Upon a certain island in the middle of the sea dwelt an old man and his wife. They were so poor that they often went short of bread, for the fish he caught were their only means of livelihood.
One day when the man had been fishing for many hours without success, he hooked a small gold-fish, whose eyes shone as brightly as diamonds.
“Let me go, kind man,” the little creature cried. “I should not make a mouthful either for yourself or your wife, and my own mate waits for me down in the waters.”
The old man was so moved by his pleadings that he took him off the hook and threw him back into the sea. Before he swam off to rejoin his mate, the gold-fish promised that in return for his kindness he would come to the fisherman’s help if ever he wanted him. Laughing merrily at this, for he did not believe that a fish could help him except by providing him with food, the old man went home and told his wife.
“What!” she cried, “you actually let him go when you had caught him? It was just like your stupidity. We have not a scrap of bread in the house, and now, I suppose, we must starve!”
Her reproaches continued for so long that though he scarcely believed what the fish had said, the poor old man thought that at least it would do no harm to put him to the test. He therefore hastened back to the shore, and stood at the very edge of the waves.
“Golden fish, golden fish!” he called. “Come to me, I pray, with your tail in the water, and your head lifted up towards me!”
As the last word was uttered the gold-fish popped up his head.
“You see I have kept my promise,” he said. “What can I do for you, my good friend?”
“There is not a scrap of bread in the house,” quavered the old man, “and my wife is very angry with me for letting you go.”
“Don’t trouble about that!” said the gold-fish in an offhand manner; “you will find bread, and to spare, when you go home.” And the old man hurried away to see if his little friend had spoken truly.
Surely enough, he found that the pan was full of fine white loaves.
“I did not do so badly for you after all, good wife!” he said, as they ate their supper; but his wife was anything but satisfied. The more she had, the more she wanted, and she lay awake planning what they should demand from the gold-fish next.
“Wake up, you lazy man!” she cried to her husband, early next morning. “Go down to the sea and tell your fish that I must have a new wash-tub.”
The old man did as his wife bade him, and the moment he called the gold-fish reappeared. He seemed quite willing to grant the new request, and on his return home the old man found a beautiful new wash-tub in the small yard at the back of their cabin.
“Why didn’t you ask for a new cabin too?” his wife said angrily. “If you had had a grain of sense you would have done this without being told. Go back at once, and say that we must have one.”
The old man was rather ashamed to trouble his friend again so soon; but the gold-fish was as obliging as ever.
“Very well,” he said, “a new cabin you shall have.” And the old man found one so spick and span that he hardly dared cross the floor for fear of soiling it. It would have pleased him greatly had his wife been contented, but she, good woman, did nothing but grumble still.
“Tell your gold-fish,” she said next day, “that I want to be a duchess, with many servants at my beck and call, and a splendid carriage to drive in.”
Once more her wish was granted, but now her husband’s plight was hard indeed. She would not let him share her palace, but ordered him off to the stables, where he was forced to keep company with her grooms. In a few days, however, he grew reconciled to his lot, for here he could live in peace, while he learned that she was leading those around her a terrible life. It was not long before she sent for him again.
“Summon the gold-fish,” she commanded haughtily, “and tell him I wish to be Queen of the Waters, and to rule over all the fish.”
The poor old man felt sorry for the fish if they had to be under her rule, for prosperity had quite spoilt her. However, he dared not disobey, and once more summoned his powerful friend.
“‘Make your wife the Queen of the Waters’?” exclaimed the gold-fish. “That is the last thing I should do. She is unfit to reign, for she cannot rule herself or her desires. I shall make her once more a poor old woman. Adieu! You will see me no more.”
The old man returned sorrowfully with this unpleasant message, to find the palace transformed into a humble cabin, and his wife in a skirt of threadbare stuff in place of the rich brocade which she had worn of late. She was sad and humble, and much more easy to live with than she had been before. Her husband therefore had occasion many times to think gratefully of the gold-fish, and sometimes when drawing in his net the glint of the sun upon the scales of his captives would give him a moment’s hope–which, alas! was as often disappointed–that once again he was to see his benefactor.