The House Behind The Cedars

by Charles W. Chesnutt


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XVIII. Under the Old Regime


For many years before the civil war there had lived, in the old house behind the cedars, a free colored woman who went by the name of Molly Walden--her rightful name, for her parents were free-born and legally married. She was a tall woman, straight as an arrow. Her complexion in youth was of an old ivory tint, which at the period of this story, time had darkened measurably. Her black eyes, now faded, had once sparkled with the fire of youth. High cheek-bones, straight black hair, and a certain dignified reposefulness of manner pointed to an aboriginal descent. Tradition gave her to the negro race. Doubtless she had a strain of each, with white blood very visibly predominating over both. In Louisiana or the West Indies she would have been called a quadroon, or more loosely, a creole; in North Carolina, where fine distinctions were not the rule in matters of color, she was sufficiently differentiated when described as a bright mulatto.

Molly's free birth carried with it certain advantages, even in the South before the war. Though degraded from its high estate, and shorn of its choicest attributes, the word "freedom" had nevertheless a cheerful sound, and described a condition that left even to colored people who could claim it some liberty of movement and some control of their own persons. They were not citizens, yet they were not slaves. No negro, save in books, ever refused freedom; many of them ran frightful risks to achieve it. Molly's parents were of the class, more numerous in North Carolina than elsewhere, known as "old issue free negroes," which took its rise in the misty colonial period, when race lines were not so closely drawn, and the population of North Carolina comprised many Indians, runaway negroes, and indentured white servants from the seaboard plantations, who mingled their blood with great freedom and small formality. Free colored people in North Carolina exercised the right of suffrage as late as 1835, and some of them, in spite of galling restrictions, attained to a considerable degree of prosperity, and dreamed of a still brighter future, when the growing tyranny of the slave power crushed their hopes and crowded the free people back upon the black mass just beneath them. Mis' Molly's father had been at one time a man of some means. In an evil hour, with an overweening confidence in his fellow men, he indorsed a note for a white man who, in a moment of financial hardship, clapped his colored neighbor on the back and called him brother. Not poverty, but wealth, is the most potent leveler. In due time the indorser was called upon to meet the maturing obligation. This was the beginning of a series of financial difficulties which speedily involved him in ruin. He died prematurely, a disappointed and disheartened man, leaving his family in dire poverty.

His widow and surviving children lived on for a little while at the house he had owned, just outside of the town, on one of the main traveled roads. By the wayside, near the house, there was a famous deep well. The slim, barefoot girl, with sparkling eyes and voluminous hair, who played about the yard and sometimes handed water in a gourd to travelers, did not long escape critical observation. A gentleman drove by one day, stopped at the well, smiled upon the girl, and said kind words. He came again, more than once, and soon, while scarcely more than a child in years, Molly was living in her own house, hers by deed of gift, for her protector was rich and liberal. Her mother nevermore knew want. Her poor relations could always find a meal in Molly's kitchen. She did not flaunt her prosperity in the world's face; she hid it discreetly behind the cedar screen. Those who wished could know of it, for there were few secrets in Patesville; those who chose could as easily ignore it. There were few to trouble themselves about the secluded life of an obscure woman of a class which had no recognized place in the social economy. She worshiped the ground upon which her lord walked, was humbly grateful for his protection, and quite as faithful as the forbidden marriage vow could possibly have made her. She led her life in material peace and comfort, and with a certain amount of dignity. Of her false relation to society she was not without some vague conception; but the moral point involved was so confused with other questions growing out --of slavery and caste as to cause her, as a rule, but little uneasiness; and only now and then, in the moments of deeper feeling that come sometimes to all who live and love, did there break through the mists of ignorance and prejudice surrounding her a flash of light by which she saw, so far as she was capable of seeing, her true position, which in the clear light of truth no special pleading could entirely justify. For she was free, she had not the slave's excuse. With every inducement to do evil and few incentives to do well, and hence entitled to charitable judgment, she yet had freedom of choice, and therefore could not wholly escape blame. Let it be said, in further extenuation, that no other woman lived in neglect or sorrow because of her. She robbed no one else. For what life gave her she returned an equivalent; and what she did not pay, her children settled to the last farthing.

Several years before the war, when Mis' Molly's daughter Rena was a few years old, death had suddenly removed the source of their prosperity.

The household was not left entirely destitute. Mis' Molly owned her home, and had a store of gold pieces in the chest beneath her bed. A small piece of real estate stood in the name of each of the children, the income from which contributed to their maintenance. Larger expectations were dependent upon the discovery of a promised will, which never came to light. Mis' Molly wore black for several years after this bereavement, until the teacher and the preacher, following close upon the heels of military occupation, suggested to the colored people new standards of life and character, in the light of which Mis' Molly laid her mourning sadly and shamefacedly aside. She had eaten of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. After the war she formed the habit of church-going, and might have been seen now and then, with her daughter, in a retired corner of the gallery of the white Episcopal church. Upon the ground floor was a certain pew which could be seen from her seat, where once had sat a gentleman whose pleasures had not interfered with the practice of his religion. She might have had a better seat in a church where a Northern missionary would have preached a sermon better suited to her comprehension and her moral needs, but she preferred the other. She was not white, alas! she was shut out from this seeming paradise; but she liked to see the distant glow of the celestial city, and to recall the days when she had basked in its radiance. She did not sympathize greatly with the new era opened up for the emancipated slaves; she had no ideal love of liberty; she was no broader and no more altruistic than the white people around her, to whom she had always looked up; and she sighed for the old days, because to her they had been the good days. Now, not only was her king dead, but the shield of his memory protected her no longer.

Molly had lost one child, and his grave was visible from the kitchen window, under a small clump of cedars in the rear of the two-acre lot. For even in the towns many a household had its private cemetery in those old days when the living were close to the dead, and ghosts were not the mere chimeras of a sick imagination, but real though unsubstantial entities, of which it was almost disgraceful not to have seen one or two. Had not the Witch of Endor called up the shade of Samuel the prophet? Had not the spirit of Mis' Molly's dead son appeared to her, as well as the ghostly presence of another she had loved?

In 1855, Mis' Molly's remaining son had grown into a tall, slender lad of fifteen, with his father's patrician features and his mother's Indian hair, and no external sign to mark him off from the white boys on the street. He soon came to know, however, that there was a difference. He was informed one day that he was black. He denied the proposition and thrashed the child who made it. The scene was repeated the next day, with a variation,--he was himself thrashed by a larger boy. When he had been beaten five or six times, he ceased to argue the point, though to himself he never admitted the charge. His playmates might call him black; the mirror proved that God, the Father of all, had made him white; and God, he had been taught, made no mistakes,--having made him white, He must have meant him to be white.

In the "hall" or parlor of his mother's house stood a quaintly carved black walnut bookcase, containing a small but remarkable collection of books, which had at one time been used, in his hours of retreat and relaxation from business and politics, by the distinguished gentleman who did not give his name to Mis' Molly's children,--to whom it would have been a valuable heritage, could they have had the right to bear it. Among the books were a volume of Fielding's complete works, in fine print, set in double columns; a set of Bulwer's novels; a collection of everything that Walter Scott--the literary idol of the South--had ever written; Beaumont and Fletcher's plays, cheek by jowl with the history of the virtuous Clarissa Harlowe; the Spectator and Tristram Shandy, Robinson Crusoe and the Arabian Nights. On these secluded shelves Roderick Random, Don Quixote, and Gil Blas for a long time ceased their wanderings, the Pilgrim's Progress was suspended, Milton's mighty harmonies were dumb, and Shakespeare reigned over a silent kingdom. An illustrated Bible, with a wonderful Apocrypha, was flanked on one side by Volney's Ruins of Empire and on the other by Paine's Age of Reason, for the collector of the books had been a man of catholic taste as well as of inquiring mind, and no one who could have criticised his reading ever penetrated behind the cedar hedge. A history of the French Revolution consorted amiably with a homespun chronicle of North Carolina, rich in biographical notices of distinguished citizens and inscriptions from their tombstones, upon reading which one might well wonder why North Carolina had not long ago eclipsed the rest of the world in wealth, wisdom, glory, and renown. On almost every page of this monumental work could be found the most ardent panegyrics of liberty, side by side with the slavery statistics of the State,--an incongruity of which the learned author was deliciously unconscious.

When John Walden was yet a small boy, he had learned all that could be taught by the faded mulatto teacher in the long, shiny black frock coat, whom local public opinion permitted to teach a handful of free colored children for a pittance barely enough to keep soul and body together. When the boy had learned to read, he discovered the library, which for several years had been without a reader, and found in it the portal of a new world, peopled with strange and marvelous beings. Lying prone upon the floor of the shaded front piazza, behind the fragrant garden, he followed the fortunes of Tom Jones and Sophia; he wept over the fate of Eugene Aram; he penetrated with Richard the Lion-heart into Saladin's tent, with Gil Blas into the robbers' cave; he flew through the air on the magic carpet or the enchanted horse, or tied with Sindbad to the roc's leg. Sometimes he read or repeated the simpler stories to his little sister, sitting wide-eyed by his side. When he had read all the books,--indeed, long before he had read them all,--he too had tasted of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge: contentment took its flight, and happiness lay far beyond the sphere where he was born. The blood of his white fathers, the heirs of the ages, cried out for its own, and after the manner of that blood set about getting the object of its desire.

Near the corner of Mackenzie Street, just one block north of the Patesville market-house, there had stood for many years before the war, on the verge of the steep bank of Beaver Creek, a small frame office building, the front of which was level with the street, while the rear rested on long brick pillars founded on the solid rock at the edge of the brawling stream below. Here, for nearly half a century, Archibald Straight had transacted legal business for the best people of Northumberland County. Full many a lawsuit had he won, lost, or settled; many a spendthrift had he saved from ruin, and not a few families from disgrace. Several times honored by election to the bench, he had so dispensed justice tempered with mercy as to win the hearts of all good citizens, and especially those of the poor, the oppressed, and the socially disinherited. The rights of the humblest negro, few as they might be, were as sacred to him as those of the proudest aristocrat, and he had sentenced a man to be hanged for the murder of his own slave. An old-fashioned man, tall and spare of figure and bowed somewhat with age, he was always correctly clad in a long frock coat of broadcloth, with a high collar and a black stock. Courtly in address to his social equals (superiors he had none), he was kind and considerate to those beneath him. He owned a few domestic servants, no one of whom had ever felt the weight of his hand, and for whose ultimate freedom he had provided in his will. In the long-drawn-out slavery agitation he had taken a keen interest, rather as observer than as participant. As the heat of controversy increased, his lack of zeal for the peculiar institution led to his defeat for the bench by a more active partisan. His was too just a mind not to perceive the arguments on both sides; but, on the whole, he had stood by the ancient landmarks, content to let events drift to a conclusion he did not expect to see; the institutions of his fathers would probably last his lifetime.

One day Judge Straight was sitting in his office reading a recently published pamphlet,-- presenting an elaborate pro-slavery argument, based upon the hopeless intellectual inferiority of the negro, and the physical and moral degeneration of mulattoes, who combined the worst qualities of their two ancestral races,--when a barefooted boy walked into the office, straw hat in hand, came boldly up to the desk at which the old judge was sitting, and said as the judge looked up through his gold-rimmed glasses,--

"Sir, I want to be a lawyer!"

"God bless me!" exclaimed the judge. "It is a singular desire, from a singular source, and expressed in a singular way. Who the devil are you, sir, that wish so strange a thing as to become a lawyer--everybody's servant?"

"And everybody's master, sir," replied the lad stoutly.

"That is a matter of opinion, and open to argument," rejoined the judge, amused and secretly flattered by this tribute to his profession, "though there may be a grain of truth in what you say. But what is your name, Mr. Would-be-lawyer?"

"John Walden, sir," answered the lad.

"John Walden?--Walden?" mused the judge. "What Walden can that be? Do you belong in town?"

"Yes, sir."

"Humph! I can't imagine who you are. It's plain that you are a lad of good blood, and yet I don't know whose son you can be. What is your father's name?"

The lad hesitated, and flushed crimson.

The old gentleman noted his hesitation. "It is a wise son," he thought, "that knows his own father. He is a bright lad, and will have this question put to him more than once. I'll see how he will answer it."

The boy maintained an awkward silence, while the old judge eyed him keenly.

"My father's dead," he said at length, in a low voice. "I'm Mis' Molly Walden's son." He had expected, of course, to tell who he was, if asked, but had not foreseen just the form of the inquiry; and while he had thought more of his race than of his illegitimate birth, he realized at this moment as never before that this question too would be always with him. As put now by Judge Straight, it made him wince. He had not read his father's books for nothing.

"God bless my soul!" exclaimed the judge in genuine surprise at this answer; "and you want to be a lawyer!" The situation was so much worse than he had suspected that even an old practitioner, case-hardened by years of life at the trial table and on the bench, was startled for a moment into a comical sort of consternation, so apparent that a lad less stout-hearted would have weakened and fled at the sight of it.

"Yes, sir. Why not?" responded the boy, trembling a little at the knees, but stoutly holding his ground.

"He wants to be a lawyer, and he asks me why not!" muttered the judge, speaking apparently to himself. He rose from his chair, walked across the room, and threw open a window. The cool morning air brought with it the babbling of the stream below and the murmur of the mill near by. He glanced across the creek to the ruined foundation of an old house on the low ground beyond the creek. Turning from the window, he looked back at the boy, who had remained standing between him and the door. At that moment another lad came along the street and stopped opposite the open doorway. The presence of the two boys in connection with the book he had been reading suggested a comparison. The judge knew the lad outside as the son of a leading merchant of the town. The merchant and his wife were both of old families which had lived in the community for several generations, and whose blood was presumably of the purest strain; yet the boy was sallow, with amorphous features, thin shanks, and stooping shoulders. The youth standing in the judge's office, on the contrary, was straight, shapely, and well-grown. His eye was clear, and he kept it fixed on the old gentleman with a look in which there was nothing of cringing. He was no darker than many a white boy bronzed by the Southern sun; his hair and eyes were black, and his features of the high-bred, clean-cut order that marks the patrician type the world over. What struck the judge most forcibly, however, was the lad's resemblance to an old friend and companion and client. He recalled a certain conversation with this old friend, who had said to him one day:

"Archie, I'm coming in to have you draw my will. There are some children for whom I would like to make ample provision. I can't give them anything else, but money will make them free of the world."

The judge's friend had died suddenly before carrying out this good intention. The judge had taken occasion to suggest the existence of these children, and their father's intentions concerning them, to the distant relatives who had inherited his friend's large estate. They had chosen to take offense at the suggestion. One had thought it in shocking bad taste; another considered any mention of such a subject an insult to his cousin's memory. A third had said, with flashing eyes, that the woman and her children had already robbed the estate of enough; that it was a pity the little niggers were not slaves--that they would have added measurably to the value of the property. Judge Straight's manner indicated some disapproval of their attitude, and the settlement of the estate was placed in other hands than his. Now, this son, with his father's face and his father's voice, stood before his father's friend, demanding entrance to the golden gate of opportunity, which society barred to all who bore the blood of the despised race.

As he kept on looking at the boy, who began at length to grow somewhat embarrassed under this keen scrutiny, the judge's mind reverted to certain laws and judicial decisions that he had looked up once or twice in his lifetime. Even the law, the instrument by which tyranny riveted the chains upon its victims, had revolted now and then against the senseless and unnatural prejudice by which a race ascribing its superiority to right of blood permitted a mere suspicion of servile blood to outweigh a vast preponderance of its own.

"Why, indeed, should he not be a lawyer, or anything else that a man might be, if it be in him?" asked the judge, speaking rather to himself than to the boy. "Sit down," he ordered, pointing to a chair on the other side of the room. That he should ask a colored lad to be seated in his presence was of itself enough to stamp the judge as eccentric. "You want to be a lawyer," he went on, adjusting his spectacles. "You are aware, of course, that you are a negro?"

"I am white," replied the lad, turning back his sleeve and holding out his arm, "and I am free, as all my people were before me."

The old lawyer shook his head, and fixed his eyes upon the lad with a slightly quizzical smile. "You are black." he said, "and you are not free. You cannot travel without your papers; you cannot secure accommodations at an inn; you could not vote, if you were of age; you cannot be out after nine o'clock without a permit. If a white man struck you, you could not return the blow, and you could not testify against him in a court of justice. You are black, my lad, and you are not free. Did you ever hear of the Dred Scott decision, delivered by the great, wise, and learned Judge Taney?"

"No, sir," answered the boy.

"It is too long to read," rejoined the judge, taking up the pamphlet he had laid down upon the lad's entrance, "but it says in substance, as quoted by this author, that negroes are beings `of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race, either in social or political relations; in fact, so inferior that they have no rights which the white man is bound to respect, and that the negro may justly and lawfully be reduced to slavery for his benefit.' That is the law of this nation, and that is the reason why you cannot be a lawyer."

"It may all be true," replied the boy, "but it don't apply to me. It says `the negro.' A negro is black; I am white, and not black."

"Black as ink, my lad," returned the lawyer, shaking his head. "`One touch of nature makes the whole world kin,' says the poet. Somewhere, sometime, you had a black ancestor. One drop of black blood makes the whole man black."

"Why shouldn't it be the other way, if the white blood is so much superior?" inquired the lad.

"Because it is more convenient as it is--and more profitable."

"It is not right," maintained the lad.

"God bless me!" exclaimed the old gentleman, "he is invading the field of ethics! He will be questioning the righteousness of slavery next! I'm afraid you wouldn't make a good lawyer, in any event. Lawyers go by the laws--they abide by the accomplished fact; to them, whatever is, is right. The laws do not permit men of color to practice law, and public sentiment would not allow one of them to study it."

"I had thought," said the lad, "that I might pass for white. There are white people darker than I am."

"Ah, well, that is another matter; but"--

The judge stopped for a moment, struck by the absurdity of his arguing such a question with a mulatto boy. He really must be falling into premature dotage. The proper thing would be to rebuke the lad for his presumption and advise him to learn to take care of horses, or make boots, or lay bricks. But again he saw his old friend in the lad's face, and again he looked in vain for any sign of negro blood. The least earmark would have turned the scale, but he could not find it.

"That is another matter," he repeated. "Here you have started as black, and must remain so. But if you wish to move away, and sink your past into oblivion, the case might be different. Let us see what the law is; you might not need it if you went far enough, but it is well enough to be within it--liberty is sweeter when founded securely on the law."

He took down a volume bound in legal calf and glanced through it. "The color line is drawn in North Carolina at four generations removed from the negro; there have been judicial decisions to that effect. I imagine that would cover your case. But let us see what South Carolina may say about it," he continued, taking another book. "I think the law is even more liberal there. Ah, this is the place:--

"`The term mulatto,'" he read, "`is not invariably applicable to every admixture of African blood with the European, nor is one having all the features of a white to be ranked with the degraded class designated by the laws of this State as persons of color, because of some remote taint of the negro race. Juries would probably be justified in holding a person to be white in whom the admixture of African blood did not exceed one eighth. And even where color or feature are doubtful, it is a question for the jury to decide by reputation, by reception into society, and by their exercise of the privileges of the white man, as well as by admixture of blood.'"

"Then I need not be black?" the boy cried, with sparkling eyes.

"No," replied the lawyer, "you need not be black, away from Patesville. You have the somewhat unusual privilege, it seems, of choosing between two races, and if you are a lad of spirit, as I think you are, it will not take you long to make your choice. As you have all the features of a white man, you would, at least in South Carolina, have simply to assume the place and exercise the privileges of a white man. You might, of course, do the same thing anywhere, as long as no one knew your origin. But the matter has been adjudicated there in several cases, and on the whole I think South Carolina is the place for you. They're more liberal there, perhaps because they have many more blacks than whites, and would like to lessen the disproportion."

"From this time on," said the boy, "I am white."

"Softly, softly, my Caucasian fellow citizen," returned the judge, chuckling with quiet amusement. "You are white in the abstract, before the law. You may cherish the fact in secret, but I would not advise you to proclaim it openly just yet. You must wait until you go away--to South Carolina."

"And can I learn to be a lawyer, sir?" asked the lad.

"It seems to me that you ought to be reasonably content for one day with what you have learned already. You cannot be a lawyer until you are white, in position as well as in theory, nor until you are twenty-one years old. I need an office boy. If you are willing to come into my office, sweep it, keep my books dusted, and stay here when I am out, I do not care. To the rest of the town you will be my servant, and still a negro. If you choose to read my books when no one is about and be white in your own private opinion, I have no objection. When you have made up your mind to go away, perhaps what you have read may help you. But mum 's the word! If I hear a whisper of this from any other source, out you go, neck and crop! I am willing to help you make a man of yourself, but it can only be done under the rose."

For two years John Walden openly swept the office and surreptitiously read the law books of old Judge Straight. When he was eighteen, he asked his mother for a sum of money, kissed her good- by, and went out into the world. When his sister, then a pretty child of seven, cried because her big brother was going away, he took her up in his arms, gave her a silver dime with a hole in it for a keepsake, hugged her close, and kissed her.

"Nev' min', sis," he said soothingly. "Be a good little gal, an' some o' these days I'll come back to see you and bring you somethin' fine."

In after years, when Mis' Molly was asked what had become of her son, she would reply with sad complacency,--

"He's gone over on the other side."

As we have seen, he came back ten years later.

Many years before, when Mis' Molly, then a very young woman, had taken up her residence in the house behind the cedars, the gentleman heretofore referred to had built a cabin on the opposite corner, in which he had installed a trusted slave by the name of Peter Fowler and his wife Nancy. Peter was a good mechanic, and hired his time from his master with the provision that Peter and his wife should do certain work for Mis' Molly and serve as a sort of protection for her. In course of time Peter, who was industrious and thrifty, saved enough money to purchase his freedom and that of his wife and their one child, and to buy the little house across the street, with the cooper shop behind it. After they had acquired their freedom, Peter and Nancy did no work for Mis' Molly save as they were paid for it, and as a rule preferred not to work at all for the woman who had been practically their mistress; it made them seem less free. Nevertheless, the two households had remained upon good terms, even after the death of the man whose will had brought them together, and who had remained Peter's patron after he had ceased to be his master. There was no intimate association between the two families. Mis' Molly felt herself infinitely superior to Peter and his wife,--scarcely less superior than her poor white neighbors felt themselves to Mis' Molly. Mis' Molly always meant to be kind, and treated Peter and Nancy with a certain good-natured condescension. They resented this, never openly or offensively, but always in a subconscious sort of way, even when they did not speak of it among themselves--much as they had resented her mistress-ship in the old days. For after all, they argued, in spite of her airs and graces, her white face and her fine clothes, was she not a negro, even as themselves? and since the slaves had been freed, was not one negro as good as another?

Peter's son Frank had grown up with little Rena. He was several years older than she, and when Rena was a small child Mis' Molly had often confided her to his care, and he had watched over her and kept her from harm. When Frank became old enough to go to work in the cooper shop, Rena, then six or seven, had often gone across to play among the clean white shavings. Once Frank, while learning the trade, had let slip a sharp steel tool, which flying toward Rena had grazed her arm and sent the red blood coursing along the white flesh and soaking the muslin sleeve. He had rolled up the sleeve and stanched the blood and dried her tears. For a long time thereafter her mother kept her away from the shop and was very cold to Frank. One day the little girl wandered down to the bank of the old canal. It had been raining for several days, and the water was quite deep in the channel. The child slipped and fell into the stream. From the open window of the cooper shop Frank heard a scream. He ran down to the canal and pulled her out, and carried her all wet and dripping to the house. From that time he had been restored to favor. He had watched the girl grow up to womanhood in the years following the war, and had been sorry when she became too old to play about the shop.

He never spoke to her of love,--indeed, he never thought of his passion in such a light. There would have been no legal barrier to their union; there would have been no frightful menace to white supremacy in the marriage of the negro and the octoroon: the drop of dark blood bridged the chasm. But Frank knew that she did not love him, and had not hoped that she might. His was one of those rare souls that can give with small hope of return. When he had made the scar upon her arm, by the same token she had branded him her slave forever; when he had saved her from a watery grave, he had given his life to her. There are depths of fidelity and devotion in the negro heart that have never been fathomed or fully appreciated. Now and then in the kindlier phases of slavery these qualities were brightly conspicuous, and in them, if wisely appealed to, lies the strongest hope of amity between the two races whose destiny seems bound up together in the Western world. Even a dumb brute can be won by kindness. Surely it were worth while to try some other weapon than scorn and contumely and hard words upon people of our common race,-- the human race, which is bigger and broader than Celt or Saxon, barbarian or Greek, Jew or Gentile, black or white; for we are all children of a common Father, forget it as we may, and each one of us is in some measure his brother's keeper.

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