From all the countries of the world travellers came to admire the Emperor's palace and his garden, but when they heard the Nightingale they said, "That is the best of all!"
At last their words came to the Emperor.
"What's that?" he exclaimed. "I don't know the Nightingale at all. Is there such a bird in my empire, and even in my garden? I've never heard of that. I command that he shall appear this evening and sing before me!"
But where was the Nightingale to be found? The court had not heard of it either. There was a great inquiry after the wonderful Nightingale which all the world knew except the people at the palace. At last they met a poor little girl in the kitchen who said,
"Yes, I know the Nightingale well. It can sing gloriously. Every evening I get leave to carry my mother the scraps from the table. She lives down by the stream, and when I get back, and am tired, and rest in the wood, then I hear the Nightingale sing. It is just as if my mother kissed me."
So the little girl led the way out into the wood. Half the court went, and the child pointed at last to a little gray bird up in the boughs.
"It can't be possible," they said. "How dull it looks; but it may have lost its color at seeing such grand people around."
"Little Nightingale," called the kitchen maid, "our gracious Emperor wishes you to sing before him."
"My song sounds best in the greenwood," replied the Nightingale; still it came willingly when it knew what the Emperor wished.
The palace was festively adorned for it. The walls and the flooring, which were of porcelain, gleamed in the rays of thousands of golden lamps. The most glorious flowers, which could ring clearly, had been placed in all the passages. In the great hall there had been placed a golden perch on which the Nightingale sat. The little kitchen girl had received permission to stand by the door. All the court was in full dress, and all looked at the little gray bird to which the Emperor nodded.
Then the Nightingale sang so gloriously that the tears came into the Emperor's eyes, and the song went straight to his heart.
It was to remain at the palace now, the Emperor decided; to have its own cage, with liberty to go out twice every day and once at night. Twelve servants were appointed when the Nightingale went out, each of whom had a silken string fastened to the bird's leg which he held very tightly. There was really no pleasure in an excursion of that kind. The whole city spoke of the wonderful bird. When two people met, one said "Nightin," and the other said "gale" which was all that was necessary. Eleven peddlers' children were named after the bird, but not one of them could sing a note.
One day the Emperor received a large parcel, marked "The Nightingale."
He thought it was a present for the bird but when he opened it, he found a box. Inside the box was an artificial nightingale, brilliantly ornamented with diamonds, rubies, and sapphires. As soon as this artificial bird was wound up, its tail moved up and down, and shone with silver and gold. It sang very well, too, in its own way. Three and thirty times over did it sing the same waltz, and yet was not tired. The Emperor said that the living Nightingale ought to be shown this wonder.
But where was it?
None had noticed that it had flown away out of the open window, and back to the greenwood.
"What does it matter? We have the best bird after all," every one said. And the artificial bird was made to sing again and again until every one knew its tunes by heart. They liked to look at it, shining like bracelets and breastpins. The real Nightingale was banished from the empire. The artificial bird had its place on a silk cushion close to the Emperor's bed.
All the presents it received, gold and precious stones, were ranged about it. It had a title, High Imperial After-Dinner-Singer. It was certainly famous.
So a whole year went by, and then five years. The Emperor was ill and could not, it was said, live much longer. He lay on his gorgeous bed with long velvet cushions and heavy gold tassels. High up a window stood open, and the moon shone in upon the Emperor and the artificial bird.
The Emperor could scarcely breathe. It was just as if something lay upon his heart. He opened his eyes and then he saw that it was Death who sat upon his heart, and had put on his golden crown and held the Emperor's sword. And all around, from among the folds of the splendid curtains, strange heads peered forth, some ugly, and some quite lovely and mild. They were the Emperor's bad and good deeds that stood before him, now that Death sat upon his heart.
"Music! Music!" cried the Emperor, "so that I need not hear what they say! You little precious golden bird, sing, sing!"
But the bird stood still. It was worn out inside, and there was no music left in it. And Death sat and looked at the Emperor, and it was 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 sang the blood ran quicker and more quickly through the Emperor's heart; and even Death listened.
The Nightingale sang on and on; and it sang of the quiet churchyard where white roses grow, and the elder-blossom smells sweet, and the grass is green. Then Death felt a great longing to see his garden and he floated out at the window in a white mist, and with him went the spectres.
"Thanks! Thanks!" said the Emperor. "How can I reward you? You must always stay with me."
"Not so," replied the Nightingale. "I cannot build my nest in a palace, but I will come and 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. I will sing of those who are happy and those who suffer. I will sing of good and of evil that are hidden from you. The little singing bird flies far around, to the poor fishermen, to the peasant's roof, to every one who dwells far from your court. I will come and 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 his sword to his heart.
"One thing, only, I beg of you," said the Nightingale, "tell no one that you have a little bird who tells you everything. Then it will go all the better."
And the Nightingale flew away.
The servants came in to look at their dead Emperor, and, yes, there he stood; and the Emperor said, "Good morning!"