The Plague of Marseille built a Wall to the Heart

In May of 1720, a ship sailed into Marseille carrying silk and the Pest. The Grand-Saint-Antoine was bringing cloth from the Lebanon for the fair at Beauclaire, and eager to profit from the offloading of the precious cargo, officials skipped the enforced quarantine period that had been in place since the terror of the bubonic plague during the Middle Ages. It was the wrong chance to take. For the Pest was on the Saint-Antoine, and had already left one passenger in a sweaty, coughing and dying heap. The man was offloaded along with the colourful materials destined for the festivities of Beauclaire. Disease struck Marseille. Fever and death. Among thousands.

Elzeár Joubert had heard about the Plague during his visit to Montpellier where he was helping to build the new lecture rooms at the university. But he was not planning to go to the noisy, dirty port town any time soon, and was not surprised the Pest had visited Marseille. On his way home to Pernes les Fontaines, talk of the Pest was everywhere. Tales of the bodies lying in the city’s hilly cobbled streets. Of the rich and poor; men and women; children. The stench of death had replaced the smell of fish. But the countryside of Provence was as beautiful as ever as he rode along the roads between the hills and the valleys, the vines and the fruit orchards resting in the winter of February 1721.

He did not really wish to stop at Lagnes, for him a moody, sombre little village full of uptight folk, mostly old. But that was where Jocelyn’s sister lived. Jocelyn Berger, who he was planning to marry in the summer, would have expected Elzeár to visit her older sister, eleven years more than she. And the sister, Alice, always had a gift for him to take to her beloved younger sibling.

The 1720 Plague of Marseille.

Alice was carrying firewood when he climbed from his horse. It was a grey, windy day, and as usual, she was wearing a black dress with her grey hair tied in a bun on her head. Her eyes were lighter blue than usual, her lips thinner. He took the casket of wood from her, and she led him into the house, where she lived alone since her husband Eric had died after falling from a horse outside Orange three years ago.

Inside the house, next to the kitchen fireplace, Elzeár got the cup of brandy he had longed for. Along with some terrible news. About the Pest.

They had built a wall. The Wall of the Pest. A wall to stop the Pest being carried from Marseille to the rest of Provence, and into France. This wall, stood between Lagnes and Pernes les Fontaines. This wall, this Wall of the Pest, stood between Elzeár and Jocelyn, who he had not seen for eleven months.

Who built the wall? Alice told him it was under instruction from the Parliamant of Aix. And the Pope. Contact between Marseilles and the rest of Provence, this is punishable by death.

Jocelyn. But what of Jocelyn?

The only time Elzeár wished to kiss Alice, was when she brought a piece of paper and put it before him, next to the brandy cup. Which was being filled for the third time.

There, Jocelyn’s graceful hand-writing. And a map. Of the part of the wall separating Lagnes from Pernes les Fontaines. Alice pointed to the round blips on the line of the wall. These were guard-posts, manned by men instructing to shoot anyone wishing to pass from the one side of the wall to the other. Death for the Pest.

One of the circles had a cross. And, wrote Jocelyn, she would wait at that guard-post at five o’clock of every Tuesday of the week. On the other side of the wall. He would hear a bell.

Jocelyn knew he would be back in February. Of course, when the wall was being built she had been tempted to wait for him at her sister’s house in Lagnes. But by then, all the inhabitants of Lagnes were already being visited every second day by the authorities, and any stranger from another town, who could be bringing the Pest, would be sniffed out and executed.

So Jocelyn would stay at her house, going out early before sunrise to work in the boulangerie. And wait for the Pest to be gone, and for Elzeár to come home. Then they were going to go to Paris before heading off to Calais for the ship to the Cape of Good Hope. Elzeár’s ancestors had gone to live in the Cape in 1688 after fleeing from La Motte d’Aigues to avoid the persecution of the Huguenots. The Jouberts were doing well in their new homeland, they had been told. And one of Elzeár’s distant cousins had invited him to come and live in the Cape. With high mountains, between the vines and near the sea.

Jocelyn hoped that he had arrived safely at her sister’s house. And that she had remembered to give him the letter. On Tuesday, she took her bell and set-off for the wall.

The Wall of the Pest.

He did not expect the wall to be so long, and so high. And that they had built it so quickly. From Mont Ventoux, to the Durance River. The Pest on his side. Jocelyn on the other. Elzeár rode to within twenty paces of the wall, the rock face visible in the dusk. He stopped and tied his horse to a beech-wood tree. And waited.

His heart beat when he heard the bell. When it stopped, he called out to her, and she to him. He ran to the wall.

Jocelyn knew the guard, Jean-Luc Pelous, whose sister had been at school with her when she was a child and had lived in Aix-en-Provence. Jean-Luc was instructed to keep anyone away from the Wall of the Pest, but not Jocelyn. He liked the way her eyes opened when she spoke with you, the way her dark hair fell over her face when the Mistral wind blew. A soldier, Jean-Luc had forgotten kindness. Until that day, weeks ago, when Jocelyn came to his guard-post at the wall. And spoke to him before she asked. Asked him to help.

She arrived at the wall with the clay jug filled with wine, red wine. Jean-Luc put-down his musket and took the wine. Then he drank deeply from the clay jug before putting it down in his guard-house and getting the ladder he had hidden for her behind the lavender bushes.

Elzeár heard the sound of wood scraping on rock. He looked up at the wall, and saw the ladder. And then he saw her. She looked down at him, her arms stretched wide, her hair tied back on her head showing her beautiful face, the cheekbones and the big eyes, the strong dark brow and her teeth, which shone in the dim light.

He ran to the wall, and looked up at her, lifted his hand and felt her for the first time since leaving for Montpellier eleven months ago. He also felt the warmness of the tear that fell from her eye on his hand.

Over the wall, they spoke. They loved through their voices. And made promises. Then, as the darkness came and the cold air fell from the mountains, they touched again to say goodbye. Until the next week.

For seven Tuesdays they met over the wall. Each time she would ring the bell so that he would know. She would bring Jean-Luc a fresh jug of wine. After the second visit, she brought a cup, and before climbing up the ladder to look at Elzeár, she took the cup filled with wine. And passed it down to him over the wall, so that he too could drink some of the red wine she had brought.

They loved the meetings, despite that they could not be together. But it could not be much longer. Already over fifty-thousand people had died in Marseille, and the Pest was not moving to the countryside of Provence. Surely, the wall must be opened. Surely, Jocelyn and Elzeár should be together.

Alone, in those long empty hours at Alice’s kitchen table in Legnes, Elzeár had written to his family at the Cape, in South Africa, although he would not be able to mail the letter until after the Pest had gone. He had told the Jouberts that, yes, he shall be arriving in the new country within the next year. With his wife, who he had still to marry. But would.

Beware the Pest.

During the second-last meeting, Jean-Luc himself also looked over the wall from the ladder. The soldier stretched down and shook the hand of the man for whom Jocelyn was doing all of this, walking across the country roads from her village to the wall, with the bell and the jug. Then he gave Elzeár a cup filled with the wine, climbed down the ladder and made space for Jocelyn to be with him in the only way they could.

When Jocelyn rang the bell that night, she wore a summer’s dress. It was still light, and the hint of Provence spring was in the air. The country smelled of herbs and dry sage, honey and dew. When she gave the cask of wine to Jean-Luc, he drank thirstily, telling her how hot it had been that day when the sun sat at its highest point and the first cicadas had even sang. How sweet it had sounded to hear them again after the cold hand of winter.

Jocelyn rang the bell as Jean-Luc fixed the ladder. She hoped he would like her dress. It was light green, with a pretty white collar.

As she got to the top, she saw her sister Alice. Her grey hair was loose, flowing over her thin face in the early-evening breeze. Alice would not look up until Jocelyn called out to her. When her sister looked up, both of them knew there was no need to speak. The Pest had come, and it had found him.

Stepping-off the ship at Table Bay in the June of 1724, she wondered how Elzeár’s eyes would have seen the Mountain of the Table, the big blue sky and the throngs of new people talking in strange tongues. She and Jean-Luc stepped to where the coaches waiting, drawn by big horses, manes blowing in the cold salty wind from the angry blue sea. She put her bags on the coach, and as Jean-Luc shoved them into place, Jocelyn heard the sound of the bell knocking against the clay flask that was still filled with the red wine from her country. Whenever I ring this bell, which still sounds loud and true, I wonder what that wine tasted like. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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