Finally, he told them the story of the Golden Fish. But that is a long story, and a chapter all by itself, and begins on the next page.
“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.