The clock of St. Catherine's Church, which stands in the quaint old town of Nuremberg, had just struck five. And as the familiar words and music of the evening hymn came floating through the open door, borne by the soft midsummer air, the loafers in the street knew that the service was nearly over.
It was the eve of the Feast of St. John, the night before midsummer day, and the church was crowded. For in Nuremberg the people were always in earnest whatever they did, and were quite as ready to attend the services required by the Church as they were to hold revels and play mischievous pranks when there was a holiday.
Waiting among the beggars who sat close to the church porch stood a tall, handsome youth. His fair curly hair escaped from under a dark green cap in which an eagle's feather was fastened by a silver clasp. He was quietly dressed in a suit of dark green cloth, and a short cloak hung from his shoulders, partly concealing his tall, slender form. But in spite of the plainness of his dress there was something in his appearance which showed that he belonged to the noble and not to the burgher class, and several of the worshippers looked at him with curiosity as the crowd poured from the big doorway of the church into the street.
At last the youth's face lit up eagerly. Those whom he waited for were coming.
"Stay a moment, fair Eva. I do entreat one word with thee," he whispered to a beautiful girl who was leaving the church accompanied by her maid, a bright-looking woman not many years older than her young mistress.
The girl turned quickly to her companion and said, "Lena, my kerchief! Wilt thou go back, for I must have left it where we knelt?"
"Forgetful girl!" said Lena; "now I shall have a hunt," and she returned to the church.
"Eva!" whispered the youth, "forgive me if I seem bold. Answer me but one word. Art thou betrothed?" But before the question was answered Lena came back carrying the missing kerchief.
"The brooch! O Lena, where is the brooch?" exclaimed her young mistress as she took the kerchief, "I fear it must have fallen under the seat."
Lena looked doubtfully at the youth who stood beside her fair young charge, then muttering to herself, "Certes, Sir Walter van Stolzing, what may this betide?" she went back into the church.
"Speak but a single word to ease my doubt," repeated the youth when they were again alone; "tell me, is it true that thou art betrothed?"
But again before Eva could answer Lena came back, and handing her young mistress the brooch she said, "How now, Sir Knight, this is indeed a compliment thou payest us. Pray tell me did Master Pogner send thee to escort us home?"
"Indeed no," answered Sir Walter, "and many a time do I wish that I had never seen his house!"
"Heyday, Sir Walter, what meanest thou by that?" exclaimed Lena angrily; "methinks, when thou camest first to Nuremberg a stranger, poor and friendless, it was Master Pogner held out to thee a friendly hand, and many a time hast thou eaten of his good cheer and slept under his kindly roof."
"Peace, Lena," said her young mistress, "Sir Walter's words mean not what thou thinkest. He wishes me to answer a question and I am at a loss what to say. 'Tis about my betrothal, Lena, and whether I am a free maiden or not."
"Hush, speak lower," Lena said warningly, "and come home with me directly. Think what would happen if folks should see thee and Sir Walter talking together here. Come with me at once!"
"Nay, go not yet," broke in Sir Walter;" I pray thee first to answer my question. Say but one word and I will leave thee for ever."
"O Lena, do thou answer for me!" said Eva, in confusion.
"Was ever such a troublesome youth!" Lena burst forth angrily. "The question is not so simple to answer, Sir Knight, as it seems to thee. Of a truth my mistress is betrothed—"
"But no one yet has seen the bridegroom," interrupted Eva.
"I thought thou toldest me to give the answer!" snapped Lena, now alarmed at the long interview between Eva and the penniless young noble. "The bridegroom, Sir Walter," she went on, "will not be known until to-morrow, for then a trial is to be held before the best judges of Nuremberg, and he who is deemed the greatest singer will receive as his prize the hand of my mistress."
"And I myself am to place the silken wreath on his head," said Eva.
"The greatest singer!" exclaimed Sir Walter in amazement.
"Canst thou not sing?" asked Eva anxiously.
"To sing a song before judges," went on Sir Walter, stunned with surprise, "and win thy hand as prize!"
"Yes, and it is thou who must win it, thou only," broke in Eva, "for I will that none other should win."
"Eva, Eva, art thou mad?" cried Lena. "Think what thou art saying. Sir Walter to win thy hand! Why, until yesterday thou hadst never seen his face!"
"Be not angry, dear Lena, but help me to gain my lover if thou carest for me. My love has grown thus fast because all my life Sir Walter's portrait has hung before my face. Tell me, Lena, is he not like David?"
"David!" shouted Lena, thinking of her own lover, who was so called, a short, stout apprentice with a freckled face and roguish, laughing eyes. "Eva, thou art mad!"
"No, no, Lena," said Eva laughing, "it was not thy David I spoke of, but the noble youth who stands with a harp at his side and a pebble in his hand ready to overthrow the giant Goliath. Methinks that he who sang before King Saul must have been the world's first mastersinger. I see Sir Walter's face each time I look at the picture."
"David, King David!" exclaimed Lena, still angry. "Eva, come home at once! thy father will wonder why we tarry"; and she drew her young mistress's hand within her arm.
On leaving the church the trio met Lena's apprentice lover hurrying along with a measuring rod stuck in his belt, and carrying in his hand a long piece of string at the end of which dangled a lump of chalk.
"What art thou doing here, David?" asked Lena.
"Important business, Lena," answered the lad. "I go to prepare the ring for the master-singers."
"The ring!" said Eva. "Is there to be a singing trial?"
"Yes," answered David; "the trial among the apprentices takes place this evening, and he who succeeds will be raised to the proud position of a mastersinger."
"Then Sir Walter has arrived just in time," said Lena, turning to the youth. "Now is thy chance. I have told thee that only to a master-singer may my mistress be betrothed. So go thou with David and show that thou art able to win that distinction."
"But tell me, what must I do?" asked Sir Walter.
"David will show thee the rules," said Lena, "and if thou canst win, to-morrow shall we be the first to greet thee as victor. Come, Eva, I will not delay an instant longer."
The lovers said good-bye, but Lena did not hear Sir Walter's parting whisper, "Under the linden trees to-night at moonrise," to which Eva answered, "Yes."
Sir Walter and David walked on together to the famous hall of the guilds where the singing trials were held. Each guild, or trade, had its banner floating above that part of the hall where its members sat, and Nuremberg was rich in guilds. There was the bakers' guild, and the weavers' guild, and the silk merchants' guild, and many others. But greatest of all in Nuremberg was the shoemakers' guild, for Nuremberg was famous everywhere for the good boots and shoes it made, and to be called like Hans Sachs, master of the shoemakers' guild in Nuremberg, was the same as to say that you were the best shoemaker in the world.
"Tell me, David," Sir Walter asked as he watched him measuring a ring with his chalk and string, "tell me about this trial, and what I must do to become a mastersinger?"
"Why, thou must sing," answered David, "and if thou keepest all the rules, and if thy song is approved by the judges, why, then, they will choose thee to be one of their number. Thou must begin when the marker tells thee—"
"The marker, who is that?" asked Sir Walter.
"Dost thou not know even that?" said David. "Wert thou never at a song trial before?"
"Never," answered Sir Walter.
"Canst thou sing at all?" questioned David; "art thou a poet? Surely thou knowest what the words schoolman and scholar mean?"
"I never heard of them before," answered Sir Walter sadly, and David looked at him with pity.
"Well, I never heard the like," he said; "thou dost not even know the beginning, and yet wouldst like all at once to reach the end!"
"But canst thou not show me the way?" said Sir Walter humbly; "surely I am able to learn!"
"Yes, indeed," replied David, "but not in an hour. For five long years I have studied under the most famous teacher in Nuremberg, Hans Sachs, our greatest mastersinger. He is master too of our shoemakers' guild, and as his apprentice I make shoes beside him all day. And while I hammer soles and sew the leather I repeat to myself, 'There is slow time and quick time, short metre and long metre,' and just as I am fitting the soles to my shoes, so I am making the time and the metre fit together too, and my master corrects both my work and my art. There are tones of many kinds which thou needest to know, and the rhymes alone would take thee a year to learn."
"Well," said Sir Walter, "it is quite certain that to be a mastersinger such as thou meanest is beyond my power, but I will try if victory cannot be won simply by singing words and music which were born to fit each other even if they never heard of rule."
In a short time the apprentices, whose singing examination was about to take place, began to file into the hall. Each brought with him a song with which he hoped to win the approval of the judges, and be elected one of the famous company of Nuremberg mastersingers. David was a great favourite with them all, and it was no secret that if he was successful, his master, Hans Sachs, had promised to make him a journeyman, a fully fledged workman instead of an apprentice, and, once a journeyman, then he would be able to marry Lena.
Many were the good wishes that the silken wreath of flowers which was the victor's prize might be given to him.
Following the apprentices came the master-singers, who sat in the seats of honour and judged the singers. A square box like a pulpit was placed beside the masters' seats and this box was for the marker, who must also be a mastersinger. A curtain all round the upper part of the pulpit prevented the marker from seeing who sang, but he could hear every note, and each mistake the singer made was chalked by the marker on a large slate. Whenever seven mistakes were written down, then the market pushed the slate through the curtain so that all might see, and the singer was told that he was not good enough. Among the mastersingers Eva's father, Herr Pogner, came into the hall accompanied by Herr Beckmesser. Beckmesser was the only unmarried man in the guild except good old Hans Sachs the shoemaker, and for long he had secretly loved the beautiful Eva. But he was a thin, cross-looking young man, and was little liked by those who had to do with him, and until now the laughing, dainty Eva had never taken the least notice of his existence.
But Beckmesser was a good musician, and to-day he was chosen as marker. Just as he was going to enter the wooden pulpit, Herr Pogner caught sight of Sir Walter, who had been waiting patiently beside him. "How now, Sir Walter," he said cheerily, "have you come to seek me in the singing school?"
"Indeed I have," answered Sir Walter. "It was love of music, and the fame of the singers of Nuremberg that tempted me to leave my native land, and I am come now to ask that I too may join this great guild and become a mastersinger of Nuremberg."
Pogner turned to the masters who were seated in the hall, and said, "Listen, friends, here is a noble knight of Franconia who seeks admission to our company. Say, shall we let him join the singing trial or not?"
Beckmesser looked at the handsome, manly youth who stood beside Herr Pogner, and a pang of jealousy shot through his mind. "Stay a moment, good friend," he said to Pogner, "what attraction can Sir Walter van Stolzing find here that he, a stranger, should wish to join our guild?"
"I only ask for leave to take part in the singing trial," said Sir Walter, wondering who the cross-looking man could be. "To win the silken wreath and become one of the master-singers of Nuremberg is all I seek."
"Sir Walter," said Pogner, "the rules of the society must be carefully obeyed, but I know of nothing in them which would prevent a stranger from joining us, and I ask of this company to admit thee to the trial."
"Agreed, agreed!" called out most of the members, and Sir Walter took his seat beside Hans Sachs' apprentice David.
The secretary now read over the names of all the members, and when each had answered he announced that the meeting was quite full, and that the singing should now begin.
But Herr Pogner got up and said that he wished to speak about a matter which concerned the festival to-morrow, and which he thought had better come before the singing; and the masters at once agreed to hear him.
"To-morrow, as you all know, is the Feast of St. John," began Herr Pogner, "and according to our Nuremberg custom we hope to spend it on the meadows in games, and music, and dancing, putting aside all care, and enjoying a true holiday. And we as mastersingers will with our songs add our share to the merry-making. Long have I considered what prize I could offer as a reward to him whose song best pleases us. Last winter, when I travelled in foreign lands, it pained me much to hear our burghers of Germany called mean and close-fisted by those of other nations, and I resolved that no one should again be able to say such a thing about Nuremberg.
"You all know that heaven has prospered my business as a merchant, and to-morrow I offer as a prize, to the singer whom all agree shall have sung the best, my only daughter Eva as bride, with a dowry of gold, and much of my goods beside."
Loud cheers greeted Pogner's words, but he was not yet finished.
"Listen, friends," he said, "for I must make my meaning clear to all. Our mastersingers' guild will decide whose song is best, but 'tis only fair that my daughter should also have a say in the choice of her husband."
"I cannot see how the prize is to be decided by us," broke in one of the masters, "if the maiden herself is to choose."
"It were better to let your daughter choose as her heart wishes, and leave the singing apart," said Beckmesser, who flattered himself that Eva liked him, and was afraid lest he might not be first in the singing.
"No, no!" said Pogner, "you misunderstand me. If my daughter will not marry the singer whom we all choose as the best, then a handsome gift of money shall I bestow on him still. But my mind is made up that no one but a mastersinger may she ever accept, and only one whom you have all crowned. And, until she agrees, must my daughter remain unwed."
At this point Hans Sachs, the shoemaker, who was the greatest mastersinger in Nuremberg, rose and said, "Surely, if the maiden is to decide, it will not be on account of art that her choice will be made. For maidens' minds look to other things just as do the minds of most folk. I would suggest that instead of the singer being chosen by us mastersingers only, the approval of all who listen should be the test of his success. It can do our guild no harm if once a year, on the festival of St. John, we let the people join with us in deciding whose song is best. Notwithstanding their lack of skill and learning, there are some points in which the people have always showed good judgment in their choice."
A great deal of talk followed Hans Sachs' suggestion. One said he was quite right, and that the people should have a say; and another said he was all wrong, as only those who had studied the art of music could tell whether a song was good or bad. At last Pogner got up again and proposed that the offer he had made should be accepted, and that the people, and the mastersingers, and Eva should all be invited to decide who had won the prize. And in the end every one agreed.
All this time Sir Walter and the apprentice had been waiting patiently, and now the secretary asked for the names of those who were ready to sing trial songs before the masters. Pogner then led Sir Walter forward and asked that he might be allowed to sing first; and the members clapped their hands. Sir Walter's eyes gleamed with joy. He had listened carefully to all that Pogner had proposed, and now he thought that his chance of winning Eva was beginning to come nearer. Beckmesser took his place in the marker's box, and Sir Walter entered the ring which David had drawn with his chalk on the floor.
"Tell us, Sir Walter," said the president, "who taught thee to sing?" And Sir Walter answered:
"In the quiet hours of the silent winter, when snow lay deep on the hills and moors, and man and beast and bird dreamt of the coming of spring, my father read to me, again and yet again, the songs of Sir Walter of the Vogel-weld: from him did I learn my songs."
"Truly, an excellent master," answered the president. "But say, Sir Walter, in what school didst thou master thine art, for the laws of singing are many and cannot be learned save by diligent study?"
And Sir Walter answered, "At the first deep breath of spring, when the whole land felt the new life stirring in its veins, then I sang in the woodlands with the returning birds, and the spirit of Sir Walter of the Vogelweid taught me the art of song."
"Was ever heard the like!" broke forth Beckmesser. "Are we to believe that the finch and the blackbird taught him all in a minute!"
The president looked round uneasily. Here was surely avery unusual kind of singer, and he did not quite know what to do with him. But Hans Sachs rose up and said, "Good friends, what does it matter who taught Sir Walter? The world is wide and there are many masters. Let him go on with his song, and soon we shall be able to decide whether he can sing or no." And all agreed.
"But one question more," said the president. "Thy song, Sir Walter, is it sacred or not?"
"I sing of the coming of love," answered Sir Walter, and with soft voice, rich and full as the wood-pigeon's note, he sang to them all. And at first his song was the song of spring. "Look!" he cried, "how the woodlands are waking with a long-drawn breath from their winter sleep! How the sound of that deep breath reaches to the very edge of the forest, and the birds and the beasts and the trees know that it tells of the return of spring. And the robin chirrups to his mate, 'Listen, for I hear the spring returning.' And the dry leaves on the beech-trees dance together with a rustling noise as they whisper, 'Listen, for I know that spring is near.' And the squirrel wakens from his four months' sleep, because he dreams that the voice of spring is calling him to arise.
"Look now at the forest that lay this morning so silent and still. It is alive, alive. All nature is stirring, and eagerly she is singing, 'I am awake! See, see, I am awake!' and the cry of the spring-time rises in every throat.
"But in the hedgerow winter still sits. On his head is a crown of withered leaves, and he holds a few red berries in his skinny hands. 'Is it true,' he asks the raven, 'that the spring is coming?' And the great bird flaps his heavy wings as he answers, 'Yes, it is true; thy reign is over, King Winter, and the coming of spring will sweep thee from her land.' And sad winter fled before the gladness that told of the return of spring."
At this point Beckmesser, the marker, was heard to groan in his box, and Pogner and some of the masters looked uneasily at each other. But, unheeding, Sir Walter sang on. And he sang of the coming of love, of love that sweeps like the breath of spring through the heart of a man. And his voice was alive with music as he sang of the gladness and beauty of day and the bliss of the dream-world of night, of the glories of earth and sea and sky when the heart is filled with the coming of love. And he told how the whole world seems but a background of sunshine for the face of the maiden he loves.
But the song was rudely interrupted by the marker, who threw aside the curtains of his box and held out his slate, which was covered with chalk marks on both sides. "Art thou nearly finished?" he asked Sir Walter. "Finished?" said the knight, "indeed no! I have yet to sing my lady's praise."
"Well," answered Beckmesser, "my slate is now filled, and as to thy song, the like of it I have never heard. Not a single line was sung according to rule, and I should like to find the man who could admire such music."
"Agreed, agreed!" cried several of the masters, "it certainly was shockingly wrong, and I think we shall have no difficulty in deciding who is not to be our new master."
"Nay, my friends, not so fast," said Hans Sachs. "It is true that the song is new, and the singer's rules are not those which we of Nuremberg have learnt. But we must not forget that in the world there are other cities and other rules, and we must be careful not to judge by one law only. I propose that we hear the young knight to the end."
But Beckmesser went on angrily: "Hans Sachs, what meanest thou? The rhymes were wrong, and the melody was interrupted, and the words were too free, and the singer raised his voice too high. If this kind of singer is to join our guild, then our singing-school will come to shame. We all know why Sir Walter van Stolzing has come here to-day, for love, and not art, is the inspiration of his song."
"Well, well, let him finish it," said Sachs, "and I will then accept the decision of this company as loyally as any of you."
The masters signed to Sir Walter to go on. And he sang of the owls which hoot in the darkness before the day appears, of the ravens which croak and the magpies which chatter, because they feel not that a new dawn is coming. Then his voice took on a richer note, and he sang of the bird of love which rose with golden wings from among the croaking night birds. Into the darkness it soared, till the sunrise gleamed on its lovely wings as it floated towards the dawn, and with a ring of triumph in his voice Sir Walter ended with the words, "'Tis the bird of love that I see, and it calls my spirit to arise from this land of the dead and soar to the heaven of song and of love."
Sir Walter sat down beside Hans Sachs, who had risen to make room for him, and they listened while Beckmesser's shrill voice called out, "Now masters, say, what think ye of the trial?" And a chorus of voices shouted, "We reject the song and the singer," which was followed by loud applause.
The masters then left the hall. As the apprentices were about to follow, David turned to Sir Walter and said, "Sir Knight, we like well your singing, and we hope that to-morrow, by the voice of the people, the silken wreath may yet be thine."
"Sir Walter, be not down-hearted," said Hans Sachs, as they stood alone in the empty hall, "for truly as there is a heaven above us do I know thee to be a poet and a mastersinger as surely as thou art a belted knight."
When David got back to the shoemaker's shop evening had come, and the apprentices were chattering idly together till it was time to put up the shutters.
"Midsummer day, Midsummer day,
Flowers and ribbons and feasting and fun,
Would that to-morrow were but begun,"
they sang, and many were the jests made to David about the number of hours he would be free to spend with his beloved Lena. And David was as merry as any of them, for he hoped that to-morrow would be the greatest day of his life, when he would be made a journeyman by his master and might then ask Lena to be his wife.
"David, David, art thou there?" he heard a voice say softly outside, and going to the shop door he saw Lena. In her hand she carried a basket which David knew well. Many a time had Lena brought him pastries and cakes and comfits in that very basket, and at once he pictured to himself the good supper he and the other apprentices would have that evening.
"Look, David!" said Lena. "Look what I have made for my dear sweetheart," and she lifted the cover and showed the tempting good things. "But tell me, David, what of Sir Walter? How sped the singing trial, and has he won the crown?"
"In truth no," David answered absently, while his eyes gloated over the pies and pastry in Lena's basket. "The song was rejected by all the masters. But tell me, Lena," he went on, "at what hour shall we meet to-morrow to spend our holiday?"
But Lena, instead of answering, whisked the basket out of David's hand and abruptly left him. David was greatly surprised and not a little angry, and the laughter of the apprentices, who were peeping through the doorway, made him still angrier.
"Be off, all of ye!" he said, "'tis time to close the shop." And the apprentices trooped out, calling "Good luck to thy wooing, David," as they left.
"How now, David, hast thou and Lena been quarrelling again that thou lookest so glum?" asked Sachs, who arrived shortly after the apprentices were gone. "Shut up the shop and get thee to bed, for I have work to do and I need thee not."
"Am I not to sing my trial song to-night?" asked David.
"No, not to-night," said Sachs, "leave me the light and get thee to bed."
David went off very much surprised. Lena had been so strange, and now the usually good-tempered master was as cross as a bear and he knew no reason for either.
For a time Sachs stood in deep thought before his shoemaker's bench. Sir Walter's song was still ringing in his ears, and it had roused in him many strange thoughts. Was a new voice of spring singing again to his wintry soul? he wondered. Surely the singer had sung as the birds do, because he felt that he must, and though no rules could be found to fit the singing, Sachs was a true artist and knew that that might be the fault of the rules and not of the singer. Why could the others not hear what he heard?
"But I will teach one of them a lesson this night," he muttered briskly as he began to put his tools and work on a bench which he carried to the open door. And there in the darkening summer night he sat, still dreaming of Sir Walter's song.
Presently he heard voices, and Pogner, with his daughter Eva, came along the street. Pogner's house stood nearly opposite that of Sachs, close beside a grove of noble linden trees, and many and many a time Eva had stood for hours beside the shoemaker's bench listening to the tales he told her while he worked. The shoemaker loved the beautiful girl and very great friends they had always been, and now Hans Sachs knew without being told that it was Sir Walter and not Beckmesser whom the maiden hoped would sing the prize song and win her hand.
"A lovely night, Eva," said Pogner, "gives hope of a lovely morrow. Much do I think of the great event that St. John's festival holds in store for thee. To see my dearest child rise and place the silken wreath on the head of the mastersinger will be the crowning joy of my life, for I trust that he will also be the man whom I can proudly greet as my future son-in-law."
"Dear father, must I indeed wed none but a mastersinger?" Eva asked feebly.
"None other mayst thou ever wed, for so I have sworn," said Pogner, and they went indoors together. In a few minutes Eva knew from Lena of her lover's failure at the singing trial, and in floods of tears she sat, wondering what was to be done.
Just then the gentle tap tap of a hammer was heard outside, and Lena said, "Hans Sachs works late to-night: go thou and ask his advice, for well he loves both thee and Sir Walter." And while Pogner sat smoking his pipe till supper should be ready Eva stole downstairs and crossed the narrow street.
"Good evening, dear Sachs; how late thou workest!"
"Yes," answered Sachs, "I have to finish these shoes for a lover who needs must wear them to-morrow when he woos."
"A lover!" said Eva. " Pray what is he called?"
"A lover and a master too," said Sachs. "Beckmesser has scolded me to-day because his shoes are not ready, and this night I shall work here till they are finished, and who knows whether it is on the feet of thy betrothed I shall see them again to-morrow."
"That will never be!" said Eva. "My father may say that none but a mastersinger may I wed, but he promised that I may reject a master who pleases me not, and that sour-faced, cross-looking Beckmesser I cannot bear. But, Sachs, if that is the only reason that thou workest late, pray leave off the shoes, they will not be needed, and I want thee to talk to me."
"It was not the only reason, sweet Eva, This evening I have been so vexed and worried that I work to soothe my brain."
"Tell me what worried thee, dear Sachs?" said Eva, sitting down beside him. And the old man went on:
"I have been at the song school where we masters listened to a trial song from a knight who sought to join our guild."
"And was the song not good enough?" asked Eva, glad that in the darkness Sachs could not see how rosy her face had grown.
"Not good enough!" answered Sachs, "it was far too good, that was its only fault. The song was the song of a master, great and lovely it was beyond our knowing; but our masters rejected it because they felt not the beauty for its strangeness."
"Eva, Eva, where art thou?" came Lena's voice softly. "Thy father is calling for thee."
"Tell him I have gone to bed," said Eva, stealing across the street. "My head aches and I will eat no supper."
"Nay, Eva, but what dost thou think hath happened? Beckmesser hath told me that this night he will sing beneath thy window the song he hath written for the prize to-morrow. Think of it!"
"I will not listen," said Eva, "for I hate the man! Good Lena, do thou stand at the window instead of me, for I have promised to meet Sir Walter at moonrise beneath the linden trees."
"To meet Sir Walter beneath the linden trees! Thy father would kill the knight were he to know, and David would kill Beckmesser did he awake and see me standing at thy window while Beckmesser sang."
"Be not foolish, dear, good Lena, and help me if thou lovest me. My father will think I am in bed if thou sayest nought but what I told thee. And thou knowest that David sleeps at the other side of Sachs' house, and will neither hear Beckmesser singing nor yet see thee at my window." And with kisses and threats she got Lena to agree.
When the silver light of the moon rose above the tree-tops, Eva slipped quietly from the house, and among the linden trees she found Sir Walter awaiting her.
"My hero poet, how glad I am to see thee," she whispered when they were safely hidden among the shadows. "Tell me of thy song, and what thou thinkest of the singing trial."
"Indeed, no hero-poet am I," said Sir Walter sadly. "The company liked not my song, and as a mastersinger I fear I may never hope to win thy hand."
"Thou art wrong!" replied Eva. "Remember that I alone can award the prize, and that on thy head I shall yet place the silken wreath that proclaims thee as my betrothed."
"But, Eva, thou forgettest thy father's vow that only a mastersinger may marry thee. He hath sworn to the guild that none but the man they crown may win thy hand, and a promise such as that may not be broken. I sang of love and I sang of thee. My song was of spring, and joy, and sunshine, and I strove to make the masters feel the life that throbbed in my veins. But little did I know them. They have their rules and their rhymes and their fixed ideas as to what a song must be, and I cannot sing by rule. My art must be free as the flight of the birds, and I cannot rise from the earth if my wings are weighted as these masters would have them. Let us leave the masters to find a prize-winner for to-morrow, and flee thou with me to my own country where I will prove to thee that a mastersinger I may indeed claim to be."
Before Eva could answer, a loud blast from a cow-horn was heard at the end of the street. The night watchman was going his rounds to see that all the fires were out and no robbers lurking around, and Lena, in terror lest Eva should be discovered, called softly to her:
"Eva, Eva, come in this minute, it grows late, and I will rouse thy father if thou tarry longer."
Eva whispered to her lover, "Wait for me"; then she followed Lena into the house.
Down the street marched the sturdy watchman, carrying in his hand a lantern and singing as he walked:
"Listen, good people, to what I say,
Ten is striking from every steeple.
Out with your fires and out with your light,
That no harm may come to the town this night.
Then praise we the Lord of Heaven."
All this time Sachs had been hiding in the shadow of Pogner's house, and he heard Sir Walter ask Eva to run off with him.
"I must put a stop to that foolish plan," he said; "there must be no running away if old Sachs can arrange better. How impatient these young people are!"
When the sound of the watchman's horn had died away in the distance, the door of Pogner's house opened softly, and Eva, dressed in Lena's shawl and gown, stole out quietly.
The sturdy watchman carrying in his hand a lantern.
"I am ready to fly with thee now," she said to Sir Walter, "but let us wait for a little till the light in Sachs' window is out. He might chance to see us and ask questions."
"Is there no other road by which to reach the north gate where a man waits with horses for us?" asked Sir Walter.
"We cannot go by the other road," answered Eva, "for the watchman is there now and would give the alarm at once. Let us stay here for a little."
In silence they watched the open door of Sachs' house, from which a strong beam of light shone. Presently, to their great surprise, the shoemaker appeared, carrying a large glass lantern which he hung on a nail right above his door, whence it cast a strong light both up and down the street. He then brought out his shoemaker's bench and tools and sat down with a hammer in his hand to finish a pair of shoes.
"What can the old man mean?" said Sir Walter; "he looks as if he meant to sit there all night and we shall never get away?
Before Eva could answer, the sound of a lute was heard, and Beckmesser came along the street and stood in front of Pogner's house in order to serenade Eva with the song he meant to sing next day. But no sooner had he taken up his post than Sachs' hammer began tap tapping on the sole of the new shoe.
"Thou workest late, Hans Sachs," said Beckmesser. "Surely the order is of great importance which keeps thee from rest on the eve of St. John's Day?"
"Indeed it is," said Sachs. "No other than the finishing of a pair of shoes for thyself that thou mayst not appear at the singing to-morrow with holes in thy soles such as thou showedst us all to-day." And tap, tap went the hammer while Sachs sang cheerily to himself as he worked.
"Old dotard," said Beckmesser to himself, but he answered pleasantly, "Indeed I only jested, friend Sachs. I have other shoes at home and need not for many a day those thou makest. I have come hither to sing under fair Eva's window a song which I trust she will deign to honour to-morrow, and if thou wilt listen and tell me what thou thinkest of it I will value thy good opinion highly."
"Well," said Sachs, "I will do so if thou wish, and I shall be the marker and will beat on the sole of thy shoe, instead of chalking on the slate, every fault thou makest in thy song."
Beckmesser gently touched the strings of his lute and began to sing, and to his joy a figure wrapped in a light shawl appeared at the bedroom window. "'Tis Eva," he thought, and louder he raised his voice to drown the very frequent tap tapping of Sachs' hammer, while Sir Walter and Eva waited impatiently among the linden trees.
The song was all wrong as Sachs very soon heard, for Beckmesser was not really a good singer although he knew a great deal about music. Presently Sachs stood up. "There, there," he said, "that will do. Thy shoes are finished and thou. must hie away home. To-morrow Mistress Eva will tell thee what she thinketh of thy song."
But Beckmesser was not going to be sent away by an old shoemaker like Sachs. He took no notice and began a third verse, with his eyes fixed on the window where a head was dimly seen, and louder and louder he sang to drown Sachs' *remonstrances.
Now David had sunk into a sound sleep after his master had dismissed him to bed. But in his dreams he heard a lute twang twanging, and then words seemed to reach his ears, and at last he sat up in bed wide awake and listened. Whatever could be the matter? There was music and singing outside, and Sachs' voice could be heard in angry tones. David slipped on his clothes and ran to Sachs' bedroom which overlooked the front of the house.
The first thing he saw was Lena's face looking out of the window opposite, while Beckmesser with his lute sang a song which was evidently meant for her ears.
"Deceitful woman!" he burst out angrily, "can it be that she likes him best after all? That sneaking, sour-faced marker. I'll break every bone in his body." And David seized a thick cudgel and ran downstairs. He rushed past Sachs and, catching Beckmesser by the shoulder, he struck the lute from his hands, exclaiming, "Thou wouldst dare to serenade my sweetheart, wouldst thou? Take that, and that, and that," and with each word he gave Beckmesser a whack with his cudgel.
Beckmesser shouted with pain and anger, and at once returned the blows. Lena saw what had happened and, afraid that David might kill Beckmesser before she could explain his mistake, she called for help.
Downstairs came Pogner and the servants. Out flew the neighbours, and soon a crowd of people in night attire were asking excitedly, "What is it? Is there a fire? Shall we call the watchman? Has any one gone for the guard?" And the whole place was in an uproar.
In those days to be found in the streets after dark was a serious offence, and in Nuremberg street fighting was severely punished.
"David, David, it is all a mistake called Lena; "come here and I will explain everything." David loosened his hold of Beckmesser, who had stopped fighting the instant he heard Lena's voice.
"Lena, Lena!" he exclaimed, "is it thou? Where is thy mistress?"
Just then the watchman's horn was heard and his lantern was faintly seen at the far end of the street. The crowd hastily separated, and Beckmesser, without waiting for Lena's explanation, made haste out of the way like all the other people.
While the confusion was at its height Hans Sachs had crossed the street to Eva and Sir Walter, who were still standing among the linden trees. He made no remark as to the strangeness of finding them there together, but took for granted that they had met accidentally, having come out to see what caused all the uproar.
And as the watchman was drawing nearer he said to Eva, "Thy father must now be looking for thee. Come, I will see thee safely home. As to Sir Walter, I invite him to come back with me, and together we can discuss the strange events of this day."
Eva and Sir Walter separated, and by the time that the watchman reached Pogner's door not a soul was to be seen. "How strange," he said, "I could almost have sworn I heard voices and fighting. How the night sounds deceive my old ears!" Then as he walked along the narrow street he sang:
"Hark, good people, to what I say,
Midnight is striking the close of day.
May spectre and spright no more offend ye,
From powers of evil may heaven defend ye.
And praise we the Lord of Heaven."
Next morning David stole downstairs very quietly to open the shutters of Sachs' shop and unbar the door. He was very much ashamed of his last night's folly which Lena had explained to him, and he was a good deal afraid of what his master would say. He feared that his chances of being made a journeyman and marrying Lena would suffer because of his last night's doings.
To his surprise the shop door was open, and his master sat by the window reading a book, and did not hear his footstep. David went quietly to the door, where he found a basket. It was covered with ribbons and flowers, and inside were hidden a cake and a tasty sausage. But when he looked across at his good old master he felt utterly ashamed, and, hastily crossing the room, he held the basket before Hans Sachs and said, "Look, master, what Lena sends me."
Sachs looked up dreamily and said, "Flowers and ribbons in my dark room! Is it a feast, and how came they here?"
"Why, master, what ails thee?" said David. "Knowest thou not that this is St. John's Day, our midsummer holiday?"
"Ay, and last night was folly eve: yes, well I remember," said Sachs, rousing himself. "Thou young rascal, I have a mind to punch thy head for thy folly of last night."
"Good master, forgive me," pleaded David, and he explained the mistake he had made and how his love for Lena had led him astray.
"Well, well, I forgive thee," said Sachs. "Away and dress thyself in thy best, for to-day thou goest with me to the meadow." And David withdrew.
"Good-day, Sir Walter," said Sachs to his guest, who came down the little stair from Sachs' bedroom where he had slept since mid-night. "I trust thou hast rested well, and hast forgiven the old shoemaker who captured thee last night?"
"Sachs, I thank thee," said Sir Walter, "and I want thee to listen to a wonderful dream—a dream in which I heard a song so lovely that could I but re-capture the words and air, even the masters would say it was worthy."
"Suppose thou triest now," said Sachs, "and I will write down the words as thou singest them."
And Sir Walter sang in his sweet rich voice a verse so lovely that Sachs clapped his hands. "'Twill do, 'twill do!" he cried. "Goon!" And Sir Walter sang a second verse which Sachs liked quite as well.
"Now a third stanza!" he cried, and Sir Walter finished the song with a thrill of triumph, as he told of the fair face of a maiden who in his dream had come from among the stars to crown him with her love.
"Truly, a noble song!" said Sachs, "and if thou canst sing it to the people as thou hast sung it to me, I have little doubt of the result. Now away and dress thyself bravely. This morning thy servant hath brought here thy boxes, and thou must be ready to come with me to the meadow at noon."
Sir Walter left the room, and Sachs went too to put on his best suit to do honour to the holiday.
While Sachs was dressing, Beckmesser stepped into the little shop, and he soon spied the song lying on the table where Hans had left it. He saw that the writing was Sachs', and at once he imagined that Sachs had composed it and was going to sing it at the trial and try to win Eva for himself. He read over the words, and though some of them seemed strange, still the rhymes and the metre were correct, and he knew that whatever Sachs wrote was far better than anything he himself could do. So he put the paper in his pocket.
"Good-morning, Beckmesser," said Sachs, "hast recovered from the cudgelling my rascally apprentice gave thee last night?"
And Beckmesser's anger rose again fiercely as he blamed Sachs for disturbing his serenade with his noisy hammering and so awaking David.
"I am still black and blue," he said sourly, "and I know not whether the fair Eva ever heard my song. But I see thou too hast been writing songs, Hans Sachs. Art thou going to sing at the meadow to-day?"
Sachs saw at once what Beckmesser was afraid of. "How dost thou know I have written a song?" he asked. Then, noticing that the paper was gone, he turned to Beckmesser and said, "Thou mayst keep the song and use it as thou wilt." Well he knew that Beckmesser would never find the tune to which alone such a song could be sung.
Beckmesser looked suspiciously at Sachs. "Thou art very kind, Hans Sachs," he said, "but wilt thou promise to tell no one that thou composedst this song?" he asked.
And Sachs, with a twinkle in his eyes, replied, "I promise thee that I shall never say to any one I composed that song." And Beckmesser went off delighted.
Soon after he left, Eva tripped into the shop, little guessing how much Sachs knew of her last night's doings. "I have come to ask thee to do something to my new shoes, dear Sachs," she said, holding up a dainty little foot. What she really hoped to hear was about Sir Walter: whether he had gone away last night, or was still in the town.
Hans looked very gravely at the little foot, then he said, "Yes, yes, I see, it is the sole that hurts: wait but a minute and I will put it right," and he drew off the tiny shoe.
"I wonder if some one could sing us a song while I alter this shoe?" Hans Sachs asked in a loud voice, and Eva's face beamed with joy as she heard Sir Walter approach. And he sang over again the lovely third verse of his dream-song in which the lady crowns him with her love.
"Listen, child!" said Sachs. "Is not that a master-song, and we who listen are but as pupils beside him?"
"It is true, it is true!" said Eva, hastily slipping on her shoe as Sir Walter entered. He was closely followed by David and Lena, and all three were bravely dressed in holiday attire.
As Sachs saw Lena and David standing side by side, his kind old heart overflowed. "David," he said, "kneel down; this day an apprentice dies and a journeyman is born."
Then giving the kneeling youth a smart box on the ear, he said, "Arise, my journeyman, for now art thou free to marry her thou lovest."
With grateful looks and fervent thanks David and Lena left the cottage.
"Sir Walter," said Eva, as she was about to follow Lena, "thy song is in truth a master-song, and on the meadow to-day I shall tell to the whole world what I think of it."
"I have come to ask thee to do something to my new shoes dear Sachs,"
And Sir Walter, as he kissed her hand, said gently, "It was a dream I dreamed last night; Heaven grant that the day may prove it true."
All Nuremberg flocked on that beautiful midsummer noon-day to the meadows which lay outside the town walls beside the river. There were signs of merriment everywhere. Boats filled with gaily dressed people floated on the river. Tents with food of all kinds invited the people to rest from the heat of the blazing sun. And a stand gaily decorated with flags and flowers stood ready to receive the guild of the mastersingers, one at least of whom hoped to win the silken wreath, and it might be along with it the hand of Pogner's lovely daughter.
Many merry jests were made by the crowd as the masters took their places. Rounds of applause greeted Hans Sachs, who was loved and honoured by all. And when it became known that David had been made a journeyman and would also sing a trial song for the mastership, he was given an extra volley of cheers.
Beckmesser came early, and the crowd did not scruple to jest at his appearance. "How thin he is! How cross he looks! He is far too old to think of marrying a young bride," was heard on all sides.
Sir Walter stood near Hans Sachs, but he was little noticed by the people, most of whom had never heard of him.
The president took his seat and called for silence. Then in a clear voice he explained the rules of the contest. This was not, he said, an ordinary singing trial to become one of the Nuremberg mastersingers. To-day the prize was to be not only the silken wreath that showed the approval of their guild, but Herr Pogner had promised that he would give the hand of his lovely daughter, with a handsome dowry of gold and much of his worldly goods, to the greatest singer of the day.
And as the prize was so great, the judges had decided that all might try to win it, and to the singer whom both the people and the masters chose, would the prize be given.
Loud cheers followed this speech, and when silence had been restored the president called for the singing to begin. Many were the songs sung that day on the sunny meadow. There were gay songs and sad songs, love songs and drinking songs, and the people and judges listened eagerly, for they dearly loved music and were proud of the fame of their noble guild.
Beckmesser had been waiting impatiently till his time should come. He had taken great pains to learn the words of the song Sachs had given him, but it was very different from anything he had ever seen before, and he had not found it easy to get a tune to fit the words.
At last the president called on him to sing, and he stood up. What a jumble he made! Neither Sir Walter nor Hans Sachs recognised the song. The rhymes were all topsy turvy. He mixed up the lines and the words, and the whole song sounded just like nonsense.
The president looked surprised, and the people began to laugh.
"What is this, Master Beckmesser?" the former asked; "we understand not what thou singest. Wilt thou repeat thy song?" And Beckmesser tried again. But this attempt was no better.
" 'Tis not a song of my composing," he said. "It was written by Hans Sachs, whom ye all know to be a good musician, and now I begin to think it is some trash he has given me, in order that I might spoil my chance in this day's contest."
"Is this true, Hans Sachs?" asked the president. "Nast thou written this song?"
"The song I certainly wrote," answered Sachs, "but it was not I who composed it. A great and lovely song I hold it to be if only the singer knows how to sing it. And that I may prove my words to be true, I ask permission of the masters and the people here present to call on the poet who wrote it to sing us his song."
"'Tis a fair request!" cried the people. "Let us hear the singer," and the president nodded his consent.
"Stand forth, Sir Walter van Stolzing," said Hans Sachs, and the people cheered as the handsome youth entered the singer's stand. Then in a rich, sweet voice Sir Walter sang, and his song was the song of his love.
And he sang of his lady's face as it floated before him in the rosy light of morning, and how the gladness of her coming seemed borne to him on the scent of the dewy air, while the world still lay in sleep.
And he sang of the glories of the day, when the sunshine of her presence flooded all his world, and the radiance of her smile made that world his heaven.
And he sang of the starry night and the love-light flashing from her shining eyes, making beautiful the darkness in which he walked. And he sang of his dream in which his lady crowned him with the jewel of her love.
And the hearts of the people knew as he sang that every word was true, and they listened in breathless silence.
Long and loud was the applause from the people that followed the song. But the masters too had listened in amazement. Could this be the song Beckmesser had sung, this music so great and simple with its words of noble meaning? And they saw that this was art, a great and lovely art through which a new and wider world of music was dawning that day for the mastersingers of Nuremberg.
And the president turned to the master-singers and said, "The song is a great and a lovely song as Hans Sachs told us, and I ask ye all, shall we admit as master the singer who composed it?"
And the masters shouted, "Agreed, agreed!"
"He has won both prizes!" cried the people, and they threw their caps into the air and danced with joy, while the president led Sir Walter to where Eva sat beside her father.
"Herr Pogner," he said, "I bring you the singer who has won by his singing the silken wreath which is the prize of our guild. We greet Sir Walter van Stolzing as a mastersinger of Nuremberg, and we leave it to thee to award thy promised prize."
The knight bent low to receive the crown.
And Pogner, turning to the singer, said, "Sir Walter, I hail thee as the greatest singer in Nuremberg, and a master who will do honour to our guild. And, in accordance with my promise, I call on my daughter Eva to crown thee with the silken wreath of our guild, and at the same time, if she be willing, to give thee her hand."
"The knight bent low to receive the crown," and he kissed the fair hand which placed it on his head. Then drawing Eva's hand within his own, he turned to the delighted people and said:
"Ye have bestowed on me the two greatest treasures in Nuremberg, the crown of art and the hand of the lady I love, and I pray that Heaven may make me worthy to devote my life to the service of both."