Beck Center English Dept. University Libraries Emory University
Emory Women Writers Resource Project Collections:
Women's Genre Fiction Project

Babes in the Wood, an electronic edition

by B. M. Croker [Croker, B.M. (Bithia Mary), d.1920]

date: 1914
source publisher: Methuen & Co., Ltd.
collection: Genre Fiction

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<< chapter 6 chapter 30 >>

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IN the cool of the next afternoon, the two companions rode together into Chandi; the air was moist, and the remains of the last downpour dripped heavily off the glistening trees; far away on either side of the highway stretched waving crops of luxuriant jowari (or millet), dotted with dark topes of mango.

Chandi, once a cantonment of importance, was situated on a plateau: the bungalows were at one end, the bazaar and temple at the other; and between them--dividing, as it were, the two races--lay a holy tank.

'We will shoot a card on the Club first,' suggested Scruby, 'and then draw old Collins. He is sure to be "darwaza bund," but you may as well do the civil; it was always a terrible grievance that Frost had never called on him.'

The Medical Officer's thatched quarters, which stood well away from the road, boasted a pot garden, and was coloured a vivid pink; with its long bamboo blinds, it resembled a modest woman who had lowered her green veil.

The sound of ponies' hoofs reached an individual in the verandah, who was buried in a book, and a long chair; and a deep, harsh voice was instantly heard to bellow--'Qui hi! Qui hi! Darwaza bund!'

'Told you so,' said Scruby, with a grin. 'He is sitting inside, in the cool of his pyjamas, nursing a | | 68 cat, and can see us through the chick--though we can't see him.'

Presently a servant appeared, echoed 'Darwaza bund,' offered a blue dinner-plate for their cards, and with a salaam vanished.

'Now for the lady!' said Scruby. 'Old Gehazi knows his way there well, and has had many a lump of sugar.'

The Herons' bungalow, a vestige of Chandi's better days, was large, imposing, two-storeyed, and stood in a great compound surrounded by a thick 'milk' hedge. The red-tiled porch embowered in flowering creepers was hung with caged birds; two dirzees at work in the verandah squatted like a pair of Buddhas, all the chicks were down, and silence brooded over the entire premises.

At the summons of 'Qui hi!' a bearer advanced hastily tying his coat as he came, offered a silver salver, and announced--

'Darwaza bund--mem sahib bimar' (sick).

'I say, what a let off ' cried Scruby, instantly turning his pony.

'Yes, calling loses its terrors in Chandi,' agreed his companion, with a laugh.

'That's a rare bit of luck! We can get back soon and have a game of tennis,' added his friend; but as he spoke they were overtaken by a flying figure holding on to its turban, who panted out--

'Mem sahib-salaam deti.'

'Oh, hang!' muttered Scruby. 'Trafford, she has seen your card--now she wants to see you. You may as well get it over. She's rather at a loose end at present'; and he quoted, 'There are no men to govern in this wood'

The visitors were ushered along a matted passage, lined with English prints, into a spacious dim drawing-room, with tall, draped windows opening on the verandah. A stamped cotton Oriental dado--representing gods and goddesses, hunting and capture-- | | 69 ran round the walls; there were rugs, palms, a pillowed divan, also a grand piano, couches and chairs covered in yellow brocade, a pile of French novels, a perfume of some strange scent, and also of cigarettes; but few flowers or pictures. It was a room with a personality; redolent of luxury, a certain amount of bizarre taste, a touch of Eastern sensuousness, and over and above, something indescribable and intangible. No, it was not an apartment that took you in its arms, so to speak, and made you love it on the spot!

'She's dressing,' announced Scruby gruffly, taking up a paper as he spoke, and subsiding into a 'Europe' arm-chair; and, indeed, there was ample time for leisurely inspection. Trafford examined the pictures, the weird scenes on the dado, and even surveyed the deep verandah with its gorgeous flowering plants, inviting chairs, tasselled hammock, and be-ribboned guitar. Nearly fifteen minutes elapsed before the hostess appeared, and then she glided in ere the visitors were aware of her presence. A tall, slight lady, with low-growing black hair, a pallid complexion, beautifully pencilled brows, a pair of marvellously black eyes, and oh, what slumbering fires were veiled by their sweeping lashes!

She wore a wonderful tea-gown of a shimmering peacock shade, flecked with gold; it hung gracefully about her sinuous form, and round her neck was a chain of rough uncut emeralds--a unique and truly barbaric ornament.

'So very pleased to see a new face, Mr. Trafford,' she said, extending a small hand, and speaking in a low rich voice. 'How good of you to come and call so soon!'

This lady had a talking eye, and Trafford stood momentarily dumb, feeling like a complete fool. The spell of surprise is potent; in a little jungle station, such an apparition of beauty and grace was so totally unexpected, that he found himself speechless.

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'He is only doing his calls!' put in Scruby brusquely.

'Oh yes--his duty--' suggested the lady, with malicious suavity.

'And--pleasure--' stammered Trafford, actually blushing as he spoke.

'So then you are fond of visiting? ' and she gave him a radiant smile. 'Won't you sit down?' indicating a seat.

Trafford was silent. Visiting was to him a social misery; he had no small-talk.

'I am so grieved they have sent you to the abomination of desolation--Pahari,' she continued, 'for between you and us there is a great forest fixed.'

'I hope I shall get in now and again. Scruby has put me up for the Club, and he will give me a bed sometimes.'

'And you must come to us often,' she urged, with flattering emphasis. The lady had been regarding this somewhat shy, good-looking young fellow with ever-increasing interest, gazing at him thoughtfully as though seeing in him a multitude of possibilities--being a woman who found a keen pleasure in exercising her skill on new material.

'Hullo, Ella! ' exclaimed a stout, grey-haired man in the doorway. 'Why, I thought you were down with fever and "darwaza bund"'

'Yes, dearest, so I was,' beaming at him as she spoke; 'but I am better, you see. How a husband gives one away! ' and she laughed, as she introduced the new Forest Officer.

Tom Heron, a hardy acclimatized man of fifty-five, was his own ancestor in every sense: one who had made his way by the sheer force of strenuous work, will power, and brains. There were but two things he cared for: Ella, his wife, and his great timber business. Ella, who was many years his junior, would one day emerge from jungly Chandi, and have her house in London, her opera box, her | | 71 toys. After a little desultory talk about Pahari and shikar, Mr. Heron drew Scruby into the verandah, in order to question him respecting a certain ' cutcha 'road, and Trafford and the lady were left tête-à-tête.

She was a woman of extraordinary fascination, a practised flirt, and by degrees she drew from the shy visitor his first impressions, and nearly all his little experiences. She seduced him to talk, though he was not a talker--doing her part by a ready word, or a stimulating glance.

'The fact is, I was extremely anxious to meet you, Mr. Trafford,' she confessed, with a smile. ' Mrs. Sefton, a friend of mine, knows your mother, and when I saw your card, I made an effort, and dragged myself up. Are you not flattered? I should like to see a good deal of you--for your mother's sake. Oh, it is dreadful for a boy to have no woman friend in India--no one to sympathize with him, or open his heart to, is it not?' and she touched his arm with her delicate hand, and looked at him wistfully.

Trafford was tongue-tied, and once again he blushed.

'It's just a little bit selfish,' she went on in her soft drawl; 'you see we are only two--Tommy and myself. He is often away on business, and I am so lonely. I don't ride much; I loathe shikar and shooting; I've only my books, and piano, and my own thoughts; and often I long for some one to talk to, some sympathetic kindred spirit. Do you know that sometimes, when I feel too desolate, I cry,' and she gazed at him with a piteous expression in her marvellous black eyes.

'But--er--you have the people in the place here. You are better off than I am,' he ventured nervously.

'My dear boy! Have you seen what you call "the people in the place"? No! Mrs. Baxter, the missionary, who talks of converts and the price of charcoal; Mrs. Castellas, a poor dear invertebrate | | 72 old fool; the Doctor, a bear; the Engineer,' and she shrugged her shoulders: 'all good people of their class--but we have no ideas in common.'

This fascinating lady was always in quest of associates who had what she called 'ideas in common,' but what these ideas were was never actually defined.

'Now you look as if you belonged to the world I knew before I was buried here; the very cut of your boots and your clothes is a joy to see, and does me good. You are so totally different to the run of the Chandi set! You take me back to dear old England!'

'Oh!' colouring violently,' it's only my new kit; that won't last long, and I shall soon be wearing dirzee-made clothes like every one else.'

'No, I don't think Mrs. Trafford's son will ever be like every one else--anyway, to me. Now, do tell me, aren't you bored to death at Pahari? Don't you feel lonely?' and she looked up at him under her eyelids.

'Well, it is not, so to say, gay,' he admitted.

'And I am not, so to say, gay here! You and I are both isolated, solitary people, and must try and keep one another company--shall we?' and she emphasized her invitation with an appealing look.

'Are you fond of music?' she continued, in her soft, cajoling voice.

'Oh yes, I am awfully.'

'Do you sing?'

'Well, in a fashion--more or less.'

'And so do I--another tie between us! I've just got out some delicious new songs, little Spanish serenades. We might try them over. Come and listen to this one.' As she spoke, she rose, trailed gracefully across the room, and sitting down, struck several chords on the rich-toned Schiedmayer.

'Awfully sorry to interrupt,' said Scruby, entering, followed by Mr. Heron; 'but we have still the | | 73 Castellas and Mrs. Baxter to do before dark. So Trafford--don't hate me--but I must tear you away.'

'Oh, surely the Castellas can wait ' protested Mrs. Heron, with uplifted hands. 'Of course you will both stay and dine and play bridge, and I will sing--now there's a bribe!'

'Impossible, Mrs. Heron; many thanks,' replied the implacable Scruby. 'We have Maguire dining with us.'

'Ah! then another day,' she said, with a shrug of her graceful shoulders. 'Come soon,' holding her hand out to Trafford, and her eyes warmly seconded the invitation.

Mr. and Mrs. Heron accompanied their visitors into the porch; here she exclaimed--

'Why, there is dear darling old Gehazi! I must get him a lump of sugar,' and she beckoned to a servant. This delay gave time for a little more conversation, a few more flashing glances, and at last, after Gehazi had been regaled with half a pound of the 'best lump,' the visitors tore themselves away.

'She has taken a fancy to you, Trafford,' announced Scruby, 'you and your nice Europe clothes--beware!'

'Oh, bosh ' exclaimed his companion impatiently.

'Is it bosh? If Gehazi were like Balaam's ass, and could speak, he could tell you a tale of the long, wild gallops between her house and Pahari--day after day and night after night. Oh, Lord I what a fool that woman made of poor Charlie Frost!'

'Maybe he was born so,' suggested Trafford, already the lady's defender.

'Of course, there may be something in that; but I always think of a beautiful feline when I see Mrs Heron gliding about--and she is a power here--precisely like a leopardess among a flock of sheep, and just as dangerous! Some day she will show her claws! Maguire likes her, so do the Castellas, the | | 74 padre, and even Collins. She purrs to them, and they swear by her; but I've always stuck out.'

'She is decidedly unexpected--so handsome! I never saw such a pair of eyes in my life--and what taste!'

'Yes, and her taste is costly. She selects expensive things, such, for instance, as that emerald chain. I expect she dodged it out of some wood contractor--ultimately, of course, in an indirect way it comes out of Tom Heron's pocket. He is a rich man, but keeps a tight hold on the rupee bag, is sparing of cash for bridge and betting, and saving up every pice to make a great splash at home.'

'This seems such an outlandish sort of place for a woman like Mrs. Heron! I can see her in London with her motors and opera box, but she is out of the picture here!'

'That's a fact, and no one feels it more acutely than Mrs. Thomas Heron, who is a lady for a full blaze. They do say she has been behind the foot-lights.'

'Oh, nonsense--not she!'

'Maybe not--she's a first-class actress--our leading star in every respect--quite wonderful in emotional parts. She has a temper, and, what's so much the rage, "temperament." People talk even in the jungle, and there have been whispers. It is nine or ten years ago since Tom Heron went home to do "a cure" and get some clothes. Every one believed he was a confirmed old bachelor. Nevertheless, he returned accompanied by this beautiful unsuitable partner--unsuitable to Chandi I mean. She was reported to be a widow that he had met at Carlsbad, and they made it up as they strolled to and fro sipping water, to the strains of the band. I think she found this form of Indian life an unexpected revelation; the lady, I am sure, had dazzling visions of balls, races, lots of limelight on a big stage, and I fancy the first year or two she, to talk jungle | | 75 talk--tore at her pickets; but of late she has settled down. Of course, there are some alleviations--the solid fact of Tom's big banking account, a run to the hills, and an occasional friend. Martin, in the Gunners, who was shooting here last year, declared she was the divorced wife of a naval man, and that there were blank spaces in her life not satisfactorily accounted for; but I must confess that Martin has a long tongue, and that I am always glad to hear anything bad about the lady.'

'Hullo, Scruby! I say I'd no idea you could be so downright venomous,' cried his companion, his eyes dilated with surprise.

'Oh, I hate her; and she hates me, only we cannot afford to quarrel openly, though we came near it one day when she invited me to guess her age, and I said forty.'

'Forty!' echoed Trafford; 'impossible!'

'Well, forty-five, I dare say, is nearer; I grant that her figure and eyes would be hard to beat. Now we are going to Mrs. Baxter, the missionary, one of the salt of the earth. She dresses in brown holland, wears her hair in a bun, and has a figure like a cottage loaf; an ugly little woman with more good in her finger than in the whole of Mrs. Heron's beautiful, well-dressed, wicked body.'

'And Mr. Baxter is at home?'

'Yes, the first time, poor chap, for eighteen years. He and she do a splendid work in this district, and are good sensible people; their orphans live the usual life--wear the usual kit--and are not set apart on a pedestal.'

As he concluded, the visitors rode up to a neat red-tiled bungalow with a sort of 'dependence' or school; close by were a number of portly buff fowls within a netted enclosure. A native girl with a bright face behind a large nose-ring ran forward, and said in English,' Missus is out.'

'Oh, well, I'm sorry. Here, give her this card,' | | 76 replied Scruby; 'and now for the Castle of the Castellas--it's rather a gloomy hole, full of white ants; but they get it cheap.'

The approach to the ant-haunted abode sloped down a steep track to a long dilapidated bungalow situated on the edge of the plateau; it had an over-hanging roof of thatch, and rather the air of a dissipated individual who, being ashamed of his condition, has pulled his hat far over his eyes. In front was a neat pot garden, and the rear of the premises commanded a limitless expanse of jawari and rice fields, bounded by a rolling sea of forest stretching unbroken to the horizon. A cow and two ponies (a brown and a piebald) were having their supper in zinc buckets at the end of the verandah.

Scruby shouted his usual 'Qui hi!' and a depressed servant in a much-mended coat tendered a Japanese tray for cards, and said in English--

'Please to come in.'

They found Mrs. Castellas in the drawing-room, extended on a cane sofa, reading a paper-backed novel; her discarded shoes lay on the floor, but she jumped up and received her visitors with unaffected joy, utterly regardless of her darned black stockings with white toes.

'Now, Scruby, you dear boy, this is nice of you to bring Mr. Trafford so soon. Mr. Trafford, I am delighted to see you.' As she held his hand, she beamed at him with her head on one side. Mrs. Castellas was a dumpy little woman, whose once lovely yellow hair was now faded and thin. (A large plait of the original shade was boldly twisted round her head.) Her eyes, also faded, were still distinctly blue, her features small and perfectly formed. In her young days Mrs. Castellas must have been remarkably pretty; but climate and poor health had withered her bloom, and she rouged her face without shame. Her age was probably about forty-five, but she looked ten years older, and was | | 77 a homely body, with a plaintive coaxing voice, pleading eyes, and all the 'little ways' that sat so charmingly upon her when she was' sweet seventeen.'

'I do wish you were a bit nearer,' she said, still holding Trafford's hand, and patting it softly as she spoke.

'Thank you,' he replied, drawing back; 'I'm sure I echo your wish.'

'Now, sit down, sit down,' she urged hospitably. 'Bearer, tell the sahib, and bring in pegs.'

The man hesitated, then he cleared his throat and said--

'Whisky all done finish, mem sahib--Gresham Sahib coming to-day twice--three bottle "belati pani"' (soda water)--'half-bottle whisky.'

'I assure you, Mrs. Castellas, I never touch whisky,' protested Trafford, 'and we are just going back to dinner--thank you all the same.'

'But surely you are not going to fly away yet? That will do,' and she waved to the bearer in the doorway. 'Tell the Miss Sahib, "whisky schrab" done finish. I do so like to see a nice English face,' turning to Trafford. 'Such a pity you are not here, but young men think nothing of distances--especially,' and she held her head on one side, 'if there is an inducement.'

'Oh, I know I shall have ample temptation to come to Chandi.'

'Oh, laws, you naughty, wicked boy, to an old lady like me! Go away with your foolish compliments--well, I 'm sure!'

At this moment it occurred to Mrs. Castellas to look for her slippers, and these Scruby picked up and put on her pretty feet with extravagant gallantry--after being severely smacked with one of them.

Mrs. Castellas's drawing-room was eloquent of poverty and the painful struggle to make a smart appearance; the cheap cane furniture was covered with new and most evil-smelling cretonne; the | | 78 streaky damp walls were of a deep pink shade; there was no piano, writing-table, or lounge--nothing expensive. A few washed-out jail dhurries concealing the shabby matting on the floor, some faded photographs, and an old carriage-clock were sole remnants of better days.

Certainly, there were flowers and grasses gracefully arranged, and dainty white muslin covers mitigated several gaudy cushions, but the whole apartment bore the hall-mark of pitiful economy.

'I hope Castellas is at home,' said his wife; 'he will be so sorry not to see you, and show you some attention. Ah, we are not as we used to be in former times! No, my dear boy, circumstances have been too much for us.' As she spoke she gave a loud unrestrained sob. 'Once we entertained--I had my carriage and pair--now not even a bullock tonga,' and she used her handkerchief. 'Castellas is very hopeful, and so clever--oh, a genius! He says there is a fortune in the C.P. scent.'

'I'm sure I hope so,' said Trafford politely.

'Yes, indeed, you hope so for poor me,' and there was a demand for commiseration in her voice. 'I am not accustomed to the jungle. No! I was used to London--and am so afraid of wild animals. Do you know that a panther took one of our dogs out of this very verandah? '

'What, here in Chandi! You don't mean to say so!'

'Yes, I do, and I heard one blowing under the bathroom door when Bessie had her puppies; and I've seen snakes in the go-downs, and no end of scorpions--the black and yellow bad kind--and I, who used to faint at home if I came across a cockroach! Oh, Otto,' as he entered, 'here is Mr. Trafford--the new Forest Officer. Mr. Trafford--Dr. Castellas.'

'Dr. Castellas' was a narrow-chested, thin individual; he had chiselled Grecian features, dark | | 79 eyes with inky circles round them, a kindly countenance, and timid air. He offered Trafford a limp, damp clasp--it was almost the hand of a drowned man.

'Glad to see you! Very glad. I am just back from my little factory; it's at Dhona, in your district, you know--about eight miles off.'

'I'm afraid at present you know a great deal more about the district than I do. I have only just arrived.'

'Ah! Scruby went and fetched you. His energy is extraordinary--I think he will go far. How I wish I could interest him in my business; he is so clever, and has such a firm grasp of things--extraordinary!'

'I understand you manufacture perfume?'

'Oh yes, I have a distillery. You see, when I was at home studying for my degree, I also went in for chemistry; it is a wonderful help. And I don't mind telling you that I am preparing the extract of the babul flower--it has a most delicate and delicious scent of subtle and suggestive character, and I believe I am at last on the verge, not merely of a discovery, but of a magnificent success. This essence is individual and Oriental.'

Trafford nodded, and he resumed--

'It is scarcely possible for the Western mind to understand perfumes; the use of scent is so closely allied to the spirit and sense of hearing--extraordinary! I have spent many weeks on this blend--and--'

At this moment the purdah was hastily swung aside and a girl of seventeen--an unmistakable Eurasian--entered. She had not inherited the fine features of either of her parents; her face was round, her dark eyes wondering and prominent, her lips were full, and her figure for her age was too much developed. An abundance of reddish-brown hair, a set of milk-white teeth, and the beauty of youth | | 80 were all that Dame Fortune had flung to Lily Castellas.

Miss Castellas was trimly dressed in a well-starched white cambric, and wore a jaunty sailor hat and a smart red belt; in her hand she carried a tennis racquet.

'Hullo, Lily!' said Scruby; 'good afternoon.'

'I saw your ponies and I ran,' she began, turning her great round eyes on Trafford. 'I should have been so awfulee, awfulee vexed not to have seen you. We heard at the Club you had come last night, and so I--' here she burst into a fit of irrepressible giggles.

Her father hastened to cover her confusion by saying--

'I am sure we are all in a hurry--all glad--to welcome Mr. Trafford among us.'

'Unfortunately, I am not exactly among you,' he replied; 'I wish I were.'

'Now, Lily, where is Joan?' inquired her mother, in a plaintive key.

'I'm sure I cannot tell you. She is always beesy--doing the dhoby, I expect--or some other sort of silliness. That dhoby--he does tear one's things--look,' displaying a mended rent, 'he is a bad man--a Budmash. Joan mended it on me, before I started.'

'Who have you been playing tennis with, Lily?' inquired Scruby the ever curious.

'With Captain Gresham. Oh, such a good set! My! we did laugh. He is coming too--but he would not run. Here he is!'

At this moment Gresham walked in looking remarkably svelte and debonnaire; wearing neat white tennis shoes, a new suit of flannels, and an air that proclaimed--

'I'm a bit of all right--whatever others may be!'

'Hullo!' ejaculated Scruby. 'Come--I say!'

'Yes, I sent over for your tennis kit, Gosling,' he | | 81 explained, sinking into a chair (which gave a loud protesting creak); 'I knew you were on duty--not bad fit, eh!' looking complacently at his arms and legs; 'but not much cut about them--flannels are the only wear this weather! I fancy myself in white--so does Lily. We dress alike--like to like, eh, Lily?' As he shot a significant glance at her, she coloured up to her thick hair.

'Lily, child, do come here!' said her mother; your face is flushed, you must not play so much--let me fan you.'

'Oh no, mama, do not bother me. I'm arl right,' said Lily peevishly; 'do leave me a-lone.'

'We intended to have a set of tennis,' remarked Scruby, still gravely eyeing his new clothes.

'Ten to one Mrs. Heron detained you,' rejoined Gresham airily; and then he began to Castellas of some recent local incident, whilst Mrs. Castellas listened with breathless interest, and Lily figuratively hung upon his lips.

As Trafford considered the man who, lounging in the chair opposite to him, was absorbing every one's attention with his clever description of a bazaar row, he assured himself that he was unreasonably prejudiced--just a little rubbed up by Gresham's 'grand' reception. There must be something to justify the fact that the Chandi folk had accepted this stranger (who had dropped among them as from the skies) at his own exorbitant valuation. He was good-looking, and a gentleman; fastidious personal neatness and a carefully groomed appearance vouched for an early experience of tubbing and strict nursery discipline. He had a fine muscular frame, easy, attractive, confident manners, and last, but not least, a well-bred voice. Undoubtedly these were the assets by which Gresham had raised himself to importance, and placed the crown of Chandi upon his close-cropped head.

'We must be off,' said Scruby, springing to his feet.

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' No, no, no,' shrilly protested Mrs. Castellas; 'you must stay and dine--there is not much,' laying her hand appealingly on Trafford's arm, 'no grandeur--only a hearty welcome--and--'

Here Lily made a hideous face, expressive of such horror and warning, that the remainder of the invitation died away upon her mother's lips.

'I say, I'll walk back with you fellows,' volunteered Gresham. 'I'm going your way.'

Then presently, with a great deal of talking, protesting, and 'wishing,' the entire family accompanied the three men into the verandah, loudly bewailing their departure.

'Oh my, goody me! what a love-lee pony you have, Gosling!' said Lily.' Joan, too, has a beautee--the brown--it's just the one thing she is mean about, and will not lend to me. You are so near, I've a great mind to walk with you also.'

'No, no, no, dearie!' screamed her mother from the steps, 'you come in'; and presently the trio were suffered to depart in peace.

Trafford, as his pony breasted the little ascent from the bungalow, complacently assured himself that he had discovered two facts without Scruby's assistance: one, that Mrs. Castellas worshipped her dusky Eastern daughter; and the other, that the same daughter was unquestionably épris with 'Captain' Gresham.

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