Once upon a time there lived a very rich King whose name was Midas, and he had a little daughter whom he loved very dearly. This King was fonder of gold than of anything else in the whole world: or if he did love anything better, it was the one little daughter who played so merrily beside her father’s footstool.
But the more Midas loved his daughter, the more he wished to be rich for her sake. He thought, foolish man, that the best thing he could do for his child was to leave her the biggest pile of yellow glittering gold that had ever been heaped together since the world began. So he gave all his thoughts and all his time to this purpose.
When he worked in his garden, he used to wish that the roses had leaves made of gold, and once when his little daughter brought him a handful of yellow buttercups, he exclaimed, “Now if these had only been real gold they would have been worth gathering.” He very soon forgot how beautiful the flowers, and the grass, and the trees were, and at the time my story begins Midas could scarcely bear to see or to touch anything that was not made of gold.
Every day he used to spend a great many hours in a dark, ugly room underground: it was here that he kept all his money, and whenever Midas wanted to be very happy he would lock himself into this miserable room and would spend hours and hours pouring the glittering coins out of his money-bags. Or he would count again and again the bars of gold which were kept in a big oak chest with a great iron lock in the lid, and sometimes he would carry a boxful of gold dust from the dark corner where it lay, and would look at the shining heap by the light that came from a tiny window.
To his greedy eyes there never seemed to be half enough; he was quite discontented. “What a happy man I should be,” he said one day, “if only the whole world could be made of gold, and if it all belonged to me!”
Just then a shadow fell across the golden pile, and when Midas looked up he saw a young man with a cheery rosy face standing in the thin strip of sunshine that came through the little window. Midas was certain that he had carefully locked the door before he opened his money-bags, so he knew that no one, unless he were more than a mortal, could get in beside him. The stranger seemed so friendly and pleasant that Midas was not in the least afraid.
“You are a rich man, friend Midas,” the visitor said. “I doubt if any other room in the whole world has as much gold in it as this.”
“May be,” said Midas in a discontented voice, “but I wish it were much more; and think how many years it has taken me to gather it all! If only I could live for a thousand years, then I might be really rich.
“Then you are not satisfied?” asked the stranger. Midas shook his head.
“What would satisfy you?” the stranger said.
Midas looked at his visitor for a minute, and then said, “I am tired of getting money with so much trouble. I should like everything I touch to be changed into gold.”
The stranger smiled, and his smile seemed to fill the room like a flood of sunshine. “Are you quite sure, Midas, that you would never be sorry if your wish were granted?” he asked.
“Quite sure,” said Midas: “I ask nothing more to make me perfectly happy.”
“Be it as you wish, then,” said the stranger: “from to-morrow at sunrise you will have your desire—everything you touch will be changed into gold.”
The figure of the stranger then grew brighter and brighter, so that Midas had to close his eyes, and when he opened them again he saw only a yellow sunbeam in the room, and all around him glittered the precious gold which he had spent his life in gathering.
How Midas longed for the next day to come! He scarcely slept that night, and as soon as it was light he laid his hand on the chair beside his bed; then he nearly cried when he saw that nothing happened: the chair remained just as it was. “Could the stranger have made a mistake,” he wondered, “or had it been a dream?”
He lay still, getting angrier and angrier each minute until at last the sun rose, and the first rays shone through his window and brightened the room. It seemed to Midas that the bright yellow sunbeam was reflected very curiously from the covering of his bed, and he sat up and looked more closely.
What was his delight when he saw that the bedcover on which his hands rested had become a woven cloth of the purest and brightest gold! He started up and caught hold of the bed-post—instantly it became a golden pillar. He pulled aside the window-curtain and the tassel grew heavy in his hand—it was a mass of gold! He took up a book from the table, and at his first touch it became a bundle of thin golden leaves, in which no reading could be seen.
Midas was delighted with his good fortune. He took his spectacles from his pocket and put them on, so that he might see more distinctly what he was about. But to his surprise he could not possibly see through them: the clear glasses had turned into gold, and, of course, though they were worth a great deal of money, they were of no more use as spectacles.
Midas thought this was rather troublesome, but he soon forgot all about it. He went downstairs, and how he laughed with pleasure when he noticed that the railing became a bar of shining gold as he rested his hand on it; even the rusty iron latch of the garden door turned yellow as soon as his fingers pressed it.
How lovely the garden was! In the old days Midas had been very fond of flowers, and had spent a great deal of money in getting rare trees and flowers with which to make his garden beautiful.
Red roses in full bloom scented the air: purple and white violets nestled under the rose-bushes, and birds were singing happily in the cherry-trees, which were covered with snow-white blossoms. But since Midas had become so fond of gold he had lost all pleasure in his garden: this morning he did not even see how beautiful it was.
He was thinking of nothing but the wonderful gift the stranger had brought him, and he was sure he could make the garden of far more value than it had ever been. So he went from bush to bush and touched the flowers. And the beautiful pink and red color faded from the roses: the violets became stiff, and then glittered among bunches of hard yellow leaves: and showers of snow-white blossoms no longer fell from the cherry-trees; the tiny petals were all changed into flakes of solid gold, which glittered so brightly in the sunbeams that Midas could not bear to look at them.
But he was quite satisfied with his morning’s work, and went back to the palace for breakfast feeling very happy.
Just then he heard his little daughter crying bitterly, and she came running into the room sobbing as if her heart would break. “How now, little lady,” he said, “pray what is the matter with you this morning?”
“Oh dear, oh dear, such a dreadful thing has happened!” answered the child. “I went to the garden to gather you some roses, and they are all spoiled; they have grown quite ugly, and stiff, and yellow, and they have no scent. What can be the matter?” and she cried bitterly.
Midas was ashamed to confess that he was to blame, so he said nothing, and they sat down at the table. The King was very hungry, and he poured out a cup of coffee and helped himself to some fish, but the instant his lips touched the coffee it became the color of gold, and the next moment it hardened into a solid lump. “Oh dear me!” exclaimed the King, rather surprised.
“What is the matter, father?” asked his little daughter.
“Nothing, child, nothing,” he answered; “eat your bread and milk before it gets cold.”
Then he looked at the nice little fish on his plate, and he gently touched its tail with his finger. To his horror it at once changed into gold. He took one of the delicious hot cakes, and he had scarcely broken it when the white flour changed into yellow crumbs which shone like grains of hard sea-sand.
“I do not see how I am going to get any breakfast,” he said to himself, and he looked with envy at his little daughter, who had dried her tears and was eating her bread and milk hungrily. “I wonder if it will be the same at dinner,” he thought, “and if so, how am I going to live if all my food is to be turned into gold?”
Midas began to get very anxious and to think about many things he had never thought of before. Here was the very richest breakfast that could be set before a King, and yet there was nothing that he could eat! The poorest workman sitting down to a crust of bread and a cup of water was better off than King Midas, whose dainty food was worth its weight in gold.
He began to doubt whether, after all, riches were the only good thing in the world, and he was so hungry that he gave a groan.
His little daughter noticed that her father ate nothing, and at first she sat still looking at him and trying to find out what was the matter. Then she got down from her chair, and running to her father, she threw her arms lovingly round his knees.
Midas bent down and kissed her. He felt that his little daughter’s love was a thousand times more precious than all the gold he had gained since the stranger came to visit him. “My precious, precious little girl!” he said, but there was no answer.
Alas! what had he done? The moment that his lips had touched his child’s forehead, a change took place. Her sweet, rosy face, so full of love and happiness, hardened and became a glittering yellow color; her beautiful brown curls hung like wires of gold from the small head, and her soft, tender little figure grew stiff in his arms.
Midas had often said to people that his little daughter was worth her weight in gold, and it had become really true. Now when it was too late, he felt how much more precious was the warm tender heart that loved him than all the gold that could be piled up between the earth and sky.
He began to wring his hands and to wish that he was the poorest man in the wide world, if the loss of all his money might bring back the rosy color to his dear child’s face.
While he was in despair he suddenly saw a stranger standing near the door, the same visitor he had seen yesterday for the first time in his treasure-room, and who had granted his wish.
“Well, friend Midas,” he said, “pray how are you enjoying your new power?”
Midas shook his head. “I am very miserable,” he said.
“Very miserable, are you?” exclaimed the stranger. “And how does that happen: have I not faithfully kept my promise; have you not everything that your heart desired?”
“Gold is not everything,” answered Midas, “and I have lost all that my heart really cared for.”
“Ah!” said the stranger, “I see you have made some discoveries since yesterday. Tell me truly, which of these things do you really think is most worth—a cup of clear cold water and a crust of bread, or the power of turning everything you touch into gold; your own little daughter, alive and loving, or that solid statue of a child which would be valued at thousands of dollars?”
“O my child, my child!” sobbed Midas, wringing his hands. “I would not have given one of her curls for the power of changing all the world into gold, and I would give all I possess for a cup of cold water and a crust of bread.”
“You are wiser than you were, King Midas,” said the stranger. “Tell me, do you really wish to get rid of your fatal gift?”
“Yes,” said Midas, “it is hateful to me.”
“Go then,” said the stranger, “and plunge into the river that flows at the bottom of the garden: take also a pitcher of the same water, and sprinkle it over anything that you wish to change back again from gold to its former substance.”
King Midas bowed low, and when he lifted his head the stranger was nowhere to be seen.
You may easily believe that King Midas lost no time in getting a big pitcher, then he ran towards the river. On reaching the water he jumped in without even waiting to take off his shoes. “How delightful!” he said, as he came out with his hair all dripping, “this is really a most refreshing bath, and surely it must have washed away the magic gift.”
Then he dipped the pitcher into the water, and how glad he was to see that it became just a common earthen pitcher and not a golden one as it had been five minutes before! He was conscious, also of a change in himself: a cold, heavy weight seemed to have gone, and he felt light, and happy, and human once more. Maybe his heart had been changing into gold too, though he could not see it, and now it had softened again and become gentle and kind.
Midas hurried back to the palace with the pitcher of water, and the first thing he did was to sprinkle it by handfuls all over the golden figure of his little daughter. You would have laughed to see how the rosy color came back to her cheeks, and how she began to sneeze and choke, and how surprised she was to find herself dripping wet and her father still throwing water over her.
You see she did not know that she had been a little golden statue, for she could not remember anything from the moment when she ran to kiss her father.
King Midas then led his daughter into the garden, where he sprinkled all the rest of the water over the rose-bushes, and the grass, and the trees; and in a minute they were blooming as freshly as ever, and the air was laden with the scent of the flowers.
There were two things left, which, as long as he lived, used to remind King Midas of the stranger’s fatal gift. One was that the sands at the bottom of the river always sparkled like grains of gold: and the other, that his little daughter’s curls were no longer brown. They had a golden tinge which had not been there before that miserable day when he had received the fatal gift, and when his kiss had changed them into gold.