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The Emperor of China is a Chinaman, as you
most likely know, and everyone around him is a Chinaman too. It's
been a great many years since this story happened in China, but
that's all the more reason for telling it before it gets forgotten.
The Emperor's palace was the wonder of the
world. It was made entirely of fine porcelain, extremely expensive
but so delicate that you could touch it only with the greatest of
care. In the garden the rarest flowers bloomed, and to the prettiest
ones were tied little silver bells which tinkled so that no one
could pass by without noticing them. Yes, all things were arranged
according to plan in the Emperor's garden, though how far and wide
it extended not even the gardener knew. If you walked on and on, you
came to a fine forest where the trees were tall and the lakes were
deep. The forest ran down to the deep blue sea, so close that tall
ships could sail under the branches of the trees. In these trees a
nightingale lived. His song was so ravishing that even the poor
fisherman, who had much else to do, stopped to listen on the nights
when he went out to cast his nets, and heard the nightingale.
"How beautiful that is," he said, but he had
his work to attend to, and he would forget the bird's song. But the
next night, when he heard the song he would again say, "How
From all the countries in the world travelers
came to the city of the Emperor. They admired the city. They admired
the palace and its garden, but when they heard the nightingale they
said, "That is the best of all."
And the travelers told of it when they came
home, and men of learning wrote many books about the town, about the
palace, and about the garden. But they did not forget the
nightingale. They praised him highest of all, and those who were
poets wrote magnificent poems about the nightingale who lived in the
forest by the deep sea.
These books went all the world over, and some
of them came even to the Emperor of China. He sat in his golden
chair and read, nodding his head in delight over such glowing
descriptions of his city, and palace, and garden. But the
nightingale is the best of all. He read it in print.
"What's this?" the Emperor exclaimed. "I don't
know of any nightingale. Can there be such a bird in my empire-in my
own garden-and I not know it? To think that I should have to learn
of it out of a book."
Thereupon he called his Lord-in-Waiting, who
was so exalted that when anyone of lower rank dared speak to him, or
ask him a question, he only answered, "P", which means nothing at
"They say there's a most remarkable bird
called the nightingale," said the Emperor. "They say it's the best
thing in all my empire. Why haven't I been told about it?"
"I've never heard the name mentioned," said
the Lord-in-Waiting. "He hasn't been presented at court."
"I command that he appear before me this
evening, and sing," said the Emperor. "The whole world knows my
possessions better than I do!"
"I never heard of him before," said the
Lord-in-Waiting. "But I shall look for him. I'll find him."
But where? The Lord-in-Waiting ran upstairs
and downstairs, through all the rooms and corridors, but no one he
met with had ever heard tell of the nightingale. So the
Lord-in-Waiting ran back to the Emperor, and said it must be a story
invented by those who write books. "Your Imperial Majesty would
scarcely believe how much of what is written is fiction, if not
downright black art."
"But the book I read was sent me by the mighty
Emperor of Japan," said the Emperor. "Therefore it can't be a pack
of lies. I must hear this nightingale. I insist upon his being here
this evening. He has my high imperial favor, and if he is not
forthcoming I will have the whole court punched in the stomach,
directly after supper."
"Tsing-pe!" said the Lord-in-Waiting, and off
he scurried up the stairs, through all the rooms and corridors. And
half the court ran with him, for no one wanted to be punched in the
stomach after supper.
There was much questioning as to the
whereabouts of this remarkable nightingale, who was so well known
everywhere in the world except at home. At last they found a poor
little kitchen girl, who said:
"The nightingale? I know him well. Yes, indeed
he can sing. Every evening I get leave to carry scraps from table to
my sick mother. She lives down by the shore. When I start back I am
tired, and rest in the woods. Then I hear the nightingale sing. It
brings tears to my eyes. It's as if my mother were kissing me."
"Little kitchen girl," said the
Lord-in-Waiting, "I'll have you appointed scullion for life. I'll
even get permission for you to watch the Emperor dine, if you'll
take us to the nightingale who is commanded to appear at court this
So they went into the forest where the
nightingale usually sang. Half the court went along. On the way to
the forest a cow began to moo.
"Oh," cried a courtier, "that must be it. What
a powerful voice for a creature so small. I'm sure I've heard her
"No, that's the cow lowing," said the little
kitchen girl. "We still have a long way to go."
Then the frogs in the marsh began to croak.
"Glorious!" said the Chinese court person.
"Now I hear it-like church bells ringing."
"No, that's the frogs," said the little
kitchen girl. "But I think we shall hear him soon."
Then the nightingale sang.
"That's it," said the little kitchen girl.
"Listen, listen! And yonder he sits." She pointed to a little gray
bird high up in the branches.
"Is it possible?" cried the Lord-in Waiting.
"Well, I never would have thought he looked like that, so
unassuming. But he has probably turned pale at seeing so many
important people around him."
"Little nightingale," the kitchen girl called
to him, "our gracious Emperor wants to hear you sing."
"With the greatest of pleasure," answered the
nightingale, and burst into song.
"Very similar to the sound of glass bells,"
said the Lord-in-Waiting. "Just see his little throat, how busily it
throbs. I'm astounded that we have never heard him before. I'm sure
he'll be a great success at court."
"Shall I sing to the Emperor again?" asked the
nightingale, for he thought that the Emperor was present.
"My good little nightingale," said the
Lord-in-Waiting, "I have the honor to command your presence at a
court function this evening, where you'll delight His Majesty the
Emperor with your charming song."
"My song sounds best in the woods," said the
nightingale, but he went with them willingly when he heard it was
the Emperor's wish.
The palace had been especially polished for
the occasion. The porcelain walls and floors shone in the rays of
many gold lamps. The flowers with tinkling bells on them had been
brought into the halls, and there was such a commotion of coming and
going that all the bells chimed away until you could scarcely hear
In the middle of the great throne room, where
the Emperor sat, there was a golden perch for the nightingale. The
whole court was there, and they let the little kitchen girl stand
behind the door, now that she had been appointed "Imperial
Pot-Walloper." Everyone was dressed in his best, and all stared at
the little gray bird to which the Emperor graciously nodded.
And the nightingale sang so sweetly that tears
came into the Emperor's eyes and rolled down his cheeks. Then the
nightingale sang still more sweetly, and it was the Emperor's heart
that melted. The Emperor was so touched that he wanted his own
golden slipper hung round the nightingale's neck, but the
nightingale declined it with thanks. He had already been amply
"I have seen tears in the Emperor's eyes," he
said. "Nothing could surpass that. An Emperor's tears are strangely
powerful. I have my reward." And he sang again, gloriously.
"It's the most charming coquetry we ever
heard," said the ladies-in-waiting. And they took water in their
mouths so they could gurgle when anyone spoke to them, hoping to
rival the nightingale. Even the lackeys and chambermaids said they
were satisfied, which was saying a great deal, for they were the
hardest to please. Unquestionably the nightingale was a success. He
was to stay at court, and have his own cage. He had permission to go
for a walk twice a day, and once a night. Twelve footmen attended
him, each one holding tight to a ribbon tied to the bird's leg.
There wasn't much fun in such outings.
The whole town talked about the marvelous
bird, and if two people met, one could scarcely say "night" before
the other said "gale," and then they would sigh in unison, with no
need for words. Eleven pork-butchers' children were named
"nightingale," but not one could sing.
One day the Emperor received a large package
labeled "The Nightingale."
"This must be another book about my celebrated
bird," he said. But it was not a book. In the box was a work of art,
an artificial nightingale most like the real one except that it was
encrusted with diamonds, rubies and sapphires. When it was wound,
the artificial bird could sing one of the nightingale's songs while
it wagged its glittering gold and silver tail. Round its neck hung a
ribbon inscribed: "The Emperor of Japan's nightingale is a poor
thing compared with that of the Emperor of China."
"Isn't that nice?" everyone said, and the man
who had brought the contraption was immediately promoted to be
"Now let's have them sing together. What a
duet that will be," said the courtiers.
So they had to sing together, but it didn't
turn out so well, for the real nightingale sang whatever came into
his head while the imitation bird sang by rote.
"That's not the newcomer's fault," said the
music master. "He keeps perfect time, just as I have taught him."
Then they had the imitation bird sing by
itself. It met with the same success as the real nightingale, and
besides it was much prettier to see, all sparkling like bracelets
and breastpins. Three and thirty times it sang the selfsame song
without tiring. The courtiers would gladly have heard it again, but
the Emperor said the real nightingale should now have his turn.
Where was he? No one had noticed him flying out the open window,
back to his home in the green forest.
"But what made him do that?" said the Emperor.
All the courtiers slandered the nightingale,
whom they called a most ungrateful wretch. "Luckily we have the best
bird," they said, and made the imitation one sing again. That was
the thirty-fourth time they had heard the same tune, but they didn't
quite know it by heart because it was a difficult piece. And the
music master praised the artificial bird beyond measure. Yes, he
said that the contraption was much better than the real nightingale,
not only in its dress and its many beautiful diamonds, but also in
its mechanical interior.
"You see, ladies and gentlemen, and above all
Your Imperial Majesty, with a real nightingale one never knows what
to expect, but with this artificial bird everything goes according
to plan. Nothing is left to chance. I can explain it and take it to
pieces, and show how the mechanical wheels are arranged, how they go
around, and how one follows after another."
"Those are our sentiments exactly," said they
all, and the music master was commanded to have the bird give a
public concert next Sunday. The Emperor said that his people should
hear it. And hear it they did, with as much pleasure as if they had
all gotten tipsy on tea, Chinese fashion. Everyone said, "Oh," and
held up the finger we call "lickpot," and nodded his head. But the
poor fishermen who had heard the real nightingale said, "This is
very pretty, very nearly the real thing, but not quite. I can't
imagine what's lacking."
The real nightingale had been banished from
the land. In its place, the artificial bird sat on a cushion beside
the Emperor's bed. All its gold and jeweled presents lay about it,
and its title was now "Grand Imperial
Singer-of-the-Emperor-to-sleep." In rank it stood first from the
left, for the Emperor gave preëminence to the left side because of
the heart. Even an Emperor's heart is on the left.
The music master wrote a twenty-five-volume
book about the artificial bird. It was learned, long-winded, and
full of hard Chinese words, yet everybody said they read and
understood it, lest they show themselves stupid and would then have
been punched in their stomachs.
After a year the Emperor, his court, and all
the other Chinamen knew every twitter of the artificial song by
heart. They liked it all the better now that they could sing it
themselves. Which they did. The street urchins sang, "Zizizi! kluk,
kluk, kluk," and the Emperor sang it too. That's how popular it was.
But one night, while the artificial bird was
singing his best by the Emperor's bed, something inside the bird
broke with a twang. Whir-r-r, all the wheels ran down and
the music stopped. Out of bed jumped the Emperor and sent for his
own physician, but what could he do? Then he sent for a watchmaker,
who conferred, and investigated, and patched up the bird after a
fashion. But the watchmaker said that the bird must be spared too
much exertion, for the cogs were badly worn and if he replaced them
it would spoil the tune. This was terrible. Only once a year could
they let the bird sing, and that was almost too much for it. But the
music master made a little speech full of hard Chinese words which
meant that the bird was as good as it ever was. So that made it as
good as ever.
Five years passed by, and a real sorrow befell
the whole country. The Chinamen loved their Emperor, and now he fell
ill. Ill unto death, it was said. A new Emperor was chosen in
readiness. People stood in the palace street and asked the
Lord-in-Waiting how it went with their Emperor.
"P," said he, and shook his head.
Cold and pale lay the Emperor in his great
magnificent bed. All the courtiers thought he was dead, and went to
do homage to the new Emperor. The lackeys went off to trade gossip,
and the chambermaids gave a coffee party because it was such a
special occasion. Deep mats were laid in all the rooms and
passageways, to muffle each footstep. It was quiet in the palace,
dead quiet. But the Emperor was not yet dead. Stiff and pale he lay,
in his magnificent bed with the long velvet curtains and the heavy
gold tassels. High in the wall was an open window, through which
moonlight fell on the Emperor and his artificial bird.
The poor Emperor could hardly breathe. It was
as if something were sitting on his chest. Opening his eyes he saw
it was Death who sat there, wearing the Emperor's crown, handling
the Emperor's gold sword, and carrying the Emperor's silk banner.
Among the folds of the great velvet curtains there were strangely
familiar faces. Some were horrible, others gentle and kind. They
were the Emperor's deeds, good and bad, who came back to him now
that Death sat on his heart.
"Don't you remember-?" they whispered one
after the other. "Don't you remember-?" And they told him of things
that made the cold sweat run on his forehead.
"No, I will not remember!" said the Emperor.
"Music, music, sound the great drum of China lest I hear what they
say!" But they went on whispering, and Death nodded, Chinese
fashion, at every word.
"Music, music!" the Emperor called. "Sing, my
precious little golden bird, sing! I have given you gold and
precious presents. I have hung my golden slipper around your neck.
Sing, I pray you, sing!"
But the bird stood silent. There was no one to
wind it, nothing to make it sing. Death kept staring through his
great hollow eyes, and it was quiet, deadly quiet.
Suddenly, through the window came a burst of
song. It was the little live nightingale who sat outside on a spray.
He had heard of the Emperor's plight, and had come to sing of
comfort and hope. As he sang, the phantoms grew pale, and still more
pale, and the blood flowed quicker and quicker through the Emperor's
feeble body. Even Death listened, and said, "Go on, little
nightingale, go on!"
"But," said the little nightingale, "will you
give back that sword, that banner, that Emperor's crown?"
And Death gave back these treasures for a
song. The nightingale sang on. It sang of the quiet churchyard where
white roses grow, where the elder flowers make the air sweet, and
where the grass is always green, wet with the tears of those who are
still alive. Death longed for his garden. Out through the windows
drifted a cold gray mist, as Death departed.
"Thank you, thank you!" the Emperor said.
"Little bird from Heaven, I know you of old. I banished you once
from my land, and yet you have sung away the evil faces from my bed,
and Death from my heart. How can I repay you?"
"You have already rewarded me," said the
nightingale. "I brought tears to your eyes when first I sang for
you. To the heart of a singer those are more precious than any
precious stone. But sleep now, and grow fresh and strong while I
sing." He sang on until the Emperor fell into a sound, refreshing
sleep, a sweet and soothing slumber.
The sun was shining in his window when the
Emperor awoke, restored and well. Not one of his servants had
returned to him, for they thought him dead, but the nightingale
"You must stay with me always," said the
Emperor. "Sing to me only when you please. I shall break the
artificial bird into a thousand pieces."
"No," said the nightingale. "It did its best.
Keep it near you. I cannot build my nest here, or live in a palace,
so let me come as I will. Then I shall sit on the spray by your
window, and sing things that will make you happy and thoughtful too.
I'll sing about those who are gay, and those who are sorrowful. My
songs will tell you of all the good and evil that you do not see. A
little singing bird flies far and wide, to the fisherman's hut, to
the farmer's home, and to many other places a long way off from you
and your court. I love your heart better than I do your crown, and
yet the crown has been blessed too. I will come and sing to you, if
you will promise me one thing."
"All that I have is yours," cried the Emperor,
who stood in his imperial robes, which he had put on himself, and
held his heavy gold sword to his heart.
"One thing only," the nightingale asked. "You
must not let anyone know that you have a little bird who tells you
everything; then all will go even better." And away he flew.
The servants came in to look after their dead
Emperor- and there they stood. And the Emperor said, "Good morning."