In China, you must know, the Emperor is a Chinaman, and all those around him are Chinamen, too. It is many years since all this happened, and for that very reason it is worth hearing, before it is forgotten.
The Emperor's palace was the most beautiful in the world; built all of fine porcelain and very costly, but so fragile that it was very difficult to touch, and you had to be very careful in doing so. The most wonderful flowers were to be seen in the garden, and to the most beautiful silver bells, tinkling bells were tied, for fear people should pass by without noticing them. How well everything had been thought out in the Emperor's garden! This was so big, that the gardener himself did not know where it ended. If you walked on and on you came to the most beautiful forest, with tall trees and big lakes. The wood stretched right down to the sea which was blue and deep; great ships could pass underneath the branches, and here a nightingale had made its home, and its singing was so entrancing that the poor fisherman, though he had so many other things to do, would lie still and listen when he was out at night drawing in his nets.
"How beautiful it is!" he said; but then he was forced to think about his own affairs, and the Nightingale was forgotten. The next day, when it sang again, the fisherman said the same thing: "How beautiful it is!" Travellers from all the countries of the world came to the emperor's town, and expressed their admiration of the palace and the garden, but when they heard the Nightingale, they all said: "This is the best of all!" Now, when these travellers came home, they told of what they had seen. And scholars wrote many books about the town, the palace and the garden, but nobody left out the Nightingale; it was always spoken of as the most wonderful of all they had seen. And those who had the gift of the Poet, wrote the most delightful poems all about the Nightingale in the wood near the deep lake.
The books went round the world, and in the course of time some of them reached the Emperor. He sat in his golden chair, and read and read, nodding his head every minute; for it pleased him to read the 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! I now nothing whatever about it. To think of there being such a bird in my Kingdom —nay in my very garden—and I have never heard it. And to think one should learn such a thing for the first time from a book!" Then he summoned his Lord-in-Waiting, who was such a grand personage that if anyone inferior in rank ventured to speak to him, or ask him about anything, he merely answered "P," which meant nothing whatever.
"There is said to be a most wonderful bird, called the Nightingale," said the Emperor; "they say it is the best thing in my great Kingdom. Why have I been told nothing about it?" "I have never heard it mentioned before," said the Lord-in-Waiting. "It has certainly never been presented at court." "It is my good pleasure that it shall appear to-night and sing before me!" said the Emperor. "The whole world knows what is mine, and I myself do not know it." "I have never heard it mentioned before," said the Lord-in-Waiting. "I will seek it, and I shall find it." But where was it to be found? The Lord-in-Waiting ran up and down all the stairs, through halls and passages, but not one of all those whom he met had ever heard a word about the Nightingale; so the Lord-in- Waiting ran back to the Emperor and told him that it must certainly be a fable invented by writers of books.
"Your Majesty must not believe all that is written in books. It is pure invention, something which is called the Black Art." "But," said the Emperor, "the book in which I have read this was sent to me by His Majesty, the Emperor of Japan, and therefore this cannot be a falsehood. I will hear the Nightingale. It must appear this evening! It has my Imperial favor, and if it fails to appear the Court shall be trampled upon after the Court has supped." "Tsing-pe!" said the Lord-in-Waiting, and again he ran up and down all the stairs, through all the passages, and half the Court ran with him, for they had no wish to be trampled upon. And many questions were asked about the wonderful Nightingale, of whom all had heard except those who lived at Court.
At last, they met a poor little girl in the kitchen. She said: "Oh, yes! The Nightingale! I know it well. How it can sing! Every evening I have permission to take the broken pieces from the table to my poor sick mother who lives near the sea-shore, and on my way back, when I feel tired, and rest a while in the wood, then I hear the Nightingale sing, and my eyes are filled with tears; it is as if my mother kissed me." "Little kitchen-maid," said the Lord-in-Waiting, "I will get a permanent place for you in the Court Kitchen and permission to see the Emperor dine, if you can lead us to the Nightingale; for it has been commanded to appear at Court to-night." So they started off all together where the bird used to sing; half the Court went, too. They were going along at a good pace, when suddenly they heard a cow lowing.
"Oh," said a Court-Page. "There it is! What a wonderful power for so small a creature! I have certainly heard it before." "No, those are the cows lowing," said the little kitchen-maid. "We are a long way from the place yet." Then the frogs began to croak in the marsh. "Glorious," said the Court-Preacher.
"Now, I hear it—it is just like little church- bells." "No, those are the frogs," said the little kitchen-maid. "But now I think we shall soon hear it." And then the Nightingale began to sing.
"There it is," said the little girl. "Listen, listen—there it sits!" And she pointed to a little gray bird in the branches.
"Is it possible!" said the Lord-in-Waiting. "I had never supposed it would look like that. How very plain it looks! It has certainly lost its color from seeing so many grand folk here." "Little Nightingale," called out the little kitchen-maid, "our gracious Emperor wishes you to sing for him." "With the greatest pleasure," said the Nightingale, and it sang, and it was a joy to hear it.
"It sounds like little glass bells," said the Lord-in-Waiting; "and just look at its little throat, how it moves! It is astonishing to think we have never heard it before! It will have a real success at Court." "Shall I sing for the Emperor again?" asked the Nightingale, who thought that the Emperor was there in person.
"Mine excellent little Nightingale," said the Lord-in-Waiting, "I have the great pleasure of bidding you to a Court-Festival this night, when you will enchant His Imperial Majesty with your delightful warbling." "My voice sounds better among the green trees," said the Nightingale. But it came willingly when it knew the Emperor wished it.
There was a great deal of furbishing up at the palace. The walls and ceiling which were of porcelain, shone with the light of a thousand golden lamps. The most beautiful flowers of the tinkling kind were placed in the passages. There was a running to and fro and a great draught, but that is just what made the bells ring, and one could not hear oneself speak. In the middle of the great hall where the Emperor sat, a golden rod had been set up on which the Nightingale was to perch. The whole Court was present, and the little kitchen-maid was allowed to stand behind the door, for she had now the actual title of Court Kitchen-Maid.
All were there in their smartest clothes, and they all looked toward the little gray bird to which the Emperor nodded.
And then the Nightingale sang, so gloriously that tears sprang into the Emperor's eyes and rolled down his cheeks, and the Nightingale sang even more sweetly.
The song went straight to the heart, and the Emperor was so delighted that he declared that the Nightingale should have his golden slipper to hang round its neck. But the Nightingale declined. It had already had its reward.
"I have seen tears in the Emperor's eyes. That is my greatest reward. An Emperor's tears have a wonderful power. God knows I am sufficiently rewarded," and again its sweet, glorious voice was heard.
"That is the most delightful coquetting I have ever known," said the ladies sitting round, and they took water into their mouths, in order to gurgle when anyone spoke to them, and they really thought they were like the Nightingale. Even the footmen and the chambermaids sent word that they were satisfied, and that means a great deal, for they are always the most difficult people to please. Yes, indeed, there was no doubt as to the Nightingale's success. It was to stay at Court, and have its own cage, with liberty to go out twice in the daytime, and once at night. Twelve footmen went out with it, and each held a silk ribbon which was tied to the bird's leg, and which they held very tightly. There was not much pleasure in an outing of that sort. The whole town was talking about the wonderful bird, and when two people met, one said: "Nightin —— and the other said "gale," and they sighed and understood one another. Eleven cheesemongers' children were called after the bird, though none of them could sing a note.
One day a large parcel came for the Emperor. Outside was written the word: "Nightingale." "Here we have a new book about our wonderful bird," said the Emperor. But it was not a book; it was a little work of art which lay in a box —an artificial Nightingale, which looked exactly like the real one, but it was studded all over with diamonds, rubies and sapphires. As soon as you wound it up, it could sing one of the songs which the real bird sang, and its tail moved up and down and glittered with silver and gold. Round its neck was a ribbon on which was written: "The Emperor of Japan's Nightingale is poor indeed, compared with the Emperor of China's." "That is delightful," they all said, and on the messenger who had brought the artificial bird, they bestowed the title of "Imperial Nightingale-Bringer-inChief." "Let them sing together, and what a duet that will be!" And so they had to sing, but the thing would not work, because the real Nightingale could only sing in its own way, and the artificial Nightingale went by clockwork.
"That is not its fault," said the band-master. "Time is its strong point and it has quite my method." Then the artificial Nightingale had to sing alone. It had just as much success as the real bird, and it was so much handsomer to look at; it glittered like bracelets and breast-pins. It sang the same tune three and thirty times, and still it was not tired; the people would willingly listen to the whole performance over again from the start, but the Emperor suggested that the real Nightingale should sing for a while —where was it? Nobody had noticed it had flown out of the open window back to its green woods.
"But what is the meaning of all this?" said the Emperor. All the courtiers railed at the Nightingale and said it was a most ungrateful creature.
"We have the better of the two," they said, and the artificial Nightingale had to sing again, and this was the thirty-fourth time they had heard the same tune. But they did not know it properly event then because it was so difficult, and the band-master praised the wonderful bird in the highest terms and even asserted that it was superior to the real bird, not only as regarded the outside, with the many lovely diamonds, but the inside as well.
"You see, ladies and gentlemen, and above all your Imperial Majesty, that with the real Nightingale, you can never predict what may happen, but with the artificial bird, everything is settled beforehand; so it remains and it cannot be changed. One can account for it. One can rip it open, and show the human ingenuity, explaining how the cylinders lie, how they work, and how one thing is the result of another." "That is just what we think," they all exclaimed, and the bandmaster received permission to exhibit the bird to the people on the following Sunday. The Emperor said they would hear it sing. They listened and were as much delighted as if they had been drunk with tea, which is Chinese, you know, and they all said: "Oh!" and stuck their forefingers in the air, and nodded their heads. But the poor fisherman who had heard the real Nightingale, said: "It sounds quite well, and a little like it, but there is something wanting, I do not 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, the gold and precious stones, lay all round it, and it had been honored with the title of High-Imperial-Bed-Room-Singer—in the first rank, on the left side, for even the Emperor considered that side the grander on which the heart is placed, and even an Emperor has his heart on the left side.
The band-master wrote twenty-five volumes about the wonderful artificial bird.
The book was very learned and very long, filled with the most difficult words in the Chinese language, and everybody said they had read and understood it, for otherwise they would have been considered stupid, and would have been trampled upon.
And thus a whole year passed away. The Emperor, the Court, and all the Chinamen knew every little gurgle in the artificial bird's song, and just for this reason, they were all the better pleased with it. They could sing it themselves— which they did.
The boys in the street sang "Zi-zi-zi," and, "cluck, cluck," and even the Emperor sang it. Yes, it was certainly beautiful! But one evening, while the bird was singing, and the Emperor lay in bed listening to it, there was a whirring sound inside the bird, and something whizzed; all the wheels ran round, and the music stopped.
The Emperor sprang out of bed and sent for the Court Physician, but what could he do? Then they sent for the watch-maker, and after much talk and examination, he patched the bird up, but he said it must be spared as much as possible, because the hammers were so worn out—and he could not put new ones in so that the music could be counted on. This was a great grief. The bird could only be allowed to sing once a year, and even that was risky, but on these occasions, the band-master would make a little speech, full of difficult words, saying the bird was just as good as ever—and that was true.
Five years passed away, and a great sorrow had come to the country. The people all really cared for their Emperor, and now he was ill and it was said he could not live. A new Emperor had been chosen, and the people stood about the streets, and questioned the Lord-in-Waiting about their Emperor's condition.
"P!" he said, and shook his head.
The Emperor lay pale and cold on his great, gorgeous bed; the whole Court believed that he was dead, and they all hastened to pay homage to the new Emperor. The footmen hurried off to discuss matters, and the chambermaids gave a great coffee-party. Cloth had been laid down in all the rooms and passages, so that not even a footstep should be heard and it was all so very quiet.
But the Emperor was not yet dead. He lay stiff and pale in the sumptuous bed, with its long velvet curtains and heavy gold tassels; high above was an open window, and the moon shone in upon the Emperor and the artificial bird. The poor Emperor could hardly breathe; he felt as if someone were sitting on his chest; he opened his eyes and saw that it was Death sitting on his chest, wearing his golden crown, holding in one hand his golden sword, and in the other his splendid banner. And from the folds of the velvet curtains strange faces peered forth; some terrible to look on, others mild and friendly —these were the Emperor's good and bad deeds, which gazed upon him now that Death sat upon his heart.
"Do you remember this?" whispered one after the other. "Do you remember that?" They told him so much that the sweat poured down his face.
"I never knew that," said the Emperor. "Music! music! Beat the great Chinese drum!" he called out, "so that I may not hear what they are saying!" But they kept on, and Death nodded his head, like a Chinaman, at everything they said.
"Music, music," cried the Emperor. "You precious little golden bird! Sing to me, ah! sing to me! I have given you gold and costly treasure. I have hung my golden slipper about your neck. Sing to me. Sing to me!" But the bird was silent; there was no one to wind him up, and therefore he could not sing. Death went on, staring at the Emperor with his great hollow eyes, and it was terribly still.
Then suddenly, close to the window, came the sound of a lovely song. It was the little live Nightingale perched on a branch outside. It had heard of its Emperor's need, and had therefore flown hither to bring him comfort and hope, and as he sang, the faces became paler and the blood coursed more freely through the Emperor's veins. Even Death himself listened and said: "Go on, little Nightingale. Go on." "Yes, if you will give me the splendid sword. Yes, if you will give me the Imperial banner! Yes, if you will give me the Emperor's crown!" And Death gave back all these treasures for a song. And still the Nightingale sang on. He sang of the quiet churchyard, where the white roses grow, where the elder flowers bloom, and where the grass is kept moist by the tears of those left behind, and there came to Death such a longing to see his garden, that he floated out of the window, like a could white mist.
"Thank you, thank you," said the Emperor. "You heavenly little bird, I know you well! I banished you from the land, and you have charmed away the evil spirits from my bed and you have driven Death from my heart. How shall I reward you?" "You have rewarded me," said the Nightingale. "I brought tears to your eyes the first time I sang, and I shall never forget that. Those are the jewels which touched the heart of the singer; but sleep now, that you may wake fresh and strong. I will sing to you." Then it sang again, and the Emperor fell into a sweet sleep.
The sun shone in upon him through the window, when he woke the next morning feeling strong and well. None of his servants had come back, because they thought he was dead, but the Nightingale was still singing.
You will always stay with me," said the Emperor. "You shall only sing when it pleases you, and I will break the artificial Nightingale into a thousand pieces." "Do not do that," said the Nightingale. "It has done the best it could. Keep it with you. I cannot build my nest in a palace, but let me come just as I please. I well sit on the branch near the window, and sing to you that you may both joyful and thoughtful. I will sing to you of the happy folk, and of those that suffer; I will sing of the evil and of the good, which is being hidden from you. The little singing bird flies hither and thither, to the poor fisherman, to the peasant's hut, to many who live far from your Court. Your heart is dearer to me than your crown, and yet the crown has a breath of sanctity, too. I will come, I will sing to you! But one thing you must promise me!" "All that you ask," said the Emperor, and stood there in his imperial robes which he had put on himself, and held the heavy golden sword on his heart.
"I beg you, let no one know that you have a little bird who tells you everything.
It will be far better so!" Then the Nightingale flew away.
The servants came to look upon their dead Emperor. Yes, there they stood; and the Emperor said: "Good morning!.
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