The Crimson Fairy Book
The Gold-Bearded Man
Once upon a time there lived a great king who had a wife and one son whom he loved
very much. The boy was still young when, one day, the king said to his wife: 'I feel that
the hour of my death draws near, and I want you to promise that you will never take
another husband but will give up your life to the care of our son.'
The queen burst into tears at these words, and sobbed out that she would never, never
marry again, and that her son's welfare should be her first thought as long as she lived.
Her promise comforted the troubled heart of the king, and a few days after he died, at
peace with himself and with the world.
But no sooner was the breath out of his body, than the queen said to herself, 'To promise
is one thing, and to keep is quite another.' And hardly was the last spadeful of earth flung
over the coffin than she married a noble from a neighbouring country, and got him made
king instead of the young prince. Her new husband was a cruel, wicked man, who treated
his stepson very badly, and gave him scarcely anything to eat, and only rags to wear; and
he would certainly have killed the boy but for fear of the people.
Now by the palace grounds there ran a brook, but instead of being a water-brook it was a
milk-brook, and both rich and poor flocked to it daily and drew as much milk as they
chose. The first thing the new king did when he was seated on the throne, was to forbid
anyone to go near the brook, on pain of being seized by the watchmen. And this was
purely spite, for there was plenty of milk for everybody.
For some days no one dared venture near the banks of the stream, but at length some of
the watchmen noticed that early in the mornings, just at dawn, a man with a gold beard
came down to the brook with a pail, which he filled up to the brim with milk, and then
vanished like smoke before they could get near enough to see who he was. So they went
and told the king what they had seen.
At first the king would not believe their story, but as they persisted it was quite true, he
said that he would go and watch the stream that night himself. With the earliest streaks of
dawn the gold-bearded man appeared, and filled his pail as before. Then in an instant he
had vanished, as if the earth had swallowed him up.
The king stood staring with eyes and mouth open at the place where the man had
disappeared. He had never seen him before, that was certain; but what mattered much
more was how to catch him, and what should be done with him when he was caught? He
would have a cage built as a prison for him, and everyone would talk of it, for in other
countries thieves were put in prison, and it was long indeed since any king had used a
cage. It was all very well to plan, and even to station a watchman behind every bush, but