The Nightingale – Pre-Intermediate Level

The Emperor of China is a Chinaman, as you most likely know, and everyone around him is a Chinaman too. It’s been a great many years since this story happened, but that’s all the more reason for telling it before it gets forgotten.

The Emperor’s grand palace was a wonder of the world. In the garden were were many flowers that were hard to find anywhere else in the world. The prettiest ones had little silver bells tied to them which rang softly so that no one could pass by without noticing them. Yes, all things were set out carefully in the Emperor’s garden, though how far and wide it was not even the gardener knew. If you walked on and on, you came to a fine forest where the trees were tall and the lakes were deep. The forest ran down to the deep blue sea, so close that tall ships could sail under the branches of the trees. In these trees a nightingale lived. His song was so sweet that even the poor fisherman, who had much else to do, stopped to listen on the nights when he went out with his nets.

“How beautiful,” he said, but he had his work to do, and he would forget the bird’s song. But the next night when he heard the song he would again say, “How beautiful.”

Travelers came from all the countries in the world to the city of the Emperor. They thought the city, the palace and its garden were wonderful. But when they heard the nightingale they said, “That is the best of all.”

The travelers told of it when they came home, and men of learning wrote many books about the town, about the palace, and about the garden. But they did not forget the nightingale. They said he was the best of all, and some wrote wonderful poems and songs about the nightingale who lived in the forest by the deep sea.

These books went all over the world, and some of them came even to the Emperor of China. He would sit in his golden chair and read, nodding his head in delight over such grand descriptions of his city, and palace, and garden. One day he read one of the books that talked about the nightingale being the best of all the great things in China.

“What’s this?” the Emperor cried. “I don’t know of any nightingale. Can there be such a bird here, in my own garden, that I don’t know about? To think that I should have to learn of it out of a book.”

He called his Prime Minister, who was the next most important person in the city. He was so important, that when anyone other than the Emperor spoke to him, or asked him a question, he only answered “Pooh!”, which means nothing at all.

“They say there’s a most unusual bird called the nightingale,” said the Emperor. “They say it’s the best thing in all of China. Why haven’t I been told about it?”

“I’ve never heard anyone speak the name,” said the Prime Minister. “He hasn’t been presented at court.”

“I want him to appear before me this evening and sing,” said the Emperor. “The outside world knows what I have in China better than I do!”

“I have never heard of him before,” said the Prime Minister. “But I shall look for him. I’ll find him.”

But where? The Prime Minister ran upstairs and downstairs, through all the rooms and corridors, but no one he met had ever heard of the nightingale. So the Prime Minister ran back to the Emperor, and said that it must be a story made up by those who write books. “Your Majesty would not believe how much of what is written is not true.”

“But the book I read was sent me by the great Emperor of Japan, so it has to be true. I want to hear this nightingale. You must bring him here this evening. If he is not here, I will have the whole court punched in the stomach directly after dinner.”

“I’ll find him!” said the Prime Minister. Off he ran again, upstairs and downstairs, through all the rooms and corridors. And half the court ran with him, for no one wanted to be punched in the stomach after dinner.

There was much questioning as to the where they might find the nightingale, who was so well known everywhere in the world but unknown at home.

At last they asked a poor little kitchen girl. “The nightingale? I know him well,” she said. “Yes, he certainly can sing. Every evening I am allowed to carry food left over after we eat dinner to my sick mother. She lives down by the sea shore. When I start back I am tired and rest among the trees in the forest. Then I hear the nightingale sing. It brings tears to my eyes. It’s as if my mother were kissing me.”

“Little kitchen girl,” said the Prime Minister, “I’ll have you made Royal Pot Cleaner for life. I’ll even ask the Emperor to allow you to watch him eat his meals if you’ll take us to the nightingale. The Emperor has told me that he wants it to appear at court this evening.”

So they went into the forest where the nightingale usually sang. Half the court went along. On the way to the forest, they heard the call of a cow.

“Oh,” cried Prime Minister, “that must be it. What a powerful voice for a bird so small. I’m sure I’ve heard him sing before.”

“No, that’s a cow!” said the little kitchen girl. “We still have a long way to go.”

Then the frogs beside a stream began to sing.

“Wonderful!” said the Prime Minister. “Now I hear it… like church bells ringing.”

“No, that’s frogs!,” said the little kitchen girl. “But I think we shall hear him soon.”

Then the nightingale sang.

“That’s it!” said the little kitchen girl. “Listen, listen! And over there he sits.” She pointed to a little gray bird high up in a tree.

“Is it possible?” cried the Prime Minister. “I never would have thought he looked like that. So plain looking! But he is probably frightened at seeing so many important people around him.”

“Little nightingale,” the kitchen girl called to him. “Our much loved Emperor wants to hear you sing.”

“I would be pleased to sing for him,” answered the nightingale. And he started to sing.

“Very similar to the sound of glass bells,” said the Prime Minister. “Just see his little throat, how busily it moves. I can’t believe that we have never heard him before. I’m sure he’ll be a great success at court.”

“Shall I sing to the Emperor again?” asked the nightingale, for he thought that the Emperor was among the people below.

“My good little nightingale,” said the Prime Minister, “I have come to ask you to visit us at court this evening. It would make His Majesty the Emperor very happy to hear your beautiful songs.”

“My songs sound best in the forest,” said the nightingale, but he went with them willingly when he heard that it was the Emperor’s wish.

The palace had been made ready for the nightingale. The walls and floors shone in the light from many gold lamps. Flowers with bells on them had been brought in from the garden. There were so many people coming and going that all the bells rang until it was hard to hear yourself talk.

There was a special place for the nightingale to sit in the great room where the Emperor sat on his golden chair. The whole court was there. And they let the little kitchen girl stand behind the door, now that she had been made “Royal Pot Cleaner.” Everyone was dressed in his or her best clothes, and all looked carefully at the little gray bird.

The nightingale sang so sweetly that tears came into the Emperor’s eyes and rolled down the side of his face. Then the nightingale sang still more sweetly, and the Emperor knew that he loved the little bird. The Emperor loved it so much that he wanted his own golden shoe hung round the nightingale’s neck. The nightingale thanked him for his kindness, but said no.

“I have seen tears in the Emperor’s eyes,” he said. “Nothing could be better than that. An Emperor’s tears are very powerful. I have my reward.” And he sang again, wonderfully.

“It’s the most beautiful way to win a man’s heart we have ever heard of,” said the women of the court. And they took water in their mouths and put their heads back and tried to speak through it, hoping to sound like the nightingale. Even the servants said they liked it, which was saying a lot, for they were the hardest to please. The nightingale was a total success. He was to stay at court, and have his own cage. He was allowed to go for a walk twice a day, and once a night. Twelve servants went with him, each one holding on carefully to a piece of fine string tied to the bird’s leg. There wasn’t much fun in such walks.

The whole town talked about the wonderful bird. If two people met, and one happened to say “night” the other would quickly said “gale,” and then they would smile at each other, with no need for words. Eleven shop-keepers’ children were named “nightingale,” but not one could sing.

One day the Emperor received a large package with a note saying “The Nightingale.”

“This must be another book about my famous bird,” he said. But it was not a book. In the box was a work of art, a toy nightingale very much like the real one but covered with diamonds and other jewels. In the toy bird’s chest was a golden key. When turned a number of times, this caused the bird to sing while moving its gold and silver tail from side to side. At the toy bird’s feet was a note: “The Emperor of Japan’s toy nightingale is a poor thing next to that of the Emperor of China.”

“Let’s have them sing together. What a song that will be!” called the people of the court.

So they began to sing together, but it didn’t turn out so well. The real nightingale sang whatever came into his head, but the toy bird sang the same song over and over.

“That’s a good thing,” said the Music Master. “The new bird never sings a wrong note, just as I have taught him.”

Then they had the toy bird sing by itself. It met with the same success as the real nightingale. Also, it was much prettier to look at, with all the shining jewels. Thirty-three times it sang the same song without getting tired.

The men and women of the court would happily have heard it again, but the Emperor said the real nightingale should now have his turn. But where was he? No one had noticed him flying out the open window, back to his home in the green forest.

“But what made him do that?” said the Emperor.

The men and women of the court then said bad things about the real nightingale. “Luckily we have the best bird,” they said, and made the toy one sing again. That made it thirty-four times they had heard the same song. However, they didn’t quite know it by heart because it was a difficult piece.

And the Music Master said many good things about the toy bird. He said that the toy bird was much better than the real nightingale, not only in its dress and its many beautiful diamonds, but also in its song.

“You see,” the Music Master continued, “with a real nightingale one never knows what to expect. But with this toy bird there are no surprises. Nothing can go wrong. I can explain it and take it to pieces, and show how the wheels fit together, how they go around, and how one follows after another.”

“Those are our feelings too,” they all said, and the Emperor told the Music Master to have the bird sing in public for all his people the next Sunday. And sing it did. When the people heard it they said it made them feel so good that it was getting a little bit drunk on tea, Chinese fashion. Everyone said, “Oh,” and held up their first finger, and nodded his head. But the poor fishermen who had heard the real nightingale said, “This is very pretty, very nearly the real thing, but not quite. There is something missing, but I can’t think what it is.”

The real nightingale was then sent away from the land. In its place, the toy bird sat on a pillow beside the Emperor’s bed. He gave it the name “Grand Singer of the Emperor to Sleep.” In public it was always placed to the left of the Emperor, for this was where the most important person stands. The Emperor likes them to stand on that side because of the heart. Even an Emperor’s heart is on the left.

The Music Master wrote a book about the toy bird. It was very long, and full of important sounding Chinese words, yet everybody said they read and understood it. They didn’t want to show themselves to be stupid, and then be punched in their stomachs.

After a year the Emperor, his court, and every one else in China knew every sound of the toy bird’s song by heart. They liked it all the better now that they could sing it themselves. Which they did. The children in the street sang, “Zizizi! kluk, kluk, kluk,” and the Emperor sang it too. That’s how much everyone loved it.

But one night, while the toy bird was singing his best by the Emperor’s bed, something inside the bird broke with a loud noise. All the wheels slowed down and the music stopped. The Emperor jumped out of bed and sent for his doctor. But what could he do? The Emperor then sent for the royal clock maker, who fixed the bird as best he could. But the clock maker said that the bird must not be used too much, for the inside parts were getting worn. If he put new ones in, it would change the song. This was terrible. They could only let the bird sing once a year, and that was almost too much for it. But after it sang each year, the Music Master would stand up and speak to the people for a long time using many important sounding Chinese words. This made them think that the bird was as good as it ever was.

Five years passed by, and then a great sadness came over the country. The Chinese people loved their Emperor, who now fell ill. So ill, that it was said he would soon die. A new Emperor was chosen in readiness. People stood in the street outside the palace and asked the Prime Minister how it went with the Emperor.

“Pooh!,” said he, and shook his head.

The Emperor lie cold and pale in his great bed. All the men and women of the court thought he was dead and came to pay respect to the new Emperor. The servants went off to talk about the personal lives of those who came, as servants always do. And some of them even had a coffee party because it was such a special occasion. Thick carpets were laid in all the rooms and corridors to hide the sound of people walking. It was quiet in the palace, dead quiet.

But the Emperor was not yet dead. Unable to move, he lay in his great bed with its long thick curtains. High in the wall was an open window, through which moonlight fell on the Emperor and his toy bird.

The poor Emperor was finding it hard breathe. It was as if something were sitting on his chest. Opening his eyes he saw it was Death who sat there, wearing the Emperor’s crown, holding the Emperor’s gold sword, and carrying the Emperor’s flag. On the curtains there were ghostly faces. Some looked terrible, others kind. They were the Emperor’s actions during his life, good and bad, which were laid out for him to see now that Death sat on his heart.

“Don’t you remember…?” they said quietly, one after the other. “Don’t you remember…?” And they told him of things that scared him greatly.

“No, I will not remember!” said the Emperor. “Music, music, sound the great drum of China so that I can’t hear what they say!” But they went on speaking, and Death nodded, Chinese fashion, at every word.

“Music, music!” the Emperor called. “Sing, my little golden bird, sing! I have given you many wonderful presents. I have hung my golden shoe around your neck. Sing, please, sing!”

But the bird stood still. There was no one to turn the golden key, no one to make it sing. Death kept looking through his great empty eyes, and the bird was quiet, deadly quiet.

Suddenly, through the window came the notes of a song. It was the little live nightingale who sat outside in a tree that grew near the Emperor’s window. He had heard of the Emperor’s sickness, and had come to sing of hope and happiness. As he sang, the ghostly faces grew pale, and still more pale, and the blood ran faster and faster through the Emperor’s weak body. Even Death listened, and said, “Sing more, little bird, sing more!”

“Only,” said the nightingale, “if you give back the Emperor’s sword, flag, and crown?.”

And Death gave them back for a song. The nightingale sang on. It sang of a quiet garden where white flowers grew and made the air sweet, and where the grass was always green, wet with the tears of those who are still living. Death wished for this place. Out through the windows went a cold gray cloud, as Death left the room.

“Thank you, thank you!” the Emperor said. “Little bird sent by God, I know you of old. I once sent you from my land, and yet you have sung away the ghostly faces from my bed, and Death from my heart. How can I pay you back?”

“You have already rewarded me,” said the nightingale. “I brought tears to your eyes when first I sang for you. To the heart of a singer those are worth more than anything else. But sleep now, and grow strong while I sing.” He sang on until the Emperor fell into a calm, deep, sweet, sleep.

The sun was shining in his window when the Emperor woke up, healthy and well again. Not one of his servants had returned to him, for they thought him dead, but the nightingale still sang.

“You must stay with me always,” said the Emperor. “Sing to me only when you please. I shall break the toy bird into a thousand pieces.”

“No,” said the nightingale. “It did its best. Keep it near you. I cannot build my nest here, or live in a palace, so let me come and go as I wish. Then I shall sit in the tree by your window, and sing things that will make you happy and thoughtful too. I’ll sing about those who are happy, and those who are sad. My songs will tell you of all the good and bad things that you do not see. A little singing bird flies far and wide, to the fisherman’s hut, to the farmer’s home, and to many other places a long way off from you and your court. I will come and sing to you, if you will promise me one thing.”

“All that I have is yours,” cried the Emperor, who stood in his royal clothes, which he had put on himself, and held his heavy gold sword to his heart.

“One thing only,” the nightingale asked. “You must not let anyone know that you have a little bird who tells you everything. Then all will go even better.” And away he flew.

The servants came in to look after their dead Emperor, and there they stood. And the Emperor said, “Good morning.”