The Nightingale

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 be like a natural one, but 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 Japan’s nightingale is poor, compared to that of the Emperor of China.” “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 be!”

And so they had to sing together; but it did not go very well, for the real Nightingale sang in its own way, and the artificial bird sang waltzes. “That’s not his fault,” said the Playmaster, “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 breastpins. Three-and-thirty times over did it sing the same piece, and yet it 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 green wood.

“But what is 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 Playmaster praised the bird particularly; yes, he declared that 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 every thing 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 upon 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, and I know not what!”

The Chief Imperial Nightingale Bringer holding the artificial nightingale

The Chief Imperial Nightingale Bringer

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; 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 Playmaster 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 artificial bird’s song, by heart. But just for that reason it pleased them best; they could sing it with themselves, and they did so. The street-boys sang “Tsi-tsi-tsi-glug-glug,” and the Emperor himself sung it too. Yes, that was certainly famous!

A man listening to the artificial nightingale

He was quite as successful as the real Nightingale

But one evening, when the artificial bird was singing its best, and when the Emperor lay in bed listening to it, something inside the bird said “Whiz!” Something cracked. “Whirr!” All the wheels ran around, 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 Playmaster 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.

Now five years had gone by, and a real grief came upon the whole Nation. The Chinese really were 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.

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

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