Wagner - The Prize Of A Song

( Originally Published 1894 )

THE fire was almost out. It was so late in the spring that none at all was needed, but we liked it to look at. As for the little girl and me, we should hardly have known how to get on without it, and the little girl's mother chose to humor us, so we wasted a great deal of wood, as ignorant people would think, and were just as comfortable with the sky smiling and the trees budding all around us as if we had been in the midst of snow-drifts and howling storms. This afternoon the sun had been shining right in upon the fire, as if he would like to know what it was doing there at all, when he was making the weather quite warm enough, in the house as well as out. A fire never burns well when the sun shines on it, and besides, nobody had taken much care of ours, so that after the sun had gone it looked very low and discouraged.

" Do you think anybody could see anything in a fire like that?" the little girl asked, with a doubtful gaze into it and a meaning, clearly enough, that, if I thought it at all possible for anybody to see anything, she wished that I myself would try.

" We will put on another stick," I said, "and have a better fire. It will not be a very hot fire even then, and with all this soft spring air about us, I don't think we can see any more gods and giants and knights and dragons in it. But we may see some simpler people, with bright young hearts that begin to stir and move and to beat quicker and harder in the spring, as young hearts ought to do, not only in the spring of the year, but in their own spring, and we may perhaps see some people with older hearts, which stirred and beat too in their time, and we shall see by them that those which move freest and grow warmest in their spring are the fullest and the richest in their autumn and can never be hurt in the winter, just as the tree in which the sap flows best in the spring spreads out the broadest shade in the fierce heat of the summer, bears the finest fruit in the autumn, and lives the strongest till the next spring comes. If you ever tell any very learned people what we see here in this fire they may tell you, perhaps, that it all happened on Midsummer Day and not in the spring at all, and they will be quite right, in their own poor way of being right, but Midsummer Day is not in the middle of the summer, you know, but just at the beginning of it, when the spring has been gone only a few days. It is then that the lovely touch of the spring has done all that it can for the world, when the sun climbs his very highest in the heavens to look at all the sweetness and beauty that have been spread over the earth, when the summer is young and happy and kind and has not begun to burn and wither everything that would like to love its brightness and its power. So if you would see all the joy and the light that the spring can bring, you must look for them not far from Midsummer Day.

" We shall not begin to see all this till our new stick begins to burn better, but in the meantime we may see some things that are pleasant enough, if they are not quite so radiant, and while the fire is still rather dark, just burning quietly in a few little places, we seem to me to be in a dim, old church. The service is just ending. In one of the pews sits a pretty girl who is behaving herself in a most unbecoming way, for she is constantly sending shy glances toward a young man who leans against a pillar not far off and looks at her in his turn in a way that really ought to shock her, instead of pleasing her, as it seems to do."

" Is he a knight? " asked the little girl, instinctively knowing him for the hero of the story.

" Do you want him to be a knight? "

" Oh, yes; let's have just one knight, if we can't have any giants or dragons."

" I believe you are beginning to see the pictures in the fire yourself. Well, he shall be a knight, but he shall not wear any armor and he shall not fight, and all the rest of the people we see shall be quite common people, mere trades-men, a goldsmith and a tailor and a toy-maker and a cobbler and the like. But whether the young man is a knight or not, he and the pretty girl ought to know better than to look at each other in that way in church, with looks that seem to mean so much and yet to have no connection with the service at all. The service is over now and the people all leave the church, except a few, but the young knight and the pretty girl stay behind, and he does not lose a minute in telling her that he loves her and that he is dreadfully anxious to know if she can love him. Now, of course, as she has done nothing all through the service but steal glances at him and probably could not even tell what hymns were sung, or whether there was a sermon or not, and has been thinking all the time how handsome he was, and knows very well that he was looking at her all the time, and knows very well, too, being a pretty girl, that he was thinking how pretty she was, of course, you see, she could not tell at all whether she could love him or not, and such a question naturally throws her into the greatest confusion.

" But while the young man is saying all the pretty things that the time allows, and the young woman is trying to think what she shall answer, her maid, who has been running about all this time, looking for things she has lost, bustles up, hears a part of what the young man says, and tells him that her mistress is already betrothed ; and the mistress quickly says yes, but that nobody yet knows to whom. This is such a surprising state of things that it needs an explanation ; so the maid tells the young knight that her mistress is to be given as bride for a prize to-morrow, which will be Midsummer Day, to the man who shall sing the best song. He asks if the bride herself is to judge whose song is best; and at that she makes up her mind at last, and says that she will choose nobody but him. But there is something else, for nobody can even try for the prize unless he belongs to a certain company or society of poets and singers here in the town, and the knight, though he has a pretty good opinion of the song he could make if he should try, is quite a stranger here. And now, as if for the very purpose of helping the knight, comes another young man, who turns out to be a Prentice, and he begins arranging benches and chairs in some queer sort of way, while the looks that he casts at the maid and the looks she throws back at him show that they are not total strangers ; and he tells them that these very poets and singers are to meet here in a few minutes, and that if anybody wants to join them h& will have a chance to sing to them and to prove whether he is worthy.

" So the young man of course determines that he will try, and it is clear that he expects nothing in the world but that he will carry everything before him ; and while the young women hurry away, the prentice tells him some-thing about the singers, who are always called masters, and the queer rules that they have for making all their songs. Queer enough they are, too, and so many that if you were to hear them all you would think that they were quite enough to prevent anybody's ever making a song at all ; but the most important thing that the knight learns is that, while he is singing, the judge will make a mark with chalk every time he breaks a rule, and, if more than seven chalk marks are scored against him, he cannot be a master, and so cannot try for the prize that he wants so much to win to-morrow.

" Now the masters begin to gather for their meeting, coming in one by one and two by two. First comes a goldsmith, the father of the pretty girl we have just seen. With him is a queer-looking, awkward, self-conceited man, who, anybody can see in a minute, must be a town clerk. From what he is saying to the goldsmith it is clear that he means to try for the prize of his daughter's hand tomorrow. He is in no doubt that he can sing better than any-body else, but is not sure that the goldsmith's daughter will think so. That is a very unlucky thing that happens to singers sometimes ; they themselves know perfectly well that they can sing better than anybody else anywhere about, but all the other people are so stupid that they will not understand it.

"The young knight, who knows the gold-smith, tells him now that he wants to join this company of singers, and be a master too ; and the goldsmith says that he shall be glad to help all he can. But the town clerk overhears them, and he sees at once that what the knight wants is to sing for the prize tomorrow. Now, the rule is, you remember, that nobody but a master may even try for the prize ; so the jealous town clerk resolves that he will keep the young man from becoming a master. And it happens, by good luck for him and bad luck for the knight, that it is his turn to-day to take the chalk and mark the mistakes that are made in singing by anybody who tries to prove himself worthy to be a master.

" When the masters are all 'net, the goldsmith makes a little speech, and tells them how the prize is to be given tomorrow. They are to decide who wins, but his daughter is to judge too. She may choose none without their voice, but she may refuse any. That is no more than fair, of course. No girl would like to be married to a man just because the lines of his poetry came out right when somebody else counted them. Yet the masters all argue and dispute and suggest about the rules ; but in the end they agree to do just what the goldsmith says, since they cannot do anything else.

" Now comes the trial of the young knight who wants to be a master. The town clerk goes behind a curtain, with his slate and his chalk, and you may be sure he does not forget his promise to himself that the knight shall fail. Then the young man stands up in the midst of them all and sings his song. A happy, free, beautiful song it is. It tells first how the spring came into the forest and awakened the trees and brought the flowers. Then it tells how the spring came into the young man's own heart, as you know I told you it ought to do, and how it made him sing of love ; and that is quite right too, though perhaps I forgot to say so before.

" But happy and beautiful as the song is, it is scarcely begun before the most dreadful scratching of the chalk is heard behind the curtain. All the masters begin to shake their heads, too, for this knight is bold enough to make his own song in his own way, and he knows and cares no more about the rules and measures of these masters for making songs than you know or care about the game laws of Scotland. So by the time the song is half over, out rushes the town clerk with his slate, not with the eight marks on it that would end the singer's hopes of being a master, but with nearer eighty. He vows the case is hopeless, and as he shows the slate to the other masters they all seem to agree with him, though they are not all quite so jealous as he is.

" All but one ; for there is one old shoemaker who says that he thinks the song was very good. It did not follow the rules, but it had rules of its own, and he liked it. Then there is trouble indeed. For any man to say in this old church and this old town that a song can be good when it has one line too many or one rhyme too few is almost as bad as for him to say that the King is bald-headed and that the oldest princess has freckles. All the masters say that to let such a song pass is out of the question, and that the shoemaker is quite absurd to think of such a thing. At this the shoe-maker declares that the town clerk is not a fair judge, because he is jealous. At that again the town clerk says that the shoemaker had better not talk so much about poetry, but go home and finish the shoes he has ordered. Now, the shoemaker is really the only one of all the masters who knows anything at all about poetry ; but now and then, years ago, a man who knew a great deal had to stand aside and let others, who knew very little but could talk louder, do what they liked in their own way. That is what the shoemaker has to do now, and for this time the knight has failed.

" What a bad fire we have, to be sure ! It is getting lower and lower, and even our new stick will not burn. While everything is as dark as this we shall have to think that it is night. Never mind, we can see a little still, and the little that I can see is the street of the old town, with its queer old houses and peaked roofs and sharp steeples. Here, on one side, where there is a bit of light shining like a glow in a window, is the shop of our old cobbler ; and over there, with no light at all, the fire is so bad; is the goldsmith's house. The cobbler is sitting outside his door, trying to work ; but the light is as bad for him as it is for us, and, besides, he cannot think of his work, much less do it. He is thinking, I know, of the young knight and his song, and is wishing that he might win the prize to-morrow, master or no master. His heart had its spring-time once, you may be sure, and its glowing summer, and they have brought it a rich, peaceful autumn, such as they alone can bring. That was why he knew all the meaning of the song and liked it, though it broke every one of his own rules. And so, like the good old fellow that he is, he wishes the man who sang the song all joy and good luck—and the prize.

" While he is thinking of all this, comes the goldsmith's daughter, for she has heard that the young man has failed, and she is sad, and wants to talk to some one. Perhaps, too, she wants to know something. They talk about to-morrow, of course, and the shoemaker tells her that the town clerk means to sing for the prize. At that the prize herself gets quite alarmed, for she likes the town clerk no better than you or I do. ` But why should he not win ?' the shoemaker says ; ` there will not be many bachelors there to try.'

" ` And might not a widower try ?' she asks slyly.

" Now, the shoemaker knows that she means himself, but he says no, he is too old. And then the absurd girl actually urges him to try, though she does not want him the least bit, and does not want anybody except the young knight, who makes such beautiful songs that are all out of shape. When you get to be a woman, perhaps you will know why she does this; but I confess I do not. Perhaps she thinks that the shoemaker would not be half so bad as the town clerk, or perhaps she only wants to find out if the shoemaker really does mean to sing, so that she may know whether he is the knight's friend or his enemy. At any rate, he pretends to be not half so much the friend of the young people as 1 know he really is, and when she is beginning to get quite angry with him her maid comes and tries to lead her into the house. But just at this moment the knight himself is seen coming down the street, and not a step toward the house does she go after that.

" The shoemaker has gone into his shop now, and the lovers are alone. He tells her how he sang his very best, that he might be a master, because that was the only way to win her, and it was of no use. But she does not care whether he failed or not. She declares that he is a poet, that she will give the prize herself and to nobody but him ; so now what do you suppose it matters to him if all the masters in the world said that his songs were wrong? He will not sing for them, and they need not listen.

" There is just one way now, as anybody can see, for him to make sure of the prize, and that is to take it while he has it. And that is just what he is about to do. But I am sorry to see that the cobbler, behind the door of his shop, has been impolite enough to listen to all this important talk about poets and songs ; and he sees that if he lets these two run away together now, there will be no prize and no singing for tomorrow. So he sets a lamp in his window, right there where the fire is kind enough to burn for us a little at last, and sends the light streaming out across the street, and the lovers know that if they try to pass they will be seen. And while they are helping each other think what they can do, somebody else comes slowly down the street, walking in the shadows and looking around to see if he is watched, like a burglar. It is the town clerk, and he has come here just to sing under the window of the gold-smith's daughter the song that he means to sing to-morrow, to see if she will like it and if she will probably give it the prize. Oh, he is a good, honest poet and faithful lover, and he means to leave nothing untried that can help him. One does not get a chance to marry a goldsmith's daughter every day.

" All this is annoying enough, but there is nothing for the lovers to do but to wait for the town clerk to sing and go away ; so they get into the deepest shadow, and then they put their arms around each other so that they can stand closer and not be seen so easily. It is a good plan for another reason, too, because some people can wait much more patiently in that position than in any other. But things are getting worse and worse, for the shoe-maker seems bound to have his part of the fun too; and just as the town clerk is about to sing he begins to work again and to hammer on his last. This is the most impolite shoemaker, I suppose, that this polite old town ever saw, if he is a poet. Think of a man who will hammer on a shoe when a town clerk is going to sing, and a song that he made himself, too. Some-thing must be done, of course ; so the town clerk comes and talks with the cobbler, and pretends that he is very anxious to get his opinion of the song he is going to sing. That seems natural enough, because everybody knows that the cobbler is the best poet in town. So they agree that whenever the town clerk breaks a rule in his song the cobbler shall strike one blow on his last, just as if he were marking the mistakes on the slate, the way the town clerk himself did with the knight.

" Oh, but he must be a good town clerk, he knows so many tricks, and can always arrange everything so well to make it go his way. The town is lucky to have such a clerk. Yet, strange to say, the minute he begins to sing, he makes more mistakes than even the poor young knight did, and it is really a question whether his song or the shoemaker's pounding makes the more noise. Mind, I say noise, not music ; if it were a question of music the shoemaker would be far ahead. Well, between them, they wake up the shoemaker's prentice, and he comes to the window of the shop, to see what is the matter. He is the same prentice whom we saw in the church, who looked at the gold-smith's daughter's maid in such a strange way, you remember. And now, as he looks across at the house opposite, he sees the goldsmith's daughter's maid again, standing at the window. She is standing there in one of her mistress's gowns, to make the town clerk think that the mistress herself is listening to his song ; and he does think so, but the poor prentice knows who she is very well indeed. And since he knows who she is, of course he makes up his mind at once that the town clerk is singing to her, that he loves her, and that just as likely as not she loves him. No doubt you think he might know better ; and perhaps he might, if he were not so much in love with the goldsmith's daughter's maid ; but when a man is in love he is always ready to believe anything that it is particularly uncomfortable for him to believe.

" So, what does the shoemaker's prentice do but jump right out of the window, fetch the good town clerk one blow under the chin, that shuts his mouth and stops his singing, and be-gin just as lively a fight with him as any we ever saw among our knights and giants and dragons. They make so much noise that more people wake up, and come out of their houses into the street; and, since the old town is usually a bit dull and quiet, they find this just the sort of thing they like, and they all begin fighting, too, with a jolly good will. Of course, not one of them has the slightest notion of what he is fighting about ; but that makes no difference to any good, honest fighter, and there is a fine breaking of heads and kicking of shins. Just as everything is in the most delightful confusion possible, the knight and the goldsmith's daughter try to make their way through the crowd and escape ; but the troublesome old shoemaker, who has been watching them from the very beginning, runs quickly out, pushes the girl to her own door, where her father stands to receive her, drags the knight into his shop, seizes his prentice too, and shuts his door behind him. Somebody cries that the watch-man is coming; the people scatter right and left, and, by the time that little flame there under the andiron has burned up and shown itself to me as the old watchman's lantern, it shines on nothing but the quiet, empty street.

" But there is more light than the watchman's lantern, for our new stick is beginning to burn now. The night must be past, and, if the night is past, it is Midsummer Day. It is not so bright yet as it might be. Let us put on still another stick, and have all the Midsummer weather we can. I see a room now, not very handsome or rich, but very comfortable and cheerful, with flowers in the window and more flowers scattered about. It is the old shoemaker's shop, and the old shoemaker himself sits at the window, pretending to read, but really thinking, as usual, about the young knight who sings to please himself and not to obey other people's rules, and about the goldsmith's daughter; and he is trying, also as usual, to plan some way to make the prize go as he wants it to go. He does not quite see how it is to be done, but he has a comfortable feeling that it will all come out right ; and while he is studying over it, the knight himself comes out of the room where he has slept to say good-morning.

" He tells the shoemaker that he has had a beautiful dream, and the shoemaker asks him what it was, saying that it is the true business of a poet to have dreams and to tell them, so that everybody may know them. So the knight tells his dream, making it into a song as he goes along, and now and then the shoemaker stops him quietly to tell him what are the rules of the masters for making such songs as this. The knight always asks why such rules should be, and the shoemaker gives him some pretty reason for each one, and he shows that the rules are not so bad after all, if only one knows how to use them and to make the most of them. The dream was about a beautiful gar-den with a tree that bore fruit of gold, and as the dreamer looked at it there came a lovely maiden, who you may be sure was the goldsmith's daughter, and she embraced him and then pointed to the fruit of the tree, and when she pointed to it, it was golden fruit no longer, but stars, and the tree itself was a laurel-tree.

" You may guess that the poor old masters never heard such a song as this. As the knight sings it the shoemaker writes it down on a bit of paper and tells the knight to remember the melody, and then they go away together. Scarcely have they gone when the door opens softly and in a treacherous-looking sort of way that must be strange to the shoemaker's door, and in comes the town clerk. Ridiculous enough he looks in his gorgeous holiday clothes, and limping along, because of the beating that the prentice gave him last night. And angry enough he is, too, with the shoemaker and the prentice and the knight and the world in general, except himself, with whom it might be reasonable for him to be angry. You can see a wicked red glow, right there in the middle of the fire, where he stands. But he has not forgotten about the prize—oh, not in the least. He is still plotting and contriving how he can best make sure of it, and so it does not take long for his sharp little eyes to find the song lying on the table, where the shoemaker left it when he went out.

" Now, there is one peculiar thing about these people who can see through mill-stones, and that is, that they sometimes think they are seeing through one when there is really no mill-stone there at all ; just as you and I might think we were looking through a glass window when it was only an empty sash. Just see, for instance, how much cleverer the town clerk is than there is any sort of need for him to be. He sees that this song is a song ; well, anybody could see that. He sees that it is in the shoemaker's handwriting ; anybody who knew the shoe-maker's handwriting could see that. But now he takes the liberty of guessing that the shoe-maker made this song himself, and that he is going to sing it himself for the prize. So he gets more angry still, for he knows that the shoemaker is the best poet in all this dear old town, where anybody can be a poet by learning the rules, and he knows that if the shoemaker tries to win the prize he will probably do so. But he hears the shoemaker coming back and he has just time to hide the song in his pocket.

"Now he boldly accuses the shoemaker of meaning to sing for the prize. It may seem to you that it is no affair of his whether the shoe-maker means to sing or not, and it may seem so to me too, but we are not town clerks. Yet the shoemaker assures him that he does not mean to sing, accuses him in turn of stealing the song, and then, to prove his own words, gives it to him. With that the town clerk is altogether delighted, for he is one of those shallow people who think that when one man has done a good thing, another man can do just as well as he by doing the same thing. He feels sure that if he sings one of the shoemaker's songs he cannot fail to win the prize, and he makes the shoemaker promise that, whatever happens, he will not claim the song as his. The shoemaker is quite ready to promise anything, because he is a wise old soul and he knows that it is not altogether what one does, but pretty largely how one does it, as a cobbler or as a town clerk or as a singer, that wins him fame and honor—and Midsummer Day prizes.

" The town clerk hobbles away, and now who should come in but the goldsmith's daughter herself ? Well, no one could wonder at her lower's having pleasant dreams, for she is as pretty a prize as ever a poet sang a song for, or to, or about. With her best gown and her flowers and her jewels, and especially with her-self, I don't think you could find any prize that a poet would rather have, even in a town twice as big as this. It seems there is something wrong about the shoe that the cobbler has made for her to wear to-day, and she has come to get him to mend it. I wonder, by the way, if she knows that the knight was the shoe- maker's guest last night. She says that when she wants to stand still the shoe insists on walking, and when she wants to walk the shoe makes up its mind to stand still. You see yourself what a remarkable and improper way this is for a shoe to behave. It is so strange that I am inclined to doubt if it is the fault of the shoe at all, or if she really knows whether she wants to walk or stand still. You see it is not easy for us to tell just how a girl would feel at being put up for a prize.

" While the cobbler is at work on the shoe, the knight too appears, and the cobbler hints that he should like to hear the rest of the dream that the young man began to tell him before. So he sings more of his song and tells how the stars among the branches of the laurel-tree formed a crown for the lovely maiden's head, how her eyes, as he looked into her face, were to him brighter than all of them, and how then she twined with her own hand, about his head, the wreath of the star-fruit of the laurel-tree, and still and always he saw her eyes brighter than the stars.

" After he has sung this they all seem to understand one another better. The goldsmith's daughter's maid comes in to look for her mistress, the prentice tumbles in to look for the maid, or for something else, and away they all start for the fields outside the town, where all who will—that is, if they are masters and may —are to sing for the prize.

" At last the fire is burning as it ought, and we can see all the life and light that we care to enjoy. Those flames that stream up so far must mean that the sun has mounted his very highest to mark the noon of Midsummer Day, and the floods of merry sparks that pour up the chimney are not brighter or merrier than the throngs of people, men and women, boys and girls, that walk and run, and caper and dance, and tumble out of the city gates and into the meadows where the singing is to be. But there is more gravity all at once when the masters come. They are mighty and important per-sons at any time, and above all they are so to-day, when they are to decide who is to have this wonderful prize. They have a higher place to sit than the rest of the meadow, and the common people of the town, who do not pretend to be poets at all, can stand wherever they can find room. The goldsmith and his daughter have the highest seats of all, and the shoemaker is next to them, for he is supposed to know a good song when he hears it. All the other masters have good places too, including the town clerk. The knight is somewhere in the crowd of people who know nothing about poetry.

" When everything is ready the town clerk is the first to sing his song for the prize, because he is the oldest of those who are to try, and indeed he seems to be about the only one, with the knight quite out of the race, because he did so badly in the church yesterday. So the town clerk stands forth, and after a little opening plink-plunk on his guitar, he tries to sing the knight's own song, which the shoe-maker gave him, knowing well that he would get into trouble with it. And indeed, the dream that he tells about must have been a nightmare, though nobody who hears him knows what it is about, and the poor town clerk seems to know least of all. He has the song under his coat and tries to look at it now and then, but he reads it wrong and sings nonsense, and in a moment all the people are laughing at him, even those who do not know a good song when they hear it, for they seem to know a bad song very well when they hear it.

" At that he gets angry, stops singing, and says that the song is not his at all but the shoemaker's, and he is to blame. Here is a fine state of things, for the shoemaker is supposed, as I said before, to know more about songs than any of the other people in town, and indeed he knows more about most things than all of them put together. He says that the song is not his, but that it is good enough, if only it could be sung right, and he asks if there is anybody here who knows how to sing it.

" This is the time for the young knight, and he comes forward from the crowd and says that he will try. But first, the shoemaker makes all the masters promise that if he sings the song well and if it is a good song he shall have all the honor just as if he were a master. Now the young man takes his place and every-body is still. He looks straight at the gold-smith's daughter ; he does not know that there are any others around him ; and now he sings. And what a glorious song it is, full of hope and happiness and victory and joy! He did not sing like this to the masters in the church yesterday ; not even to the shoemaker this morning did he sing like this. It is not hard to see the reason. Yesterday he tried to be a master, and when he sang he was wondering how these fussy old fellows would measure his song with their rhyme-gauges and their foot-rules. How could anybody sing when he was thinking of that ? Even then it was not a bad song and the goldsmith's daughter would have known it if she had been the judge. The shoemaker, with his warm old spring-time heart, knew it as it was, but the masters were too learned ever to know anything. But now the goldsmith's daughter is the judge and the young poet sings only to her, only for her, only about her. If one smile curves her pretty lips as he sings, it is more to him than the shouts of all the people. That is the way to sing, and that is why, when he is done, all the people do shout, and do clap their hands and wave their hats, and do cry out that he must have the prize.

" And he does have the prize. She crowns his head with a wreath of laurel, which he cares for only because she sets it there, and the gold-smith himself brings him the gold chain that makes him a master. This the young man would put aside, but the wise old shoemaker bids him take this too, and to honor the masters and their art ; for, he says, though the Holy Roman Empire should vanish in smoke, yet art will remain. And I think he means by this that all the kingdoms of the earth may be lost and may fall into dust and ashes, as our fire here will do when we leave it to-night, but that the happy young people, with their stirring hearts of spring, and the kindly old people, with their ripe hearts of autumn, will still sing songs and still tell stories."

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