The Nightingale and the Empror of China

Then they all said ‘Oh,’ and stuck their forefingers in the air and nodded their heads; but the poor fishermen who had heard the real nightingale said, ‘It sounds very nice, and it is very like the real one, but there is something wanting, we don’t know what.’ The real nightingale was banished from the kingdom.

The artificial bird had its place on a silken cushion, close to the emperor’s bed: all the presents it had received of gold and precious jewels were scattered round it. Its title had risen to be ‘Chief Imperial Singer of the Bed-Chamber,’ in rank number one, on the left side; for the emperor reckoned that side the important one, where the heart was seated. And even an emperor’s heart is on the left side. The music-master wrote five-and-twenty volumes about the artificial bird; the treatise was very long and written in all the most difficult Chinese characters. Everybody said they had read and understood it, for otherwise they would have been reckoned stupid, and then their bodies would have been trampled upon.

Things went on in this way for a whole year. The emperor, the court, and all the other Chinamen knew every little gurgle in the song of the artificial bird by heart; but they liked it all the better for this, and they could all join in the song themselves. Even the street boys sang ‘zizizi’ and ‘cluck, cluck, cluck,’ and the emperor sang it too.

But one evening when the bird was singing its best, and the emperor was lying in bed listening to it, something gave way inside the bird with a ‘whizz.’ Then a spring burst, ‘whirr’ went all the wheels, and the music stopped. The emperor jumped out of bed and sent for his private physicians, but what good could they do? Then they sent for the watchmaker, and after a good deal of talk and examination he got the works to go again somehow; but he said it would have to be saved as much as possible, because it was so worn out, and he could not renew the works so as to be sure of the tune. This was a great blow! They only dared to let the artificial bird sing once a year, and hardly that; but then the music-master made a little speech, using all the most difficult words. He said it was just as good as ever, and his saying it made it so.

Five years now passed, and then a great grief came upon the nation, for they were all very fond of their emperor, and he was ill and could not live, it was said. A new emperor was already chosen, and people stood about in the street, and asked the prime minister how their emperor was going on.

‘Not quite well!,’ answered he, shaking his head.

The emperor lay pale and cold in his gorgeous bed, the courtiers thought he was dead, and they all went off to pay their respects to their new emperor. The lackeys ran off to talk matters over, and the chambermaids gave a great coffee-party. Cloth had been laid down in all the rooms and corridors so as to deaden the sound of footsteps, so it was very, very quiet. But the emperor was not dead yet. He lay stiff and pale in the gorgeous bed with its velvet hangings and heavy golden tassels. There was an open window high above him, and the moon streamed in upon the emperor, and the artificial bird beside him.

The poor emperor could hardly breathe, he seemed to have a weight on his chest, he opened his eyes, and then he saw that it was Death sitting upon his chest, wearing his golden crown. In one hand he held the emperor’s golden sword, and in the other his imperial banner. Round about, from among the folds of the velvet hangings peered many curious faces: some were hideous, others gentle and pleasant. They were all the emperor’s good and bad deeds, which now looked him in the face when Death was weighing him down.

‘Do you remember that?’ whispered one after the other; ‘Do you remember this?’ and they told him so many things that the perspiration poured down his face.

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