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, to avoid it being 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 all the time, so that nobody could 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 you went on walking, you came to beautiful woods with high trees and deep lakes. The wood went all the way 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 wonderfully, 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 fishing nets. ‘Heavens, how beautiful it is!’ he said, but then he had to go back to work 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 city, 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 told everyone about it and writers wrote many books about the town, the palace and the garden. But nobody forgot the nightingale, it was always said that it was the most precious thing of all. 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 after a while 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 in fact and I have never heard of it? Imagine my having to discover this from a book?’
Then he called his butler, who acted very grand.
‘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 butler. ‘It has never been introduced in the palace.’
‘I wish it to appear here this evening to sing to me,’ said the emperor. ‘The whole world knows what I own and I know nothing about it!’
‘I have never heard it mentioned before,’ said the butler. ‘I will look for it, and I will find it!’ But where was it to be found? The butler 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 butler ran back to the emperor, and said that it must not a true story, made up by the writers of the books. ‘Your majesty must not believe everything that is written. Books are often not true.!’
‘But the book in which I read it is sent to me by the powerful Emperor of Japan, so it must be true. I will hear this nightingale; I insist it is brought here to-night. I will make sure it is well taken care of. If, however, it is not brought here, I will have punish everyone after supper!’
‘As you please!’ 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 punished. There were many questions 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 left-over meat to my poor sick mother who 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 make sure you get a good job in the kitchen, 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 moo.
‘Oh!’ said a young assistant, ‘there we have it. What wonderful power for such a little creature. I have certainly heard it before.’
‘No, those are the cows mooing, we are a long way yet from the place.’ Then the frogs began to croak in the marsh.
‘Beautiful!’ said the Chinese priest, ‘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 ordinary it looks! Seeing so many important people must have frightened all its colours away.’
‘Little nightingale!’ called the kitchen-maid quite loud, ‘our emperor wishes you to sing to him!’
‘With the greatest of pleasure!’ said the nightingale, singing 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 request your attendance at a court performance to-night, where you will charm his majesty the emperor with your wonderful singing.’
‘It sounds best among the trees,’ said the nightingale, but it went with them willingly when it heard that the emperor wished it.
The palace had been decorated 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 were arranged in the corridors. 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 been made a cook. They were all dressed in their best clothes, 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 and 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, saying it was already happy enough.
‘I have seen tears in the eyes of the emperor; that is my richest reward. The tears of an emperor have a wonderful power!’ and then it again burst into its sweet heavenly song.
‘That is the most delightful thing I have ever seen!’ said the ladies, and they took some water into their mouths to try and make the same gurgling noise as the bird when any one spoke to them. Even the handymen and the maids announced that they liked it and they are hard to please. Yes, indeed, the nightingale had made a sensation. It was to stay at court now, and to have its own cage and was free to walk out twice a day and once at night. It always had twelve footmen, with each one holding a ribbon which was tied round its leg. It wasn’t much fun for the nightingale.
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 cheese-makers’ children were called after it, but none of them could sing.
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 not a book, it was a little work of art in a box, a toy clockwork 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! 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 clockwork 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 beautiful jewellery. It sang the same tune thirty three 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 king’s people were angry with it and said it was a most ungrateful bird.
‘We have got the best bird though,’ said they, and then the toy 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 a lot and insisted that it was much better than the real nightingale, not only because of all the diamonds, but the inside of it 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! You can open it and show how cleverly it is built to plat the waltzes, how they go, and how one note follows another!’
I agree,’ they all said, and it was agreed by the Emperor that the music-master was to show the bird to the public next Sunday and hear it sing.
So the people heard it, and were delighted. 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 missing, we don’t know what.’ The real nightingale was banished from the kingdom.
The mechanical bird had its place on a silk cushion, close to the emperor’s bed. All the presents it had received of gold and precious jewels were scattered round it. It was given the title of ‘Chief Imperial Singer in the Bedroom,’ on the left side of the bed, for the emperor thought that side the most important one, on the same side as his heart. The music-master wrote twenty five books about the artificial bird. The work 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 thought stupid and might be punished.
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. Everyone from the street-boys to the emperor sang along with it.
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 fix it so be sure it would still play the tune properly. This was a great blow! They only dared to let the artificial bird sing once a year, but then the music-master made a little speech, using all the most difficult words. He said it was just as good as ever.
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 was about to die, 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.
‘Not good,’ he answered, shaking his head.
The emperor lay pale and cold in his huge bed, the assistants thought he was dead, and they all went off to pay their respects to their new emperor. The handymen ran off to talk things over, and the maids 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 beautiful bed with its velvet hangings and golden tassels. There was an open window high above him, and the moon streamed in upon the emperor, and the clockwork 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 the emperor’s golden crown. In his hand he held the emperor’s golden sword. Round about, from around the room looked many strange faces. Some of the faces looked disgusting and horrible, others looked nice. The faces were all the emperor’s good and bad deeds, which now looked him when Death was sitting on him.
‘Do you remember that?’ whispered one after the other; ‘Do you remember this?’ and they told him so many things that the sweat 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 look at him with the empty sockets of his eyes, 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 started to move again through his body. Even Death himself listened to the song and said, ‘Go on, little nightingale, go on!’
‘Yes, if you give me the golden sword, 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 there is a beautiful frangrance of flowers. 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 things 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! It made me so happy. But sleep now, and wake up fresh and strong! I will sing to you!’
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 only have to sing when you like, and I will break the artificial bird into a thousand pieces!’
‘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 your people who are far from you and your court. 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 heart.
‘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, saying ‘Good morning!’
And for many years afterwards, the emperor ruled wisely and kindly, and with great happiness. Nobody ever found out that the nightingale was singing to him and telling him about what was happening all around.