Chapter Excerpt

Lilac and Linden

A lamp is lit.

Until this moment, when the flame of the lamp flares blue, then settles to steady yellow inside its ornate globe, the young man had been impressed by the profound darkness into which, upon his late-night arrival at the palace of Rosenborg, he had suddenly stepped. Tired from his long sea journey, his eyes stinging, his walk unsteady, he had been questioning the nature of this darkness. For it seemed to him not merely an external phenomenon, having to do with an actual absence of light, but rather as though it emanated from within him, as if he had finally crossed the threshold of his own absence of hope.

Now, he is relieved to see the walls of a panelled room take shape around him. A voice says: 'This is the Vinterstue. The Winter Room.'

The lamp is lifted up. Held high, it burns more brightly, as though sustained by purer air, and the young man sees a shadow cast onto the wall. It is a long, slanting shadow and so he knows it is his own. It appears to have a deformity, a hump, occurring along its spine from below the shoulder-blades to just above the waist. But this is the shadow's trickery. The young man is Peter Claire, the lutenist, and the curvature on his back is his lute.

He is standing near a pair of lions, made of silver. Their eyes seem to watch him in the flickering gloom. Beyond them he can see a table and some tall chairs. But Peter Claire is separate from everything, cannot lean on any object, cannot rest. And now, the lamp moves and he must follow.

'It may be', says a tall gentleman, who hurries on, carrying the light, 'that His Majesty, King Christian, will command you to play for him tonight. He is not well and his physicians have prescribed music. Therefore, members of the royal orchestra must be ready to perform at all times, day and night. I thought it best to advise you of this straight away.'

Peter Claire's feelings of dismay increase. He begins to curse himself, to berate his own ambition for bringing him here to Denmark, for taking him so far from the places and people he had loved. He is at the end of his journey and yet he feels lost. Within this arrival some terrifying departure lies concealed. And suddenly, with peculiar speed, the lamp moves and everything in the room seems to rearrange itself. Peter Claire sees his shadow on the wall become elongated, stretching upwards for a few seconds towards the ceiling before being swallowed by the darkness, with no trace of it remaining.

Then the end of a corridor is reached and the gentleman stops before a door. He knocks and waits, putting a finger to his lips and leaning close against the door to listen for the command from within. It comes at last, a voice deep and slow, and Peter Claire finds himself, in the next minute, standing before King Christian, who is sitting in a chair in his night-shirt. Before him, on a small table, is a pair of scales and by these a clutch of silver coins.

The English lutenist bows as the King looks up and Peter Claire will always remember that, as King Christian first glimpses him in this dark middle of a winter's night, there comes into His Majesty's eyes a look of astonishment and, staring intently at the lute player's face, he whispers a single word: 'Bror.'

'I beg your pardon, Sir ...?' says Peter Claire.

'Nothing,' says the King. 'A ghost. Denmark is full of ghosts. Did no one warn you?'

'No, Your Majesty.'

'Never mind. You will see them for yourself. We are one of the oldest nations on earth. But you should know that it is a time of storms here, of confusion, of incomprehension, of bitter boiling muddle.'

'Of muddle, Sir?'

'Yes. This is why I am weighing silver. I weigh the same pieces over and over again, to ensure that there is no error. No possibility of error. I am trying, piece by piece and day by day, to reimpose order upon chaos.'

Peter Claire does not know how to reply to this and he is aware that the tall gentleman, without his noticing, has gone from the room, leaving him alone with the King, who now pushes the scales aside and settles himself more comfortably in the chair.

King Christian lifts his head and asks: 'How old are you, Mr Claire? Where do you come from?'

A fire is burning in the room, which is the Skrivestue, the King's study, and the small chamber smells sweetly of applewood and leather.

Peter Claire replies that he is twenty-seven and that his parents live in the town of Harwich on the east coast of England. He adds that the sea in winter can be unforgiving there.

'Unforgiving. Unforgiving!' says the King. 'Well, we must hurry on, pass over or skirt around that word. Unforgiving. But I tell you, lutenist, I am tortured by lice. Do not look alarmed. Not in my hair or on my pillow. I mean by cowards, rascals, liars, sots, cheats and lechers. Where are the philosophers? That is what I constantly ask.'

Peter Claire hesitates before answering.

'No need to reply,' says the King. 'For they are all gone from Denmark. There is not one left.'

Then His Majesty stands up and moves towards the fire where Peter Claire is standing, and takes up a lamp and holds it near the young man's face. He examines the face and Peter Claire lowers his eyes because he has been warned not to stare at the King. This King is ugly. King Charles I of England, King Louis XIII of France, these are handsome men at this perilous moment in history, but King Christian IV of Denmark - all-powerful, brave and cultured as he is reported to be - has a face like a loaf.

The lutenist, to whom, by cruel contrast, nature has given an angel's countenance, can smell wine on the King's breath. But he does not dare to move, not even when the King reaches up and tenderly touches his cheek with his hand. Peter Claire, with his blond hair and his eyes the colour of the sea, has been considered handsome from childhood. He wears this handsomeness lightly, frequently forgetting about it, as though almost impatient for time to take it away. He once overheard his sister Charlotte praying to God to be given his face in exchange for hers. He thought, it is really of little value to me; far better it were hers. And yet now, in this unfamiliar place, when his own thoughts are so sombre and dark, the lute player finds that his physical beauty is once again the subject of unexpected scrutiny.

'I see. I see,' whispers the King. 'God has exaggerated, as He so often seems to do. Beware the attentions of my wife, Kirsten, who is a fool for yellow hair. I advise a mask when you are in her presence. And all beauty vanishes away, but of course you know that, I needn't underline the self-evident.'

'I know that beauty vanishes, Sir.'

'Of course you do. Well, you had better play for me. I suppose you know that we had your Mr Dowland here at court. The conundrum there was that such beautiful music could come from so agitated a soul. The man was all ambition and hatred, yet his ayres were as delicate as rain. We would sit there and blub, and Master Dowland would kill us with his furious look. I told my mother to take him to one side and say: ''Dowland, this will not do and cannot be tolerated,'' but he told her music can only be born out of fire and fury. What do you think about that?'

Peter Claire is silent for a moment. For a reason he can't name, this question consoles him and he feels his agitation diminish by a fraction. 'I think that it is born out of fire and fury, Sir,' he says, 'but also out of the antitheses to these - out of cold reason and calm.'

'This sounds logical. But of course we do not really know where music comes from or why, or when the first note of it was heard. And we shall never know. It is the human soul, speaking without words. But it seems to cure pain - this is an honest fact. I yearn, by the way, for everything to be transparent, honest and true. So why do you not play me one of Dowland's Lachrimae? Economy of means was his gift and this I dote upon. His music leaves no room for exhibitionism on the part of the performer.'

Peter Claire unslings his lute from his back and holds it close against his body. His ear (in which he wears a tiny jewel once given to him by an Irish countess) strains to hear, as he plucks and tunes. King Christian sighs, waiting for the sweet melody to begin. He is a heavy man. Any alteration of his body's position seems to cause him a fleeting moment of discomfort.

Now Peter Claire arranges his body into the stance he must always adopt when he performs: leaning forward from the hips, head out, chin down, right arm forming a caressing half-circle, so that the instrument is held at the exact centre of his being. Only in this way can he feel that the music emanates from him. He begins to play. He hears the purity of the sound and suspects that this, alone, is what will count with the King of Denmark.

When the song is over he glances at the King, but the King doesn't move. His wide hands clutch the arms of the chair. From the left side of his dark head falls a long, thin plait of hair, fastened with a pearl. 'In springtime,' Christian says suddenly, 'Copenhagen used to smell of lilac and of linden. I do not know where this heavenly scent has gone.'

Kirsten Munk, Consort of King Christian IV of Denmark: From Her Private Papers

Well, for my thirtieth birthday, I have been given a new Looking-glass which I thought I would adore. I thought I would dote upon this new Glass of mine. But there is an error in it, an undoubted fault in its silvering, so that the wicked object makes me look fat. I have sent for a hammer.

My birthday gifts, I here record, were not as marvellous as the givers of them pretended they were. My poor old Lord and Master, the King, knowing my fondness for gold, gave me a little gold Statue of himself mounted on a gold horse and bearing a gold tilting pole. The horse, being in a prancing attitude, has his front legs lifted from the ground, so that the foolish thing would fall over, were it not for a small Harlequin pretending to run beside the horse, but as a matter of fact holding it up.

And furthermore, I didn't ask for yet another likeness of my ageing husband. I asked for gold. Now, I will have to pretend to love and worship the Statue and put it in a prominent place et cetera for fear of causing offence, when I would prefer to take it to the Royal Mint and melt it into an ingot which I would enjoy caressing with my hands and feet, and even take into my bed sometimes to feel solid gold against my cheek or laid between my thighs.

A message attached to this gift read: To His Heart's Dearest Mousie from Her Lord, C4. This I tore up and threw into the fire. Long ago, when I was his girl bride and I would tickle him with my small white fingers, he found this nickname 'Mouse', it being at that time perfectly endearing to me and causing me to laugh and snuffle and pretend to do all manner of scuttling mousie things. But those days are past. They are gone so absolutely that I have trouble believing that they ever were. I no longer have the slightest desire to be a 'mousie'. I would prefer to be a rat. Rats have sharp teeth that will bite. Rats carry disease that will kill. Why do husbands refuse to understand that we women do not for long remain their Pet Creatures?

At my birthday feast, to which were invited a great crowd of the ambitious Nobility, most of whom ignored me utterly, I had some moderate sport by drinking a vast quantity of wine and dancing until I fell onto the log pile and then, finding the logs to be as comfortable as any bed, rolling around on them back and forth and laughing with the whole of my Being until I heard the assembled preening company fall silent and saw them all turn to watch me and begin murmuring evil words about me.

Then the King commands that I be helped to my feet and brought to his side and settled upon his knee, in front of all the jealous Gentlemen and their nasty Wives. He gives me water from his own chalice and generally makes such a fuss of me, kissing my shoulder and my face, to show the world that, whatever I do, they cannot plot against me to have me banished, because I am the King's Wife (even though I do not have the Title of Queen of Denmark) and he is still in slavish love with me.

And that he does this makes me bold in my ideas. It makes me wonder what I could do - to what length and breadth of wickedness I could go - and contrive still to remain here in Copenhagen, inhabiting the palaces, and keeping all my privileges. I ask myself what thing is there that would cause me to be driven away? And I answer that I do not think there is Any Thing that I could do or say which would bring this about.

So I go further and begin to wonder whether I shall cease to be so secret and furtive in my love affair with Count Otto Ludwig of Salm, but on the contrary make no bones about my Passion for him, so that I can lie with him whenever and wherever I choose. For why should I, who have never been accorded the Title of Queen, not have a lover? And furthermore, when I have been a few hours with my beautiful German man and he has given me those things I need so badly and without which I really cannot live, I do find my own behaviour towards the King and towards my Women and even towards my children to be much more kindly. But this kindness lasts no more than a few hours, or at most one single day, and then I become vexed again. And so it follows that if I were able to see the Count and have a little sport with him every day or night (instead of perhaps once in a fortnight) why then I would be always and eternally Kind and Sweet to everyone else and all our lives would go on much better.

But dare I risk confessing my love for Otto? Alas, upon reflection, I do not think so. He was a brave Mercenary soldier and fought in the recent Wars on the side of my husband against the Catholic League, and risked death for the Danish cause. He is a hero and much liked by the King. Such a man should be given all that he requests and all that he desires. But I do think that men give to each other only those Possessions that they are somewhat weary of and do not fiercely love. And if or when they are asked to give away those things by which they set great store, they refuse and fly immediately into a fury. Which would be the case if now I should suggest that my lover be admitted here to my bed. And so I conclude that the very thing which makes me bold in my ideas of what I could ask - namely the King's love for me - is also the very thing which does prevent me from asking it.

There is but one course to follow, then. I must arrange matters so that, little by little, day by day and cruelty by cruelty, King Christian falls into a State of Indifference towards me. I must contrive it so that within a year or less my husband no longer hopes for nor expects by right or inclination any mousie thing from me as long as we both shall live.

The Closed Window

Denmark is a watery kingdom. People dream that it is the ships of the great navy which tether the land. They imagine hawsers ten miles long, holding the fields and forests afloat.

And in the salty air, an old story still drifts on the sea breezes: the story of the birth of King Christian IV, which happened on an island in the middle of a lake at Frederiksborg Castle.

They say that King Frederik was away at Elsinore. They say that Queen Sofie, when she was young and before she had begun her habit of scolding and cursing and hoarding money, loved to be rowed in a little boat to this island and there sit in the sunshine and indulge in secret in her passion for knitting. This activity had been proscribed throughout the land as tending to induce in women an idle trance of mind, in which their proper thoughts would fly away and be replaced by fancy. Men called this state 'wool gathering'. That the wool itself could be fashioned into useful articles of haberdashery such as stockings or night bonnets made them no less superstitiously afraid of the knitting craze. They believed that any knitted night bonnet might contain among its million stitches the longings of their wives that they could never satisfy and which in consequence would give them nightmares of the darkest kind. The knitted stocking they feared yet more completely as the probable instrument of their own enfeeblement. They imagined their feet becoming swollen and all the muscles of their legs beginning to grow weak.

Queen Sofie had, from the very first, transgressed the anti-knitting edict. Yarn was shipped to her from England in boxes labelled 'goose down'. At the back of her ebony armoire lay concealed a growing quantity of soft garments of many colours for which she knew that one day she would find a use. Only her maid Elizabeth knew her secret and she had been told she would pay with her life if it was ever revealed.

On the morning of the twelfth of April 1577, a day of pale sunlight and a tender blue sky, Queen Sofie, eight and a half months pregnant with her third child, set out at nine o'clock with Elizabeth to cross the lake and spend the morning knitting. Her chosen spot was a clearing in the woods, a little shaded by some hazel bushes and rose briars, where she would set down cushions on the mossy grass. Here she was sitting, putting the finishing touches to a pair of underdrawers while Elizabeth worked upon a sock, with the coils of yarn unravelling moment by moment between them, when the Queen felt a troublesome thirst come upon her. They had brought no provisions, only the secret knitting in a wooden box, and so Queen Sofie asked Elizabeth if she would row back across the lake to the castle and return with a flagon of beer.

And it was while her maid was gone that the Queen experienced the first pang of labour - a pain so familiar to her since the births of her two daughters that she paid it almost no heed, knowing the process would be long. She went on knitting. She held the underdrawers up to the sunlight to inspect them for dropped stitches. The pain came again and this time it was severe enough to make Sofie lay aside the drawers and lie herself down on the cushions. She still thought that many hours of labour lay ahead but, says the old story, Christian knew in advance of his being that Denmark needed him, that the kingdom was floating free at the mercy of the polar storms and the hatred of the Swedes across the Kattegat Sound and that he alone would be the one to build enough ships to anchor and protect her. And so he fought to be born as fast as possible. He kicked and struggled in his mother's waters; he headed for the narrow channel that would lead him out into the bright air that tasted of the sea.

When Elizabeth returned with the flagon of beer, he had been born. Queen Sofie had severed the umbilicus with a thorn and wrapped the baby boy in her knitting.

The story goes on. People no longer know what is true or what has been added or taken away. The Dowager Queen Sofie remembers, but the story is hers. She is not a woman who makes gifts of what she owns.

They say that Danish children born at that time were at risk from the devil. They say the devil, driven out of the churches by the implacable Lutherans, began to seek unbaptised souls to inhabit and that he flew round the crowded cities at night, sniffing for the odour of human milk. And when he smelled it, he would flit unseen through the window of the infant's room and hide in the darkness under the cradle until the nurse slept, and then he would reach out a long thin arm and with his threads of fingers find a passageway, via the little breathing nostrils, to the brain, at the core of which lay the soul, like a single nut of a pine cone. And he would gather it between his finger and thumb. With infinite care he would extract his hand, now slippery from its passage into a living organ, and when the soul was out, pop it into his mouth and suck it until he felt arrive in his being a shuddering of ecstasy and joy that would leave him exhausted for several minutes.

Sometimes he was interrupted. Sometimes the nurse would wake up and sniff the air, and light a lamp and come towards the cradle just as the soul came out, and then the devil would have to drop it and flee. And wherever the soul landed, it would be swallowed by the matter around it and lodge in that place for all time. If it fell into the folds of a blanket, there it would stay, so that there were at that time a great quantity of children who grew up with no soul in them at all. If it fell onto the baby's stomach, in the stomach it would remain, so the infant would always and for ever have one thought, which was to feed the flesh of its hungry soul and so grow to a huge fatness ultimately fatal to the heart. The worst thing, so the women said, was the soul's falling onto the genitals of a baby boy. For then that child would become the very devil of a lecherous man who would in time betray his wife, his children and everyone who should have been dear to him just to gratify his soul's yearning for copulation and might in his lifetime commit infamy with more than a thousand women and boys, and even with his own daughters or with the poor creatures of the hearth and field.

Queen Sofie knew she must not let her son's little soul be stolen by the devil. They say that after he was rowed with her across the lake, and washed and laid in his crib (the bloodstained knitted drawers being consigned hastily to the fire), she ordered, all brilliant as the April morning was, that the window of his room should be closed and a lock be fastened to the casement so that it could not be opened day or night. The nurse protested that the baby Prince would suffocate for want of air, but the Queen would not be moved and so this one window in the castle was closed for six weeks until the child had been baptised at the Frue Kirke on the second of June.

Excerpted from Music and Silence by Rose Tremain
All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.