This is a chapter of Once Upon A Time: Children’s Stories From The Classics by Blanche Winder.
Bacchus, of whom you heard in another story, was very powerful and clever and could give to human beings almost any gift for which they asked. No wonder the helmsman was pleased to be under his protection! However, Bacchus had a good deal of mischief in his nature, and here is a tale of a prank he once played upon a rich and greedy king.
The king’s name was Midas. He was very wealthy indeed, but he was a shocking miser. He loved gold for its own sake, not for what he could do with it. He collected as much of it as he could, and he loved to count his coins by the hour together. Some of the treasures in his palace were made of pure gold, and he was never tired of looking at them, and handling them, and wishing from his heart that he owned many more.
One morning, King Midas was sitting on his throne, when there was a great noise outside, and in came a number of his harvesters and gardeners, leading a strange figure tied up with chains of roses! It was old Silenus, who had lost himself — and not only himself but all his friends and his prancing wild ass as well. He was very miserable and upset, for the country people had found him asleep in the king’s rose garden, and thought it a great thing to have caught a wild satyr. Midas was delighted, for some of his own distant relations were satyrs, and he entertained Silenus most hospitably for ten days. Then he said he would himself take him back to Bacchus, and he set off through the woods in search of the vine-crowned immortal. When they reached the flowery glade where Bacchus was living just then, King Midas gave Silenus into the care of his pupil and prepared to set off home again.
But Bacchus stopped him and said that the king, in return for his kindness, might ask for any gift that he wanted. Midas instantly declared that what he wanted, above everything else, was more money and more treasure. Would Bacchus grant him the gift of turning everything he touched into gold?
Bacchus smiled and made a little movement of warning with his head. Then he told Midas he would grant his request. But the Shining Immortal shook his head again and looked amused, as the king went joyfully away. Bacchus was wondering how long it would be before Midas felt very sorry indeed that such a gift had been presented to him.
The greedy king walked homeward through the woods, much pleased with his morning’s work. Presently he thought he would put his wonderful new power to the test. Lifting his hand, endowed with its strange magic, to a green bough that hung just overhead, he drew down a twig, his eyes, shining with excitement, fixed upon the pretty brown bark and green leaves. Lo and behold!, the moment his fingers touched the twig, it turned into the brightest, purest gold, and, breaking it away from the branch, Midas carried it homeward with him, his heart beating with excitement as he turned it this way and that, to make it glitter and flash in the sun.
On went the king, holding aloft his golden twig. Presently he thought he would try his power again, so he stooped and picked up a stone; this also turned immediately into gold. Putting it into the pocket of his robe —which had itself been quietly turning into gold all this time— he walked a little farther and came out of the wood into a field of corn. He gathered one of the ears, and that, too, shone instantly with a golden radiance in his fingers. Then he reached his own orchard and, plucking an apple, found himself laden with another treasure. The same thing happened when he picked a bunch of roses in the garden. So, laden with golden fruit and corn and flowers, his pockets heavy with golden stones, and his golden robes trailing heavily about him.
King Midas walked up the steps of his palace, and, passing through his surprised courtiers, reached the steps of his throne. He paused for a moment, laid down his spoils, and placed his hand on a pillar — which, of course, turned into gold on the spot. Then he told his lords-in-waiting to send out invitations for a great feast to be held in the banqueting hall as soon as ever the tables could be spread with delicious food and wine. “For,” thought he, “I will show off my magical gift to all the neighboring princes and their ministers! How they will envy me my extraordinary powers!”
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King Midas sat and played with his glittering golden treasures until the feast was spread and the guests had gathered around the table. Then he walked, very slowly and magnificently, to his place at the head. Everybody was watching him, for they had heard all sorts of rumors, and were very excited to see what would happen.
King Midas took his seat and requested his visitors to start eating and drinking. They at once began to enjoy the savory dishes, the delicate fruits, and the rich cakes. The king watched them for a moment, then, with a smile, lifted a crystal goblet, full of water mixed with wine, to his own lips. He wanted to enjoy their surprise when the goblet turned to gold.
And turn to gold it did — but the water and the wine turned with it! No sooner had the fragrant purple liquid touched the royal lips than down it trickled in a golden stream over the king’s chin! Thirsty and dismayed, he set down the goblet, and reached for some bread, only to find that it turned into gold before he could swallow it! So with the fruit — so with the cakes — so with the savoury meat pies! The guests, whispering among themselves, began to smile behind their damask table napkins; and at last King Midas, hungry, thirsty, and very angry, rose from the feast and hurried away.
But a worse trouble even than hunger and thirst was in store for him. Coming to meet him, across the hall of the palace, were his beautiful little sons and daughters, radiant with health, and laughing over their play. They ran to him to kiss him, and, unthinkingly, he took one of them into his arms: to his intense horror, he found that the child in his embrace changed into a golden statue!
He set the statue down and burst into tears of agony. Then, waving away the other startled and dismayed children, he went to weep in his own chamber. After a night of despair upon a hard, golden bed, he rose early and went off through the orchards and cornfields, until he reached the wood where Bacchus lived. Hurrying down the green, shadowy glades, he never paused until he found the vine-crowned immortal, seated among his goat-footed friends, with all his wild beasts around him.
Falling on his knees, King Midas lifted imploring hands, and sobbed out his trouble, begging Bacchus to take his terrible gift away from him. So Bacchus told the king he must go and wash at the source of a river not very far away, and he would become quite ordinary once more. The poor king hardly waited to say thank you before he hurried off, never stopping until he reached the source of the river, where it bubbled, clear and cool, from the rock. He sprang straight into the water and plunged his head below the ripples. Behold! To his joy, the sticky gold was all washed from his mouth, and the sparkling fragments from his wet hair. When he climbed the bank again, he knew that he was, once more, like other men.
But a strange thing had happened! The spell that Bacchus had laid on Midas could never be destroyed, so, instead of remaining with the king, it passed into the river itself! A new glimmer shone ever after through the water — the sands ran yellow — and the flowers on the banks nodded golden heads, and dropped golden petals onto golden grass. Even the corn that was sown in the fields nearby would sometimes sprout golden ears, and the ground was always hard and difficult to plow. But King Midas was only too happy when, on reaching home, he found that the spell was removed and that he had his child again, instead of the poor little gold statue that he had left glittering among the pillars of the hall.
King Midas was quite cured of his miserliness, but he seemed to be born to trouble, and he had another unhappy adventure in his old age. He had always been fond of wandering in the woods, and he was a very great admirer of Pan and his music. One day he found Pan and Apollo quarreling in a quiet, green glade as to which could make the sweeter melody, Pan with his pipes or Apollo with his lyre. The nymphs, who sat around listening, seemed quite unable to judge, so both Pan and Apollo appealed to Midas to settle the dispute. The king, without a moment’s hesitation, declared that Pan’s music was the more delightful — whereupon Apollo lost his temper and cried angrily:
“Whoever says a thing like that must have ass’s ears!”
No sooner had he spoken than the unhappy king’s ears turned into the ears of an ass, just as quickly as his apples and bread had turned into gold!
Poor King Midas! He went home in no lordly manner this time, but as quickly and quietly as he could, and, sending for his lord-of-the-bedchamber, at once ordered an enormous new headdress. Until it came, he hid from sight. With the great new headdress on his head, nobody could see the ears, and he only looked like a rather eccentric king of the East. However, he was not able to keep the secret from his barber, whom the king threatened with immediate death if he ever told. The barber was so worried by the knowledge that he felt quite sure he would, one day, let it out. In order to relieve his feelings, he used, each time he cut King Midas’s hair, to go down to the river, and put his face deep among the reeds. Then he would whisper:
“King Midas has ass’s ears! King Midas has ass’s ears! King Midas has ass’s ears!”
Over and over again he would whisper it, until his mind felt relieved, when he would go home again in peace. But unfortunately, the reeds learned the words by heart and began to repeat them so that anyone who passed near the river at twilight would hear a little whisper:
“King Midas has ass’s ears!”
This happened so often that, at last, the secret was a secret no longer. But, as it was only the reeds who told it, nobody took much notice, and King Midas lived quite happily, dressed up in his big cap. No doubt, though, as he grew still older, he gave up wandering in the woods, for nobody could tell what would happen to any mortal who made friends with strange beings like Bacchus and Pan.