THE KING was irate. His daughter, Gerutha, though but a plump sixteen, had voiced reluctance to marry the nobleman of his choice, Horwen- dil the Jute, a beefy warrior in every way suitable, if Jutes could ever suit in marriage a Zealand maiden born and reared in the royal castle of Elsinore. “To disobey the King is treason,” Rorik admonished his child, the roses in whose thin-skinned cheeks flared with defiance and distress. “When the culprit is the realm’s only princess,” he went on, “the crime becomes incestuous and self-injuring.”
“In every way suitable to you,” Gerutha said, pursuing her own instincts, shadows chased into the far corners of her mind by the regal glare her father cast. “But I found him unsubtle.”
“Unsubtle! He has all the warrior wit a loyal Dane needs! Horwendil slew the tormentor of our coasts, King Koll of Norway, by taking his long sword in two hands, thus baring his own chest; but, before he could be stabbed there, he shattered Koll’s shield and cut off the Norseman’s foot so the blood poured clean out of him! As he lay turning the sands beneath him into mud, Koll bargained the terms of his funeral, which his young slayer granted graciously.”
“I suppose that could pass for nicety,” said Gerutha, “in the dark old days, when the deeds of the sagas were being wrought, and men and gods and natural forces were all as one.”
Rorik protested, “Horwendil is a thoroughly modern man—my battle-mate Gerwindil’s worthy son. He has proven a most apt co-governor of Jutland, with his rather less prepossessing brother, Feng. An apt governor solus, I might say, since Feng is forever off in the south, fighting on behalf of the Holy Roman Emperor or whoever else trusts his arm and his agile tongue. Fighting and whoring, it is said. The people love him. Horwendil. They do not love Feng.”
“The very qualities that make for public love,” Gerutha responded, her rosy blush slowly subsiding as the moment of most heated opposition between father and daughter passed, “may impede love in private. In our fleeting contacts, Horwendil has treated me with an unfeeling, standard courtesy—as a court ornament whose real worth derives from my kinship with you. Or else he has looked through me entirely, with eyes that see only the rivalrous doings of other men. This is the gallant who, having laid Koll and sufficient gold on the buried black ship to the next life, pursued and butchered the slain man’s sister, Sela, with no merciful allowance for the frailty of her sex.”
“Sela was a warrior, a rover, to equal a man. She deserved a man’s death.”
The phrase piqued Gerutha. “Is a woman’s death less than a man’s, I wonder? I think death for both is exactly as big as it must be, like the moon when it blackens the sun, to eclipse life completely, even to the last breath, which perhaps will be a sigh over opportunities wasted and happiness missed. Sela was a rover, but no woman wants to be a mere piece of furniture, to be bartered for and then sat upon.”
So defiant a formula, emerging from his fair daughter’s flushed face, lifted Rorik’s tangled half-gray eyebrows in synchrony with his upper lip, from which a long limp mustache drooped. His lip stopped lifting as his instinctive indulgent laugh was checked and hardened, by the pressure of royal policy, into a snarl. He was reminding himself to be stern. His mouth looked meaty and twisty and red between his mustache and his uncombed, grizzled beard. He would have been ugly, had he not been her father. “Since your mother’s untimely death, my dear child, your happiness has been my supreme concern. But I have pledged you to Horwendil, and if a king’s word is broken, the kingdom cracks. All the three years when Horwendil roved, seizing trophies from Koll’s hoard and Sela’s palace and a dozen or more fat ports of Sweathland and Rus, he allowed me as his liege-lord the pick of the plunder.”
“And I am to be the plunder in exchange,” Gerutha observed. She was an ample, serene, dewy, and sensible girl. Had her beauty a flaw, it was a small gap between her front teeth, as if too broad a smile had once pulled the space forever open. Her hair, unbound as became a virgin, was the red of copper diluted by the tin of sunlight. A warmth surrounded her, an aura noticeable since infancy; her nurses in the icy straw-floored chambers of Elsinore had loved to clasp the resilient little body to their breasts. Bracelets of twisted bronze, brooches worked into a maze of interlaced ribbons, and a heavy necklace of thin-beaten silver scales bespoke a father’s lavishing love. Her mother, Ona, had died on the farthest verge of memory, when the child was three and feverish with the same ague that carried off the frail mother while sparing the sturdy child. Ona had been dark, a Wendish captive. An unsmiling face with lowered lids and thick brows, a melody sung with an accent even a toddler could recognize as strange, and a touch of tender but chilly fingers formed the bulk of maternal treasure Gerutha held in her memory. She was pleased now to hear, in her father’s mention of Sela, that women can be warriors. She felt warrior blood within her—warrior pride, warrior daring. There was a time, three or four years after her mother’s death, when she thought that she and the children whom, in the absence of broth- ers and sisters, she played with—the children of courtiers and retainers, of ladies-in-waiting, even of the kitchen thralls, in the informal rustic arrangements of Elsinore—were of the same status. Then she became aware, long before puberty had awoken any urge to mate, of her father’s blood regal within her. In the absence of a brother, she stood nearest the throne, this nearness to be assumed by the man whom she would marry. So some of the power of state was hers, in this mismatched struggle of wills.
Her father asked her, “What distinct fault have you found in Horwendil?”
“None—which is perhaps a fault in itself. I am told that a wife completes a man. Horwendil feels himself complete already.”
“No unwived man feels so, though he may not proclaim it,” said Rorik, himself unwived, in a grave voice.
Was this meant to soften her, so she could be bent more easily to his command? That she would eventually yield, both knew. He was a king, all substance, in essence immortal, and she of an evanescent loveliness, negligible amid the historical imperatives of dynasty and alliance. “Truly,” Rorik pleaded, “is there no chance of Horwendil pleasing you? Have you already such strict notions of what a husband should be? Believe me, Gerutha, in the rough world of men, he is a more than fine specimen. He sees his duties and keeps his vows. Since your veins carry kingship in them, I have chosen for you a man fit to be king.” He dropped his voice, with its cunning political range of threat and entreaty, into a register of irresistible gentleness. “My dear daughter: love is so natural a condition for men and women that, given normal health and an approximate parity of endowment, it will all but inevitably follow upon cohabitation and the many shared incidents of married life. You and Horwendil are fine specimens of our northern vigor—blond beasts, one could say, as solid as runestones in an upland pasture. Your sons will be giants, and conquerors of giants!
“You did not live long enough to know your mother,” Rorik went on without a pause, as if all this were a single story in aid of his pleading, “but you in your glowing ripeness bear testimony to our love. You fought your way into being through your mother’s reluctant, narrow channels. In truth, she and I were content enough with each other; we did not beg Heaven for a child. She was a Wendish princess, as you have more than once been told, brought back from the south by my father, the great Hother, in the wake of a murderous raid. What you have not been told, until this interview, is that she hated me, the son of her father’s slayer, right up to the sacred ceremony and beyond. She was dark-haired and white-skinned and for six months with fingernails and teeth and all the strength of her slender limbs defeated my efforts to possess her. When I did at last possess her, taking advantage of her weakness after one of her illnesses, she attempted to end her life with a dagger, she so loathed herself for submitting to this pollution—the pollution at the root of life. Yet, within another six months, my persistent gentleness, and countless of the small courtesies and favors whereby a husband pays homage to a cherished wife, did work love within her. Her old enmity lived on as a special blaze in her passion, a rage that again and again fell short of being satisfied. Again and again we were driven together as if to find in our coupling—dark and fair, Wend and Dane—the resolution of the world’s mystery.
“Now, if from a beginning so unpromising such an attachment could grow, how can your relation with the honorable, the admirable, the heroic Horwendil fail? He is virtually your cousin, by the bonds of alliance between his father and your own.” Rorik’s hand, an old man’s hand, knobby and mottled and as light as if hollow, was lifted on the wave of his insistent murmurous eloquence and rested, like driftwood nudged forward by the froth, on his daughter’s. “Repose in my decision, little Gerutha,” urged the King. “Lend yourself with- out stint to this match. Some lives bear an enchantment, I do believe. Since your bloody birth, which weakened your poor mother ever after, you have displayed an extra quantity of that which gives others happiness. Call it sunlight, or sense, or a sweet simplicity. You cannot help but enamor your husband, as you since your infancy have enamored me.”
It is hard, Gerutha thought, to consider one man when another is present. Horwendil—who was deemed quite handsome, with his candle-pale skin, his curly flaxen hair, his short straight nose, his icy blue eyes long as minnows in his wide face, his thin-lipped mouth with its strict look—stood in her mind rendered small by even the near future’s distance from her. Whereas Rorik was here, his hand touching hers, his profoundly known visage a foot from her own, a translucent wart in the crease above one nostril of his large, porous hooked nose. A regal weariness emanated from all his creases, along with a leathery smell, his thick skin browned in the salt and sun of his youth’s sea-raids across the rimy Baltic and up the great unpeopled rivers of Rus. His robes, not the velvet ermine-trimmed robes of a state occasion but the undyed wadmal he wore within the family apartments, had the secret little greasy stink of sheep in the rain. Her bones vibrated to the familiar rumble of his voice’s rote endearments, and her skull felt the paternal pressure of his other hand cupped on her head in blessing. Gerutha found herself, as if cuffed from behind, kneeling before him in a spasm of filial feeling.
On his side, Rorik, leaning over to kiss the neat gash of the bone-white scalp where her hair was centrally parted, was conscious of a tingle on his face as of tiny snowflakes; stray individual hairs, too fine to be seen, had rebelled against the brushed order of his daughter’s coiffure, held by a jewelled chaplet like a dainty version of his own cumbersome, eight-sided crown, which he donned on those same state occasions as warranted the confining, all but immobilizing robes of velvet and ermine. He pulled his face back from the sensation of her excessively vigorous hair and experienced a start of guilt, her pose before him was so demurely slavish—that of a captured slave, drugged with hellebore, about to be sacrificed.
But marriage to Horwendil, with a queendom all but certain with it, was no such slavery, surely. What did women want? There had been that in Ona which he had never reached, save in the instant when their bodies clasped and found release in a brainless rhythm of thrust and counterthrust, her pelvis as active in the business as his—a passion as if to be sacrificed, to be consumed in this act of, after all, capture. Then, in the next instant, their sweats still wet on the bedclothes and their breathing fluttering back into their chests like two homing doves, she would begin to recede. Or was it he receding, the capture achieved and he the lighter for it? They had been like a pair of conspiring cutthroats met in the dark and, their furtive transaction accomplished, swiftly and unceremoniously parted by a mutual hatred. No, not hatred, for a kindly afterwash would hold them side by side a while, beneath the embroidered canopy, behind the linen bed curtains doubled in thickness so their struggling shadows would not show through, within the tall stone room patrolled by cold drafts and churlish servants, as their sweated bodies dried, and he and she would engage in drowsy fumbling conversation, his eyelids still retaining visions of her naked beauty above him, below him, upside down beside him, her abundance of untamed raven hair between parted white thighs having tickled his lips. They would talk, many a time, of their growing daughter, the radiant fruit of one such clipping—the child’s piecemeal assumption of mobility and speech, the dropping away of treasured mispronunciations and lisped coinages as she gathered to herself more correct language and adult manners.
Gerutha had remained the chief, tyrannically single topic of their delight because no brother or sister followed, as if a door had slammed shut in Ona’s womb. Within three years Rorik’s queen was dead, taking with her into silence her midnight cries of release from that captivity of concupiscence which Eve’s curious sin has laid upon mankind, and into silence also the soft Wendish syllables whose unemphatic mispronunciation of guttural Danish delighted him as much as any missaying of their daughter’s. Ona’s fingertips had been chilly, he remembered, and yet even Gerutha’s scalp, chalk-white in its parting, tasted of warmth. Whatever harsh or happy fate in this life befell her, she had been born of love.
Rorik was entertaining his daughter within a small timber-floored and wainscoted oriel room recently built to adjoin the King’s bedroom, in this perpetually revised old castle of Elsinore. Lozenges of red afternoon sun lay on the broad planks of oiled fir, making good the designation of “solar” for these upper chambers devoted to private residence within a castle. The room’s shallow fireplace sported a plastered hood, in the most modern and efficient fashion. The luxury of a brocaded arras softened the stone wall facing the three-arched, two- pillared window and its view of the gray-green Sund that separated Zealand from Skåne. Skåne, which the Sweathlanders coveted, was a Danish domain, with Halland and Blekinge to the east, and to the west Jutland and Fyn, and to the south the islands of Lolland, Falster, and Møn. To keep intact such a realm, scattered and jagged like the broken earthenware of a dish just fallen to the floor, took all a king’s strength and cunning; accordingly, each new monarch ascended the throne through election by the provincial lords and, since the advent of Christianity, the great prelates. The inheritance rights of royal blood were diluted in Denmark by the ancient democracy of the (singular and plural) thing, the assemblies of freedmen that judged and governed the affairs of each locality and, above that, of the province. A king needed election by the four provincial thing, assembled at Viborg. These traditions enclosed the castle inhabitants as adamantly as the multiple walls themselves, the accreted keep, barbican, gatehouses, battlements, towers, barracks, kitchens, stairways, garderobes, and chapel.
The chapel had seemed to the child Gerutha a doomed lost place, reached only after traversing in her freez- ing slippered feet the length of the great hall and a gallery and several small sets of stairs at an angle—an unheated high-roofed room smelling of a spicy incense that scratched her nose, and of the clamminess of disuse, and of the unwashed bodies of the holy men who in their robes shuffled through the service, lifting the circular pale wafer toward the circular white-glazed window high above the altar (so that she thought of the Eucharist as eating sky) while Latin was being chanted unintelligibly. Being in the chapel frightened her, as if her young body were a sin, to be avenged some day, pierced from underneath even as she sipped the rasping wine, the caustic blood of Christ, from the jewel-beknobbed chalice. The chill, the Latin, the fusty smells made her feel accused; her natural warmth felt chastened.
Horwendil came from Jutland to pursue his suit. In acknowledgment of services rendered the throne, Rorik had bestowed upon him and his brother adjoining manors two hours’ ride inland. That of Feng was the lesser, with but ninety thralls, though the brothers had shared risk and hardship equally along the coasts of Norway and Sweathland. Feng was younger by a mere eighteen months, shorter by an inch or two, and darker and slighter. He seldom came to Elsinore, and spent much time in German lands, soldiering and spying for the Emperor, though the spying was given the name of diplomacy. He had an easy way with languages and also had served the King of France, whose province of Normandy had once been a Danish domain, in the heroic days before King Gorm, when every Dane was an adventurer. Feng’s free lance had even taken him even further south, across those Pyrenees on whose other side a dry, hot, and bare land was besieged by infidels who wielded curved swords from the backs of long-boned steeds that flew like birds.
Feng had not wed, though like Horwendil he was drawing near the age of thirty. Younger brothers, Gerutha thought, are like daughters in that no one takes them quite as seriously as they desire. Why had Feng failed to marry, when his dark-eyed, watchful demeanor bespoke longing? His eyes, it had seemed to her some years ago, when he and Horwendil had freshly come to Zealand to claim her father’s gratitude, had dwelt upon her with more than the passing interest an adult bestows upon a lively child. But she found it difficult to think of one man while another was upon her, and Horwendil was upon her, looming in his burgundy cloak and his shirt of mail, the fine iron links glinting like ripples in moonlight. He had brought her a present, two pied linnets in a withy cage, one black with white dabs and the other, the female, duller, paler with dark dabs. Whenever the captive birds fell silent, he would give the cage a shake and in alarm the poor things would run through their song again, a warbled cascade that always ended in a sharp upturn, like a human question.
“Some day soon, Gerutha, you too shall sing of mated happiness,” he promised her.
“I am not sure it is of happiness they sing. They may be crying out at their imprisonment. Birds may have as many moods as we, and but one fixed tune to express them.”
“And what is your mood, pretty one? I do not quite hear you warble of our betrothal, which has been declared by your father, blessed by mine from beyond the grave, and applauded by every living Dane who wishes to see our race enriched by the merger of valor and beauty, the latter protected by the might of the former.” He spoke these rehearsed phrases steadily but softly, testingly, a gleam of teasing in his long eye, whose iris was so pale as to seem more mineral than organic.
Gerutha said sharply, “I must suppose your figure of speech pertains to you and me. But I already enjoy, my lord, the protection of my father’s might, and believe that what you flatter me by calling beauty, possessed later rather than sooner, might ripen to my benefit and to that of my eventual consort.” She went on, taking courage from his presumption of having all the valor between them, “There is no fault I can lay on you, the model warrior by all accounts—the slayer of poor Koll with all due pagan courtesies, and then the unfortunate female Sela. You are an accomplished raider, leading your rabble to the happy slaughter of scarcely armed fisherfolk and monks quite naked save for their prayers. I find, as I say, no fault in your brave person, but in your approach to me, from on high, through the old sympathy of our fathers, I feel something of the pat and coldly expedient. I am just yesterday a girl, sir, and put forward my girlish qualms blushingly.”
He had to laugh at that, as Rorik had laughed at her impudence earlier—a confident laugh, already possessive, exposing short, neat, efficient teeth. His rough pleasure quickened her blood with a pulse anticipatory of her being, her qualms crushed, thoroughly his. Was this the self-abdicating delight her nurses and serving women had already experienced and absorbed?—the complacence of the submissive prey, the female pressed into the mattress and basted like a spitted chicken between the fires of the nursery and of the kitchen. Gerutha as a ripening girl had pricked her ears at the tone of rank and torpid luxury with which women mated high or low spoke of the absent, omnipresent man, the “he” whose bulk intervened between their bodies and the universe. These women had grown sodden in having their lower parts cherished.
“You protest too much,” Horwendil told her, with a dismissive tolerance of her resistance that affected her like an embrace. She shivered in the arms of this large man’s arrogance. He had an ardor for her that, even though cooled by calculation, was warm enough; his being was so much greater than hers that a fraction of his will overthrew all of hers. Bored with standing in the great hall, where she had received him, he slouched a buttock onto a trestle table waiting for its supper linen. “You are no girl,” he told her. “Your frame is stately and ready to serve nature. Nor am I fit to wait longer. My next birthday will finish my third decade. It is time I showed the world an heir, in proof of God’s favor. Sweet Gerutha, what displeases you about me? You are like this cage, in which a full-feathered wifeliness beats to escape. Without immodesty, I tell you my person has been admired, my brow considered noble. I am an honest man, hard to those that defy me but tender with those that profess fealty. Our alliance is desired on all sides, and nowhere more than in my heart.” There was a glitter and clatter of fine links as he put his wide hand, callous from holding a sword hilt, upon his chest in demonstration—the broad chest which, in the popular account, he had daringly exposed to King Koll’s point, an opportunity the Norwegian’s years had slowed his seizing of by a fatal second. Horwendil was baring his chest again; she was stirred with a kind of pity toward her suitor, so defenselessly persuaded of his own merits.
She said impulsively, as if indeed trying to break from a cage, “Oh, if I could but feel that, and hear your heart make its vows! But you seem to come to me conveniently, out of a general political will more than a personal desire.” He had removed his helmet and his curls were fair as poplar shavings, a dazzling tumble to his mailed shoulders. She took a step toward him, and he leaned forward as if to give up his perch on the table. “You must forgive me,” she told him. “I am awkward. I lack instruction. My mother died when I was three. I was raised by servants and those women my father had about him for other reasons than to nurture his lonely daughter. I felt a mother’s absence cruelly. Perhaps it is unfeeling nature itself I protest against—if I do protest at all.”
“How can we not protest?” Horwendil said to her, impulsive in turn. “Sent from the abode of angels to live on this earth among beasts and filth, and sen- tenced to death in a misery of foreknowing!” He had ceased slouching and stood close before her, a full head taller, his chest broader than her embroidery loom, his underjaw sparkling with pale bristles whose half-scraped state bespoke a hurried, apprehensive morning; he had mounted early to ride two hours to press his suit. A certain broad softness in him, this Nordic beau ideal, showed least becomingly in the double-chinned underside of his jaw, and Gerutha wondered whether she, when they were wed, might tease him into growing a beard, such as her father wore.
Of what he had said, she liked the sudden warmth, but something in the sense of it troubled her: his vehemence confessed an otherworldly scorn and disregard hidden until now behind a warrior’s stoic front—a bitter drop in the juices of his youth. He was not even in this moment of confiding focused on her: he saw her as part of a brocade, a bride of silver threads, rather than as a statue, a stone angel or painted wooden Mary, with a weight akin to a man’s.
Now, brought near to her in the course of his spon- taneous disavowal of the world—of any world but the one he was determinedly making—Horwendil embraced Gerutha, and yet did not stoop to a kiss, merely bringing his taut, decided lips close to her eyes while his hands, clasped at her back, locked her against him. She struggled a bit, writhing, but the jingle of her girdle bells recalled her to the absurdity of resistance, in the witness of those in attendance upon this interview—her handmaiden, Herda; Horwendil’s squire, Svend; the castle guards posed motionless against the hall’s stone walls, beneath the great oak rafters—ghosts of the forest from whose anciently painted and carved forms hung tattered, faded banners won in battle by Danish monarchs long since entombed within history. She felt caught in the stillness of a patterned weave, her thumping heart flattened among its threads. Only the little finches, the pied linnets, stirred, emitting in their hungry rotation, perch to cage floor to perch again, broken phrases or peeps of song. She rested her pounding head and flushed face on the cool iron mesh of Horwendil’s chest, and a linnet loosed a long riband of melody cinched by a blissful tightening within Gerutha’s ribs. There was no escape. This man, this fate, was hers. Like a tightly swaddled baby, she was secure.
Yet even now, at the fought-for moment of her surrender, her suitor thought of others. “They feed on the seeds of flax and hemp,” Horwendil said, of the birds. “Linseeds. Any seeds coarser, they fall sick in protest.” She tipped up her face to remind him who she was, and he quizzically brushed the knuckles of one hard hand against her cheek, where his mail had gouged in red the gridded impression of its links.
Excerpted from Gertrude and Claudius by John Updike. Copyright © 2001 by John Updike. Excerpted by permission of Random House Trade Paperbacks, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.