In China, you know, the emperor is a Chinese, and all those
about him are Chinamen also. The story I am going to tell you
happened a great many years ago, so it is well to hear it now
before it is forgotten. The emperor?s palace was the most
beautiful in the world. It was built entirely of porcelain, and very
costly, but so delicate and brittle that whoever touched it was
obliged to be careful. In the garden could be seen the most
singular flowers, with pretty silver bells tied to them, which tinkled
so that everyone who passed could not help noticing the flowers.
Indeed, everything in the emperor?s garden was remarkable, and
it extended so far that the gardener himself did not know where it
ended. Those who travelled beyond its limits knew that there was
a noble forest, with lofty trees, sloping down to the deep blue sea,
and the great ships sailed under the shadow of its branches. In one
of these trees lived a nightingale, who sang so beautifully that even
the poor fishermen, who had so many other things to do, would stop
and listen. Sometimes, when they went at night to spread their nets,
they would hear her sing, and say, ?Oh, is not that beautiful?? But
when they returned to their fishing, they forgot the bird until the next
night. Then they would hear it again, and exclaim ?Oh, how beautiful
is the nightingale?s song!?
Travellers from every country in the world came to the city of the
emperor, which they admired very much, as well as the palace and
gardens; but when they heard the nightingale, they all declared it to
be the best of all. And the travellers, on their return home, related
what they had seen; and learned men wrote books, containing
descriptions of the town, the palace, and the gardens; but they did
not forget the nightingale, which was really the greatest wonder.
And those who could write poetry composed beautiful verses about
the nightingale, who lived in a forest near the deep sea. The books
travelled all over the world, and some of them came into the hands
of the emperor; and he sat in his golden chair, and, as he read, he
nodded his approval every moment, for it pleased him to find such a
beautiful description of his city, his palace, and his gardens. But
when he came to the words, ?the nightingale is the most beautiful
of all,? he exclaimed, ?What is this? I know nothing of any nightingale.
Is there such a bird in my empire? and even in my garden? I have
never heard of it. Something, it appears, may be learnt from books.?
Then he called one of his lords-in-waiting, who was so high-bred,
that when any in an inferior rank to himself spoke to him, or asked
him a question, he would answer, ?Pooh,? which means nothing.
?There is a very wonderful bird mentioned here, called a
nightingale,? said the emperor; ?they say it is the best thing in my
large kingdom. Why have I not been told of it??
?I have never heard the name,? replied the cavalier; ?she has
not been presented at court.?
?It is my pleasure that she shall appear this evening.? said the
emperor; ?the whole world knows what I possess better than I
?I have never heard of her,? said the cavalier; ?yet I will endeavor
to find her.?
But where was the nightingale to be found? The nobleman went
up stairs and down, through halls and passages; yet none of those
whom he met had heard of the bird. So he returned to the emperor,
and said that it must be a fable, invented by those who had written
the book. ?Your imperial majesty,? said he, ?cannot believe everything
contained in books; sometimes they are only fiction, or what is called
the black art.?
?But the book in which I have read this account,? said the
emperor, ?was sent to me by the great and mighty emperor of Japan,
and therefore it cannot contain a falsehood. I will hear the
nightingale, she must be here this evening; she has my highest
favor; and if she does not come, the whole court shall be trampled
upon after supper is ended.?
?Tsing-pe!? cried the lord-in-waiting, and again he ran up and
down stairs, through all the halls and corridors; and half the court
ran with him, for they did not like the idea of being trampled upon.
There was a great inquiry about this wonderful nightingale, whom
all the world knew, but who was unknown to the court.
At last they met with a poor little girl in the kitchen, who said,
?Oh, yes, I know the nightingale quite well; indeed, she can sing.
Every evening I have permission to take home to my poor sick
mother the scraps from the table; she lives down by the sea-shore,
and as I come back I feel tired, and I sit down in the wood to rest,
and listen to the nightingale?s song. Then the tears come into my
eyes, and it is just as if my mother kissed me.?
?Little maiden,? said the lord-in-waiting, ?I will obtain for you
constant employment in the kitchen, and you shall have
permission to see the emperor dine, if you will lead us to the
nightingale; for she is invited for this evening to the palace.? So
she went into the wood where the nightingale sang, and half the
court followed her. As they went along, a cow began lowing.
?Oh,? said a young courtier, ?now we have found her; what
wonderful power for such a small creature; I have certainly heard
?No, that is only a cow lowing,? said the little girl; ?we are a
long way from the place yet.?
Then some frogs began to croak in the marsh.
?Beautiful,? said the young courtier again. ?Now I hear it, tinkling
like little church bells.?
?No, those are frogs,? said the little maiden; ?but I think we shall
soon hear her now:? and presently the nightingale began to sing.
?Hark, hark! there she is,? said the girl, ?and there she sits,? she
added, pointing to a little gray bird who was perched on a bough.
?Is it possible?? said the lord-in-waiting, ?I never imagined it
would be a little, plain, simple thing like that. She has certainly
changed color at seeing so many grand people around her.?
?Little nightingale,? cried the girl, raising her voice, ?our
most gracious emperor wishes you to sing before him.?
?With the greatest pleasure,? said the nightingale, and
began to sing most delightfully.
?It sounds like tiny glass bells,? said the lord-in-waiting, ?and
see how her little throat works. It is surprising that we have
never heard this before; she will be a great success at court.?
?Shall I sing once more before the emperor?? asked the
nightingale, who thought he was present.
?My excellent little nightingale,? said the courtier, ?I have
the great pleasure of inviting you to a court festival this evening,
where you will gain imperial favor by your charming song.?
?My song sounds best in the green wood,? said the bird; but
still she came willingly when she heard the emperor?s wish.
The palace was elegantly decorated for the occasion. The
walls and floors of porcelain glittered in the light of a thousand
lamps. Beautiful flowers, round which little bells were tied, stood
in the corridors: what with the running to and fro and the draught,
these bells tinkled so loudly that no one could speak to be heard.
In the centre of the great hall, a golden perch had been fixed for
the nightingale to sit on. The whole court was present, and the
little kitchen-maid had received permission to stand by the door.
She was not installed as a real court cook. All were in full dress,
and every eye was turned to the little gray bird when the emperor
nodded to her to begin. The nightingale sang so sweetly that the
tears came into the emperor?s eyes, and then rolled down his
cheeks, as her song became still more touching and went to
everyone?s heart. The emperor was so delighted that he declared
the nightingale should have his gold slipper to wear round her
neck, but she declined the honor with thanks: she had been
sufficiently rewarded already. ?I have seen tears in an emperor?s
eyes,? she said, ?that is my richest reward. An emperor?s tears have
wonderful power, and are quite sufficient honor for me;? and then
she sang again more enchantingly than ever.
?That singing is a lovely gift;? said the ladies of the court to
each other; and then they took water in their mouths to make
them utter the gurgling sounds of the nightingale when they
spoke to anyone, so thay they might fancy themselves nightingales.
And the footmen and chambermaids also expressed their
satisfaction, which is saying a great deal, for they are very difficult
to please. In fact the nightingale?s visit was most successful. She
was now to remain at court, to have her own cage, with liberty to
go out twice a day, and once during the night. Twelve servants
were appointed to attend her on these occasions, who each
held her by a silken string fastened to her leg. There was certainly
not much pleasure in this kind of flying.
The whole city spoke of the wonderful bird, and when two
people met, one said ?nightin,? and the other said ?gale,? and
they understood what was meant, for nothing else was talked
of. Eleven peddlers? children were named after her, but not one
of them could sing a note.
One day the emperor received a large packet on which was
written ?The Nightingale.? ?Here is no doubt a new book about
our celebrated bird,? said the emperor. But instead of a book, it
was a work of art contained in a casket, an artificial nightingale
made to look like a living one, and covered all over with diamonds,
rubies, and sapphires. As soon as the artificial bird was wound up,
it could sing like the real one, and could move its tail up and down,
which sparkled with silver and gold. Round its neck hung a piece of
ribbon, on which was written ?The Emperor of Japan?s nightingale
is poor compared with that of the Emperor of China?s.?
?This is very beautiful,? exclaimed all who saw it, and he who
had brought the artificial bird received the title of ?Imperial
?Now they must sing together,? said the court, ?and what a
duet it will be.? But they did not get on well, for the real nightingale
sang in its own natural way, but the artificial bird sang only waltzes.
?That is not a fault,? said the music-master, ?it is quite perfect
to my taste,? so then it had to sing alone, and was as successful
as the real bird; besides, it was so much prettier to look at, for it
sparkled like bracelets and breast-pins. Three and thirty times did
it sing the same tunes without being tired; the people would gladly
have heard it again, but the emperor said the living nightingale
ought to sing something. But where was she? No one had noticed
her when she flew out at the open window, back to her own
?What strange conduct,? said the emperor, when her flight had
been discovered; and all the courtiers blamed her, and said she
was a very ungrateful creature.
?But we have the best bird after all,? said one, and then they
would have the bird sing again, although it was the thirty-fourth
time they had listened to the same piece, and even then they had
not learnt it, for it was rather difficult. But the music-master praised
the bird in the highest degree, and even asserted that it was better
than a real nightingale, not only in its dress and the beautiful
diamonds, but also in its musical power. ?For you must perceive,
my chief lord and emperor, that with a real nightingale we can never
tell what is going to be sung, but with this bird everything is settled.
It can be opened and explained, so that people may understand how
the waltzes are formed, and why one note follows upon another.?
?This is exactly what we think,? they all replied, and then the
music-master received permission to exhibit the bird to the people
on the following Sunday, and the emperor commanded that they
should be present to hear it sing. When they heard it they were
like people intoxicated; however it must have been with drinking
tea, which is quite a Chinese custom. They all said ?Oh!? and held
up their forefingers and nodded, but a poor fisherman, who had
heard the real nightingale, said, ?it sounds prettily enough, and the
melodies are all alike; yet there seems something wanting, I cannot
exactly tell what.?
And after this the real nightingale was banished from the empire,
and the artificial bird placed on a silk cushion close to the emperor?s
bed. The presents of gold and precious stones which had been
received with it were round the bird, and it was now advanced to
the title of ?Little Imperial Toilet Singer,? and to the rank of No. 1 on
the left hand; for the emperor considered the left side, on which the
heart lies, as the most noble, and the heart of an emperor is in the
same place as that of other people.
The music-master wrote a work, in twenty-five volumes, about
the artificial bird, which was very learned and very long, and full of
the most difficult Chinese words; yet all the people said they had
read it, and understood it, for fear of being thought stupid and
having their bodies trampled upon.
So a year passed, and the emperor, the court, and all the other
Chinese knew every little turn in the artificial bird?s song; and for
that same reason it pleased them better. They could sing with the
bird, which they often did. The street-boys sang, ?Zi-zi-zi, cluck,
cluck, cluck,? and the emperor himself could sing it also. It was
really most amusing.
One evening, when the artificial bird was singing its best, and
the emperor lay in bed listening to it, something inside the bird
sounded ?whizz.? Then a spring cracked. ?Whir-r-r-r? went all the
wheels, running round, and then the music stopped. The emperor
immediately sprang out of bed, and called for his physician; but
what could he do? Then they sent for a watchmaker; and, after a
great deal of talking and examination, the bird was put into
something like order; but he said that it must be used very
carefully, as the barrels were worn, and it would be impossible to
put in new ones without injuring the music. Now there was great
sorrow, as the bird could only be allowed to play once a year; and
even that was dangerous for the works inside it. Then the music-
master made a little speech, full of hard words, and declared that
the bird was as good as ever; and, of course no one contradicted
Five years passed, and then a real grief came upon the land.
The Chinese really were fond of their emperor, and he now lay so
ill that he was not expected to live. Already a new emperor had
been chosen and the people who stood in the street asked the
lord-in-waiting how the old emperor was; but he only said,
?Pooh!? and shook his head.
Cold and pale lay the emperor in his royal bed; the whole
court thought he was dead, and every one ran away to pay
homage to his successor. The chamberlains went out to have a
talk on the matter, and the ladies?-maids invited company to
take coffee. Cloth had been laid down on the halls and
passages, so that not a footstep should be heard, and all was
silent and still. But the emperor was not yet dead, although he
lay white and stiff on his gorgeous bed, with the long velvet
curtains and heavy gold tassels. A window stood open, and the
moon shone in upon the emperor and the artificial bird. The poor
emperor, finding he could scarcely breathe with a strange weight
on his chest, opened his eyes, and saw Death sitting there. He
had put on the emperor?s golden crown, and held in one hand
his sword of state, and in the other his beautiful banner. All
around the bed and peeping through the long velvet curtains,
were a number of strange heads, some very ugly, and others
lovely and gentle-looking. These were the emperor?s good and
bad deeds, which stared him in the face now Death sat at his
?Do you remember this?? ?Do you recollect that?? they asked
one after another, thus bringing to his remembrance
circumstances that made the perspiration stand on his brow.
?I know nothing about it,? said the emperor. ?Music! music!?
he cried; ?the large Chinese drum! that I may not hear what
they say.? But they still went on, and Death nodded like a
Chinaman to all they said. ?Music! music!? shouted the emperor.
?You little precious golden bird, sing, pray sing! I have given
you gold and costly presents; I have even hung my golden
slipper round your neck. Sing! sing!? But the bird remained
silent. There was no one to wind it up, and therefore it could
not sing a note.
Death continued to stare at the emperor with his cold,
hollow eyes, and the room was fearfully still. Suddenly there
came through the open window the sound of sweet music.
Outside, on the bough of a tree, sat the living nightingale. She
had heard of the emperor?s illness, and was therefore come to
sing to him of hope and trust. And as she sung, the shadows
grew paler and paler; the blood in the emperor?s veins flowed
more rapidly, and gave life to his weak limbs; and even Death
himself listened, and said, ?Go on, little nightingale, go on.?
?Then will you give me the beautiful golden sword and
that rich banner? and will you give me the emperor?s crown??
said the bird.
So Death gave up each of these treasures for a song; and
the nightingale continued her singing. She sang of the quiet
churchyard, where the white roses grow, where the elder-tree
wafts its perfume on the breeze, and the fresh, sweet grass is
moistened by the mourners? tears. Then Death longed to go
and see his garden, and floated out through the window in
the form of a cold, white mist.
?Thanks, thanks, you heavenly little bird. I know you well.
I banished you from my kingdom once, and yet you have
charmed away the evil faces from my bed, and banished Death
from my heart, with your sweet song. How can I reward you??
?You have already rewarded me,? said the nightingale.
?I shall never forget that I drew tears from your eyes the first
time I sang to you. These are the jewels that rejoice a singer?s
heart. But now sleep, and grow strong and well again. I will
sing to you again.?
And as she sung, the emperor fell into a sweet sleep; and
how mild and refreshing that slumber was! When he awoke,
strengthened and restored, the sun shone brightly through the
window; but not one of his servants had returned?they all
believed he was dead; only the nightingale still sat beside him,
?You must always remain with me,? said the emperor. ?You
shall sing only when it pleases you; and I will break the
artificial bird into a thousand pieces.?
?No; do not do that,? replied the nightingale; ?the bird did
very well as long as it could. Keep it here still. I cannot live in
the palace, and build my nest; but let me come when I like. I
will sit on a bough outside your window, in the evening, and
sing to you, so that you may be happy, and have thoughts
full of joy. I will sing to you of those who are happy, and
those who suffer; of the good and the evil, who are hidden
around you. The little singing bird flies far from you and your
court to the home of the fisherman and the peasant?s cot. I
love your heart better than your crown; and yet something
holy lingers round that also. I will come, I will sing to you; but
you must promise me one thing.?
?Everything,? said the emperor, who, having dressed
himself in his imperial robes, stood with the hand that held
the heavy golden sword pressed to his heart.
?I only ask one thing,? she replied; ?let no one know that
you have a little bird who tells you everything. It will be best
to conceal it.? So saying, the nightingale flew away.
The servants now came in to look after the dead emperor;
when, lo! there he stood, and, to their astonishment, said,