Reference > Fiction > Nonfiction > Warner, et al., eds. > The Library

C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
The Nightingale
By Hans Christian Andersen (1805–1875)


IN 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 wholly of fine porcelain, very costly, but so brittle and so hard to handle that one had to take care how one touched it. In the garden were to be seen the most wonderful flowers, and to the prettiest of them silver bells were tied, which tinkled, so that nobody should pass by without noticing the flowers.  2
  Yes, everything in the Emperor’s garden was nicely set out, and it reached 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 went 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 finely 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 the Nightingale.  3
  “How beautiful that is!” he said; but he had to attend to his work, and so he forgot the bird. But the next night, when the bird sang again, and the Fisherman heard it, he said as before, “How beautiful that is!”  4
  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 all said, “That is the best of all!”  5
  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 spoken of most of all; and all those who were poets wrote great poems about the Nightingale in the wood by the deep lake.  6
  The books went all over 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 hear the fine things that were said about the city, the palace, and the garden. “But the Nightingale is the best of all!”—it stood written there.  7
  “What’s that?” exclaimed the Emperor. “The Nightingale? I don’t know that at all! Is there such a bird in my empire, and in my garden to boot? I’ve never heard of that. One has to read about such things.”  8
  Hereupon he called his Cavalier, who was so grand that if any one lower in rank than he dared to speak to him, or to ask him any question, he answered nothing but “P!”—and that meant nothing.  9
  “There is said to be a strange bird here called a Nightingale!” said the Emperor. “They say it is the best thing in all my great empire. Why has no one ever told me anything about it?”  10
  “I have never heard it named,” replied the Cavalier. “It has never been presented at court.”  11
  “I command that it shall come here this evening, and sing before me,” said the Emperor. “All the world knows what I have, and I do not know it myself!”  12
  “I have never heard it mentioned,” said the Cavalier. “I will seek for it. I will find it.”  13
  But where was it to be found? The Cavalier ran up and down all the stairs, through halls and passages, but no one among all those whom he met had heard talk of the Nightingale. And the Cavalier ran back to the Emperor, and said that it must be a fable made up by those who write books.  14
  “Your Imperial Majesty must not believe what is written. It is fiction, and something that they call the black art.”  15
  “But the book in which I read this,” said the Emperor, “was sent to me by the high and mighty Emperor of Japan, and so it cannot be a falsehood. I will hear the Nightingale! It must be here this evening! It has my high favor; and if it does not come, all the court shall be trampled upon after it has supped!”  16
  “Tsing-pe!” said the Cavalier; and again he ran up and down all the stairs, and through all the halls and passages, and half the court ran with him, for the courtiers did not like being trampled upon. There was a great inquiry after the wonderful Nightingale, which all the world knew, but not the people at court.  17
  At last they met with a poor little girl in the kitchen. She said:—  18
  “The Nightingale? I know it well; yes, how it can sing! Every evening I get leave to carry my poor sick mother the scraps from the table. She lives down by the beach, and when I get back and am tired, and rest in the wood, then I hear the Nightingale sing. And then the tears come into my eyes, and it is just as if my mother kissed me!”  19
  “Little Kitchen-girl,” said the Cavalier, “I will get you a fixed place in the kitchen, with leave to see the Emperor dine, if you will lead us to the Nightingale, for it is promised for this evening.”  20
  So they all went out into the wood where the Nightingale was wont to sing; half the court went out. When they were on the way, a cow began to low.  21
  “Oh!” cried the court pages, “now we have it! That shows a great power in so small a creature! We have certainly heard it before.”  22
  “No, those are cows mooing!” said the little Kitchen-girl. “We are a long way from the place yet.”  23
  Now the frogs began to croak in the marsh.  24
  “Glorious!” said the Chinese Court Preacher. “Now I hear it—it sounds just like little church bells.”  25
  “No, those are frogs!” said the little Kitchen-maid. “But now I think we shall soon hear it.”  26
  And then the Nightingale began to sing.  27
  “That is it!” exclaimed the little Girl. “Listen, listen! and yonder it sits.”  28
  And she pointed to a little gray bird up in the boughs.  29
  “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 so many famous people around.”  30
  “Little Nightingale!” called the little Kitchen-maid, quite loudly, “our gracious Emperor wishes you to sing before him.”  31
  “With the greatest pleasure!” replied the Nightingale, and sang so that it was a joy to hear it.  32
  “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.”  33
  “Shall I sing once more before the Emperor?” asked the Nightingale, for it thought the Emperor was present.  34
  “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.”  35
  “My song sounds best in the greenwood!” replied the Nightingale; still it came willingly when it heard what the Emperor wished.  36
  In the palace there was a great brushing up. The walls and the floor, which were of porcelain, shone with many thousand golden lamps. The most glorious flowers, which could ring clearly, had been placed in the halls. There was a running to and fro, and a draught of air, but all the bells rang so exactly together that one could not hear any noise.  37
  In the midst of the great hall, where the Emperor sat, a golden perch had been placed, on which the Nightingale was to sit. The whole court was there, and the little Cook-maid had leave to stand behind the door, as she had now received the title of a real cook-maid. All were in full dress, and all looked at the little gray bird, to which the Emperor nodded.  38
  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 happy, and he said the Nightingale should have his golden slipper to wear round its neck. But the Nightingale thanked him, it had already got reward enough.  39
  “I have seen tears in the Emperor’s eyes—that is the real treasure to me. An Emperor’s tears have a strange power. I am paid enough!” Then it sang again with a sweet, glorious voice.  40
  “That’s the most lovely way of making love 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 maids let it be known that they were pleased too; and that was saying a good deal, for they are the hardest of all to please. In short, the Nightingale made a real hit.  41
  It was now to remain at court, to have its own cage, with freedom to go out twice every day and once at night. It had twelve servants, and they all had a silken string tied to the bird’s leg which they held very tight. There was really no pleasure in going out.  42
  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 one another. Eleven storekeepers’ children were named after the bird, but not one of them could sing a note.  43

  One day a large parcel came to the Emperor, on which was written “The Nightingale.”
  “Here we have a new book about this famous bird,” said the Emperor.  45
  But it was not a book: it was a little work of art, that lay in a box; a toy nightingale, which was to sing like a live one, but it was all covered with diamonds, rubies, and sapphires. So soon as the toy bird was wound up, he could sing one of the pieces that the real one 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 Japan’s Nightingale is poor beside that of the Emperor in China.”  46
  “That is capital!” said they all, and he who had brought the toy bird at once got the title Imperial Head-Nightingale-Bringer.  47
  “Now they must sing together: what a duet that will be!”  48
  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 toy bird sang waltzes.  49
  “That’s not its fault,” said the Play-master: “it’s quite perfect, and very much in my style.”  50
  Now the toy bird was to sing alone. It made just as much of a hit as the real one, and then it was so much more fine to look at—it shone like bracelets and breastpins.  51
  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 a little something. But where was it? No one had noticed that it had flown away, out of the open window, back to its green woods.  52
  “But what is become of it?” asked the Emperor.  53
  Then all the courtiers scolded, and thought the Nightingale was a very thankless creature.  54
  “We have the best bird, after all,” said they.  55
  And so the toy bird had to sing again, and this was the thirty-fourth time they had 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 highly; yes, he declared that it was better than the real Nightingale, not only in its feathers and its many beautiful diamonds, but inside as well.  56
  “For you see, ladies and gentlemen, and above all, your Imperial Majesty, with the real Nightingale one can never make sure what is coming, but in this toy bird everything is settled. It is just so, and not any other way. One can explain it; one can open it, and can show how much thought went to making it, where the waltzes come from, how they go, and how one follows another.”  57
  “Those are quite our own ideas,” they all said. And the Play-master got leave to show the bird to the people on the next Sunday. The people were to hear it sing too, said the Emperor; and they did hear it, and were as much pleased as if they had all had tea, for that’s quite the Chinese fashion; and they all said “Oh!” and held their forefingers up in the air and nodded. But the poor Fisherman, who had heard the real Nightingale, said:—  58
  “It sounds pretty enough, and it’s a little like, but there’s something wanting, though I know not what!”  59
  The real Nightingale was exiled from the land and empire.  60
  The toy 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 come to be High Imperial After-Dinner-Singer, and in rank it was Number One on the left hand; for the Emperor reckoned 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 toy bird: it was so learned and so long, full of the most difficult Chinese words, that all the people said they had read it and understood it, or else they would have been thought stupid, and would have had their bodies trampled on.  61
  So a whole year went by. The Emperor, the court, and all the other Chinese knew every little twitter in the toy bird’s 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 certainly famous.  62
  But one evening, when the toy bird was singing its best, and the Emperor lay in bed and heard it, something inside the bird said, “Svup!” Something cracked. “Whir-r-r!” All the wheels ran round, and then the music stopped.  63
  The Emperor jumped at once out of bed, and had his own doctor called; but what could he do? Then they sent for a watchmaker, and after a good deal of talking and looking, he got the bird into some sort of order; but he said that it must be looked after a good deal, for the barrels were worn, and he could not put new ones in in such a manner that the music would go. There was a great to-do; only once in a year did they dare 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 before.  64

  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 sick, 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.  66
  Cold and pale lay the Emperor in his great, gorgeous bed; the whole court thought him dead, and each one ran to pay respect 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 one could be heard go by, 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 toy bird.  67
  The poor Emperor could scarcely breathe; it was just as if something lay upon his breast. He opened his eyes, and then he saw that it was Death who sat upon his breast, 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.  68
  “Do you remember this?” whispered one to the other, “Do you remember that?” and then they told him so much that the sweat ran from his forehead.  69
  “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!”  70
  And they kept on, and Death nodded like a Chinaman to all they said.  71
  “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—now, sing!”  72
  But the bird stood still,—no one was there to wind him up, and he could not sing without that; but Death kept on staring at the Emperor with his great hollow eyes, and it was quiet, fearfully quiet.  73
  Then there sounded close by the window the most lovely song. It was the little live Nightingale, that sat outside on a spray. It had heard of the Emperor’s need, and had come to sing to him of trust and hope. And as it sang the spectres grew paler and paler; the blood ran more and more quickly through the Emperor’s weak limbs, and Death himself listened, and said:—  74
  “Go on, little Nightingale, go on!”  75
  “But will you give me that splendid golden sword? Will you give me that rich banner? Will you give me the Emperor’s crown?”  76
  And Death gave up each of these treasures for a song. And the Nightingale sang on and on; it sang of the quiet churchyard where the white roses grow, where the elder-blossom smells sweet, and where the fresh grass is wet with the tears of mourners. Then Death felt a longing to see his garden, and floated out at the window in the form of a cold, white mist.  77
  “Thanks! thanks!” said the Emperor. “You heavenly little bird! I know you well. I drove you from my land and empire, and yet you have charmed away the evil faces from my bed, and driven Death from my heart! How can I pay you?”  78
  “You have paid me!” replied the Nightingale. “I drew tears from your eyes, the first time I sang—I shall never forget that. Those are the jewels that make a singer’s heart glad. But now sleep and grow fresh and strong again. I will sing you something.”  79
  And it sang, and the Emperor fell into a sweet sleep. Ah! how mild and refreshing that sleep was! The sun shone upon him through the windows, when he awoke strong and sound. Not one of his servants had yet come back, for they all thought that he was dead; but the Nightingale still sat beside him and sang.  80
  “You must always stay with me,” said the Emperor. “You shall sing as you please; and I’ll break the toy bird into a thousand pieces.”  81
  “Not 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 for you, 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.”  82
  “Everything!” said the Emperor; and he stood there in his royal robes, which he had put on himself, and pressed the sword which was heavy with gold to his heart.  83
  “One thing I beg of you: tell no one that you have a little bird who tells you everything. Then all will go well.”  84
  And the Nightingale flew away.  85
  The servants came in to look on their dead Emperor, and—yes, there he stood, and the Emperor said, “Good-morning!”  86

Shakespeare · Bible · Strunk · Anatomy · Nonfiction · Quotations · Reference · Fiction · Poetry
© 1993–2015 · [Top 150] · Subjects · Titles · Authors · World Lit.