Her Ladyship's Veil by William Edward Norris - The Pall Mall Magazine Volume III, 1894

ld Mrs Luttrell died the other day. I came upon a notice of her death in the Times, and I tossed the paper away with the sort of impatient sigh which escapes one when somebody inadvertently treads upon one's toes. For indeed she was a very old woman, and it is an eternity since I saw her last; and what could be more ridiculous than that I, who am myself an ancient dowager by this time, should have to fumble in my pocket and blow my nose violently because the mere sight of a name took a matter of forty years off my life for a moment?

Well, I am as ridiculous as anybody pleases to call me; but the truth is that I have been crying like a baby ever since the post came in this morning and brought me the following stiff little letter, with its bundle of enclosures: -

"DEAR MADAM, - As executor and trustee to my late mother, Mrs Luttrell, it has been my duty to examine a large number of papers which she left behind her, and in doing so I have found the packet which I now forward to you, thinking that you might care to have it. My mother, when speaking to me of my brother John, has often mentioned the circumstances which preceded his journey to India (where, as you are doubtless aware, he met his death at the time of the Mutiny), and more than once she has expressed a wish that it were possible for her to have a talk with you upon the subject. The retired life that she led, and, of late years, her increasing infirmities, having rendered this impossible, it has occurred to me that I should be carrying out her desire by sending you the enclosed documents, which speak for themselves.
"I am, madam, your obedient servant,

...nobody shall see the veil after I die...Ah, me! - they did indeed speak for themselves; and even if they had not the discoloured old rag of white gauze which was the first thing to flutter down out of the bundle would have told me something which I am afraid I have known through all these long years, though I have always assured myself that I knew nothing of the sort. How short our lives are! - how absurd it is to fancy we can ever really forget! - how the present and the past seem to close up and stand shoulder to shoulder when the time comes for us to take a retrospective survey of the whole infinitesimally small business! Yet "short" and "small" are but relative terms. We don't know what eternity means; and if our lives are insignificant episodes in the universal scheme, they are important enough to us individually. At all events, we only get one apiece, and I dare say that a good many of us, as the family vault becomes a more and more conspicuous feature in our idle musings, may wish that so equivocal a blessing, so burdensome a responsibility, had never been dealt out to us. However, I did not feel like that in the year 1853, when I wore the gauze veil which now lies upon my rheumatic old knees and seems to mock me with its preposterous longevity. It is not half as shabby and faded and time-worn as its former mistress; it will remain visible and tangible, no doubt, when my body has crumbled into dust. There is something downright impertinent in such an obstinate survival! But oh! I am glad to have it, and I am glad that my dear Jack kept it, and I am thankful to George Luttrell, whoever he may be - some younger brother, I suppose - for yielding to a sentimental impulse at the risk of being snubbed. And nobody shall see the veil after I die, for I shall at once write instructions that it is to be placed in my coffin with me.

It was at Spezzia, in Italy, that I first met Jack - La Spezzia we used to call it in those days, I remember; and it was a lovely, retired little place on the Riviera di Levante, knowing nothing of the arsenals and dockyards and tall, smoky chimneys which were to bring greatness upon it in the fulness of time. I was journeying to Rome with Aunt Barbara in the dear old leisurely fashion, and our Noah's ark of a travelling-carriage had rumbled thus far on its road. All the way from Nice a similar ponderous vehicle had been following ours, its inmates meekly swallowing our dust, and surveying us at the various halting-places with that sidelong timidity which characterises, or used to characterise, the wandering Briton in the presence of his fellow-countrymen.

"Papa, mamma and young Hopeful - uninteresting specimens of the well-to-do middle class," I recollect remarking to Aunt Barbara; for the truth is, that, at that remote period of the world's history, I used to assume all the airs and graces of a young lady who was not only an heiress, but had been assured on all hands that she was a beauty into the bargain. Speaking with the dispassionate impartiality of old age, I don't know that I was exactly a beauty, though I may say that I was decidedly good-looking for an heiress. What is certain is that my good looks were very far from being upon a level with those of that handsome, blue-eyed young giant, Jack Luttrell. I had found out his name from the courier, and I also had ascertained that his parents were escorting him as far as Malta, where he was to take ship for India, in order to inaugurate his career as a full ensign in the East India Company's service. I suppose I should not have questioned the courier about him if I had regarded him with the high-and-mighty disdain which it pleased me to affect; but at this distance of time I really cannot remember much about it. Most likely I wanted to make his acquaintance, because I was accustomed to think that I had a prescriptive right to the adoration of any youth who might be in the neighbourhood, and because Aunt Barbara was not the liveliest of companions. Be that as it may, I doubt whether I strolled out all by myself after dinner for the mere purpose of admiring the dying sunset glow upon the peaks of the Carrara mountains, or of studying subsequent moonlight effects upon the broad, tranquil expanse of the Mediterranean. Forty years ago young ladies were not allowed a quarter of the liberty that they enjoy now; and if I had been less wilful, or poor dear Aunt Barbara less indulgent, I should certainly have been ordered to stay where I was when I proclaimed my intention of going out for a walk, instead of encountering only the usual mild protest which it was my habit to disregard. So off I went; and the circumstance that, a quarter of an hour before, I had seen Mr Luttrell saunter down towards the shore, with his hands in his pockets and a cigar in his mouth, may have had something to do with my choice of direction. I don't mean to say that I had any idea of accosting him, and I was quite sure that he would never have the impudence to accost me; but I may have had some vague hope of an adventure - a rescue - who knows what? In my youth adventures were for ever occurring, both in novels and real life; in these more matter-of-fact days, with vigilant policemen always on the alert nothing of an exciting nature happens to anybody.

Mr Luttrell set me free by the employment of the time-honoured British method.Well, as luck would have it, I was not disappointed. I had walked for some distance in the twilight along the beach, without seeing any sign of my stalwart compatriot, and had turned - rather in disgust, no doubt - to retrace my steps, when one of the ragged beggars who used to be almost as common as flies in Italy started suddenly from the shelter of a rock, and began to solicit alms in a somewhat more peremptory tone than those gentry were wont to adopt. I told him, what was the truth, that I had no money with me; whereupon he grew abusive, and, after a short interchange of compliments, ended by laying his dirty hand upon my wrist. I have never in my life been a timid person, so that he did not frighten me very much; still, I was some little distance from the nearest house, and I was beginning to wonder how I should extricate myself from a rather awkward situation, when up trotted young Mr Luttrell - quite according to programme - and set me free by the employment of the time-honoured British method.

Now there is nothing heroic in knocking down a half-starved mendicant, nor, if Krebs the courier had rendered me a similar service, would his doughty deed have caused me the faintest emotion; but the main thing, I suppose, is that a man should look like a hero, and Jack Luttrell, with his blue eyes flashing, his straight brows drawn together and his fists doubled, realised my youthful conception of heroism. I suppose the truth is that I fell in love with him then and there; but I don't know, and I am perfectly certain that I did not suspect myself of such folly at the time.

He had the modesty which belongs to true greatness - and even a trifle to spare. His blushes and his stammering apologies for having come to the aid of a maiden in distress amused me so much that I really could not help laughing in his face; and the more I laughed, the more embarrassed he became. In common humanity I had to assure him at length that the liberty which he had taken was not an unpardonable one.

"You might have been assassinated for your pains," I remarked - I forgot to mention that the beggar, before seeking safety in flight, had whipped out a long knife, which he would doubtless have proceeded to use if Jack had not dexterously jerked the weapon from his hand. "Who knows whether I myself should not have been a cold corpse at this moment but for you?"

He shuddered at this terrible suggestion, and then diffidently inquired whether I would mind his seeing me safe back to the hotel. He said it was really dangerous for me to be roaming about alone after nightfall, at the mercy of those murderous Italians: and I was graciously pleased to intimate that he might take charge of me for the next quarter of an hour, if he liked. So we walked home together; and when he found that I did not propose to eat him, he soon became quite friendly and communicative. In his simple boyish way he told me all about himself, - how he hoped to see service and distinguish himself ere long - in China, I think, it was that trouble was supposed to be brewing at that time - how he was one of a large family, - how it behoved him to carve out a path towards fortune and renown, so as not to be a burden upon the old people, and so forth. Ah! why could I not let the poor lad be as friendly as he wanted to be? Why must I needs set to work forthwith to break his honest heart? I said just now that I believe I had fallen in love with him at first sight; but I am afraid that excuse will not do. I am afraid I only employed the arts which were a second nature to me, because it was so easy to employ them, and because I did not realise the great difference between him and a London dandy. At any rate, I never achieved a more facile conquest. Before we reached the hotel I dropped the gauze veil which I had been carrying in my hand into a pool of salt water, and he picked it up and tried to dry it; but I never asked him to restore it to me. I thought he did not seem particularly eager to do so, nor would it have been of any further use to me.

Dear old Aunt Barbara was very grateful to him when she had been informed of our adventure; and of course, after that, a certain degree of friendliness, not to say intimacy, with the Luttrell family became inevitable. They were nice people, belonging to the small country-gentry subdivision, Conservative in their politics, evangelical in their religious views, perhaps a little in awe of Aunt Barbara, because she was a Countess - forty years ago countesses stood upon a somewhat higher social pinnacle than they do now - but not in the least snobbish or ill bred. They were travelling by slow stages to Florence, as we were, and they meant eventually to embark at Leghorn for Malta, so as to see the last of their son. So it came to pass that we practically formed one party, our travelling-carriages never losing sight of one another and drawing up before the same wayside ossterie at midday and nightfall, while their occupants interchanged civilities which grew rapidly less and less formal. I can't recall Mr Luttrell very well - he was an ordinary sort of old gentleman, I think - but I have a distinct recollection of Jack's mother, with her iron-grey sausage-curls, her thin, wistful face and her subdued voice. It was evidently a terrible grief to her to part with her first-born, and perhaps that may have created a bond of sympathy between her and Aunt Barbara, who had lost two sons.

As for me, what can I say about myself, except that I behaved infamously? Was it likely that I, with my rank and my money and my very clear understanding of what these advantages entitled me to expect, should dream of espousing an embryo subaltern in the East India Company's service? The idea was so obviously preposterous that my flirtation with poor Jack only elicited an occasional gentle chiding from Aunt Barbara, while it did not weigh for an instant upon my hardened conscience. Yet I loved him; and, as I am a sinful woman, I have never loved any one else in that way before or since! Certainly I did not mean to marry him; I supposed that he would see for himself how impossible that must be. But he did not see it. They never do; and if girls knew as much as old women know, some of them, I dare say, would take more heed to their ways.

Jack...came wading up to the windowI like to look back - I can't help liking to look back - upon that journey through sunny Tuscany - upon the long, dusty roads, and the swarthy peasants, who grinned and doffed their hats to us as we passed, and the smelly little inns, and the wrangling postilions, and all the small episodes that marked our slow daily progress. Once, I remember, we had to cross a swollen river, where they took the horses out and harnessed teams of oxen to the carriages. The turbid water rushed in, so that we had to tuck up our feet; and Jack, who had taken off his boots and rolled his trousers above his knees, came wading up to the window to assure us that there was no danger. I asked him whether, if the worst came to the worst, he would mind carrying my aunt; and I can see now the comical change of countenance with which he made reply, "Oh, of course, if Lady Hartland will trust herself to me."

But Lady Hartland returned quite tartly that she had two stalwart servants to preserve her from death by drowning, and that, if he wished to carry anybody in his arms, his first duty was to his mother; and, after he had shamefacedly retired, she told me that my conduct had been "indelicate."

Dear old adjective, which has so completely fallen into disuse, and which, no doubt my suggestion merited! It wouldn't have been Aunt Barbara, I fear, whom Jack would have caught up in his strong young arms, had our lumbering coach been overturned.

He was rather frightened of Aunt Barbara, he told me afterwards; which was much as though a horse should confess to being frightened of a rabbit - as, to be sure, many horses are.

"You see," Jack explained, in his ingenuous, unaffected way, "we aren't much accustomed to lords and ladies in our parts; and, although Lady Hartland is as kind as possible, I can't help seeing that she doesn't look upon us as belonging to her world. And of course we don't; we can't pretend to belong to it."

It was at Florence that he made this pathetic speech - pathetic, I mean, not because his words were anything more than the statement of an undeniable fact, but because of the appealing glance which accompanied them, and of which the meaning was not obscure to me. I have always been good-natured. I made the reply that he wanted me to make, telling him that he was talking nonsense - that no man could be more than a gentleman, and so forth; and I was successful in banishing the gathering clouds from his brow, which was my sole object for the moment. If he chose to assume that I meant things which I had never said, was that any fault of mine?

Alas! I can't acquit myself, though a jury of my fellow-countrywomen would doubtless acquit me. Sitting alone here, after all this long, long lapse of time, with only my own conscience to pronounce sentence upon me, I can't do otherwise than acknowledge that I was to blame from start to finish. The one extenuating circumstance that I might plead - and Heaven knows it isn't much of a one - is that I had loved Jack from the very first without being aware of it. What is certain is that I gave the poor boy every possible encouragement. While Aunt Barbara was paying solemn, ceremonious visits to the Grand-Ducal court, and receiving formal attentions from foreign ministers and their wives, I - declaring that I had come abroad for a holiday, and that I wasn't going to be bothered with the social corvées, of which I had more than enough at home - amused myself very well in sight-seeing, under the protection of the Luttrells, who had no such grand acquaintances. I knew no more, or very little more, about art than Jack did. The long galleries of the Pitti Palace, and Brunelleschi's dome, and Giotto's campanile, and Fra Angelico's frescoes, would have soon palled upon me, I dare say, had I gazed upon them with Krebs for my sole companion and guide; but Krebs very sensibly addressed his long-winded orations to more attentive and more appreciative ears. The good old Luttrells were conscientiously eager to be instructed, and did not notice how prone Jack and I were to avail ourselves of the slightest excuse for strolling away from their immediate neighbourhood.

Or did one of them, perhaps, notice it? Did she, when she was lying awake at night and building absurd castles in the air by the side of her snoring lord, sometimes think, with a tremor at her own audacity, what a glorious, what a blessed thing it would be if her dear boy, instead of spending the best years of his life in India and running the risk of being massacred by Persians or Chinamen or other heathens, were to marry an heiress and settle down within reach of her in his own country? Very likely she did, poor soul! I should not have sympathised with her at the time, but I can now, because I, too, have had grown-up sons and anxious, wakeful hours and unfulfilled visions. There is an unvarying monotony about human destiny and experience which would be terrible if it did not take us all our lives to realise it.

In the year 1853, for example, I thought that life was full of the most startling surprises, and I must own that I was startled to the point of entirely losing my presence of mind when Jack Luttrell asked me in so many words to marry him. It was in the Boboli Gardens, towards the hour of sunset, that he took my breath away by acting in this altogether unforeseen manner. It is true that the time for his departure was drawing near, and that he had for some days previously been hinting in pretty plain language, that, when he quitted Florence, he would leave his heart behind him; but I really had not expected that his courage would be equal to anything beyond an entreaty for some trifling souvenir to carry away with him. So, as I said before, I lost my presence of mind, and before I knew where I was a most compromising avowal had passed my lips. The unfortunate thing was that, being so little a man of the world, he took that avowal as practically clinching the whole business. If I loved him, what on earth did it matter that I was Lady Theodora Hylton? - that I possessed large estates in my own right, and that my relations would assuredly laugh to scorn the bare idea of my contracting such an alliance as the one offered to me?

"My darling," he said, "nothing could ever make me worthy of you; I shouldn't be that if I were a prince of the blood. I know there will be difficulties, and I wish with all my heart you were a pauper like myself, although then we couldn't be married so soon; but, since we love one another, we aren't going to let any differences of rank or wealth part us."

Jack...asked me to marry him.I am sure he would not have allowed such distinctions to part us if our positions had been reversed, and I had not the heart to go on pouring cold water upon his ecstasies. Besides, to tell the truth, I was rather happy myself, and I thought - as one sometimes does when one is young - that impossibilities might be made possible. So for half an hour or thereabouts we were engaged to be married, Jack and I, and I believe we made the most of our time.

We were not engaged to be married any more after I had reached the hotel and had broken this appalling piece of news to Aunt Barbara. Oh dear, no! The Countess of Hartland presented her compliments forthwith to Mr John Luttrell, and deeply regretted to learn that her niece had been led into taking a step which would necessitate our immediate departure for Rome. Lord Hartland had been communicated with by post, and the nature of his reply (which, however, might be anticipated) should be imparted to Mr Luttrell at any address that he might be pleased to name; but, in the meantime, Mr Luttrell would of course recognise the impropriety of making any effort to see us. Lady Theodora Hylton, not being yet of age, and being under the guardianship of her uncle, was in no position to bind herself by promises which Lady Hartland could not but think ought never to have been suggested to her.

Aunt Barbara was not a bad woman; indeed, she was a very good old woman, as old women go - indulgent, charitable and sincerely religious. But she would have regarded herself as nothing short of an abandoned criminal had she sanctioned her niece's betrothal to an East India Company's cadet. Moreover, authority did not rest with her. She performed what she believed to be her duty; and, upon my word, were I situated at this present day as she was then, I am inclined to think that I should act as she did. I believe she had an interview with Mrs Luttrell before we started, and I should not wonder if these two excellent ladies shed some tears together over the folly of young people and the general contrariness of things. But I did not see Jack again, and I was more or less in disgrace during our progress through the Papal States.

When I look back and strive to realise what my feelings were at that remote period of my life, I am convinced that my determination to marry Jack Luttrell, whether my guardian would let me or no, was absolute. I was very fond of taking my own way in those days - some people tell me that I am fond of taking it still - and I feared neither man nor mouse. Assuredly I did not fear my uncle, a stiff, precise personage whom I had already defied more than once with success. At the same time, I was fully aware of my own value, and it seemed to me that Master Jack might consider himself uncommonly lucky if, after spending a year or two in India, he were permitted to return and claim the allegiance which I had vowed to him.

So, on our arrival at Rome, where the distinct and categorical negative with which Lord Hartland had hastened to reply to the proposal submitted to him awaited us, I naturally wrote to Jack, expressing some such view of the situation. There was to be no engagement, I told him - in the face of my guardian's prohibition, that could not be thought of - but he must be a very good boy, and perhaps he would come back to England some fine day, and then we would see. It was very kind of me, I considered, to insist upon writing that letter; for Aunt Barbara made a prodigious fuss about it, and wanted to read it before it was despatched, and I did not carry my point without a pitched battle. Well, he was not grateful - far from it! He came tearing down to Rome, post-haste, and burst in upon me like a bomb-shell at the Hôtel des Îles Britanniques, where we were staying. He had but a few hours to spare, he told me, it being absolutely necessary that he should sail from Civita Vecchia in time to catch the outward-bound steamer at Malta; but he had risked everything rather than depart for India without some clearer explanation than I had vouchsafed to him. As luck would have it, Aunt Barbara had gone to lie down with a bad headache, so that I was able to accord him an uninterrupted hour of my company; but as for an explanation, I could only say, after listening to a torrent of protests and reproaches, that to the best of my recollection I had been perfectly explicit. Was he, I asked, under the impression that all he had to do was to open his mouth and shut his eyes? Did he really think that it was a small thing for me to have made such a concession as I had made? If he cherished any wild notions connected with Gretna Green, I must beg him to dismiss them from his mind. A fool I might be, and he had been the cause of my being called so by my elders and betters; but I was not a downright idiot.

"Ah, Theo!" he exclaimed, "all that means nothing! I could understand your being too ambitious to marry a poor devil like me, and of course I could very easily understand your not loving me; but what can you mean when you tell me that you do love me, and yet that there is to be no engagement between us? At that rate I should have no right to complain if I were to hear in a month or two that you were going to marry somebody else."

"None in the world," I returned; for, indeed, I was not accustomed to being addressed in such authoritative accents.

"Ah, then you don't love me!" he ejaculated despairingly.

I told him that he was at liberty to form his own conclusions. I was angry, and I thought myself entitled to be angry; I had not stepped down from my pedestal to meet him with any expectation or intention of being led away captive then and there; according to my view, it was for me, not for him, to make conditions, and if he could not be satisfied with those that I offered, it only remained for me to wish him bon voyage! At the bottom of my heart I hoped that he would end by submitting, and that I might thus, without loss of dignity, be able to grant him certain encouraging assurances.

Oh, then you don't love me!But he did not submit. He said he had been mistaken in me; to which I retorted that I had evidently been mistaken in him; - and so we parted. I never saw him again, nor did I ever receive a line or a message from him, though for a long, long time I waited and hoped. At length I was forced to believe, what indeed seemed only too probable, that he had completely got over a youthful fancy which, perhaps, had not been very deep even while it had lasted; and that if he was - as I trusted that he was - too much of a gentleman to brag about his conquest to his brother-officers, it had nevertheless become an amusing, rather than a bitter, memory to him.

And so I married Sir Archibald Fraser, who was considerably my senior, but who was a kind and indulgent husband to me, while I think I may say that I was a good wife to him during all the long years that we lived together. I never was in love with him, nor did I ever pretend to be; yet I was fond of him, and I was very unhappy when he died. Was I unhappy when I read in the newspapers of six-and-thirty years ago how young Luttrell, with so many others, had been shot by the mutineers of his regiment out in India? I believe I was; but he had quite ceased to belong to me; I felt sure that he had forgotten me; there was nobody to whom I could mention his name, and I had my babies to occupy my thoughts. Somehow or other, Jack did not seem to be half as near to me then as he does now that I am old and alone, and that my babies have developed into men and women, who are very well able to take care of themselves.

Amongst the stained and blotted papers which have been forwarded to me - stained and blotted, I suppose, with poor old Mrs Luttrell's tears - is a whole sheaf of letters from Jack, written from the different stations to which he was sent after his arrival in India, and dealing, almost all of them, with the same subject. He seems to have had a fairly pleasant time of it, and to have enjoyed his soldiering and his sport and one thing and another; again and again he declares that he is not going to let his life be spoilt by the memory of an unfortunate love affair; but he can't keep himself from writing about me, he is always eager for news of me; and when at length he learns that I am married, it is evident that he had not until then abandoned all hope. The poor old lady's replies - returned to her, no doubt, after her boy's death - are most pathetic, with their excellent advice, their exhortations to the absent one, plentifully interspersed with texts, to lead a manly, Christian life; their yearning, motherly sympathy. What touches me most - perhaps it may have touched Jack too - is that she has never a word of censure for the worldly young woman who had showed herself so faithless. "We must not judge poor Lady Theodora as though she were one of ourselves," I read in the long missive which announces my marriage to Sir Archibald; "she has been brought up in a very different school, and must have very different ideas of duty. I, as you know, my dear son, have never mixed in the gay world; but some of our neighbours, who have other tastes and opportunities, assure me that liberty of choice in matrimonial matters is practically unknown amongst the wealthy and the great. For my own part, I cannot but pray that happiness may be vouchsafed to her in her new state of life. Yet I may confess to you that I sometimes feel a little rebellious, and sometimes wish - " And here a few lines are so carefully erased that I can make nothing of them, even with the aid of my strongest spectacles.

Another, and a much smaller, batch of correspondence is labelled "Letters relating to the death of our dear son, August-October 1857." These come from various officers who survived the massacre in which poor Jack perished. They are full of sorrow and affection for their dead comrade, with here and there a grim sentence or two which makes one feel that it would not have been good to be a mutinous sepoy in those days. "Rest assured," says one of them, "that your son's death will not go unavenged. Reinforcements have been sent to us, and if one of those cowardly devils escapes, it will not be our fault. Eight, who were captured yesterday, were blown from guns this morning." Upon the margin is written, in poor old Mrs Luttrell's trembling hand: "God's will be done! 'Vengeance is Mine, saith the Lord.'"

I don't think I will quote the letter in which the manner of his death and the subsequent recovery of his body are described. "I am sending home his sword and his papers," the writer says. "Also a piece of gauze, which we found upon him, and which we think must be a lady's veil. It was fastened round his neck by a ribbon. Possibly it may have some meaning for you; so I despatch it with the other things."

It may not have had any meaning for his mother, but it has a great deal for me; and while I look at it I cannot but feel thankful that it has only reached me now, in the evening of life, when nothing matters any more. If I had known for certain thirty years ago that my Jack had never ceased to love me, I should have been capable of making a fool of myself - and that would have been uncomfortable for everybody. Now I am in the happy position of being able to cause discomfort to nobody, except indeed to my servants, who take care to let me know when I interfere with their methodical habits. And here comes old Johnson, the butler, to tell me reprovingly that my ladyship's tea has been waiting in the "libery" for three-quarters of an hour, and shall it be took away and fresh tea brought, as it must be quite unfit to drink by this time?

I meekly reply that I will not have any tea this evening; and if I dared, I would tell Johnson that I don't want any dinner either. For the fact is that the sight of that ragged veil has clean deprived me of my appetite.

signature from Atalanta magazine Volume III

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