The Nightingale

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 artificial bird.

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 sung the spectres grew paler and paler; the blood ran quicker 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 Emperor’s crown? And Death gave up each of these treasures for a song. And the Nightingale sang on and on; and it sung of the quiet Churchyard where the white roses grow, where the elder-blossom smells 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 have drawn tears from your eyes, when I sang the first time; I shall never forget that. These are the jewels that rejoice a singer’s heart; but now sleep and grow fresh and strong again; I will sing you something.” 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.” “Not so,” replied the Nightingale. “It did well so 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. And I will sing of those who are happy, and of those who suffer. I will sing of good and of evil that remains 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 come, I shall 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 heart.

“One thing I beg of you; tell no one that you have a little bird that 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 they stood, and the Emperor said, “Good-morning.”

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

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