John Wilson (Christopher North),
"Notices of the Modern British Dramatists, No. II — Beddoes"
Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine 14 (1823), 723-9.
[The spelling, punctuation, and typographical conventions of the original have been maintained. The citation of material quoted from the play has been changed.]
NOTICES OF THE MODERN BRITISH DRAMATISTS
NO II. — Beddoes
This is precisely one of those compositions that a cold, clear, shrewd, and sarcastic critic would delight in clutching into his merciless grasp, to tear it into pieces and strew the floor of his study with its shivering fragments. Had it appeared during the blood-thirsty youth of the Edinburgh Review, a much more cruel murder would have been perpetrated upon its body than that which causes its own catastrophe, and all hands would have been held up in wonder and scorn of young Mr. Thomas Lovel Beddoes [sic]. He would have gone moping about for years in disconsolate solitude, silent and sullen as a ghost, or would have rent the air with unavailing shrieks and lamentations. But he has been born during a happier era—the mild and benignant spirit of Christopher North has overcome the truculent spirit of Francis Jeffrey—that "old man eloquent" gathers all the youths of genius under his wing, protects them from every cutting blast, and bids them all go abasking in the sunshine of public favour, like so many partridges on a bank adjusting their fair plumage without fear of the fowler. Young men, now-a-days, are not only permitted to write like young men, but praised and encouraged while doing so; and the whole world regards them with smiles of complacency and kindness, when they are seen to enjoy the favour of one benevolent Greybeard, who will not suffer his rising progeny to be maltreated by the vain or the venal critic-crew.
The Brides' Tragedy is the work of a Minor—and, although no doubt there have been many instances of Minors writing better than they ever did after they became Majors, nevertheless we admit the plea of nonage—an old head has no business on old shoulders; and an extremely wise, rational, sober, pretty-behaved and judicious springald, is not, to our taste, a commendable specimen of human nature. Now, Mr. Beddoes is very far indeed from being a boy-wiseacre. He is often as silly as may be,—trifling to a degree that is "quite refreshing,"—as childish as his best friends could desire to see him in a summer's day,—fantastic and capricious as any Miss-in-her-teens,—and pathetic to an excess that absolutely merits the strappado. Why not? all so much the better. He is a fine, open-hearted, ingenuous, accomplished and gentlemanly youth; and we, whose prophecies have been fulfilled somewhat more frequently than those of the Editor of the Blue-and-Yellow, pronounce him a promising poet,—we tie a wreath of laurel round his forehead,—and may it remain there till displaced to make room for a bolder branch of the sacred Tree.
The subject of the Drama is a good one, deeply, terribly tragic—"a tale of tears, a rueful story,"—a murder strange and overwhelming to the imagination, yet such a murder as the mind can image and believe in its wild and haunted moods. Mr. Beddoes deserves praise for choosing such a subject—for all true Tragedy must possess its strength in a spirit of terror. His reading seems to have lain among the elder Dramatists, and his mind is much imbued with their tragic character. We sup full of horrors, but there are some gay and fantastic garnishings and adornments of the repast, disposed quite in the manner and spirit of those great old masters. Joy and sorrow, peace and despair, innocence and guilt, saintliness and sin, sit all together at one banquet; and we scarcely distinguish the guests from each other, till something interrupts the flow of the feast, and they start up in their proper character. Yes, there is a dark and troubled, guilt-like and death-like gloom flung over this first work of a truly poetical mind, sometimes alternating with an air of ethereal tenderness and beauty, sometimes slowly and in a ghastly guise encroaching upon and stifling it, and sometimes breaking up and departing from it, in black masses, like clouds from a lovely valley on a tempestuous and uncertain day. Dip into the Poem, here and there, and you cannot tell what it is about—you see dim imagery, and indistinct figures, and fear that the author has written a very so so performance. But give it a reading from the beginning, and you will give it a reading to the end, for our young poet writes in the power of nature, and when at any time you get wearied or disappointed with his failure in passion or in plot, you are pleased—nay, delighted, with the luxuriance of his fancy, and with a strain of imaginative feeling that supplies the place of a profounder interest, and also prepares the mind to give
way to that profound interest, when, by and by, it unexpectedly and strongly arrives.
"The following scenes were written, as you well know, exclusively for the closet, founded upon facts which occurred at Oxford, and are well detailed and illustrated by an interesting ballad in a little volume of Poems, lately published at Oxford, entitled the Midland Minstrel, by Mr. Gillet: and may thus be succinctly narrated.
"The Manciple of one of the Colleges early in the last century had a very beautiful daughter, who was privately married to a student without the knowledge of the parents on either side.
"During the long vacation subsequent to this union the husband was introduced to a young lady, who was at the same time proposed as his bride; absence, the fear of his father's displeasure, the presence of a lovely object, and, most likely, a natural fickleness of disposition, overcame any regard he might have cherished for his ill-fated wife, and finally he became deeply enamoured of her unconscious rival. In the contest of duties and desires, which was the consequence of this passion, the worse part of man prevailed, and he formed and executed a design almost unparalleled in the annals of crime.
"His second nuptials were at hand when he returned to Oxford, and to her who was now an obstacle to his happiness. Late at night he prevailed upon his victim to accompany him to a lone spot in the Divinity Walk, and there murdered and buried her. The wretch escaped detection, and the horrid deed remained unknown till he confessed it on his death-bed. The remains of the unfortunate girl were dug up in the place described, and the Divinity Walk was deserted and demolished, as haunted ground. Such are the outlines of a Minor's Tragedy."
There is nothing very imposing in the office of a manciple; and accordingly Mr. Beddoes has left the peculiar character of his heroine's status in society undefined. She and her parents are poor and humble, and live in a cottage—that is all we know, and it is enough. The fair Floribel is the bride of Hesperus, a youth of high birth, and their marriage remains, for obvious reasons, concealed. The first scene in which they appear at evening in the garden of the lowly cottage, and feast on love's delicious converse, is very pretty, although not very rational, and serves to interest us for the simple, beautiful, and affectionate Floribel.
Come, come my love, or shall I call you bride?
Floribel. E'en what you will, so that you hold me dear.
Hesperus. Well, both my love and bride; see, here's a bower
Of Eglantine with honeysuckles woven,
Where not a spark of prying light creeps in
So closely do the sweets enfold each other.
'Tis Twilight's home; come in, my gentle love,
And talk to me. So! I've a rival here;
What's this that sleeps so sweetly on your neck?
Flor. Jealous so soon, my Hesperus?
It is a bunch of flowers I pulled for you;
Here's the blue violet, like Pandora's eye,
When first it darkened with immortal life.
Hes. Sweet as thy lips. Fie on those taper fingers,
Have they been brushing the long grass aside
To drag the daisy from its hiding-place,
Where it shuns light, the Danae of flowers,
With gold up-hoarded on its virgin lap?
Flor. And here's a treasure that I found by chance,
A lily of the valley; low it lay
Over a mossy mound, withered and weeping
As on a fairy's grave.
(1. 1. 22-43)
After some soft talk and fond endearments, not unmixed with some natural tears, Floribel gives utterance to those thoughts "that in the happiness of love make the heart sink"—they part, and the short scene passes by like a dream.
Hesperus has a rival in the affections of Floribel, "the Diana of our Forests," named Orlando, who throws old Lord Ernest, the father of Hesperus, into prison, on account of a debt, "of which his whole estate is scarce a fourth." This debt, however, is not to be claimed, provided Hesperus consent to wed Olivia, in which case Orlando hopes to espouse Floribel. This is a clumsy contrivance, but it cannot be helped. Accordingly Hesperus is admitted to his father, in chains and in a dungeon, when the following dialogue ensues.
Lord Ernest. Oh set me free, I cannot bear this air.
If thou dost recollect those fearful hours,
When I kept, watch beside my precious boy,
And saw the day but on his pale dear face;
If thou didst think me in my gentlest moods,
Patient and mild, and even somewhat kind;
Oh give me back the pity that I lent,
Pretend at least to love and comfort me.
Hesp . Speak not so harshly; I'm not rich enough
To pay one quarter of the dues of love,
Yet something I would do. Show me the way,
I will revenge thee well.
Lord Ern. But whilst thou'rt gone,
The dread disease of the place will come
And kill me wretchedly. No, I'll be free.
Hesp. Aye, that thou shalt. I'll do; what will I not?
I'll get together all the world's true hearts,
And if they're few, there's spirit in my breast
Enough to animate a thousand dead.
Lord Ern. My son,
We need not this; a word of thine will serve.
Hesp. Were it my soul's last sigh, I'd give it thee.
Lord Ern. Marry.
Lord Ern. But thou dost not know
Thy best-loved woos thee. Oft I've stood unseen,
In some of those sweet evenings you remember,
Watching your innocent and beauteous play,
(More innocent because you thought it secret,
More beautiful because so innocent;)
Oh! then I knew how blessed a thing I was
To have a son so worthy of Olivia.
Hesp. I will wed the plague!
I would not grudge my life, for that's a thing,
A misery thou gavest me: but to wed
Olivia; there's damnation in the thought.
Lord Ern. Come, speak to him, my chains, for ye've a voice
To conquer every heart that's not your kin?
Oh! that ye were my son, for then at least
He would be with me. How I loved him once!
Aye, when I thought him good; but now—Nay, still
He must be good, and I, I have been harsh,
I feel, I have not prized him at his worth;
And yet I think if Hesperus had erred,
I could have pardoned him, indeed I could.
Hesp. We'll live together.
Lord Ern. No, for I shall die;
But that's no matter.
Hesp. Bring the priest, the bride.
Quick, quick. These fetters have infected him
With slavery's sickness. Yet there is a secret,
'Twist heaven and me, forbids it. Tell me, father;
Were it not best for both to die at once?
Lord Ern. Die! thou hast spoke a word, that makes my heart
Grow sick and wither; thou hast palsied me.
To death. Live thou to wed some worthier maid;
Know that thy father chose this sad seclusion;
(Ye rebel lips why do you call it sad?)
Should I die soon, think not that sorrow caused it,
But, if you recollect my name, bestow it
Upon your best-loved child, and when you give him
His grandsire's blessing, add not that he perished
A wretched prisoner.
Hesp. Stop, or I am made
I know not what,—perhaps a villain.
Oh if you love me, curse.
Lord Ern. Aye, thou shalt hear
A father's curse; if fate hath put a moment
Of pain into thy life; a sigh, a word,
A dream of woe; be it transferred to mine;
And for thy days; oh! never may a thought
Of others' sorrow, even of old Ernest's,
Darken their calm uninterrupted bliss,
And be thy end—oh! anything but mine.
Hesp. Guilt, thou art sanctified in such a cause;
Guards; ( they enter ) I am ready. Let me say't so low,
So quickly that it may escape the ear
Of watchful angels; I will do it all.
Lord Ern. There's nought to do; I've learned to love this solitude.
Farewell, my son. Nay, never heed the fetters,
We can make shift to embrace.
Hesp. Lead him to freedom,
And tell your lord I will not, that's I will.
(Exeunt Lord Ernest and guards.)
Here, fellow; put your hand upon my mouth
Till they are out of hearing. Leave me now.
No, stay; come near me, nearer yet. Now fix
The close attention of your eyes on mine.
(1. 3. 34-112)
Soon after his father's liberation, Hesperus visits his Floribel in her cottage, but finds her rather coy and fretted by his too-long absence. During this lovers' quarrel, Orlando's boy gives a letter to Floribel, who reads it, and then dismisses him with a kiss. Hesperus either feels or feigns jealousy, and parts from his unhappy wife, with displeasure and anger. He is next introduced to Olivia, who proves to be a most engaging and delightful creature; and Hesperus, alas! transfers his affection to her, from his own Floribel. This scene is managed with considerable skill, and reminds one of something in Ford or Massinger. We see that the affection of the fickle, weak, and unprincipled Hesperus for Floribel, has given way under the fascination of a beautiful woman of his own rank, and that misery and death are about to knock at the door of that humble cottage.
I would not have thee cross my path tonight;
There is an indistinct dread purpose forming,
Something, whose depth of wickedness appears
Hideous, incalculable, but inevitable;
Now it draws nearer, and I do not shudder;
Avaunt! haunt me no more; I dread it not,
But almost—hence ! I must not be alone.
(2. 3. 140-147)
In this unhallowed state of mind he retires to rest, but finds none, and starts up from horror-haunted dreams.
Hesperus discovered in a disturbed slumber
Hesperus, (starting from his couch.)
Who speaks? Who whispers there? A light! a light!
I'll search the room, something hath called me thrice,
With a low muttering voice of toadish hisses,
And thrice I slept again. But still it came
Nearer and nearer, plucked my mantle from me,
And made mine heart an ear, in which it poured
Its loathed enticing courtship. Ho! a light.
Enter Attendant with a torch.
Thou drowsy snail, thy footsteps are asleep,
Hold up the torch.
Attend. My lord, you are disturbed.
Have you seen aught?
Hesp. I lay upon my bed,
And something in the air, out-jetting night,
Converting feeling to intenser vision,
Featured its ghastly self upon my soul
Deeper than sight.
Attend. This is Delusion surely;
She's busy with men's thoughts at all night hours,
And to the waking subtle apprehension
The darkling chamber's still and sleepy air
Hath breath and motion oft.
Hesp. Lift up the hangings, mark the doors, the corners;
Seest nothing yet? No face of fiend-like mirth
More frightful than the fixed and doggish grin
Of a dead madman?
Attend. Nought I see, my lord,
Save the long, varied crowd of warlike shapes
Set in the stitched picture.
Hesp. Heard ye then?
There was a sound, as though some marble tongue
Moved on its rusty hinge, syllabling harshly
The hoarse death-rattle into speech.
Attend . The wind is high, and through the silent rooms
Murmurs his burden, to an heedless ear
Hesp. Thou sleepest, fool,
A voice has been at my bedside to-night,
Its breath is burning on my forehead still,
Still o'er my brain its accents, wildly sweet,
Hover and fall. Away and dream again,
I'll watch myself.
[He takes the torch and turns to the hangings.
(2. 4. 1-34)
The horror of his reason is more distinctly avowed in his soliloquy.
Speak! who is at my ear?
[He turns and addresses his shadow.
I know thee now,
I know the hideous laughter of thy face.
'Tis Malice' eldest imp, the heir of hell,
Red-handed Murther. Slow it whispers me,
Coaxingly with its serpent voice. Well sung,
Syren of Acheron.
I'll not look on thee;
Why does thy frantic weapon dig the air
With such most frightful vehemence?
Tell the dark grave I will not give it food.
Back to thy home of night. What! playest thou still?
Then thus I banish thee. Out, treacherous torch,
Sure thou wert kindled in infernal floods,
Or thy bright eye would blind at sights like this.
[Dashes the torch on the ground.
Tempt me no more, I tell thee Floribel
Shall never bleed. I pray thee, guilty word,
Tempt me no more.
(2. 4. 55-70)
He now roams about in the darkness, sullen, fierce, and distracted; and hints are dropped, that there is a taint of madness in his mind. A great deal of fine poetry occurs in this part of the drama, but throughout either extravagant, or bordering on extravagance. It is, however, effective; and we quote, as a proof of this young poet's fine powers, the first scene of the third act.
An apartment in Orlando's Palace.
Hesperus seated. Attendants. Enter to them Claudio.
Claud. The bridegroom's here?
Attend. Yonder he sits, my lord,
And since the morn's first hour, without the motion
Even of a nerve, as he were growing marble,
He sat and watched, the sun blazed in at noon
With light enough to blind an eagle's ken,
He felt it not, although his eye balls glared
Horribly bright: I spoke: he heard me not:
And when I shook his arm, slept on in thought:
I pray you try him.
Claud. Sir, good Hesperus,
I wait at your desire; we are to end
Our match at tennis. Will you walk with me?
Attend. Your voice is weak as silence to his sense.
Orlan. My brother, you must join us at the banquet;
We wait your coming long; how's this?
Attend. My lord,
Like trance has held him since the dawn of day,
He has looked down upon yon wood since then,
Speechless and still.
Enter Lord Ernest.
Lord Ern. Now, health and good be here,
For I have missed my son this livelong day.
Why, what an idle loiterer thou art;
By this your vacant sight must ache with gazing
Upon that view. Arise, I'd have you with me
To fix upon some posy for the ring
You wed your love with. Death! Some fearful change
Is here. Speak; speak, and tell me if he lives.
Attend. He does, my lord, if breathing is to live.
But in all else is like the coffined dead;
Motion and speech he lacks.
Lord Ern. Oh heavens, Orlando,
Tell me 'tis false.
Orlan. I would 'twere in my power,
But it doth seem too true.
Lord Ern. Ride like the wind,
Fetch him the aid of medicine. See you not
Some vision has come to him in the night,
And stole his eyes, and ears, and tongue away?
Oh, you are come in time to see him die;
Look, look, Olivia, look; he knows us not;—
My son, if thou dost hear me, speak one word,
And I will bless thee.
Orlan. He is dumb indeed.
Olivia. Let me come near him. Dearest Hesperus,
If thou beholdest these poor unbeauteous cheeks,
Which first thy flattering kindness taught to blush;
Or if thou hearest a voice, that's only sweet
When it says Hesperus; oh gentle love,
Speak anything, even that thou hatest Olivia,
And I will thank thee for't; or if some horror
Has frozen up the fountain of thy words,
Give but a sign.
Claud. Lady, alas, 'tis vain.
Olivia (kneeling.) Nay, he shall speak, or I will never move,
But thus turn earth beseeching his dull hand,
And let the grass grow over me. I'll hold
A kind of converse with my raining eyes,
For if he sees not, nor doth hear, he'll know
The gentle feel of his Olivia's tears.
Claud. Sweet sir, look on her.
Lord Ern. Son,
Kind heaven, let him hear, though death should call him.
[Pause, a clock strikes.
(3. 1. 1-55)
Hesperus has now wrought his courage to the striking place, and goes to the cottage, where he had often been so blest, to murder Floribel. Perhaps, after Othello and Desdemona, no man should ever murder his wife more, except off the stage. Dr. Johnson thanked God when he had done annotating on that dreadful scene. Mr. Beddoes has here conceived something very fearful—in our opinion, much beyond what lately occurred near Gill's-hill cottage.
Flor. Hence did I seem to hear a human voice,
Yet there is nought, save a low moaning sound,
As if the spirits of the earth and air
Were holding sad and ominous discourse.
And much I fear me I have lost my path;
Oh how these brambles tear; here 'twixt the willows:
Ha! something stirs, my silly prattling nurse
Says that fierce shaggy wolves inhabit here,
And 'tis in sooth a dread and lonely place;
There, there again; a rustling in the leaves.
'Tis he at last; why dost thou turn away,
And lock thy bosom from my first embrace?
I am so tired and frightened; but thou'rt here;
I knew thou wouldst be faithful to thy promise,
And claim me openly. Speak, let me hear thy voice,—
Tell me the joyful news.
Hesp. Ay, I am come
In all my solemn pomp, Darkness and Fear,
And the great Tempest in his midnight car,
The sword of lightning girt across his thigh,
And the whole dæmon brood of night, blind Fog
And withering Blight, all those are my retainers;
How: not one smile for all this bravery?
What think you of my minstrels, the hoarse winds,
Thunder, and tuneful Discord? Hark, they play.
Well piped, methinks; somewhat too rough, perhaps.
Flor. I know you practise on my silliness,
Else I might be well scared. But leave this mirth,
Or I must weep.
Hesp. 'Twill serve to fill the goblets
For our carousal; but we loiter here,
The bridemaids are without; well-pick'd thou'lt say,
Wan ghosts of woe-begone, self-slaughtered damsels
In their best winding-sheets; start not, I bid them wipe
Their gory bosoms; they'll look wondrous comely;
Our link-boy, Will o' the Wisp, is waiting too
To light us to our grave—bridal, I mean.
Flor. Ha! how my veins are chilled—why, Hesperus!
Hesp. What hero of thy dreams art calling, girl?
Look in my face—Is't mortal? Dost thou think
The voice that calls thee is not of a mouth
Long choaked with dust! What, though I have assumed
This garb of flesh, and with it the affections,
The thoughts and weakness of mortality?
'Twas but for thee; and now thou art my bride;
Lift up thine eyes and smile—the bride of death.
Flor. Hold, hold. My thoughts are 'wildered. Is my fancy
The churlish framer of these fearful words,
Or do I live indeed to such a fate?
Oh! no, I recollect; I have not waked
Since Hesperus left me in the twilight bower.
Hesp. Come, we'll to our chamber,
The cypress shade hangs o'er our stony couch
A goodly canopy; be mad and merry;
There'll be a jovial feast among the worms.
Fiends, strew your fiercest fire about my heart,
Or she will melt it.
Flor. Oh, that look of fury!
What's this about my eyes? ah! deadly night,
No light, no hope, no help.
Hesp. What! Darest thou tremble
Under thy husband's arm, darest think of fear?
Dost dread me, me?
Flor. I know not what to dread,
Nor what to hope; all's horrible and doubtful;
And coldness creeps—
Hesp. She swoons, poor girl, she swoons.
And, treacherous dæmons, ye've allowed a drop
To linger in my eyes. Out, out for ever.
I'm fierce again. Now, shall I slay the victim
As she lies senseless? ah, she wakes; cheer up,
'Twas but a jest.
Flor. A dread and cruel one;
But I'll forgive you, if you will be kind;
And yet 'twas frightful.
Hesp. Why, 'twere most unseemly
For one marked for the grave to laugh too loud.
Flor. Alas! he raves again. Sweetest, what mean you
By these strange words?
Hesp. What mean I? Death and murder,
Darkness and misery. To thy prayers and shrift;
Earth gives thee back; they God hath sent me for thee,
Repent and die.
Flor. Oh, if thou willest it, love,
If thou but speak it with thy natural voice,
And smile upon me; I'll not think it pain,
But cheerfully I'll seek me out a grave,
And sleep as sweetly as on Hesperus' breast.
He will not smile, he will not listen to me.
Why dost thou thrust thy fingers in thy bosom?
Oh search it, search it; see if there remain
One little remnant of thy former love
To dry my tears with.
Hesp. Well, speak on; and then,
When thou hast done thy tale, I will but kill thee.
Come tell me all my vows, how they are broken,
Say that my love was feigned, and black deceit,
Pour out thy bitterest, till untamed wrath
Melt all his chains off with his fiery breath,
And rush a hungering out.
Flor. Oh piteous heavens!
I see it now, some wild and poisonous creature
Hath wounded him, and with contagious fang
Planted this fury in his veins. He hides
The mangled fingers—Dearest, trust them to me,
I'll suck the madness out of every pore,
So as I drink it boiling from thy wound,
Death will be pleasant. Let me have the hand,
And I will treat it like another heart.
Hesp. Here 'tis then, [Stabs her.
Shall I thrust deeper yet?
Flor. Quite through my soul,
That all my senses, deadened at the blow,
May never know the giver. Oh, my love,
Some spirit in thy sleep hath stole thy body
And filled it to the brim with cruelty;
Farewell, and may no busy deathful tongue
Whisper this horror in thy waking ears,
Lest some dread desperate sorrow urge thy soul
To deeds of wickedness. Whose kiss is that?
His lips are ice. Oh my loved Hesperus,
(3. 3. 29-136)
The murder buries his bride—but is seen by one Hubert and his huntsman, who think him a miser hiding treasure, and dig up the warm corpse. He is afterwards seized at his marriage feast.
He is tried, condemned, and brought out to the scaffold. There Floribel's mother, Lenora, gives him a bouquet of flowers to smell, impregnated with deadly poison, having herself imbibed the mortal fragrance; and they both die after a few words suitable to their respective characters.
This is a hasty and imperfect sketch of the drama; but we have said enough and extracted enough, to enable our readers to judge of the powers of this new aspirant after poetical honours. His language, it will seem, is elegant, and his versification constructed on a good principle. It is dramatic. He has no mean talents, keen perceptions, and fine feelings. He has evidently never once attempted to make his different characters speak naturally; they all declaim, harangue, spout, and poetize with equal east and elegance; and when they go mad, which, towards the end, they almost all do, man, woman, and child, they merely become a little more figurative and metaphorical; but the train of their thoughts and feelings proceeds much the same as when they were in their sober senses. But to point out the faults of this composition would be absurd indeed, for they are innumerable and glaring, and the deuce is in it, if Mr. Beddoes does not wonder at himself and his play, before he is three-and-twenty. Wonder he may and will, but he need never to be ashamed of it, for with all its extravagancies, and even sillinesses and follies, it shows far more than glimpses of a true poetical genius, much tender and deep feeling, a wantoning sense of beauty, a sort of light, airy, and graceful delicacy of imagination, extremely delightful, and withal a power over the darker and more terrible passions, which, when taught and strengthened by knowledge and experience of human life, will, we hope, and almost trust, enable Mr. Beddoes to write a bonâ fide good English tragedy.
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