"This," said old Peter, "is a story against wanting more than enough."
Long ago, near the shore of the blue sea, an old man lived with his old woman in a little old hut made of earth and moss and logs. They never had a rouble to spend. A rouble! they never had a kopeck. They just lived there in the little hut, and the old man caught fish out of the sea in his old net, and the old woman cooked the fish; and so they lived, poorly enough in summer and worse in winter. Sometimes they had a few fish to sell, but not often. In the summer evenings they sat outside their hut on a broken old bench, and the old man mended the holes in his ragged old net. There were holes in it a hare could jump through with his ears standing, let alone one of those little fishes that live in the sea. The old woman sat on the bench beside him, and patched his trousers and complained.
Well, one day the old man went fishing, as he always did. All day long he fished, and caught nothing. And then in the evening, when he was thinking he might as well give up and go home, he threw his net for the last time, and when he came to pull it in he began to think he had caught an island instead of a haul of fish, and a strong and lively island at that—the net was so heavy and pulled so hard against his feeble old arms.
"This time," says he, "I have caught a hundred fish at least."
Not a bit of it. The net came in as heavy as if it were full of fighting fish, but empty —.
"Empty?" said Maroosia.
"Well, not quite empty," said old Peter, and went on with his tale.
Not quite empty, for when the last of the net came ashore there was something glittering in it—a golden fish, not very big and not very little, caught in the meshes. And it was this single golden fish which had made the net so heavy.
The old fisherman took the golden fish in his hands.
"At least it will be enough for supper," said he.
But the golden fish lay still in his hands, and looked at him with wise eyes, and spoke—yes, my dears, it spoke, just as if it were you or I.
"Old man," says the fish, "do not kill me. I beg you throw me back into the blue waters. Some day I may be able to be of use to you."
"What?" says the old fisherman; "and do you talk with a human voice?"
"I do," says the fish. "And my fish's heart feels pain like yours. It would be as bitter to me to die as it would be to yourself."
"And is that so?" says the old fisherman. "Well, you shall not die this time." And he threw the golden fish back into the sea.
You would have thought the golden fish would have splashed with his tail, and turned head downwards, and swum away into the blue depths of the sea. Not a bit of it. It stayed there with its tail slowly flapping in the water so as to keep its head up, and it looked at the fisherman with its wise eyes, and it spoke again.
"You have given me my life," says the golden fish. "Now ask anything you wish from me, and you shall have it."
The old fisherman stood there on the shore, combing his beard with his old fingers, and thinking. Think as he would, he could not call to mind a single thing he wanted.
"No, fish," he said at last; "I think I have everything I need,"
"Well, if ever you do want anything, come and ask for it," says the fish, and turns over, flashing gold, and goes down into the blue sea.
The old fisherman went back to his hut, where his wife was waiting for him.
"What!" she screamed out; "you haven't caught so much as one little fish for our supper?"
"I caught one fish, mother," says the old man: "a golden fish it was, and it spoke to me; and I let it go, and it told me to ask for anything I wanted."
"And what did you ask for? Show me."
"I couldn't think of anything to ask for; so I did not ask for anything at all."
"Fool," says his wife, "and dolt, and us with no food to put in our mouths. Go back at once, and ask for some bread."
Well, the poor old fisherman got down his net, and tramped back to the seashore. And he stood on the shore of the wide blue sea, and he called out,—
And in a moment there was the golden fish with his head out of the water, flapping his tail below him in the water, and looking at the fisherman with his wise eyes.
"What is it?" said the fish.
"Be so kind," says the fisherman; "be so kind. We have no bread in the house."
"Go home," says the fish, and turned over and went down into the sea.
"God be good to me," says the old fisherman; "but what shall I say to my wife, going home like this without the bread?" And he went home very wretchedly, and slower than he came.
As soon as he came within sight of his hut he saw his wife, and she was waving her arms and shouting.
"Stir your old bones," she screamed out. "It's as fine a loaf as ever I've seen."
And he hurried along, and found his old wife cutting up a huge loaf of white bread, mind you, not black—a huge loaf of white bread, nearly as big as Maroosia.
"You did not do so badly after all," said his old wife as they sat there with the samovar on the table between them, dipping their bread in the hot tea.
But that night, as they lay sleeping on the stove, the old woman poked the old man in the ribs with her bony elbow. He groaned and woke up.
"I've been thinking," says his wife, "your fish might have given us a trough to keep the bread in while he was about it. There is a lot left over, and without a trough it will go bad, and not be fit for anything. And our old trough is broken; besides, it's too small. First thing in the morning off you go, and ask your fish to give us a new trough to put the bread in."
Early in the morning she woke the old man again, and he had to get up and go down to the seashore. He was very much afraid, because he thought the fish would not take it kindly. But at dawn, just as the red sun was rising out of the sea, he stood on the shore, and called out in his windy old voice,—
And there in the morning sunlight was the golden fish, looking at him with its wise eyes.
"I beg your pardon," says the old man, "but could you, just to oblige my wife, give us some sort of trough to put the bread in?"
"Go home," says the fish; and down it goes into the blue sea.
The old man went home, and there, outside the hut, was the old woman, looking at the handsomest bread trough that ever was seen on earth. Painted it was, with little flowers, in three colours, and there were strips of gilding about its handles.
"Look at this," grumbled the old woman. "This is far too fine a trough for a tumble-down hut like ours. Why, there is scarcely a place in the roof where the rain does not come through. If we were to keep this trough in such a hut, it would be spoiled in a month. You must go back to your fish and ask it for a new hut."
"I hardly like to do that," says the old man.
"Get along with you," says his wife. "If the fish can make a trough like this, a hut will be no trouble to him. And, after all, you must not forget he owes his life to you."
"I suppose that is true," says the old man; but he went back to the shore with a heavy heart. He stood on the edge of the sea and called out, doubtfully,—
Instantly there was a ripple in the water, and the golden fish was looking at him with its wise eyes.
"Well?" says the fish.
"My old woman is so pleased with the trough that she wants a new hut to keep it in, because ours, if you could only see it, is really falling to pieces, and the rain comes in and —."
"Go home," says the fish.
The old fisherman went home, but he could not find his old hut at all. At first he thought he had lost his way. But then he saw his wife. And she was walking about, first one way and then the other, looking at the finest hut that God ever gave a poor moujik to keep him from the rain and the cold, and the too great heat of the sun. It was built of sound logs, neatly finished at the ends and carved. And the overhanging of the roof was cut in patterns, so neat, so pretty, you could never think how they had been done. The old woman looked at it from all sides. And the old man stood, wondering. Then they went in together. And everything within the hut was new and clean. There were a fine big stove, and strong wooden benches, and a good table, and a fire lit in the stove, and logs ready to put in, and a samovar already on the boil—a fine new samovar of glittering brass.
You would have thought the old woman would have been satisfied with that. Not a bit of it.
"You don't know how to lift your eyes from the ground," says she. "You don't know what to ask. I am tired of being a peasant woman and a moujik's wife. I was made for something better. I want to be a lady, and have good people to do the work, and see folk bow and curtsy to me when I meet them walking abroad. Go back at once to the fish, you old fool, and ask him for that, instead of bothering him for little trifles like bread troughs and moujiks' huts. Off with you."
The old fisherman went back to the shore with a sad heart; but he was afraid of his wife, and he dared not disobey her. He stood on the shore, and called out in his windy old voice,—
Instantly there was the golden fish looking at him with its wise eyes.
"Well?" says the fish.
"My old woman won't give me a moment's peace," says the old man; "and since she has the new hut—which is a fine one, I must say; as good a hut as ever I saw—she won't be content at all. She is tired of being a peasant's wife, and wants to be a lady with a house and servants, and to see the good folk curtsy to her when she meets them walking abroad."
"Go home," says the fish.
The old man went home, thinking about the hut, and how pleasant it would be to live in it, even if his wife were a lady.
But when he got home the hut had gone, and in its place there was a fine brick house, three stories high. There were servants running this way and that in the courtyard. There was a cook in the kitchen, and there was his old woman, in a dress of rich brocade, sitting idle in a tall carved chair, and giving orders right and left.
"Good health to you, wife," says the old man.
"Ah, you, clown that you are, how dare you call me your wife! Can't you see that I'm a lady? Here! Off with this fellow to the stables, and see that he gets a beating he won't forget in a hurry."
Instantly the servants seized the old man by the collar and lugged him along to the stables. There the grooms treated him to such a whipping that he could hardly stand on his feet. After that the old woman made him doorkeeper. She ordered that a besom should be given him to clean up the courtyard, and said that he was to have his meals in the kitchen. A wretched life the old man lived. All day long he was sweeping up the courtyard, and if there was a speck of dirt to be seen in it anywhere, he paid for it at once in the stable under the whips of the grooms.
Time went on, and the old woman grew tired of being only a lady. And at last there came a day when she sent into the yard to tell the old man to come before her. The poor old man combed his hair and cleaned his boots, and came into the house, and bowed low before the old woman.
"Be off with you, you old good-for-nothing!" says she. "Go and find your golden fish, and tell him from me that I am tired of being a lady. I want to be Tzaritza, with generals and courtiers and men of state to do whatever I tell them."
The old man went along to the seashore, glad enough to be out of the courtyard and out of reach of the stablemen with their whips. He came to the shore, and cried out in his windy old voice,—
And there was the golden fish looking at him with its wise eyes.
"What's the matter now, old man?" says the fish.
"My old woman is going on worse than ever," says the old fisherman. "My back is sore with the whips of her grooms. And now she says it isn't enough for her to be a lady; she wants to be a Tzaritza."
"Never you worry about it," says the fish. "Go home and praise God;" and with that the fish turned over and went down into the sea.
The old man went home slowly, for he did not know what his wife would do to him if the golden fish did not make her into a Tzaritza.
But as soon as he came near he heard the noise of trumpets and the beating of drums, and there where the fine stone house had been was now a great palace with a golden roof. Behind it was a big garden of flowers, that are fair to look at but have no fruit, and before it was a meadow of fine green grass. And on the meadow was an army of soldiers drawn up in squares and all dressed alike. And suddenly the fisherman saw his old woman in the gold and silver dress of a Tzaritza come stalking out on the balcony with her generals and boyars to hold a review of her troops. And the drums beat and the trumpets sounded, and the soldiers cried "Hurrah!" And the poor old fisherman found a dark corner in one of the barns, and lay down in the straw.
Time went on, and at last the old woman was tired of being Tzaritza. She thought she was made for something better. And one day she said to her chamberlain,—
"Find me that ragged old beggar who is always hanging about in the courtyard. Find him, and bring him here."
The chamberlain told his officers, and the officers told the servants, and the servants looked for the old man, and found him at last asleep on the straw in the corner of one of the barns. They took some of the dirt off him, and brought him before the Tzaritza, sitting proudly on her golden throne.
"Listen, old fool!" says she. "Be off to your golden fish, and tell it I am tired of being Tzaritza. Anybody can be Tzaritza. I want to be the ruler of the seas, so that all the waters shall obey me, and all the fishes shall be my servants."
"I don't like to ask that," said the old man, trembling.
"What's that?" she screamed at him. "Do you dare to answer the Tzaritza? If you do not set off this minute, I'll have your head cut off and your body thrown to the dogs."
Unwillingly the old man hobbled off. He came to the shore, and cried out with a windy, quavering old voice,—
The old man thought of his wife, and what would happen to him if she were still Tzaritza when he came home. Again he called out,—
Nothing happened, nothing at all.
A third time, with the tears running down his face, he called out in his windy, creaky, quavering old voice,—
Suddenly there was a loud noise, louder and louder over the sea. The sun hid itself. The sea broke into waves, and the waves piled themselves one upon another. The sky and the sea turned black, and there was a great roaring wind that lifted the white crests of the waves and tossed them abroad over the waters. The golden fish came up out of the storm and spoke out of the sea.
"What is it now?" says he, in a voice more terrible than the voice of the storm itself.
"O fish," says the old man, trembling like a reed shaken by the storm, "my old woman is worse than before. She is tired of being Tzaritza. She wants to be the ruler of the seas, so that all the waters shall obey her and all the fishes be her servants."
The golden fish said nothing, nothing at all. He turned over and went down into the deep seas. And the wind from the sea was so strong that the old man could hardly stand against it. For a long time he waited, afraid to go home; but at last the storm calmed, and it grew towards evening, and he hobbled back, thinking to creep in and hide amongst the straw.
As he came near, he listened for the trumpets and the drums. He heard nothing except the wind from the sea rustling the little leaves of birch trees. He looked for the palace. It was gone, and where it had been was a little tumbledown hut of earth and logs. It seemed to the old fisherman that he knew the little hut, and he looked at it with joy. And he went to the door of the hut, and there was sitting his old woman in a ragged dress, cleaning out a saucepan, and singing in a creaky old voice. And this time she was glad to see him, and they sat down together on the bench and drank tea without sugar, because they had not any money.
They began to live again as they used to live, and the old man grew happier every day. He fished and fished, and many were the fish that he caught, and of many kinds; but never again did he catch another golden fish that could talk like a human being. I doubt whether he would have said anything to his wife about it, even if he had caught one every day.
"What a horrid old woman!" said Maroosia.
"I wonder the old fisherman forgave her," said Ivan.
"I think he might have beaten her a little," said Maroosia. "she deserved it."
"Well," said old Peter, "supposing we could have everything we wanted for the asking, I wonder how it would be. Perhaps God knew what He was doing when He made those golden fishes rare."
"Are there really any of them?" asked Vanya.
"Well, there was once one, anyhow," said old Peter; and then he rolled his nets neatly together, hung them on the fence, and went into the hut to make the dinner. And Vanya and Maroosia went in with him to help him as much as they could; though Vanya was wondering all the time whether he could make a net, and throw it in the little river where old Peter fished, and perhaps pull out a golden fish that would speak to him with the voice of a human being.