THE GOLDEN TOUCH
By Nathaniel Hawthorne
Once upon a time, there lived a very rich man, and a king besides, whose name was Midas; and he had a little daughter, whom nobody but myself ever heard of, and whose name I either never knew, or have entirely forgotten. So, because I love odd names for little girls, I choose to call her Marygold.
This King Midas was fonder of gold than of anything else in the world. He valued his royal crown chiefly because it was composed of that precious metal. If he loved anything better, or half so well, it was the one little maiden who played so merrily around her father’s footstool. But the more Midas loved his daughter, the more did he desire and seek for wealth. He thought, foolish man! that the best thing he could possibly do for this dear child would be to bequeath her the largest pile of glistening coin that had ever been heaped together since the world was made.
Thus he gave all his thoughts and all his time to this one purpose. If ever he happened to gaze for an instant at the gold-tinted clouds of sunset, he wished that they were real gold, and that they could be squeezed safely into his strong box. When little Marygold ran to meet him, with a bunch of buttercups and dandelions, he used to say, “Pooh, pooh, child! If these flowers were as golden as they look, they would be worth the plucking!”
At length (as people always grow more and more foolish, unless they take care to grow wiser and wiser) Midas had got to be so exceedingly unreasonable, that he could scarcely bear to see or touch any object that was not gold. He made it his custom, therefore, to pass a large portion of every day in a dark and dreary apartment, under ground, at the basement of his palace. It was here that he kept his wealth. To this dismal hole—for it was little better than a dungeon—Midas betook himself, whenever he wanted to be particularly happy.
Here, after carefully locking the door, he would take a bag of gold coin, or a gold cup as big as a washbowl, or a heavy golden bar, or a peck measure of gold dust, and bring them from the obscure corners of the room into the one bright and narrow sunbeam that fell from the dungeonlike window. He valued the sunbeam for no other reason but that his treasure would not shine without its help.
And then would he reckon over the coins in the bag; toss up the bar, and catch it as it came down; sift the gold dust through his fingers;` look at the funny image of his own face, as reflected in the burnished circumference of the cup; and whisper to himself, “O Midas, rich King Midas, what a happy man art thou!”
Midas was enjoying himself in his treasure room, one day, as usual, when he perceived a shadow fall over the heaps of gold; and, looking up, he beheld the figure of a stranger, standing in the bright and narrow sunbeam! It was a young man, with a cheerful and ruddy face.
Whether it was that the imagination of King Midas threw a yellow tinge over everything, or whatever the cause might be, he could not help fancying that the smile with which the stranger regarded him had a kind of golden brightness in it. Certainly, there was now a brighter gleam upon all the piled-up treasures than before. Even the remotest corners had their share of it, and were lighted up, when the stranger smiled, as with tips of flame and sparkles of fire.
As Midas knew that he had carefully turned the key in the lock, and that no mortal strength could possibly break into his treasure room, he, of course, concluded that his visitor must be something more than mortal.
Midas had met such beings before now, and was not sorry to meet one of them again. The stranger’s aspect, indeed, was so good-humored and kindly, if not beneficent, that it would have been unreasonable to suspect him of intending any mischief. It was far more probable that he came to do Midas a favor. And what could that favor be, unless to multiply his heaps of treasure?
The stranger gazed about the room; and, when his lustrous smile had glistened upon all the golden objects that were there, he turned again to Midas.
“You are a wealthy man, friend Midas!” he observed. “I doubt whether any other four walls on earth contain so much gold as you have contrived to pile up in this room.”
“I have done pretty well,—pretty well,” answered Midas, in a discontented tone. “But, after all, it is but a trifle, when you consider that it has taken me my whole lifetime to get it together. If one could live a thousand years, he might have time to grow rich!”
“What!” exclaimed the stranger. “Then you are not satisfied?”
Midas shook his head.
“And pray, what would satisfy you?” asked the stranger. “Merely for the curiosity of the thing, I should be glad to know.”
Why did the stranger ask this question? Did he have it in his power to gratify the king’s wishes? It was an odd question, to say the least.
Midas paused and meditated. He felt sure that this stranger, with such a golden luster in his good-humored smile, had come hither with both the power and the purpose of gratifying his utmost wishes. Now, therefore, was the fortunate moment, when he had but to speak, and obtain whatever possible, or seemingly impossible thing, it might come into his head to ask. So he thought, and thought, and thought, and heaped up one golden mountain upon another, in his imagination, without being able to imagine them big enough.
At last a bright idea occurred to King Midas.
Raising his head, he looked the lustrous stranger in the face.
“Well, Midas,” observed his visitor, “I see that you have at length hit upon something that will satisfy you. Tell me your wish.”
“It is only this,” replied Midas. “I am weary of collecting my treasures with so much trouble, and beholding the heap so diminutive, after I have done my best. I wish everything that I touch to be changed to gold!”
The stranger’s smile grew so bright and radiant, that it seemed to fill the room like an outburst of the sun, gleaming into a shadowy dell, where the yellow autumnal leaves—for so looked the lumps and particles of gold—lie strewn in the glow of light.
“The Golden Touch!” exclaimed he. “You certainly deserve credit, friend Midas, for striking out so brilliant a fancy. But are you quite sure that this will satisfy you?”
“How could it fail?” said Midas.
“And will you never regret the possession of it?”
“What could induce me?” asked Midas. “I ask nothing else, to render me perfectly happy.”
“Be it as you wish, then,” replied the stranger, waving his hand in token of farewell. “To-morrow, at sunrise, you will find yourself gifted with the Golden Touch.”
The figure of the stranger then became exceedingly bright, and Midas involuntarily closed his eyes. On opening them again, he beheld only one yellow sunbeam in the room, and, all around him, the glistening of the precious metal which he had spent his life in hoarding up.
Whether Midas slept as usual that night, the story does not say. But when the earliest sunbeam shone through the window, and gilded the ceiling over his head, it seemed to him that this bright yellow sunbeam was reflected in rather a singular way on the white coverimg of the bed. Looking more closely, what was his astonishment and delight, when he found that this linen fabric had been transmuted to what seemed a woven texture of the purest and brightest gold! The Golden Touch had come to him with the first sunbeam!
Midas started up, in a kind of joyful frenzy, and ran about the room, grasping at everything that happened to be in his way. He seized one of the bedposts, and it became immediately a fluted golden pillar. He pulled aside a window curtain in order to admit a clear spectacle of the wonders which he was performing, and the tassel grew heavy in his hand, a mass of gold. He took up a book from the table; at his first touch, it assumed the appearance of such a splendidly bound and gilt-edged volume as one often meets with nowadays; but on running his fingers through the leaves, behold! it was a bundle of thin golden plates, in which all the wisdom of the book had grown illegible.
He hurriedly put on his clothes, and was enraptured to see himself in a magnificent suit of gold cloth, which retained its flexibility and softness,although it burdened him a little with its weight. He drew out his handkerchief, which little Marygold had hemmed for him; that was likewise gold, with the dear child’s neat and pretty stitches running all along the border, in gold thread!
Somehow or other, this last transformation did not quite please King Midas. He would rather that his little daughter’s handiwork should have remained just the same as when she climbed his knee and put it into his hand.
But it was not worth while to vex himself about a trifle. Midas took his spectacles from his pocket, and put them on his nose, in order that he might see more distinctly what he was about. In those days, spectacles for common people had not been invented, but were already worn by kings; else, how could Midas have had any? To his great perplexity; however, excellent as the glasses were, he discovered that he could not possibly see through them. But this was the most natural thing in the world; for, on taking them off, the transparent crystals turned out to be plates of yellow metal, and, of course, were worthless as spectacles, though valuable as gold. It struck Midas as rather inconvenient, that, with all his wealth, he could never again be rich enough to own a pair of serviceable spectacles.
“It is no great matter, nevertheless,” said he to himself, very philosophically. “We cannot expect any great good, without its being accompanied with some small inconvenience. The Golden Touch is worth the sacrifice of a pair of spectacles at least, if not of one’s very eyesight. My own eyes will serve for ordinary purposes, and little Marygold will soon be old enough to read to me.”
Wise King Midas was so exalted by his good fortune, that the palace seemed not sufficiently spacious to contain him. He therefore went downstairs, and smiled on observing that the balustrade of the staircase became a bar of burnished gold, as his hand passed over it, in his descent. He lifted the door-latch (it was brass only a moment ago, but golden when his fingers quitted it), and emerged into the garden. Here, as it happened, he found a great number of beautiful roses in full bloom, and others in all the stages of lovely bud and blossom. Very delicious was their fragrance in the morning breeze. Their delicate blush was one of the fairest sights in the world; so gentle, so modest, and so full of sweet soothing, did these roses seem to be.
But Midas knew a way to make them far more precious, according to his way of thinking, than roses had ever been before. So he took great pains in going from bush to bush, and exercised his magic touch most untiringly; until every individual flower and bud, and even the worms at the heart of some of them, were changed to gold. By the time this good work was completed, King Midas was summoned to breakfast; and as the morning air had given him an excellent appetite, he made haste back to the palace.
What was usually a king’s breakfast in the days of Midas, I really do not know, and cannot stop now to investigate. To the best of my knowledge, however, on this particular morning, the breakfast consisted of hot cakes, some nice little brook trout, roasted potatoes, fresh boiled eggs, and coffee for King Midas himself, and a bowl of bread and milk for his daughter Marygold.
Little Marygold had not yet made her appearance. Her father ordered her to be called, and seating himself at table, awaited the child’s coming, in order to begin his own breakfast. To do Midas justice, he really loved his daughter, and loved her so much the more this morning, on account of the good fortune which had befallen him. It was not a great while before he heard her coming along the passage, crying bitterly. This circumstance surprised him, because Marygold was one of the most cheerful little people whom you would see in a summer’s day, and hardly shed a tear in a twelvemonth.
When Midas heard her sobs, he determined to put little Marygold into better spirits by an agreeable surprise; so, leaning across the table, he touched his danghter’s bowl (which was a china one, with pretty figures all around it), and changed it into gleaming gold.
Meanwhile, Marygold slowly and sadly opened the door, and showed herself with her apron at her eyes, still sobbing as if her heart would break.
“How now, my little lady!” cried Midas. “Pray, what is the matter with you, this bright morning?”
Marygold, without taking the apron from her eyes, held out her hand, in which was one of the roses which Midas had so recently changed into gold.
“Beautiful!” exclaimed her father. “And what is there in this magnificent golden rose to make you cry?”
“Ah, dear father!” answered the child, between her sobs, “it is not beautiful, but the ugliest flower that ever grew! As soon as I was dressed, I ran into the garden to gather some roses for you; because I know you like them, and like them the better when gathered by your little daughter. But oh, dear, dear me! What do you think has happened? Such a sad thing! All the beautiful roses, that smelled so sweetly, and had so many lovely blushes, are blighted and spoilt! They are grown quite yellow, as you see this one, and have no longer any fragrance! What can have been the matter with them?”
“Pooh, my dear little girl,—pray don’t cry about it!” said Midas, who was ashamed to confess that he himself had wrought the change which so greatly afflicted her. “Sit down, and eat your bread and milk. You will find it easy enough to exchange a golden rose like that (which will last hundreds of years), for an ordinary one which would wither in a day.”
“I don’t care for such roses as this!” cried Marygold, tossing it contemptuously away. “It has no smell, and the hard petals prick my nose!”
The child now sat down to table, but was so occupied with her grief for blighted roses that she did not even notice the wonderful change in her china bowl. Perhaps this was all the better; for Marygold was accustomed to take pleasure in looking at the queer figures and strange trees and houses that were painted on the outside of the bowl; and those ornaments were now entirely lost in the yellow hue of the metal.