N China, you must know, the Emperor is a Chinaman, and
all whom he has about him are Chinamen, too. It
happened a good many years ago, but that's just why
it's worth while to hear the story before it is
forgotten. The Emperor's palace was the most splendid
in the world; it was made entirely of porcelain, very
costly, but so delicate and brittle that one had to
take care how one touched it. In the garden were to be
seen the most wonderful flowers, and to the costliest
of them silver bells were tied, which sounded so that
nobody should pass by without noticing the flowers.
Yes, everything in the Emperor's garden was admirably
arranged. And it extended so far that the gardener
himself did not know where the end was. If a man went
on and on he came into a glorious forest with high
trees and deep lakes. The wood extended straight down
to the sea, which was blue and deep; great ships could
sail to and fro beneath the branches of the trees; and
in the trees lived a Nightingale, which sang so
splendidly that even the poor Fisherman, who had many
other things to do, stopped still and listened when he
had gone out at night to throw out his nets and heard
"How beautiful that is!" he said; but he was obliged to
attend to his property, and thus forgot the bird. But
when on the next night the bird sang again, and the
Fisherman heard it, he exclaimed again, "How beautiful
From all the countries of the world travelers came to
the city of the Emperor and admired it and the palace
and the 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
the learned men wrote many books about the town, the
palace, and the garden. But they did not forget the
Nightingale; that was placed highest of all; and those
who were poets wrote most magnificent poems about the
Nightingale in the wood by the deep lake.
The books went through all the world, and a few of them
once came to the Emperor. He sat in his golden chair
and read and read; every moment he nodded his head, for
it pleased him to peruse the masterly descriptions of
the city, the palace, and the garden. "But the
Nightingale is the best of all!"—it stood written
"What's that?" exclaimed the Emperor. "I don't know the
Nightingale at all! Is there such a bird in my empire,
and even in my garden? I've never heard of that. To
think that I should have to learn such a thing for the
first time from books!"
And thereupon he called his Cavalier. This Cavalier was
so grand that if any one lower in rank than himself
dared to speak to him or to ask him any question he
answered nothing but "P!"—and that meant nothing.
"There is said to be a wonderful bird here called a
Nightingale!" said the Emperor. "They say it is the
best thing in all my great empire. Why have I never
heard anything about it?"
"I have never heard him named," replied the Cavalier.
"He has never been introduced at court."
"I command that he shall appear this evening and sing
before me," said the Emperor. "All the world knows what
I possess, and I do not know it myself!"
"I have never heard him mentioned," said the Cavalier.
"I will seek for him. I will find him."
But where was he to be found? The Cavalier ran up and
down all the staircases, through halls and passages,
but no one among all those whom he met had heard talk
Nightin-  gale. And the Cavalier ran back to the Emperor and said
that it must be a fable invented by the writers of
"Your Imperial Majesty cannot believe how much is
written that is fiction besides something that they
call the black art."
"But the book in which I read this," said the Emperor,
"was sent to me by the high and mighty Emperor of
Japan, and therefore it cannot be a falsehood. I will
hear the Nightingale! It must be here this evening! It
has my imperial favor; and if it does not come all the
court shall be trampled upon after the court has
"Tsing-pe!" said the Cavalier; and again he ran up and
down all the staircases, and through all the halls and
corridors; and half the court ran with him, for the
courtiers did not like being trampled upon.
Then there was a great inquiry after the wonderful
Nightingale, which all the world knew excepting the
people at court.
At last they met with a poor little girl in the kitchen
"The Nightingale? I know it well; yes, it can sing
gloriously. Every evening I get leave to carry my poor
sick mother the scraps from the table. She lives down
by the strand, and when I get back and am tired, and
rest in the wood, then I hear the Nightingale sing. And
then the water comes into my eyes, and it is just as if
my mother kissed me!"
"Little Kitchen-girl," said the Cavalier, "I will get
you a place in the kitchen, with permission to see the
Emperor dine, if you will lead us to the Nightingale,
for it is announced for this evening."
So they all went out into the wood where the
Nightingale was accustomed to sing; half the court went
forth. When they were in the midst of their journey a
cow began to low.
"Oh!" cried the court pages, "now we have it! That
shows a wonderful power in so small a creature! I have
certainly heard it before."
"No, those are cows lowing!" said the little
Kitchen-girl. "We are a long way from the place yet."
 Now the frogs began to croak in the marsh.
"Glorious!" said the Chinese Court Preacher. "Now I
hear it—it sounds just like little church bells."
"No, those are frogs!" said the little Kitchen-maid.
"But now I think we shall soon hear it."
And then the Nightingale began to sing.
"That is it!" exclaimed the little Girl. "Listen,
listen! And yonder it sits." And she pointed to a
little gray bird up in the boughs.
"Is it possible?" cried the Cavalier. "I should never
have thought it looked like that! How simple it looks!
It must certainly have lost its color at seeing such
grand people around."
"Little Nightingale!" called the little Kitchen-maid,
quite loudly, "our gracious Emperor wishes you to sing
"With the greatest pleasure!" replied the Nightingale,
and began to sing most delightfully.
"It sounds just like glass bells!" said the Cavalier.
"And look at its little throat, how it's working! It's
wonderful that we should never have heard it before.
That bird will be a great success at court."
"Shall I sing once more before the Emperor?" asked the
Nightingale, for it thought the Emperor was present.
"My excellent little Nightingale," said the Cavalier,
"I have great pleasure in inviting you to a court
festival this evening, when you shall charm his
Imperial Majesty with your beautiful singing."
"My song sounds best in the greenwood," replied the
Nightingale; still it came willingly when it heard what
the Emperor wished.
The palace was festively adorned. The walls and the
flooring, which were of porcelain, gleamed in the rays
of thousands of golden lamps. The most glorious flowers
which could ring clearly had been placed in the
passages. There was a running to and fro and a thorough
draught, and all the bells rang so loudly that one
could not hear oneself speak.
In the midst of the great hall, where the Emperor sat,
 perch had been placed, on which the Nightingale was to
sit. The whole court was there, and the little
Cook-maid had got leave to stand behind the door, as
she had now received the title of a real court cook.
All were in full dress, and all looked at the little
gray bird, to which the Emperor nodded.
And the Nightingale sang so gloriously that the tears
came into the Emperor's eyes and the tears ran down
over his cheeks; and then the Nightingale sang still
more sweetly, that went straight to the heart. The
Emperor was so much pleased that he said the
Nightingale should have his golden slipper to wear
around its neck. But the Nightingale declined this with
thanks, saying it had already received a sufficient
"I have seen tears in the Emperor's eyes—that is
the real treasure to me. An emperor's tears have a
peculiar power. I am rewarded enough!" And then it sang
again with a sweet, glorious voice.
"That's the most amiable coquetry I ever saw!" said the
ladies who stood round about, and then they took water
in their mouths to gurgle when any one spoke to them.
They thought they should be nightingales too. And the
lackeys and chambermaids reported that they were
satisfied, too; and that was saying a good deal, for
they are the most difficult to please. In short, the
Nightingale achieved a real success.
It was now to remain at court, to have its own cage,
with liberty to go out twice every day and once at
night. Twelve servants were appointed when the
Nightingale went out, each of whom had a silken string
fastened to the bird's leg, which they held very tight.
There was really no pleasure in an excursion of that
The whole city spoke of the wonderful bird; and when
two people met, one said nothing but "Nightin," and the
other said "gale"; and then they sighed and understood
each other. Eleven peddlers' children were named after
the bird; but not one of them could sing a note.
One day the Emperor received a large parcel on which
was written, "The Nightingale."
 "There we have a new book about this celebrated bird,"
said the Emperor.
But it was not a book, but a little work of art
contained in a box, an artificial Nightingale, which
was to sing like a natural one and was brilliantly
ornamented with diamonds, rubies, and sapphires. So
soon as the artificial bird was wound up he could sing
one of the pieces that he really sang, and then his
tail moved up and down and shone with silver and gold.
Round his neck hung a little ribbon, and on that was
written, "The Emperor of China's Nightingale is poor
compared with that of the Emperor of Japan."
"That is capital!" said they all; and he who had
brought the artificial bird immediately received the
title, Imperial-Head Nightingale-bringer.
"Now they must sing together. What a duet that will
And so they had to sing together; but it did not sound
very well, for the real Nightingale sang in its own
way, and the artificial bird sang waltzes.
"That's not his fault," said the Play-master; "he's
quite perfect, and very much in my style."
Now the artificial bird was to sing alone. He had just
as much success as the real one, and then it was much
handsomer to look at—it shone like bracelets and
Three-and-thirty times over did it sing the same piece,
and yet was not tired. The people would gladly have
heard it again, but the Emperor said that the living
Nightingale ought to sing something now. But where was
it? No one had noticed that it had flown away out of
the open window back to the greenwood.
"But what is become of that?" said the Emperor.
And all the courtiers abused the Nightingale and
declared that it was a very ungrateful creature.
"We have the best bird, after all," said they.
And so the artificial bird had to sing again, and that
was the thirty-fourth time that they listened to the
same piece. For all that they did not know it quite by
heart, for it was so
 very difficult. And the Play-master praised the bird
particularly; yes, he declared it was better than a
nightingale, not only with regard to its plumage and
the many beautiful diamonds, but inside as well.
"For you see, ladies and gentlemen and, above all, your
Imperial Majesty, with a real nightingale one can never
calculate what is coming, but in this artificial bird
everything is settled. One can explain it; one can open
it and make people understand where the waltzes come
from, how they go, and how one follows up another."
"Those are quite our own ideas," they all said.
And the speaker received permission to show the bird to
the people on the next Sunday. The people were to hear
it sing too, the Emperor commanded; and they did hear
it, and were as much pleased as if they had all got
tipsy upon tea, for that's quite the Chinese fashion;
and they all said, "Oh!" and held up their forefingers
and nodded. But the poor Fisherman, who had heard the
real Nightingale said:
"It sounds pretty enough, and the melodies resemble
each other; but there's something wanting, though I
know not what!"
The real Nightingale was banished from the country and
empire. The artificial bird had its place on a silken
cushion close to the Emperor's bed; all the presents it
had received, gold and precious stones, were ranged
about it; in title it had advanced to be the High
Imperial After-dinner Singer, and in rank to number one
on the left hand; for the Emperor considered that side
the most important on which the heart is placed, and
even in an emperor the heart is on the left side; and
the Play-master wrote a work of five-and-twenty volumes
about the artificial bird; it was very learned and very
long, full of the most difficult Chinese words; but yet
all the people declared that they had read it and
understood it for fear of being considered stupid and
having their bodies trampled on.
So a whole year went by. The Emperor, the court, and
all the other Chinese knew every little twitter in the
 song by heart. But just for that reason it pleased them
best—they could sing with it themselves, and they
did so. The street-boys sang, "Tsi-tsi-tsi-glug-glug!"
and the Emperor himself sang it, too. Yes, that was
But one evening, when the artificial bird was singing
its best and the Emperor lay in bed listening to it,
something inside the bird said, "Whizz!" Something
cracked. "Whir-r-r!" All the wheels ran round, and then
the music stopped.
The Emperor immediately sprang out of bed and caused
his body physician to be called; but what could
he do? Then they sent for a Watchmaker, and after
a good deal of talking and investigation the bird was
put into something like order; but the Watchmaker said
that the bird must be carefully treated, for the
barrels were worn, and it would be impossible to put
new ones in in such a manner that the music would go.
There was a great lamentation; only once in a year was
it permitted to let the bird sing, and that was almost
too much. But then the Play-master made a little speech
full of heavy words, and said this was just as good as
before—and so, of course, it was as good as
Now five years had gone by and a real grief came upon
the whole nation. The Chinese were really fond of their
Emperor, and now he was ill and could not, it was said,
live much longer. Already a new Emperor had been
chosen, and the people stood out in the street and
asked the Cavalier how their old Emperor did.
"P!" said he, and shook his head.
Cold and pale lay the Emperor in his great gorgeous
bed; the whole court thought him dead, and each one ran
to pay homage to the new ruler. The chamberlains ran
out to talk it over, and the ladies'-maids had a great
coffee party. All about, in all the halls and passages,
cloth had been laid down so that no footstep could be
heard, and therefore it was quiet there, quite quiet.
But the Emperor was not dead yet; stiff and pale he lay
on the gorgeous bed with the long velvet curtains and
the heavy gold tassels; high up a window stood open,
and the moon shone in upon the Emperor and the
 The poor Emperor could scarcely breathe; it was just as
if something lay upon his chest; he opened his eyes,
and then he saw that it was Death who sat upon his
chest, and had put on his golden crown and held in one
hand the Emperor's sword and in the other his beautiful
banner. And all around from among the folds of the
splendid velvet curtains strange heads peered forth; a
few very ugly, the rest quite lovely and mild. These
were all the Emperor's bad and good deeds that stood
before him now that Death sat upon his heart.
"Do you remember this?" whispered one to the other. "Do
you remember that?" and then they told him so much that
the perspiration ran from his forehead.
"I did not know that!" said the Emperor. "Music! music!
The great Chinese drum," he cried, "so that I need not
hear all they say!"
And they continued speaking, and Death nodded like a
Chinaman to all they said.
"Music! music!" cried the Emperor. "You little precious
golden bird, sing, sing! I have given you gold and
costly presents; I have even hung my golden slipper
around your neck—sing now, sing!"
But the bird stood still; no one was there to wind him
up, and he could not sing without that; but Death
continued to stare at the Emperor with his great hollow
eyes, and it was quiet, fearfully quiet.
Then there sounded from the window, suddenly, the most
lovely song. It was the little live Nightingale that
sat outside on a spray. It had heard of the Emperor's
sad plight and had come to sing to him of comfort and
hope. And as it sang the specters grew paler and paler;
the blood ran quickly and more quickly through the
Emperor's weak limbs; and even Death listened and said:
"Go on, little Nightingale, go on!"
"But will you give me that splendid golden sword? Will
you give me that rich banner? Will you give me the
 And Death gave up each of these treasures for a song.
And the Nightingale sang on and on; and it sang of the
quiet church-yard where the white roses grow, were the
elder-blossoms smell sweet, and where the fresh grass
is moistened by the tears of survivors. Then Death felt
a longing to see his garden, and floated out at the
window in the form of a cold, white mist.
"Thanks! thanks!" said the Emperor. "You heavenly
little bird! I know you well. I banished you from my
country and empire, and yet you have charmed away the
evil faces from my couch and banished Death from my
heart! How can I reward you?"
"You have rewarded me!" replied the Nightingale. "I
drew tears from your eyes when I sang the first
time—I shall never forget that. Those are the
jewels that rejoice a singer's heart. But now sleep and
grow fresh and strong again. I will sing you
And it sang, and the Emperor fell into a sweet slumber.
Ah! how mild and refreshing that sleep was! The sun
shone upon him through the windows when he awoke
refreshed and restored; not one of his servants had yet
returned, for they all thought he was dead; only the
Nightingale still sat beside him and sang.
"You must always stay with me," said the Emperor. "You
shall sing as you please; and I'll break the artificial
bird into a thousand pieces."
"No so," replied the Nightingale. "It did well as long
as it could; keep it as you have done till now. I
cannot build my nest in the palace to dwell in it, but
let me come when I feel the wish; then I will sit in
the evening on the spray yonder by the window and sing
you something, so that you may be glad and thoughtful
at once. I will sing of those who are happy and of
those who suffer. I will sing of good and of evil that
remain hidden round about you. The little singing-bird
flies far around—to the poor fisherman, to the
peasant's roof, to every one who dwells far away from
you and from your court. I love your heart more than
your crown, and yet the crown has an air
 of sanctity about it. I will come and sing to
you—but one thing you must promise me."
"Everything!" said the Emperor; and he stood there in
his imperial robes, which he had put on himself, and
pressed the sword, which was heavy with gold, to his
"One thing I beg of you: tell no one that you have a
little bird who tells you everything. Then it will go
all the better."
And the Nightingale flew away!
The servants came in to look to their dead Emperor,
and—yes, there he stood; and the Emperor said,