he didn’t even know what he himself was thinking. How could he even guess at what the landlord was thinking?
The more he thought about the questions, the more worried he became. Finally, Dan’s wife said, “Why don’t you go for a wee walk? That always makes you feel better.”
Dan couldn’t think of anything else to do, so he put on a jacket and set off across the field. And who should he meet but his friend Tom McNeil?
“Hello, Tom,” said Dan.
“Hello,” responded his friend. “But Dan, you look terrible. What is wrong?”
Dan explained everything – the lack of money for the rent, the offer the landlord made, the three impossible questions.
Tom asked, “Have you ever met the landlord yourself, Dan? Does he know what you look like?”
“I’ve never met him. I only have business with the land agent.”
“Great,” said Tom. “I tell you what I’ll do. I’ll go to see the landlord in your place and I’ll answer the questions for you.”
“That would surely be a relief,” said Dan. “I’m certain you will be able to answer the landlord’s questions better than I ever could.”
The next day, Tom McNeil went to meet the landlord. He was shown into the landlord’s study, and he said that he had come to answer the three questions.
“You may start,” said the landlord. “Good luck.”
“How much does the moon weigh?”
“It weighs a pound,” said Tom.
“What makes you think that?”
“When I go to the market, I buy a quarter of tea, a quarter of sugar, a quarter of butter, and a quarter of flour. That’s four quarters – a pound. If you look at the calendar, you’ll see that the moon has four quarters, too. A pound.”
“Well,” said the landlord, “I’m not sure, but, fine, I’ll give you that. Go on. How many stars are in the sky?”
“Nine thousand, nine hundred and ninety-nine,” said Tom confidently.
“How do you know that?” asked the landlord.
“You can check my number,” said Tom. “Just count them yourself.”
“All right, I’ll give you that as well,” said the landlord. “And now answer me this. What am I thinking?”
“Ah,” said Tom. “That’s easy. You’re thinking I’m Dan Brown, but I’m not. I’m Tom McNeil.”
And that’s how Dan Brown got the quarter’s rent free.