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
length hit upon something that will satisfy you. Tell me your wish."
"It is only this," replied Midas. "I am weary of collecting
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
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,
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 covering 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
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 daughter'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
"How now, my little lady!" cried Midas. "Pray, what is the
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
magnificent golden rose to make you cry?"
"Ah, dear father!" answered the child, between her sobs, "it
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.
Midas, meanwhile, had poured out a cup of coffee; and, as a
matter of course, the coffeepot, whatever metal it may have been
when he took it up, was gold when he set it down. He thought to
himself that it was rather an extravagant style of splendor, in a
king of his simple habits, to breakfast off a service of gold,
and began to be puzzled with the difficulty of keeping his
treasures safe. The cupboard and the kitchen would no longer be a
secure place of deposit for articles so valuable as golden bowls
and golden coffeepots.
Amid these thoughts, he lifted a spoonful of coffee to his lips,
and, sipping it, was astonished to perceive that the instant his
lips touched the liquid it became molten gold, and the next
moment, hardened into a lump!
"Ha!" exclaimed Midas, rather aghast.
"What is the matter, father?" asked little Marygold, gazing at
him, with the tears still standing in her eyes.
"Nothing, child, nothing!" said Midas. "Take your milk before
gets quite cold."
He took one of the nice little trots on his plate, and touched
its tail with his finger. To his horror, it was immediately
changed from a brook trout into a gold fish, and looked as if it
had been very cunningly made by the nicest goldsmith in the
world. Its little bones were now golden wires; its fins and tail
were thin plates of gold; and there were the marks of the fork in
it, and all the delicate, frothy appearance of a nicely fried
fish, exactly imitated in metal.
"I don't quite see," thought he to himself, "how I am to
get any breakfast!"
He took one of the smoking-hot cakes, and had scarcely broken it,
when, to his cruel mortification, though a moment before, it had
been of the whitest wheat, it assumed the yellow hue of Indian
meal. Its solidity and increased weight made him too bitterly
sensible that it was gold. Almost in despair, he helped himself
to a boiled egg, which immediately underwent a change similar to
that of the trout and the cake.
"Well, this is terrible!" thought he, leaning back in his chair,
and looking quite enviously at little Marygold, who was now
eating her bread and milk with great satisfaction. "Such a costly
breakfast before me, and nothing that can be eaten!"
Hoping that, by dint of great dispatch, he might avoid what he
now felt to be a considerable inconvenience, King Midas next
snatched a hot potato, and attempted to cram it into his mouth,
and swallow it in a hurry. But the Golden Touch was too nimble
for him. He found his mouth full, not of mealy potato, but of
solid metal, which so burnt his tongue that he roared aloud, and,
jumping up from the table, began to dance and stamp about the
room, both with pain and affright.
"Father, dear father!" cried little Marygold, who was a very
affectionate child, "pray what is the matter? Have you burnt your mouth?"
"Ah, dear child," groaned Midas, dolefully, "I don't know
to become of your poor father!"
And, truly, did you ever hear of such a pitiable case, in all
your lives? Here was literally the richest breakfast that could
be set before a king, and its very richness made it absolutely
good for nothing. The poorest laborer, sitting down to his crust
of bread and cup of water, was far better off than King Midas,
whose delicate food was really worth its weight in gold.
And what was to be done? Already, at breakfast, Midas was
excessively hungry. Would he be less so by dinner time? And how
ravenous would be his appetite for supper, which must undoubtedly
consist of the same sort of indigestible dishes as those now
before him! How many days, think you, would he survive a
continuance of this rich fare?
These reflections so troubled wise King Midas, that he began to
doubt whether, after all, riches are the one desirable thing in
the world, or even the most desirable. But this was only a
passing thought. So fascinated was Midas with the glitter of the
yellow metal, that he would still have refused to give up the
Golden Touch for so paltry a consideration as a breakfast. Just
imagine what a price for one meal's victuals! It would have been
the same as paying millions and millions of money for some fried
trout, an egg, a potato, a hot cake, and a cup of coffee!
"It would be much too dear," thought Midas.
Nevertheless, so great was his hunger, and the perplexity of his
situation, that he again groaned aloud, and very grievously too.
Our pretty Marygold could endure it no longer. She sat a moment
gazing at her father, and trying, with all the might of her
little wits, to find out what was the matter with him. Then, with
a sweet and sorrowful impulse to comfort him, she started from
her chair, and, running to Midas, threw her arms affectionately
about his knees. He bent down and kissed her. He felt that his
little daughter's love was worth a thousand times more than he
had gained by the Golden Touch.
"My precious, precious Marygold!" cried he.
But Marygold made no answer.
Alas, what had King Midas done? How fatal was the gift which the
stranger had bestowed! The moment the lips of Midas touched
Marygold's forehead, a change had taken place. Her sweet, rosy
face, so full of affection as it had been, assumed a glittering
yellow color, with yellow tear-drops congealing on her cheeks.
Her beautiful brown ringlets took the same tint. Her soft and
tender little form grew hard and inflexible within her father's
encircling arms. O terrible misfortune! The victim of his
insatiable desire for wealth, little Marygold was a human child
no longer, but a golden statue!
Yes, there she was, with the questioning look of love, grief, and
pity, hardened into her face. It was the prettiest and most
woeful sight that ever mortal saw. All the features and tokens of
Marygold were there; even the beloved little dimple remained in
her golden chin. But, the more perfect was the resemblance, the
greater was the father's agony at beholding this golden image,
which was all that was left him of a daughter.
It had been a favorite phrase of Midas, whenever he felt
particularly fond of the child, to say that she was worth her
weight in gold. And now the phrase had become literally true.
And, now, at last, when it was too late, he felt how infinitely a
warm and tender heart, that loved him, exceeded in value all the
wealth that could be piled up betwixt the earth and sky!
It would be too sad a story, if I were to tell you how Midas, in
the fullness of all his gratified desires, began to wring his
hands and bemoan himself; and how he could neither bear to look
at Marygold, nor yet to look away from her. Except when his eyes
were fixed on the image, he could not possibly believe that she
was changed to gold. But, stealing another glance, there was the
precious little figure, with a yellow tear-drop on its yellow
cheek, and a look so piteous and tender, that it seemed as if
that very expression must needs soften the gold, and make it
flesh again. This, however, could not be. So Midas had only to
wring his hands, and to wish that he were the poorest man in the
wide world, if the loss of all his wealth might bring back the
faintest rose-color to his dear child's face.
While he was in this tumult of despair, he suddenly beheld a
stranger, standing near the door. Midas bent down his head,
without speaking; for he recognized the same figure which had
appeared to him the day before in the treasure room, and had
bestowed on him this disastrous power of the Golden Touch. The
stranger's countenance still wore a smile, which seemed to shed a
yellow luster all about the room, and gleamed on little
Marygold's image, and on the other objects that had been
transmuted by the touch of Midas.
"Well, friend Midas," said the stranger, "pray, how do you
succeed with the Golden Touch?"
Midas shook his head.
"I am very miserable," said he.
"Very miserable! indeed!" exclaimed the stranger; "and how
happens that? Have I not faithfully kept my promise with you?
Have you not everything that your heart desired?"
"Gold is not everything," answered Midas. "And I have lost
that my heart really cared for."
"Ah! So you have made a discovery, since yesterday?" observed
stranger. "Let us see, then. Which of these two things do you
think is really worth the most,--the gift of the Golden Touch, or
one cup of clear cold water?"
"O blessed water!" exclaimed Midas. "It will never moisten
parched throat again!"
"The Golden Touch," continued the stranger, "or a crust of
"A piece of bread," answered Midas, "is worth all the gold
"The Golden Touch," asked the stranger, "or your own little
Marygold, warm, soft, and loving, as she was an hour ago?"
"O my child, my dear child!" cried poor King Midas, wringing his
hands. "I would not have given that one small dimple in her chin
for the power of changing this whole big earth into a solid lump of gold!"
"You are wiser than you were, King Midas?" said the stranger,
looking seriously at him. "Your own heart, I perceive, has not
been entirely changed from flesh to gold. Were it so, your case
would indeed be desperate. But you appear to be still capable of
understanding that the commonest things, such as lie within
everybody's grasp, are more valuable than the riches which so
many mortals sigh and struggle after. Tell me, now, do you
sincerely desire to rid yourself of this Golden Touch?"
"It is hateful to me!" replied Midas.
A fly settled on his nose, but immediately fell to the floor; for
it, too, had become gold. Midas shuddered.
"Go, then," said the stranger, "and plunge into the river
glides past the bottom of your garden. Take likewise a vase of
the same water, and sprinkle it over any object that you may
desire to change back again from gold into its former substance.
If you do this in earnestness and sincerity, it may possibly
repair the mischief which your avarice has occasioned."
King Midas bowed low; and when he lifted his head, the lustrous
stranger had vanished.
You will easily believe that Midas lost no time in snatching up a
great earthen pitcher (but, alas me! it was no longer earthen
after he touched it), and in hastening to the riverside. As he
ran along, and forced his way through the shrubbery, it was
positively marvelous to see how the foliage turned yellow behind
him, as if the autumn had been there, and nowhere else. On
reaching the river's brink, he plunged headlong in, without
waiting so much as to pull off his shoes.
"Poof! poof! poof!" gasped King Midas, as his head emerged out
the water. "Well; this is really a refreshing bath, and I think
it must have quite washed away the Golden Touch. And now for
filling my pitcher!"
As he dipped the pitcher into the water, it gladdened his very
heart to see it change from gold into the same good, honest,
earthen vessel which it had been before he touched it. He was
conscious, also, of a change within himself. A cold, hard, and
heavy weight seemed to have gone out of his bosom. No doubt his
heart had been gradually losing its human substance, and been
changing into insensible metal, but had now been softened back
again into flesh. Perceiving a violet, that grew on the bank of
the river, Midas touched it with his finger, and was overjoyed to
find that the delicate flower retained its purple hue, instead of
undergoing a yellow blight. The curse of the Golden Touch had,
therefore, really been removed from him.
King Midas hastened back to the palace; and, I suppose, the
servants knew not what to make of it when they saw their royal
master so carefully bringing home an earthen pitcher of water.
But that water, which was to undo all the mischief that his
folly had wrought, was more precious to Midas than an ocean of
molten gold could have been. The first thing he did, as you need
hardly be told, was to sprinkle it by handfuls over the golden
figure of little Marygold.
No sooner did it fall on her than you would have laughed to see
how the rosy color came back to the dear child's cheek!--and how
astonished she was to find herself dripping wet, and her father
still throwing more water over her!
"Pray do not, dear father!" cried she. "See how you have
nice frock, which I put on only this morning!"
For Marygold did not know that she had been a little golden
statue; nor could she remember anything that had happened since
the moment when she ran with outstretched arms to comfort her father.
Her father did not think it necessary to tell his beloved child
how very foolish he had been, but contented himself with showing
how much wiser he had now grown. For this purpose, he led little
Marygold into the garden, where he sprinkled all the remainder of
the water over the rosebushes, and with such good effect that
above five thousand roses recovered their beautiful bloom. There
were two circumstances, however, which, as long as he lived, used
to remind King Midas of the Golden Touch. One was, that the sands
of the river in which he had bathed, sparkled like gold; the
other, that little Marygold's hair had now a golden tinge, which
he had never observed in it before she had been changed by the
effect of his kiss. This change of hue was really an improvement,
and made Marygold's hair richer than in her babyhood.
When King Midas had grown quite an old man, and used to take
Marygold's children on his knee, he was fond of telling them this
marvelous story. And then would he stroke their glossy ringlets,
and tell them that their hair, likewise, had a rich shade of
gold, which they had inherited from their mother.
"And, to tell you the truth, my precious little folks," said King
Midas, "ever since that morning, I have hated the very sight of
all other gold, save this!"
--From "A Wonder Book for Boys and Girls."
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