‘I never knew that,’ said the emperor. ‘Music, music, sound the great Chinese drums!’ he cried, ‘that I may not hear what they are saying.’ But they went on and on, and Death sat nodding his head, just like a Chinaman, at everything that was said.
‘Music, music!’ shrieked the emperor. ‘You precious little golden bird, sing, sing! I have loaded you with precious stones, and even hung my own golden slipper round your neck; sing, I tell you, sing!’
But the bird stood silent; there was nobody to wind it up, so of course it could not go. Death continued to fix the great empty sockets of his eyes upon him, and all was silent, so terribly silent.
Suddenly, close to the window, there was a burst of lovely song; it was the living nightingale, perched on a branch outside. It had heard of the emperor’s need, and had come to bring comfort and hope to him. As it sang the faces round became fainter and fainter, and the blood coursed with fresh vigour in the emperor’s veins and through his feeble limbs. Even Death himself listened to the song and said, ‘Go on, little nightingale, go on!’
‘Yes, if you give me the gorgeous golden sword; yes, if you give me the imperial banner; yes, if you give me the emperor’s crown.’
And Death gave back each of these treasures for a song, and the nightingale went on singing. It sang about the quiet churchyard, when the roses bloom, where the elder flower scents the air, and where the fresh grass is ever moistened anew by the tears of the mourner. This song brought to Death a longing for his own garden, and, like a cold grey mist, he passed out of the window.
‘Thanks, thanks!’ said the emperor; ‘you heavenly little bird, I know you! I banished you from my kingdom, and yet you have charmed the evil visions away from my bed by your song, and even Death away from my heart! How can I ever repay you?’
‘You have rewarded me,’ said the nightingale. ‘I brought the tears to your eyes, the very first time I ever sang to you, and I shall never forget it! Those are the jewels which gladden the heart of a singer;—but sleep now, and wake up fresh and strong! I will sing to you!’
Then it sang again, and the emperor fell into a sweet refreshing sleep. The sun shone in at his window, when he woke refreshed and well; none of his attendants had yet come back to him, for they thought he was dead, but the nightingale still sat there singing.
‘You must always stay with me!’ said the emperor. ‘You shall only sing when you like, and I will break the artificial bird into a thousand pieces!’
‘Don’t do that!’ said the nightingale, ‘it did all the good it could! keep it as you have always done! I can’t build my nest and live in this palace, but let me come whenever I like, then I will sit on the branch in the evening, and sing to you. I will sing to cheer you and to make you thoughtful too; I will sing to you of the happy ones, and of those that suffer too. I will sing about the good and the evil, which are kept hidden from you. The little singing bird flies far and wide, to the poor fisherman, and the peasant’s home, to numbers who are far from you and your court. I love your heart more than your crown, and yet there is an odour of sanctity round the crown too!—I will come, and I will sing to you!—But you must promise me one thing!—
‘Everything!’ said the emperor, who stood there in his imperial robes which he had just put on, and he held the sword heavy with gold upon his heart.
‘One thing I ask you! Tell no one that you have a little bird who tells you everything; it will be better so!’
Then the nightingale flew away. The attendants came in to see after their emperor on the death bed, and there he stood, bidding them ‘Good morning!’
by: Hans Christian Anderson