The Nightingale

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, who said, “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.”

Portrait of the Kitchen-Maid carrying a bag on her back

The Kitchen-Maid

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 quack in the marsh. “Glorious!” said the Chinese Court Preacher. “Now I hear it: it sounds just like litle 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 colour at seeing such grand people around.” “Little Nightingale!” called the little Kitchen-Girl, quite loudly, “our gracious Emperor wishes you to sing before him.”

The Nightingale on a branch, singing

Among the branches dwelt a Nightingale

“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 the little throat, how its 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 green wood!” 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 through draught, and all the bells rang so loudly that one could not hear one’s self speak.

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 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. 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 round its neck. But the Nightingale declined this with thanks, saying it had already received a sufficient reward. “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.

The Emperor and the little Cook-Maid walking in the garden

They admired the city, the palace, and the garden

“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, and which they held very tight. There was really no pleasure in an excursion of that kind. 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 pedlar’s children were named after the bird, but not one of them could sing a note.

From The Nightingale, Hans Christian Andersen,
New York: R. H. Russel, 1895.

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