Once upon a time a little girl sat at a desk in a school in a small, old city and listened as her teacher told a story about a wealthy merchant who lived in the most distant outharbour in the land. This merchant had a handsome, loving wife and three clever, accomplished daughters and he was as happy as a man could be. His clapboard castle sat on a hillside overlooking his wharves, and at the top of it was a room with windows on all sides from which he could watch everything that went on around him. He could see the women stacking hay and making fish, and the men cutting wood and making barrels, and he could see his schooners sail out with thousands of kintles of Number One Spanish Choice, and sail in with all the treasures of the world. From there he could hear his wife making soup in the kitchen, and he could hear his daughters singing in the dairy and the laundry and the parlour, and he could hear the hollow boom of the coopers’ hammers rolling out over the water.
But one day his wife felt ill, and the next day she took to her bed and within a week she had died and was buried in the cold ground and his happiness was diminished immeasurably. However, he consoled himself with the company of his daughters and took to counting his property. Sitting in his high room he opened a large ledger and wrote down everything he owned: the fields of potatoes across the harbour, the sheep in the meadow behind his house, the flowers and beans and herbs in the garden inside his fence, the schooners in the harbour and the barrels in the stores and the house itself. Each and every item he owned was written down and assigned a value and when he was unhappy, as he often was, he added up the total and reminded himself that he was a man of some substance.
One morning as he was thus occupied, a thought came to him. There was something he had that he had not taken into account, and that was the love of his daughters. So he called all three of them to him and opened his ledger and, addressing his eldest daughter, he asked her how much she loved him. His eldest daughter was a thoughtful girl and anxious to please her father, so she pointed to the high mountain behind the house and said that her love for him was as high as that mountain. Her father sent his men out to measure the mountain and using a sextant they calculated the exact height of the mountain, and they reported it to the merchant and that is what he wrote in his ledger.
Next he asked his middle daughter how much she loved him, and the girl, who was a little timid, looked out at the tickle that ran between her father’s wharves and the outer islands and said that her love for him was as deep as the strait that lay beyond the harbour. Her father then sent one of his captains out with a sounding lead to measure the tickle and when he learned the depth of the water he entered that into his ledger.
Then he asked his third daughter, the youngest of the three, how much she loved him, and the girl looked at him sadly and said she loved him as much as soup loves salt. But there was no way to measure this answer, so the mad old man closed his ledger in anger and led his child to the door of his house and turned her out. She stood on the stoop for a moment, thinking what she might do and then without looking back, she marched quickly down the path, past the stores and flakes, and into the woods, not once looking up to see if her father was watching her from the windows of the high room.