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The White Stone By Anatole France Characters: 14630

Updated: 2017-12-04 00:02

ndrea Tafi, of Florence, being chosen to decorate the cupola of San Giovanni with mosaics, carried out the said work in the most perfect fashion. Every figure was treated in the Greek manner, which Tafi had learned during his sojourn at Venice, where he had seen workmen busy adorning the walls of San Marco. He had even brought back with him from that city a Greek by name Apollonius, who knew excellent secrets for designing in mosaic. This Apollonius was a skilful workman and a very clever man. He knew the proportions to be given to the different parts of the human body and the material for mixing the best cement.

Fearing the Greek might carry his knowledge and address to some other painter of the city, Andrea Tafi never left his side day or night Every morning he took him with him to San Giovanni, and brought him home every evening to his own house, facing San Michele, and made him sleep there with his two apprentices, Bruno and Buffalmacco, in a room separated merely by a partition from his own bed-chamber. And as this partition left half a foot between the top and the beams of the ceiling, whatever was said in one room could easily be overheard in the other.

Now Tafi was a man of decent manners and pious. He was not like some painters who, on leaving the Churches where they have been depicting God creating the world and the infant Jesus in his holy mother's arms, go straight to houses of ill fame to play dice and drink, play the pipes and cuddle the girls. He had never wished for better than his good wife, albeit she was by no means made and moulded by the Creator to afford any great delight to men; for she was a very dry and a very chilling personage. Then, after God had removed her from this world to a better, in his loving mercy, Andrea took no other woman to his bosom either by marriage or otherwise. On the contrary he was strictly continent, as became his years, sparing himself both expense and vexation, and pleasing God to boot, who recompenses in the next world the privations men endure in this. Andrea Tafi was chaste, sober and well-advised.

He said his prayers with unfailing regularity, and being got to bed, he never fell asleep without first invoking the Blessed Virgin in these words:

"Holy Virgin, Mother of God, which for Thy merits wast exalted alive to Heaven, stretch forth Thy hand full of grace and mercy to me, to lift me up to that blessed Paradise where Thou sittest on a chair of gold."

And this petition old Tafi did not mumble between the two or three teeth he had left, but spoke it out in a loud, strong voice, persuaded it is the singing, as they say, makes the song, and that if you want to be heard, it is best to shout. Thus it came about that Master Tafi's supplication was overheard every night by Apollonius the Greek and the two young Florentines who lay in the next chamber. Now it so happened Apollonius was likewise of a merry humour, every whit as ready for a jest as Bruno or Buffalmacco. All three itched sore to play off some trick on the old painter, who was a just man and a god-fearing, but hard-fisted withal and a cruel taskmaster. Accordingly one night, after listening to the old fellow's customary address to the Virgin, the three comrades fell a-laughing under the bed-clothes and cutting a hundred jokes. Presently, when they heard him snoring, they began asking each other in whispers what jape they could play off on him. Well knowing the holy terror the old man had of the Devil, Apollonius proposed to go, dressed in red, with horns and a mask, to drag him out of bed by the feet. But the ingenious Buffalmacco had a better suggestion to offer:

"To-morrow we will provide ourselves with a good stout rope and a pulley, and I undertake to give you the same evening a highly diverting exhibition."

Apollonius and Bruno were curious to know what the pulley and rope were to be used for, but Buffalmacco refused to say. Nevertheless they promised faithfully to get him what he wanted; for they knew him to possess the merriest wit in the world and the most fertile in amusing contrivances, having earned his nickname of Buffalmacco for these very qualities. And truly he knew some excellent turns, that have since become legendary.

The three friends, having nothing now to keep them awake, fell asleep under the moon, which looking in at the garret window, pointed the tip of one of her horns, as if in mockery, at old Tafi. They slept sound till daybreak, when the master began hammering on the partition, and called out, coughing and spitting as usual.

"Get up, master Apollonius! Up with you, apprentices! Day's come; Ph?bus has blown out the sky candles! Quick's the word! 'Life is short, and art long.'"

Then he began threatening Bruno and Buffalmacco he would come and start them out with a bucket of cold water, jeering and asking them:

"Is your bed so delicious, eh? Have you got Helen of Troy there, you're so loath to quit the sheets?"

Meanwhile he was slipping on his hose and his old, worn hood. This done, he sallied out, to find the lads waiting on the landing, fully dressed and with their tools all ready.

That morning, in the fair Church of San Giovanni, on the planking that mounted to the cornice, the work went on merrily for a while. For the last week the master had been trying his hardest to give a good representation according to the recognized rules of art of the baptism of Jesus Christ. He had just begun putting in the fishes swimming in the Jordan. Apollonius was mixing the cement with bitumen and chopped straw, pronouncing words of might known only to himself; while Bruno and Buffalmacco were picking the little cubes of stone to be used, and Tafi arranging them according to the sketch he had made on a slab of slate he held in his hand. But just when the master was busiest over the job, the three friends sprang lightly down the ladder and slipped out of the Church. Bruno went off to the house of Calendrino, outside the walls, in search of a pulley that was used for hoisting corn into the granary. At the same time Apollonius hurried away to Ripoli to see an old lady, the wife of a Judge, whom he had promised to provide with a philtre to draw lovers to her side, and persuading her that hemp was indispensable for compounding the potion, got her to hand him over the well-rope, a good stout piece of cord.

The two friends next met at Tafi's house, where they found Buffalmacco awaiting them. The latter at once set to work to attach the pulley firmly to the king-post of the roof, above the partition separating the master's sleeping-room from his apprentices'. Then, after passing the old lady's well-rope through the pulley, he left one end hanging down in their own chamber, while he went into his master's apartment and fastened the bed to the other extremity, by each corner. He took good care the rope should be concealed behind the curtains, so that nothing out of the way might be visible. When all was done, the three companions went back to San Giovanni.

The old man, who had been so busily engaged as scarcely to have noticed their absence, addressed them with a beaming face:

"Look you," he said, "how those fish sparkle with divers colours, and particularly with gold, purple and blue, as creatures should which inhabit t

he ocean and the rivers, and which possess so marvellous a brilliancy of hues only because they were the first to submit to the empire of the goddess Venus, as is all explained in the legend."

Thus the master discoursed in a way full of grace and good sense. For you must know he was a man of wit and learning, albeit his humour was so saturnine and grasping, above all when his thoughts turned toward filthy lucre. He went on:

"Now is not a painter's trade a good one and deserving of all praise? it wins him riches in this world and happiness in the next. For be sure Our Lord Jesus Christ will welcome gratefully in His holy Paradise craftsmen like myself who have portrayed His veritable likeness."

And Andrea Tafi was glad at heart to be at work upon this great picture in mosaic, whereof several portions are yet visible at San Giovanni to this day. Presently when night came and effaced both form and colour in all the Church, he tore himself regretfully from the river Jordan and sought his house. He supped in the kitchen off a couple of tomatoes and a scrap of cheese, went upstairs to his room, undressed in the dark and got into bed.

No sooner was he laid down than he made his customary prayer to the Blessed Virgin:

"Holy Virgin, Mother of God, which for Thy merits wast exalted alive to Heaven, stretch forth Thy hand full of grace and mercy to me, to lift me up to Paradise!"

The moment was come which the three companions had been eagerly awaiting in the neighbouring room.

They grasped the rope's end that hung down the partition from the pulley, and scarcely had the good old fellow finished his supplication when at a sign from Buffalmacco they hauled so vigorously on the cord, that the bed fastened at the other end began to rise from the floor. Master Andrea, feeling himself being hoisted aloft, yet without seeing how, got it into his head it was the Blessed Virgin answering his prayer and drawing him up to Heaven. He was panic-stricken and fell a-screaming in a quavering voice:

"Stop, stop, sweet Lady! I never asked it should be now!"

And as the bed rose higher and higher, the rope working smoothly and noiselessly over the pulley, the old man poured out the most pitiful supplications to the Virgin Mary:

"Good Lady! sweet Lady! don't pull so! Ho, there! Let go, I say!" But she seemed not to hear a word. At this he grew furiously angry and bellowed:

"You must be deaf, you wooden-head! Let go, bitch of a Madonna!"

Seeing he was leaving the floor for good and all, his terror increased yet further; and, calling upon Jesus, he besought Him to make His holy Mother listen to reason. It was high time, he asseverated, she should give up this mischancy Assumption. Sinner that he was, and son of a sinner, he could not, and he would not, go up to Heaven before he'd finished the river Jordan, the waves and the fishes, and the rest of Our Blessed Lord's history. Meanwhile the canopy of the bed was all but touching the beams of the roofing, and Tafi was crying in desperation:

"Jesus, unless you stop your Blessed Mother this instant, the roof of my house, which cost a fine penny, will most certainly be burst up. For I see for sure I'm going slap through it. Stop! stop! I can hear the tiles cracking."

Buffalmacco perceived that by now his master's voice was actually strangling in his throat, and he ordered his companions to let go the rope. This they did, the result being that the bed, tumbling suddenly from roof to floor of the room, crashed down on the boards, breaking the legs and splitting the panels; simultaneously the bedposts toppled over and the canopy, curtains, hangings and all fell atop of Master Andrea, who, thinking he was going to be smothered, started howling like a devil incarnate. His very soul staggered under the shock, and he could not tell whether he was fallen back again into his chamber or pitched headlong into Hell.

At this point the three apprentices rushed in, as if just awakened by the noise. Seeing the ruins of the bed lying smothered in clouds of dust, they feigned intense surprise, and instead of going to the old man's help, asked him if it was the Devil had done the mischief. But he only sighed heavily, and said:

"It's all up with me; pull me out of this. I'm a dying man!"

At last they dragged him from among the débris, under which he was ready to suffocate, and placed him sitting up with his back to the wall. He breathed hard, coughed and spat, and:

"My lads," he said, "but for the timely succour of Our Lord Jesus Christ, who hurled me back to earth again with a violence you can plainly see the effects of, I should at this present moment be in the circle of Heaven named the crystalline or primum mobile. His holy Mother would not listen to a word. In my fall, I have lost three teeth, which, without being exactly sound, still did me good service. Moreover, I have an agonizing pain in my right side and in the arm that holds the brush."

"My master," said Apollonius pityingly, "you must have received some internal hurts, which is a very dangerous thing. At Constantinople, in the risings, I discovered how much more deadly such injuries are than mere external wounds. But never fear, I am going to charm away the mischief with spells."

"Not for worlds!" put in the old man; "that were a deadly sin. But come hither, all three, and do me the service, an you will, of rubbing me well in the worst places."

They did as he asked, and never left him till they had pretty well scarified every bit of skin off the old fellow's back and loins.

The good lads made it their first business to sow the story broadcast through the city. This they did to such good effect that there was not man, woman nor child in Florence could look Master Andrea Tafi in the face without bursting out laughing. Now one morning Buffalmacco was passing down the Corso, Messer Guido, the son of the Signor Cavalcanti, who was on his way to the marshes to shoot crane, stopped his horse, called the apprentice to him, and tossed him his purse with the words:

"Ho! gentle Buffalmacco, here's somewhat to drink to the health of Epicurus and his disciples."

You must know Messer Guido was of the sect of the Epicureans and loved to marshal well-arranged arguments against the existence of God. He was used to declare the death of men is precisely the same as that of beasts.

"Buffalmacco," added the young nobleman, "this purse I have given you is for payment of the very instructive, complete and profitable experiment you made, when you sent old Tafi to Heaven-who, seeing his carcass taking the road to the Empyrean, began to squeal like a pig being killed. This proves plainly he had no real assurance in the promised joys of Paradise-which are, it must be allowed, far from certain. In the same way as nurses tell children fairy-tales, vague things are talked concerning the immortality of mortal men. The vulgar herd thinks it believes these tales, but it does not really and truly. Hard fact comes and shivers the poets' fables. There is nothing assured but the sad life of this world. Horace, the Roman poet, is of my opinion when he says: Serus in c?lum redeas."1

1 "May it be long ere you return to heaven your home."-Ode 2 of Book I, addressed to Augustus.

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