Hans Andersen's fairy tales (Robinson)/The Nightingale

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IN China, as you well know, the Emperor is Chinese, and all around him are Chinese also. Now what I am about to relate happened many years ago, but even on that very account it is the more important that you should hear the story now, before it is forgotten.

The Emperor's palace was the most magnificent palace in the world; it was made entirely of fine porcelain, exceedingly costly; but at the same time so brittle, that it was dangerous even to touch it.

The choicest flowers were to be seen in the garden; and to the most splendid of all these little silver bells were fastened, in order that their tinkling might prevent any one from passing by without noticing them. Yes! everything in the Emperor's garden was excellently well arranged; and the garden extended so far, that even the gardener did not know the end of it; whoever walked beyond it, however, came to a beautiful wood, with very high trees; and beyond that, to the sea. The wood went down quite to the sea, which was very deep and blue; large ships could sail close under the branches; and among the branches dwelt a nightingale, who sang so sweetly, that even the poor fisherman, who had so much else to do, when he came out at night-time to cast his nets, would stand still and listen to her song. 'Oh! how pretty that is!' he would say—but then he was obliged to mind his work, and forget the bird; yet the following night, if again the nightingale sang, and the fisherman came out, again he would say, 'Oh! how pretty that is!'

Travellers came from all parts of the world to the Emperor's city; and they admired the city, the palace, and the garden; but if they heard the nightingale, they all said, 'This is the best.' And they talked about her after they went home, and learned men wrote books about the city, the palace, and the garden; nor did they forget the nightingale: she was extolled above everything else; and poets wrote the most beautiful verses about the nightingale of the wood near the sea.

These books went round the world, and one of them at last reached the Emperor. He was sitting in his golden arm-chair; he read and read, and nodded his head every moment; for these splendid descriptions of the city, the palace, and the garden pleased him greatly. 'But the nightingale is the best of all,' was written in the book.

'What in the world is this?' said the Emperor. 'The nightingale! I do not know it at all! Can there be such a bird in my empire, in my garden even, without my having even heard of it? Truly one may learn something from books.'

So he called his Cavalier;[1] now this was so grand a personage, that no one of inferior rank might speak to him; and if one did venture to ask him a question, his only answer was 'Pish!' which has no particular meaning.

'There is said to be a very remarkable bird here, called the nightingale,' said the Emperor; 'her song, they say, is worth more than anything else in all my dominions; why has no one ever told me of her?'

'I have never before heard her mentioned,' said the Cavalier; 'she has never been presented at court.'

'I wish her to come, and sing before me this evening,' said the Emperor. 'The whole world knows what I have, and I do not know it myself!'

'I have never before heard her mentioned,' said the Cavalier, 'but I will seek her, I will find her.'

But where was she to be found? The Cavalier ran up one flight of steps, down another, through halls, and through passages; not one of all whom he met had ever heard of the nightingale; and the Cavalier returned to the Emperor, and said, 'It must certainly be an invention of the man who wrote the book. Your Imperial Majesty must not believe all that is written in books; much in them is pure invention, and there is what is called the Black Art.'

'But the book in which I have read it,' said the Emperor, 'was sent me by the high and mighty Emperor of Japan, and therefore it cannot be untrue. I wish to hear the nightingale; she must be here this evening, and if she do not come, after supper the whole court shall be flogged.'

'Tsing-pe!' said the Cavalier; and again he ran upstairs, and downstairs, through halls, and through passages, and half the court ran with him; for not one would have relished the flogging. Many were the questions asked respecting the wonderful nightingale, whom the whole world talked of, and about whom no one at court knew anything.

At last they met a poor little girl in the kitchen, who said, 'Oh yes! the nightingale! I know her very well. Oh! how she can sing! Every evening I carry the fragments left at table to my poor sick mother. She lives by the sea-shore; and when I am coming back, and stay to rest a little in the wood, I hear the nightingale sing; it makes the tears come into my eyes! it is just as if my mother kissed me.'

'Little kitchen maiden,' said the Cavalier, 'I will procure for you a sure appointment in the kitchen, together with permission to see His Majesty the Emperor dine, if you will conduct us to the nightingale, for she is expected at court this evening.'

So they went together to the wood, where the nightingale was accustomed to sing; and half the court went with them. Whilst on their way, a cow began to low.

'Oh!' said the court pages, 'now we have her! It is certainly an extraordinary voice for so small an animal; surely I have heard it somewhere before.'

'No, those are cows you hear lowing,' said the little kitchen-maid, 'we are still far from the place.'

The frogs were now croaking in the pond.

'That is famous!' said the chief court-preacher, 'now I hear her; it sounds just like little church-bells.'

'No, those are frogs,' said the little kitchen-maid, but now I think we shall soon hear her.'

Then began the nightingale to sing.

'There she is!' said the little girl. 'Listen! listen! there she sits,' and she pointed to a little grey bird up in the branches.

'Is it possible?' said the Cavalier. 'I should not have thought it. How simple she looks! she must certainly have changed colour at the sight of so many distinguished personages.'

'Little nightingale!' called out the kitchen-maid, 'our gracious Emperor wishes you to sing something to him.'

'With the greatest pleasure,' said the nightingale, and she sang in such a manner that it was delightful to hear her.

'It sounds like glass bells,' said the Cavalier. 'And look at her little throat, how it moves! It is singular that we should never have heard her before; she will have great success at court.'

Then began the nightingale to sing

'Shall I sing again to the Emperor?' asked the nightingale, for she thought the Emperor was among them.

'Most excellent nightingale!' said the Cavalier, 'I have the honour to invite you to a court festival, which is to take place this evening, when His Imperial Majesty will be enchanted with your delightful song.'

'My song would sound far better among the green trees,'


said the nightingale; however, she followed willingly when she heard that the Emperor wished it.

There was a regular trimming and polishing at the palace; the walls and the floors, which were all of porcelain, glittered with a thousand gold lamps; the loveliest flowers, with the merriest tinkling bells, were placed in the passages; there was a running to and fro, which made all the bells to ring, so that one could not hear his own words.

In the midst of the grand hall where the Emperor sat, a golden perch was erected, on which the nightingale was to sit. The whole court was present, and the little kitchen-maid received permission to stand behind the door, for she had now actually the rank and title of 'Maid of the Kitchen.' All were dressed out in their finest clothes; and all eyes were fixed upon the little grey bird, to whom the Emperor nodded as a signal for her to begin.

And the nightingale sang so sweetly, that tears came into the Emperor's eyes, tears rolled down his cheeks; and the nightingale sang more sweetly still, and touched the hearts of all who heard her; and the Emperor was so merry, that he said, 'The nightingale should have his golden slippers, and wear them round her neck.' But the nightingale thanked him, and said she was already sufficiently rewarded.

'I have seen tears in the Emperor's eyes; that is the greatest reward I can have. The tears of an Emperor have a particular value. Heaven knows I am sufficiently rewarded.' And then she sang again with her sweet, lovely voice.

'It is the most amiable coquetry ever known,' said the ladies present; and they put water into their mouths, and tried to move their throats as she did when they spoke; they thought to become nightingales also. Indeed even the footmen and chamber-maids declared that they were quite contented; which was a great thing to say, for of all people they are the most difficult to satisfy. Yes indeed! the nightingale's success was complete. She was now to remain at court, to have her own cage; with permission to fly out twice in the day, and once in the night. Twelve attendants were allotted her, who were to hold a silken band, fastened round her foot; and they kept good hold. There was no pleasure in excursions made in this manner.


All the city was talking of the wonderful bird; and when two persons met, one would say only 'night,' and the other 'gale,' and then they sighed, and understood each other perfectly; indeed eleven of the children of the citizens were named after the nightingale, but none of them had her tones in their throats.

One day a large parcel arrived for the Emperor, on which was written 'Nightingale.'

'Here we have another new book about our far-famed bird,' said the Emperor. But it was not a book; it was a little piece of mechanism, lying in a box; an artificial nightingale, which was intended to look like the living one, but was covered all over with diamonds, rubies, and sapphires. When this artificial bird had been wound up, it could sing one of the tunes that the real nightingale sang; and its tail, all glittering with silver and gold, went up and down all the time. A little band was fastened round its neck, on which was written, 'The nightingale of the Emperor of China is poor compared with the nightingale of the Emperor of Japan.'

'That is famous!' said every one; and he who had brought the bird obtained the title of 'Chief Imperial Nightingale Bringer.' 'Now they shall sing together; we will have a duet.'

And so they must sing together; but it did not succeed, for the real nightingale sang in her own way, and the artificial bird produced its tones by wheels. 'It is not his fault,' said the artist, 'he keeps exact time and quite according to method.' So the artificial bird must now sing alone; he was quite as successful as the real nightingale; and then he was so much prettier to look at; his plumage sparkled like jewels.

Three and thirty times he sang one and the same tune, and yet he was not weary; every one would willingly have heard


him again; however, the Emperor now wished the real nightingale should sing something—but where was she? No one had remarked that she had flown out of the open window; flown away to her own green wood.

'What is the meaning of this?' said the Emperor; and all the courtiers abused the nightingale, and called her a most ungrateful creature. 'We have the best bird at all events,' said they, and for the four and thirtieth time they heard the same tune, but still they did not quite know it, because it was so difficult. The artist praised the bird inordinately; indeed he declared it was superior to the real nightingale, not only in its exterior, all sparkling with diamonds, but also intrinsically.

'For see, my noble lords, his Imperial Majesty especially, with the real nightingale, one could never reckon on what was coming; but everything is settled with the artificial bird; he will sing in this one way, and no other: this can be proved, he can be taken to pieces, and the works can be shown, where the wheels lie, how they move, and how one follows from another.'

'That is just what I think,' said everybody; and the artist received permission to show the bird to the people on the following Sunday. 'They too should hear him sing,' the Emperor said. So they heard him, and were as well pleased as if they had all been drinking tea; for it is tea that makes Chinese merry, and they all said oh! and raised their fore-fingers, and nodded their heads. But the fisherman, who had heard the real nightingale, said, 'It sounds very pretty, almost like the real bird; but yet there is something wanting, I do not know what.'

The real nightingale was, however, banished the empire.

The artificial bird had his place on a silken cushion, close to the Emperor's bed; all the presents he received, gold and precious stones, lay around him; he had obtained the rank and title of 'High Imperial Dessert Singer,' and, therefore, his place was number one on the left side; for the Emperor thought that the side where the heart was situated must be the most honourable, and the heart is situated on the left side of an Emperor, as well as with other folks.

And the artist wrote five and twenty volumes about the artificial bird, with the longest and most difficult words that are to be found in the Chinese language. So, of course, all said they had read and understood them, otherwise they would have been stupid, and perhaps would have been flogged.

Thus it went on for a year. The Emperor, the court, and all the Chinese knew every note of the artificial bird's song by heart; but that was the very reason they enjoyed it so much, they could now sing with him. The little boys in the street sang 'Zizizi, cluck, cluck, cluck!' and the Emperor himself sang too—yes indeed, that was charming!

But one evening, when the bird was in full voice, and the Emperor lay in bed, and listened, there was suddenly a noise, 'bang,' inside the bird, then something sprang 'fur-r-r-r,' all the wheels were running about, and the music stopped.

The Emperor jumped quickly out of bed, and had his chief physician called; but of what use could he be? Then a clock-maker was fetched, and at last, after a great deal of discussion and consultation, the bird was in some measure put to rights again; but the clockmaker said he must be spared much singing, for the pegs were almost worn out, and it was impossible to renew them, at least so that the music should be correct.

There was great lamentation, for now the artificial bird was allowed to sing only once a year, and even then there were difficulties; however, the artist made a short speech full of his favourite long words, and said the bird was as good as ever: so then, of course, it was as good as ever.

When five years were passed away, a great affliction visited the whole empire, for in their hearts the people thought highly of their Emperor; and now he was ill, and it was reported that he could not live. A new Emperor had already been chosen,


and the people stood in the street, outside the palace, and asked the Cavalier how the Emperor was?

'Pish!' said he, and shook his head.

Cold and pale lay the Emperor in his magnificent bed; all the court believed him to be already dead, and every one had hastened away to greet the new Emperor; the men ran out for a little gossip on the subject, and the maids were having a grand coffee-party.

The floors of all the rooms and passages were covered with cloth, in order that not a step should be heard—it was everywhere so still! so still! But the Emperor was not yet dead; stiff and pale he lay in his splendid bed, with the long velvet curtains, and heavy gold tassels. A window was opened above, and the moon shone down on the Emperor and the artificial bird.

The poor Emperor could scarcely breathe; it appeared to him as though something was sitting on his chest; he opened his eyes, and saw that it was Death, who had put on the Emperor's crown, and with one hand held the golden scimitar, with the other the splendid imperial banner; whilst, from under the folds of the thick velvet hangings, the strangest-looking heads were seen peering forth; some with an expression absolutely hideous, and others with an extremely gentle and lovely aspect: they were the bad and good deeds of the Emperor, which were now all fixing their eyes upon him, whilst Death sat on his heart.

'Dost thou know this?' they whispered one after another. 'Dost thou remember that?' And they began reproaching him in such a manner that the sweat broke out upon his forehead.

'I have never known anything like it,' said the Emperor. 'Music, music, the great Chinese drum!' cried he; 'let me not hear what they are saying.'

They went on, however; and Death, quite in the Chinese fashion, nodded his head to every word.

'Music, music!' cried the Emperor. 'Thou dear little artificial bird! sing, I pray thee, sing!—I have given thee gold and precious stones, I have even hung my golden slippers round thy neck—sing, I pray thee, sing!'

But the bird was silent; there was no one there to wind him up, and he could not sing without this. Death continued to stare at the Emperor with his great hollow eyes! and everywhere it was still, fearfully still!

All at once the sweetest song was heard from the window; it was the little living nightingale who was sitting on a branch outside—she had heard of her Emperor's severe illness, and was come to sing to him of comfort and hope. As she sang, the spectral forms became paler and paler, the blood flowed more and more quickly through the Emperor's feeble members, and even Death listened and said, 'Go on, little nightingale, go on.'

'Wilt thou give me the splendid gold scimitar? Wilt thou give me the gay banner, and the Emperor's crown?'

And Death gave up all these treasures for a song; and the nightingale sang on: she sang of the quiet churchyard, where white roses blossom, where the lilac sends forth its fragrance, and the fresh grass is bedewed with the tears of the sorrowing friends of the departed. Then Death was seized with a longing after his garden, and like a cold white shadow, flew out at the window.

'Thanks, thanks,' said the Emperor, 'thou heavenly little bird, I know thee well. I have banished thee from my realm, and thou hast sung away those evil faces from my bed, and Death from my heart; how shall I reward thee?'

'Thou hast already rewarded me,' said the nightingale; 'I have seen tears in thine eyes, as when I sang to thee for the first time: those I shall never forget, they are jewels which do so much good to a minstrel's heart! but sleep now, and wake fresh and healthy; I will sing thee to sleep.'

And she sang and the Emperor fell into a sweet sleep. Oh, how soft and kindly was that sleep!

The sun shone in at the window when he awoke, strong and healthy. Not one of his servants had returned, for they all believed him dead; but the nightingale still sat and sang.


'Thou shalt always stay with me,' said the Emperor, 'thou shalt only sing when it pleases thee, and the artificial bird I will break into a thousand pieces.'

'Do not so,' said the nightingale; 'truly he has done what he could; take care of him. I cannot stay in the palace; but let me come when I like: I will sit on the branches close to the window, in the evening, and sing to thee, that thou mayest become happy and thoughtful. I will sing to thee of the joyful and the sorrowing, I will sing to thee of all that is good or bad, which is concealed from thee. The little minstrel flies afar to the fisherman's hut, to the peasant's cottage, to all who are far distant from thee and thy court. I love thy heart more than thy crown, and yet the crown has an odour of something holy about it. I will come, I will sing. But thou must promise me one thing.'

'Everything,' said the Emperor. And now he stood in his imperial splendour, which he had put on himself, and held the scimitar so heavy with gold to his heart. 'One thing I beg of thee: let no one know that thou hast a little bird, who tells thee everything, then all will go on well.' And the nightingale flew away.

The attendants came in to look at their dead Emperor. Lo! there they stood—and the Emperor said, 'Good-morning!'

  1. Gentleman in waiting.