The Nightingale and the Empror of China

‘I have seen tears in the eyes of the emperor; that is my richest reward. The tears of an emperor have a wonderful power! God knows I am sufficiently recompensed!’ and then it again burst into its sweet heavenly song.

‘That is the most delightful coquetting I have ever seen!’ said the ladies, and they took some water into their mouths to try and make the same gurgling when any one spoke to them, thinking so to equal the nightingale. Even the lackeys and the chambermaids announced that they were satisfied, and that is saying a great deal; they are always the most difficult people to please. Yes, indeed, the nightingale had made a sensation. It was to stay at court now, and to have its own cage, as well as liberty to walk out twice a day, and once in the night. It always had twelve footmen, with each one holding a ribbon which was tied round its leg. There was not much pleasure in an outing of that sort.

The whole town talked about the marvellous bird, and if two people met, one said to the other ‘Night,’ and the other answered ‘Gale,’ and then they sighed, perfectly understanding each other. Eleven cheesemongers’ children were called after it, but they had not got a voice among them.

One day a large parcel came for the emperor; outside was written the word ‘Nightingale.’

‘Here we have another new book about this celebrated bird,’ said the emperor. But it was no book; it was a little work of art in a box, an artificial nightingale, exactly like the living one, but it was studded all over with diamonds, rubies and sapphires.

When the bird was wound up it could sing one of the songs the real one sang, and it wagged its tail, which glittered with silver and gold. A ribbon was tied round its neck on which was written, ‘The Emperor of Japan’s nightingale is very poor compared to the Emperor of China’s.’

Everybody said, ‘Oh, how beautiful!’ And the person who brought the artificial bird immediately received the title of Imperial Nightingale-Carrier in Chief.

‘Now, they must sing together; what a duet that will be.’

Then they had to sing together, but they did not get on very well, for the real nightingale sang in its own way, and the artificial one could only sing waltzes.

‘There is no fault in that,’ said the music-master; ‘it is perfectly in time and correct in every way!’

Then the artificial bird had to sing alone. It was just as great a success as the real one, and then it was so much prettier to look at; it glittered like bracelets and breast-pins.

It sang the same tune three and thirty times over, and yet it was not tired; people would willingly have heard it from the beginning again, but the emperor said that the real one must have a turn now—but where was it? No one had noticed that it had flown out of the open window, back to its own green woods.

‘But what is the meaning of this?’ said the emperor.

All the courtiers railed at it, and said it was a most ungrateful bird.

‘We have got the best bird though,’ said they, and then the artificial bird had to sing again, and this was the thirty-fourth time that they heard the same tune, but they did not know it thoroughly even yet, because it was so difficult.

The music-master praised the bird tremendously, and insisted that it was much better than the real nightingale, not only as regarded the outside with all the diamonds, but the inside too.

‘Because you see, my ladies and gentlemen, and the emperor before all, in the real nightingale you never know what you will hear, but in the artificial one everything is decided beforehand! So it is, and so it must remain, it can’t be otherwise. You can account for things, you can open it and show the human ingenuity in arranging the waltzes, how they go, and how one note follows upon another!’

‘Those are exactly my opinions,’ they all said, and the music-master got leave to show the bird to the public next Sunday. They were also to hear it sing, said the emperor. So they heard it, and all became as enthusiastic over it as if they had drunk themselves merry on tea, because that is a thoroughly Chinese habit.

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