A long, long time ago, as long ago as when there were fairies, there lived an emperor in China, who had a most beautiful palace, all made of crystal. Outside the palace was the loveliest garden in the whole world, and farther away was a forest where the trees were taller than any other trees in the world, and farther away, still, was a deep wood. And in this wood lived a little Nightingale. The Nightingale sang so beautifully that everybody who heard her remembered her song better than anything else that he heard or saw. People came from all over the world to see the crystal palace and the wonderful garden and the great forest; but when they went home and wrote books about these things they always wrote, "But the Nightingale is the best of all."
At last it happened that the Emperor came upon a book which said this, and he at once sent for his Chamberlain.
"Who is this Nightingale?" said the Emperor. "Why have I never heard him sing?"
The Chamberlain, who was a very important person, said, "There cannot be any such person; I have never heard his name."
"The book says there is a Nightingale," said the Emperor. "I command that the Nightingale be brought here to sing for me this evening."
The Chamberlain went out and asked all the great lords and ladies and pages where the Nightingale could be found, but not one of them had ever heard of him. So the Chamberlain went back to the Emperor and said, "There is no such person."
"The book says there is a Nightingale," said the Emperor; "if the Nightingale is not here to sing for me this evening I will have the court trampled upon, immediately after supper."
The Chamberlain did not want to be trampled upon, so he ran out and asked everybody in the palace about the Nightingale. At last, a little girl who worked in the kitchen to help the cook's helper, said, "Oh, yes, I know the Nightingale very well. Every night, when I go to carry scraps from the kitchen to my mother, who lives in the wood beyond the forest, I hear the Nightingale sing."
The Chamberlain asked the little cook-maid to take him to the Nightingale's home, and many of the lords and ladies followed after. When they had gone a little way, they heard a cow moo.
"Ah!" said the lords and ladies, "that must be the Nightingale; what a large voice for so small a creature!"
"Oh, no," said the little girl, "that is just a cow, mooing."
A little farther on they heard some bull-frogs, in a swamp. "Surely that is the Nightingale," said the courtiers; "it really sounds like church-bells!"
"Oh, no," said the little girl, "those are bullfrogs, croaking."
At last they came to the wood where the Nightingale was. "Hush!" said the little girl, "she is going to sing." And, sure enough, the little Nightingale began to sing. She sang so beautifully that you have never in all your life heard anything like it.
"Dear, dear," said the courtiers, "that is very pleasant; does that little gray bird really make all that noise? She is so pale that I think she has lost her color for fear of us."
The Chamberlain asked the little Nightingale to come and sing for the Emperor. The little Nightingale said she could sing better in her own greenwood, but she was so sweet and kind that she came with them.
That evening the palace was all trimmed with the most beautiful flowers you can imagine, and rows and rows of little silver bells, that tinkled when the wind blew in, and hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of wax candles, that shone like tiny stars. In the great hall there was a gold perch for the Nightingale, beside the Emperor's throne.
When all the people were there, the Emperor asked the Nightingale to sing. Then the little gray Nightingale filled her throat full, and sang. And, my dears, she sang so beautifully that the Emperor's eyes filled up with tears! And, you know, emperors do not cry at all easily. So he asked her to sing again, and this time she sang so marvelously that the tears came out of his eyes and ran down his cheeks. That was a great success. They asked the little Nightingale to sing, over and over again, and when they had listened enough the Emperor said that she should be made "Singer in Chief to the Court." She was to have a golden perch near the Emperor's bed, and a little gold cage, and was to be allowed to go out twice every day. But there were twelve servants appointed to wait on her, and those twelve servants went with her every time she went out, and each of the twelve had hold of the end of a silken string which was tied to the little Nightingale's leg! It was not so very much fun to go out that way!
For a long, long time the Nightingale sang every evening to the Emperor and his court, and they liked her so much that the ladies all tried to sound like her; they used to put water in their mouths and then make little sounds like this: glu-glu-glug. And when the courtiers met each other in the halls, one would say "Night," and the other would say "ingale," and that was conversation.
At last, one day, there came a little package to the Emperor, on the outside of which was written, "The Nightingale." Inside was an artificial bird, something like a Nightingale, only it was made of gold, and silver, and rubies, and emeralds, and diamonds. When it was wound up it played a waltz tune, and as it played it moved its little tail up and down. Everybody in the court was filled with delight at the music of the new nightingale. They made it sing that same tune thirty-three times, and still they had not had enough. They would have made it sing the tune thirty-four times, but the Emperor said, "I should like to hear the real Nightingale sing, now."
But when they looked about for the real little Nightingale, they could not find her anywhere! She had taken the chance, while everybody was listening to the waltz tunes, to fly away through the window to her own greenwood.
"What a very ungrateful bird!" said the lords and ladies. "But it does not matter; the new nightingale is just as good."
So the artificial nightingale was given the real Nightingale's little gold perch, and every night the Emperor wound her up, and she sang waltz tunes to him. The people in the court liked her even better than the old Nightingale, because they could all whistle her tunes,—which you can't do with real nightingales.
About a year after the artificial nightingale came, the Emperor was listening to her waltz-tune, when there was a snap and whir-r-r inside the bird, and the music stopped. The Emperor ran to his doctor but he could not do anything. Then he ran to his clock-maker, but he could not do much. Nobody could do much. The best they could do was to patch the gold nightingale up so that it could sing once a year; even that was almost too much, and the tune was pretty shaky. Still, the Emperor kept the gold nightingale on the perch in his own room.
A long time went by, and then, at last, the Emperor grew very ill, and was about to die. When it was sure that he could not live much longer, the people chose a new emperor and waited for the old one to die. The poor Emperor lay, quite cold and pale, in his great big bed, with velvet curtains, and tall candlesticks all about. He was quite alone, for all the courtiers had gone to congratulate the new emperor, and all the servants had gone to talk it over.
When the Emperor woke up, he felt a terrible weight on his chest. He opened his eyes, and there was Death, sitting on his heart. Death had put on the Emperor's gold crown, and he had the gold sceptre in one hand, and the silken banner in the other; and he looked at the Emperor with his great hollow eyes. The room was full of shadows, and the shadows were full of faces. Everywhere the Emperor looked, there were faces. Some were very, very ugly, and some were sweet and lovely; they were all the things the Emperor had done in his life, good and bad. And as he looked at them they began to whisper. They whispered, "Do you remember this?" "Do you remember that?" The Emperor remembered so much that he cried out loud, "Oh, bring the great drum! Make music, so that I may not hear these dreadful whispers!" But there was nobody there to bring the drum.
Then the Emperor cried, "You little gold nightingale, can you not sing something for me? I have given you gifts of gold and jewels, and kept you always by my side; will you not help me now?" But there was nobody to wind the little gold nightingale up, and of course it could not sing.
The Emperor's heart grew colder and colder where Death crouched upon it, and the dreadful whispers grew louder and louder, and the Emperor's life was almost gone. Suddenly, through the open window, there came a most lovely song. It was so sweet and so loud that the whispers died quite away. Presently the Emperor felt his heart grow warm, then he felt the blood flow through his limbs again; he listened to the song until the tears ran down his cheeks; he knew that it was the little real Nightingale who had flown away from him when the gold nightingale came.
Death was listening to the song, too; and when it was done and the Emperor begged for more, Death, too, said, "Please sing again, little Nightingale!"
"Will you give me the Emperor's gold crown for a song?" said the little Nightingale.
"Yes," said Death; and the little Nightingale bought the Emperor's crown for a song.
"Oh, sing again, little Nightingale," begged Death.
"Will you give me the Emperor's sceptre for another song?" said the little gray Nightingale.
"Yes," said Death; and the little Nightingale bought the Emperor's sceptre for another song.
Once more Death begged for a song, and this time the little Nightingale got the banner for her singing. Then she sang one more song, so sweet and so sad that it made Death think of his garden in the churchyard, where he always liked best to be. And he rose from the Emperor's heart and floated away through the window.
When Death was gone, the Emperor said to the little Nightingale, "Oh, dear little Nightingale, you have saved me from Death! Do not leave me again. Stay with me on this little gold perch, and sing to me always!"
"No, dear Emperor," said the little Nightingale, "I sing best when I am free; I cannot live in a palace. But every night when you are quite alone, I will come and sit in the window and sing to you, and tell you everything that goes on in your kingdom: I will tell you where the poor people are who ought to be helped, and where the wicked people are who ought to be punished. Only, dear Emperor, be sure that you never let anybody know that you have a little bird who tells you everything."
After the little Nightingale had flown away, the Emperor felt so well and strong that he dressed himself in his royal robes and took his gold sceptre in his hand. And when the courtiers came in to see if he were dead, there stood the Emperor with his sword in one hand and his sceptre in the other, and said, "Good-morning!"