And They Danced Under The Bridge
THE POPE’S PALACE
Early May, 1348 AD
Elysium angels looked down on the sad, afflicted, desperate town of Avignon. Saints Jean, Laurent, Martial and the rest had witnessed wise counsel bestowed from the commanding towers of the Palace go unheeded. Patience tested, consumed. This was their day of atonement. Nemesis in her moment, the Furies’ boundless punishment, Hera’s loathing of Zeus: all paled set against the apocalyptic pestilence that had devoured the wicked place.
The people with houses not yet shut up stood in line since dawn before the carved stone portal of the Grand Audience. Restless, they awaited the ceremonial opening of its colossal iron-bound doors. In the beginning, the emergency law resulted in congregations increasing tenfold. But the clergy, too, were smitten without mercy and the churches closed, the Audience and the cathedral being the only seats of worship still ministering. Religion played no great part in the citizens’ lives but despair had driven them to clutch at any comfort, to hope against hope, to pray for survival. Old and young, men and women, sound and infirm, babes-in-arms composed the ominous procession. They wore neither festive clothes nor fine sandals. Talk, for what it was worth, was barely audible. They had little to say. The most pernicious event that had or would ever bedevil their lives had rendered them incapable of expressing feelings. Pain in every household, Death personified round every corner, they had become callous, cynical, cold-hearted. They scorned human kindness as a weakness, self-preservation demanded strength not sympathy, but to what end pleasantries? Each knew the lot of the other and the demise of any child ravaged one family as it did a neighbour’s.
“You…you’re from Rue d’Annanelle…” one thought “…the cart fetched out six last night…” It was not said loud. The man from Annanelle looked at the next. “You be the wine merchant…Place Trois Pilats…your wife and three babes only today…” He, neither, voiced what he knew. Communal grief silenced everyone.
The prime bell tolled and they filed with leaden, nervous step into the building constructed of immense, fawn-coloured, sandstone blocks. Draughts of cool air refreshed them, a relief from the balmy, oppressive heat of the streets. From front to rear the floor was paved with smooth, granite slabs. They marvelled at frescoed walls one verge thick. These were interrupted by tall, narrow windows admitting sunlight into the otherwise gloomy hall. A soaring, vaulted, wooden ceiling decorated with fine, vibrantly coloured carvings shrouded the cavernous space above the nave. From the entrance Marius’ eye was drawn to the east stone altar draped with pure damask. He admired the heavy brass candlesticks either side of a crucifix, a simplicity that belittled a mystical symbolism so powerful that it turned heads. Peoples’ jaws dropped in disbelief at such opulence, the like of which was foreign to their ungodly lives. They looked heavenward where, suspended on a chain attached to a roof member, a pierced brass censer swayed to and fro above the assemblage: the pendulum of a clock of destiny counting down the days. No choice but to inhale the cloying, pungent perfume, tart and acrid to some, ambrosial and intoxicating to others. For many, this was their first experience of attending church, the discovery of an unknown world of the dark, the sensuous, the surreal; of men in strange robes speaking in unfathomable tongues. Moved – awed, but through fear and desperation - they turned to the Lord. They believed on a whim, yearning clarity for this capricious sphere that was their profound wilderness. As the nights grew darker, an intrinsic optimism for a lighter day rose, but it was hidden under the bushel of seeds they had planted. There was no solace, no abatement. Without salve or physic for cure, their vital flames extinguished and putrefying around them, they were drowning in hellish burial pits like unblessed food for worms.
Marius Nerval ushered his wife, Dominique and their young son Fabien, asleep in her arms, to find a vacant place. One of the rough wooden benches lined in rows towards the back of the Audience served. More of their neighbours appeared. The cushioned pews to the front were reserved for the great and good. But, soon, all the seats were taken.
A tall, blond-haired, invincible man of some twenty-four summers, Marius worked hard to provide for his wife and child. There was honest employ unloading trading boats and in the warehouses of the port downstream of the Dominique gate and he joked his wife was responsible for its name. Wages could be supplemented mixing mortar and carting stone blocks for the masons building the new town walls. Marius and his young family moved south to Avignon from Carpentras when the grape harvest failed there and pickers on the vineyards were not required. His understanding of the reasons for his own father leaving the native Limoges was not clear. Whenever the boy had asked the question there was avoidance or, at most, a vague allusion to a feud. He knew no more than this. Both father and mother passed on before he had further explanation. Dominique inched closer to her husband, heedful of the stranger sitting on their other side. He sensed her unease and, putting an arm around her shoulder, said, reassuringly,
“No need to fear him, woman, if he was infected he would be dead like the rest.”
Then he realised,
“I know him though, he works at the port” and he leaned across,
“Hail, Charles! How are you?”
The man looked up but they did not shake hands as was the custom. The reply came,
“Marius, I am sick of heart, if not yet of body, but it won’t be thus much longer…”
“How do your wife…and daughter?”
“Taken! Taken…both…these seven days. I would be with them…why…why should I be spared!”
Marius offered no answer. The man continued,
“A priest came to the house but…no use to man nor beast…priests, witches, devils, conjurors…the same! All useless! My family were one day healthy, the next…taken! The watchman said I could wash off the cross from my door now they be gone and it be after these fourteen days with no marks on me…but why not me! Why!”
The man shed tears of misery. The plague was indiscriminate: it purged the good, it slaughtered the bad. Nobody was immune.
Still the censer swung, giving forth its bitter scent. A man on the bench behind touched Marius’ shoulder, who turned round,
“Guy! The carter! My neighbour, what is it has you come here? Tell.”
“Nothing to lose, Marius…cannot make anything worse…”
“Aye! All my household…wife, children, father, e’en the lodger…but me left breathing. Used my own cart to carry bodies to churchyard,” The wretched man paused to collect his thoughts, ‘it’s been a devil of a time, Marius…and the burier made off with the bedding to fire…didn’t have windings for ‘em and…” It was too painful for the man to continue. He bowed his head in tortured silence.
Marius looked further along the row. There was his friend, Luc, with wife, Marianne; Lacroix and Breton, fellow workers on the New Palace; Marcel the innkeeper; Martin the farrier. So many ordinary folk assembled through a shared calamity. In the front pews he saw the Magistrate and his runner boy. A strong man, broad of shoulder and girth, sitting back straight with chin thrust forward, determined to be recognised for the greatness of his title. He wore a green velour cap, his badge of office. It was customary when entering hallowed premises for men to doff their headwear, the women remove scarves, but he, the Magistrate, kept on his cap until the last moment before the minister’s appearance. He believed only the Holy Father exercised more power. Occupying a position of prominence, this was the only ranked personage Marius registered apart from two wool merchants, the Pagnol brothers. They ran a lucrative business, since Avignon had become a significant river trading port. They resided in a large dwelling in the town, if Marius recalled correctly.
“I know none of these people”, Dominique whispered to her husband, so as not to wake the child who still slept. “Maybe not”, Marius answered, “but, rest assured, they will know you. The women gossip and the men listen. I’ve a name since I work within the palace, then on the walls and at the port it’s hard not to be known”. She was not sure whether Marius was boasting but she accepted his word and regained her quiet, as was a wife’s obligation.
Some moments passed while they watched the congregation grow when Marius nudged his wife.
“Dominique…over there…in the corner…well, I’ll be…that fellow, head buried into his coat collar, trying his best not to be spotted…”
She strained her eyes then spoke up,
“Yes! How could I not know that one! Carel Rostand! He is the last man I’d have thought to find in here…he begs at the Saint-Roch gate, doesn’t he?” Dominique was adept at assessing personalities but Marius just scoffed,
“He does that! And the Magnanen and the La Ligne gates and…and all the others! He scrounges like another man does an honourable job! The sergeant moves him on so he waits a half hour before choosing his next corner to start again. He thinks nobody notices him in that dark spot, well I do, for one! What’s he doing, then?”
“Marius, the same as us all, praying for a blessing from the good Lord above, a light to guide us out of this misery, safety and healing for our children. He’s here as we are.”
“Umm! You could be right”, Marius said, “but I don’t trust him, never have done.”
Yet deeper, in a shadowy recess of the Audience, sat a man Marius could not identify. A figure whose keen regard locked on them through the service, he made mental notes, squinting in the gloom. When someone blocked his line of sight he moved his head sharply so as to not lose them. His attire was more tasteful and less threadbare than the rest. He remained unnoticed, so carefully had he chosen his vantage point. Marius would later know this mysterious character as one of Clément’s spies: the Pontiff’s eyes and ears to inform him of the coming and going of the townsfolk he viewed with persistent distrust.
As the cantors in the choir rose and their incantations grew louder, the front pews stood, the benches copied. Their chants soared to meet the void above, the censer exuded yet stranger scents - camphor, sandalwood, honeysuckle and lavender – while all but obscuring the altar, screen and vestry. A bell tolled, slow, hard, menacing, then faster and more strident. All eyes strained through the half-light, gazes fixed on the door. The cacophony of noise ceased, then a shocking silence. Clément’s silhouette appeared, at first featureless in the doorway. Would deliverance enter by this door they had not realised was open to them? The congregation held its breath.
Pierre Roger and Edmond were inseparable, childhood friends. With parentages of contrasting wealth and standing, they were equal in their puerile games, pranks and mischief. They stole apples from orchards, played hide and seek, dared each other for bold but harmless challenges, and teased the girls. They shared a passion for hunting and fishing, taking any opportunity to accompany adults on their trips, observing and learning the skills to become proficient in the sport. Years before their less adventurous peers, Edmond and Pierre Roger were adept at setting rabbit traps and following wild boar tracks. The former wore a woollen tunic, coarse to the skin and tied at the waist with a cord, while the latter’s costume was worsted, finer and of superior quality. He had a leather belt with brass buckle.
Pierre Roger’s father was a lord, enjoying a modest estate in the woodland north of Limoges. His hunting parties often took refreshment in the tavern kept by Edmond’s family. While the innkeeper’s ambitions for his son were little greater than to take over running the inn, the lord wished his offspring to enter the priesthood. He held influence over the monks of the Bénédictine abbey Saint Martial of Limoges, due to financial donations, so the boy was reserved a place as a scholar.
“I dare you to bring down an egg from the nest atop that tree, and unbroken,” Edmond said to his friend.
“Are you serious?” Pierre Roger’s expression darkened. The oak was fifteen verges high and while its lower boughs were sturdy, the upper branches were flimsy and liable to snap under any weight.
“Sure I’m serious! A dare’s a dare, you should know that! So, are you a coward? It’s up to you.”
“Have I ever refused a challenge…have I?”
“You have not, that’s true, not yet anyway! This is a real challenge for you, though.” And Edmond’s voice trailed off as he waited for a decision, aware that one game above all others frightened his friend, climbing. He was prone to severe vertigo.
“I accept, then!” Pierre Roger blurted, trying hard to sound confident.
“And you’ll not back down? No changing your mind…”
“I said, I will! But I have to…”
“Hey!’ Edmond interrupted, ‘no excuses! You’ll do it this instant!”
His heart sank as his gaze moved up to the bird’s-nest, but a speck in the heavens. Edmond was right, a mother bird’s head protruded out of the nest, so she would be hatching eggs.
“Go on! What are you waiting for?” Edmond asked, in a sardonic tone. Their bond was strong but as they grew, so did a distinct element of rivalry.