The Nightingale and the Empror of China

‘Yes Sir!’ said the prime minister, and away he ran again, up and down all the stairs, in and out of all the rooms and corridors; half the court ran with him, for they none of them wished to be trampled on. There was much questioning about this nightingale, which was known to all the outside world, but to no one at court. At last they found a poor little maid in the kitchen. She said, ‘Oh heavens, the nightingale? I know it very well. Yes, indeed it can sing. Every evening I am allowed to take broken meat to my poor sick mother: she lives down by the shore. On my way back, when I am tired, I rest awhile in the wood, and then I hear the nightingale. Its song brings the tears into my eyes; I feel as if my mother were kissing me!’

‘Little kitchen-maid,’ said the prime minister, ‘I will procure you a permanent position in the kitchen, and permission to see the emperor dining, if you will take us to the nightingale. It is commanded to appear at court to-night.’

Then they all went out into the wood where the nightingale usually sang. Half the court was there. As they were going along at their best pace a cow began to bellow.

‘Oh!’ said a young courtier, ‘there we have it. What wonderful power for such a little creature; I have certainly heard it before.’

‘No, those are the cows bellowing; we are a long way yet from the place.’ Then the frogs began to croak in the marsh.

‘Beautiful!’ said the Chinese chaplain, ‘it is just like the tinkling of church bells.’

‘No, those are the frogs!’ said the little kitchen-maid. ‘But I think we shall soon hear it now!’

Then the nightingale began to sing.

‘There it is!’ said the little girl. ‘Listen, listen, there it sits!’ and she pointed to a little grey bird up among the branches.

‘Is it possible?’ said the prime minister. ‘I should never have thought it was like that. How common it looks! Seeing so many grand people must have frightened all its colours away.’

‘Little nightingale!’ called the kitchen-maid quite loud, ‘our gracious emperor wishes you to sing for him!’

‘With the greatest of pleasure!’ said the nightingale, warbling away in the most delightful fashion.

‘It is just like crystal bells,’ said the prime minister. ‘Look at its little throat, how active it is. It is extraordinary that we have never heard it before! I am sure it will be a great success at court!’

‘Shall I sing again to the emperor?’ said the nightingale, who thought he was present.

‘My precious little nightingale,’ said the prime minister, ‘I have the honour to command your attendance at a court festival to-night, where you will charm his gracious majesty the emperor with your fascinating singing.’

‘It sounds best among the trees,’ said the nightingale, but it went with them willingly when it heard that the emperor wished it.

The palace had been brightened up for the occasion. The walls and the floors, which were all of china, shone by the light of many thousand golden lamps. The most beautiful flowers, all of the tinkling kind, were arranged in the corridors; there was hurrying to and fro, and a great draught, but this was just what made the bells ring; one’s ears were full of the tinkling. In the middle of the large reception-room where the emperor sat a golden rod had been fixed, on which the nightingale was to perch. The whole court was assembled, and the little kitchen-maid had been permitted to stand behind the door, as she now had the actual title of cook. They were all dressed in their best; everybody’s eyes were turned towards the little grey bird at which the emperor was nodding. The nightingale sang delightfully, and the tears came into the emperor’s eyes, nay, they rolled down his cheeks; and then the nightingale sang more beautifully than ever, its notes touched all hearts. The emperor was charmed, and said the nightingale should have his gold slipper to wear round its neck. But the nightingale declined with thanks; it had already been sufficiently rewarded.

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