Among these trees lived a nightingale, which sang so

deliciously, that even the poor fisherman, who had plenty of other

things to do, lay still to listen to it, when he was out at night

drawing in his nets

In China, as you know, the Emperor is a Chinaman, and all the people

around him are Chinamen too. It is many years since the story I am going

to tell you happened, but that is all the more reason for telling it,

lest it should be forgotten. The emperor's palace was the most beautiful

thing in the world; it was made entirely of the finest porcelain, very

costly, but at the same time so fragile that it could only be touched

with the very greatest care. There were the most extraordinary flowers

to be seen in the garden; the most beautiful ones had little silver

bells tied to them, which tinkled perpetually, so that one should not

pass the flowers without looking at them. Every little detail in the

garden had been most carefully thought out, and it was so big, that even

the gardener himself did not know where it ended. If one went on

walking, one came to beautiful woods with lofty trees and deep lakes.

The wood extended to the sea, which was deep and blue, deep enough for

large ships to sail up right under the branches of the trees. Among

these trees lived a nightingale, which sang so deliciously, that even

the poor fisherman, who had plenty of other things to do, lay still to

listen to it, when he was out at night drawing in his nets. 'Heavens,

how beautiful it is!' he said, but then he had to attend to his business

and forgot it. The next night when he heard it again he would again

exclaim, 'Heavens, how beautiful it is!'

Travellers came to the emperor's capital, from every country in the

world; they admired everything very much, especially the palace and the

gardens, but when they heard the nightingale they all said, 'This is

better than anything!'

When they got home they described it, and the learned ones wrote many

books about the town, the palace and the garden; but nobody forgot the

nightingale, it was always put above everything else. Those among them

who were poets wrote the most beautiful poems, all about the nightingale

in the woods by the deep blue sea. These books went all over the world,

and in course of time some of them reached the emperor. He sat in his

golden chair reading and reading, and nodding his head, well pleased to

hear such beautiful descriptions of the town, the palace and the garden.

'But the nightingale is the best of all,' he read.

'What is this?' said the emperor. 'The nightingale? Why, I know nothing

about it. Is there such a bird in my kingdom, and in my own garden into

the bargain, and I have never heard of it? Imagine my having to

discover this from a book?'

Then he called his gentleman-in-waiting, who was so grand that when any

one of a lower rank dared to speak to him, or to ask him a question, he

would only answer 'P,' which means nothing at all.

'There is said to be a very wonderful bird called a nightingale here,'

said the emperor. 'They say that it is better than anything else in all

my great kingdom! Why have I never been told anything about it?'

'I have never heard it mentioned,' said the gentleman-in-waiting. 'It

has never been presented at court.'

'I wish it to appear here this evening to sing to me,' said the emperor.

'The whole world knows what I am possessed of, and I know nothing about


'I have never heard it mentioned before,' said the gentleman-in-waiting.

'I will seek it, and I will find it!' But where was it to be found? The

gentleman-in-waiting ran upstairs and downstairs and in and out of all

the rooms and corridors. No one of all those he met had ever heard

anything about the nightingale; so the gentleman-in-waiting ran back to

the emperor, and said that it must be a myth, invented by the writers of

the books. 'Your imperial majesty must not believe everything that is

written; books are often mere inventions, even if they do not belong to

what we call the black art!'

'But the book in which I read it is sent to me by the powerful Emperor

of Japan, so it can't be untrue. I will hear this nightingale; I insist

upon its being here to-night. I extend my most gracious protection to

it, and if it is not forthcoming, I will have the whole court trampled

upon after supper!'

'Tsing-pe!' said the gentleman-in-waiting, and away he ran again, up and

down all the stairs, in and out of all the rooms and corridors; half the

court ran with him, for they none of them wished to be trampled on.

There was much questioning about this nightingale, which was known to

all the outside world, but to no one at court. At last they found a poor

little maid in the kitchen. She said, 'Oh heavens, the nightingale? I

know it very well. Yes, indeed it can sing. Every evening I am allowed

to take broken meat to my poor sick mother: she lives down by the shore.

On my way back, when I am tired, I rest awhile in the wood, and then I

hear the nightingale. Its song brings the tears into my eyes; I feel as

if my mother were kissing me!'

'Little kitchen-maid,' said the gentleman-in-waiting, 'I will procure

you a permanent position in the kitchen, and permission to see the

emperor dining, if you will take us to the nightingale. It is commanded

to appear at court to-night.'

Then they all went out into the wood where the nightingale usually sang.

Half the court was there. As they were going along at their best pace a

cow began to bellow.

'Oh!' said a young courtier, 'there we have it. What wonderful power

for such a little creature; I have certainly heard it before.'

'No, those are the cows bellowing; we are a long way yet from the

place.' Then the frogs began to croak in the marsh.

'Beautiful!' said the Chinese chaplain, 'it is just like the tinkling of

church bells.'

'No, those are the frogs!' said the little kitchen-maid. 'But I think we

shall soon hear it now!'

Then the nightingale began to sing.

'There it is!' said the little girl. 'Listen, listen, there it sits!'

and she pointed to a little grey bird up among the branches.

'Is it possible?' said the gentleman-in-waiting. 'I should never have

thought it was like that. How common it looks! Seeing so many grand

people must have frightened all its colours away.'

'Little nightingale!' called the kitchen-maid quite loud, 'our gracious

emperor wishes you to sing to him!'

'With the greatest of pleasure!' said the nightingale, warbling away in

the most delightful fashion.

'It is just like crystal bells,' said the gentleman-in-waiting. 'Look at

its little throat, how active it is. It is extraordinary that we have

never heard it before! I am sure it will be a great success at court!'

'Shall I sing again to the emperor?' said the nightingale, who thought

he was present.

'My precious little nightingale,' said the gentleman-in-waiting, 'I have

the honour to command your attendance at a court festival to-night,

where you will charm his gracious majesty the emperor with your

fascinating singing.'

'It sounds best among the trees,' said the nightingale, but it went with

them willingly when it heard that the emperor wished it.

'Is it possible?' said the gentleman-in-waiting. 'I

should never have thought it was like that. How common it looks. Seeing

so many grand people must have frightened all its colours away

The palace had been brightened up for the occasion. The walls and the

floors, which were all of china, shone by the light of many thousand

golden lamps. The most beautiful flowers, all of the tinkling kind, were

arranged in the corridors; there was hurrying to and fro, and a great

draught, but this was just what made the bells ring; one's ears were

full of the tinkling. In the middle of the large reception-room where

the emperor sat a golden rod had been fixed, on which the nightingale

was to perch. The whole court was assembled, and the little kitchen-maid

had been permitted to stand behind the door, as she now had the actual

title of cook. They were all dressed in their best; everybody's eyes

were turned towards the little grey bird at which the emperor was

nodding. The nightingale sang delightfully, and the tears came into the

emperor's eyes, nay, they rolled down his cheeks; and then the

nightingale sang more beautifully than ever, its notes touched all

hearts. The emperor was charmed, and said the nightingale should

have his gold slipper to wear round its neck. But the nightingale

declined with thanks; it had already been sufficiently rewarded.

'I have seen tears in the eyes of the emperor; that is my richest

reward. The tears of an emperor have a wonderful power! God knows I am

sufficiently recompensed!' and then it again burst into its sweet

heavenly song.

'That is the most delightful coquetting I have ever seen!' said the

ladies, and they took some water into their mouths to try and make the

same gurgling when any one spoke to them, thinking so to equal the

nightingale. Even the lackeys and the chambermaids announced that they

were satisfied, and that is saying a great deal; they are always the

most difficult people to please. Yes, indeed, the nightingale had made a

sensation. It was to stay at court now, and to have its own cage, as

well as liberty to walk out twice a day, and once in the night. It

always had twelve footmen, with each one holding a ribbon which was tied

round its leg. There was not much pleasure in an outing of that sort.

The whole town talked about the marvellous bird, and if two people met,

one said to the other 'Night,' and the other answered 'Gale,' and then

they sighed, perfectly understanding each other. Eleven cheesemongers'

children were called after it, but they had not got a voice among them.

One day a large parcel came for the emperor; outside was written the

word 'Nightingale.'

'Here we have another new book about this celebrated bird,' said the

emperor. But it was no book; it was a little work of art in a box, an

artificial nightingale, exactly like the living one, but it was studded

all over with diamonds, rubies and sapphires.

When the bird was wound up it could sing one of the songs the real one

sang, and it wagged its tail, which glittered with silver and gold. A

ribbon was tied round its neck on which was written, 'The Emperor of

Japan's nightingale is very poor compared to the Emperor of China's.'

Everybody said, 'Oh, how beautiful!' And the person who brought the

artificial bird immediately received the title of Imperial

Nightingale-Carrier in Chief.

'Now, they must sing together; what a duet that will be.'

Then they had to sing together, but they did not get on very well, for

the real nightingale sang in its own way, and the artificial one could

only sing waltzes.

'There is no fault in that,' said the music-master; 'it is perfectly in

time and correct in every way!'

Then the artificial bird had to sing alone. It was just as great a

success as the real one, and then it was so much prettier to look at; it

glittered like bracelets and breast-pins.

Then it again burst into its sweet heavenly song

'That is the most delightful coquetting I have ever seen!' said the

ladies, and they took some water into their mouths to try and make the

same gurgling, thinking so to equal the nightingale._

It sang the same tune three and thirty times over, and yet it was

not tired; people would willingly have heard it from the beginning

again, but the emperor said that the real one must have a turn now--but

where was it? No one had noticed that it had flown out of the open

window, back to its own green woods.

'But what is the meaning of this?' said the emperor.

All the courtiers railed at it, and said it was a most ungrateful bird.

'We have got the best bird though,' said they, and then the artificial

bird had to sing again, and this was the thirty-fourth time that they

heard the same tune, but they did not know it thoroughly even yet,

because it was so difficult.

The music-master praised the bird tremendously, and insisted that it was

much better than the real nightingale, not only as regarded the outside

with all the diamonds, but the inside too.

'Because you see, my ladies and gentlemen, and the emperor before all,

in the real nightingale you never know what you will hear, but in the

artificial one everything is decided beforehand! So it is, and so it

must remain, it can't be otherwise. You can account for things, you can

open it and show the human ingenuity in arranging the waltzes, how they

go, and how one note follows upon another!'

'Those are exactly my opinions,' they all said, and the music-master got

leave to show the bird to the public next Sunday. They were also to hear

it sing, said the emperor. So they heard it, and all became as

enthusiastic over it as if they had drunk themselves merry on tea,

because that is a thoroughly Chinese habit.

Then they all said 'Oh,' and stuck their forefingers in the air and

nodded their heads; but the poor fishermen who had heard the real

nightingale said, 'It sounds very nice, and it is very like the real

one, but there is something wanting, we don't know what.' The real

nightingale was banished from the kingdom.

The artificial bird had its place on a silken cushion, close to the

emperor's bed: all the presents it had received of gold and precious

jewels were scattered round it. Its title had risen to be 'Chief

Imperial Singer of the Bed-Chamber,' in rank number one, on the left

side; for the emperor reckoned that side the important one, where the

heart was seated. And even an emperor's heart is on the left side. The

music-master wrote five-and-twenty volumes about the artificial bird;

the treatise was very long and written in all the most difficult Chinese

characters. Everybody said they had read and understood it, for

otherwise they would have been reckoned stupid, and then their bodies

would have been trampled upon.

The music-master wrote five-and-twenty volumes about the

artificial bird; the treatise was very long and written in all the most

difficult Chinese character

Things went on in this way for a whole year. The emperor, the court, and

all the other Chinamen knew every little gurgle in the song of the

artificial bird by heart; but they liked it all the better for this, and

they could all join in the song themselves. Even the street boys

sang 'zizizi' and 'cluck, cluck, cluck,' and the emperor sang it too.

But one evening when the bird was singing its best, and the emperor was

lying in bed listening to it, something gave way inside the bird with a

'whizz.' Then a spring burst, 'whirr' went all the wheels, and the music

stopped. The emperor jumped out of bed and sent for his private

physicians, but what good could they do? Then they sent for the

watchmaker, and after a good deal of talk and examination he got the

works to go again somehow; but he said it would have to be saved as much

as possible, because it was so worn out, and he could not renew the

works so as to be sure of the tune. This was a great blow! They only

dared to let the artificial bird sing once a year, and hardly that; but

then the music-master made a little speech, using all the most difficult

words. He said it was just as good as ever, and his saying it made it


Five years now passed, and then a great grief came upon the nation, for

they were all very fond of their emperor, and he was ill and could not

live, it was said. A new emperor was already chosen, and people stood

about in the street, and asked the gentleman-in-waiting how their

emperor was going on.

'P,' answered he, shaking his head.

The emperor lay pale and cold in his gorgeous bed, the courtiers thought

he was dead, and they all went off to pay their respects to their new

emperor. The lackeys ran off to talk matters over, and the chambermaids

gave a great coffee-party. Cloth had been laid down in all the rooms and

corridors so as to deaden the sound of footsteps, so it was very, very

quiet. But the emperor was not dead yet. He lay stiff and pale in the

gorgeous bed with its velvet hangings and heavy golden tassels. There

was an open window high above him, and the moon streamed in upon the

emperor, and the artificial bird beside him.

The poor emperor could hardly breathe, he seemed to have a weight on his

chest, he opened his eyes, and then he saw that it was Death sitting

upon his chest, wearing his golden crown. In one hand he held the

emperor's golden sword, and in the other his imperial banner. Round

about, from among the folds of the velvet hangings peered many curious

faces: some were hideous, others gentle and pleasant. They were all the

emperor's good and bad deeds, which now looked him in the face when

Death was weighing him down.

'Do you remember that?' whispered one after the other; 'Do you remember

this?' and they told him so many things that the perspiration poured

down his face.

'I never knew that,' said the emperor. 'Music, music, sound the great

Chinese drums!' he cried, 'that I may not hear what they are saying.'

But they went on and on, and Death sat nodding his head, just like a

Chinaman, at everything that was said.

'Music, music!' shrieked the emperor. 'You precious little golden bird,

sing, sing! I have loaded you with precious stones, and even hung my own

golden slipper round your neck; sing, I tell you, sing!'

But the bird stood silent; there was nobody to wind it up, so of course

it could not go. Death continued to fix the great empty sockets of his

eyes upon him, and all was silent, so terribly silent.

Suddenly, close to the window, there was a burst of lovely song; it was

the living nightingale, perched on a branch outside. It had heard of the

emperor's need, and had come to bring comfort and hope to him. As it

sang the faces round became fainter and fainter, and the blood coursed

with fresh vigour in the emperor's veins and through his feeble limbs.

Even Death himself listened to the song and said, 'Go on, little

nightingale, go on!'

'Yes, if you give me the gorgeous golden sword; yes, if you give me the

imperial banner; yes, if you give me the emperor's crown.'

And Death gave back each of these treasures for a song, and the

nightingale went on singing. It sang about the quiet churchyard, when

the roses bloom, where the elder flower scents the air, and where the

fresh grass is ever moistened anew by the tears of the mourner. This

song brought to Death a longing for his own garden, and, like a cold

grey mist, he passed out of the window.

'Thanks, thanks!' said the emperor; 'you heavenly little bird, I know

you! I banished you from my kingdom, and yet you have charmed the evil

visions away from my bed by your song, and even Death away from my

heart! How can I ever repay you?'

'You have rewarded me,' said the nightingale. 'I brought the tears to

your eyes, the very first time I ever sang to you, and I shall never

forget it! Those are the jewels which gladden the heart of a

singer;--but sleep now, and wake up fresh and strong! I will sing to


Then it sang again, and the emperor fell into a sweet refreshing sleep.

The sun shone in at his window, when he woke refreshed and well; none of

his attendants had yet come back to him, for they thought he was dead,

but the nightingale still sat there singing.

'You must always stay with me!' said the emperor. 'You shall only sing

when you like, and I will break the artificial bird into a thousand


Even Death himself listened to the song and said, 'Go

on, little nightingale, go on!

'Don't do that!' said the nightingale, 'it did all the good it could!

keep it as you have always done! I can't build my nest and live in this

palace, but let me come whenever I like, then I will sit on the branch

in the evening, and sing to you. I will sing to cheer you and to make

you thoughtful too; I will sing to you of the happy ones, and of those

that suffer too. I will sing about the good and the evil, which are kept

hidden from you. The little singing bird flies far and wide, to the poor

fisherman, and the peasant's home, to numbers who are far from you and

your court. I love your heart more than your crown, and yet there is an

odour of sanctity round the crown too!--I will come, and I will

sing to you!--But you must promise me one thing!--

'Everything!' said the emperor, who stood there in his imperial robes

which he had just put on, and he held the sword heavy with gold upon his


'One thing I ask you! Tell no one that you have a little bird who tells

you everything; it will be better so!'

Then the nightingale flew away. The attendants came in to see after

their dead emperor, and there he stood, bidding them 'Good morning!'

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