The Story of the Stone – CHAPTER 66

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CHAPTER 66

Shame drives a warm-hearted young woman
to take her life
And shock leads a cold-hearted young gentleman
to renounce the world

Our last chapter concluded with Joker’s female audience laughing at the notion of Miss Wood’s being blown down and Miss Snow melted by the breathing-out of the pages. The Mattress dealt him a playful box on the ear.
‘There may be some truth in what you say; but your way of telling things turns even good sense into nonsense,’ she said. ‘You are more like one of Bao-yu’s boys than one of the Master’s.’
Er-jie was about to ask another question, but San-jie got in first.
‘Yes now, about Bao-yu: what does he do – apart from going to school?’
Joker laughed.
‘Don’t ask about him, Miss! You’d never believe half of it if I told you. To begin with, although he’s such a big fellow now, he’s never had what you might call a proper schooling. Everyone in the family since his great-grandfather’s time, including the Master, had to do their ten years in the family school; but not him. Bao-yu doesn’t like study; so because he is Her Old Ladyship’s darling, that’s that. Sir Zheng used to try and do something with him, but that was soon put a stop to by Her Old Ladyship. Nowadays he spends the whole of his time just fooling around. You can’t understand what he’s talking about half the time, and you can’t make any sense of what he does. He looks bright enough, and people always assume from his looks that he must be clever; but underneath it he’s stupid. You can tell he must be stupid from the fact that he never has a word to say for himself when he meets anyone. I’ll give him this, though: although he doesn’t go to school, he can write a bit. That’s about the only thing he’s any good at. He doesn’t study, he doesn’t care for physical training, and he doesn’t like meeting people. He just spends all his time playing around with a pack of maids. He’s soft, too. Sometimes when he sees us, if he’s in the mood, he’ll play with us as if he were an equal. Other times he ignores us and we ignore him. If we’re sitting down or lying down when he comes by, we don’t get up for him; we just take no notice. He doesn’t care. Nobody’s afraid of him. We do just what we like when he’s around. He never stops us.’
‘You talk like this about someone who is easy-going with you,’ said San-jie, ‘yet you complain just as much about someone who is strict. One can see that you are difficult people to employ!’
‘I always thought Bao-yu looked so nice,’ said Er-jie. ‘How disappointing to learn that there is really nothing in him after all!’
‘You surely don’t believe the rubbish this boy has been talking, sister?’ said San-jie impatiently. ‘We have, after all, seen Bao-yu several times ourselves. I suppose you could call him effeminate. Whether he is eating or talking or moving about, there is certainly something rather girlish about his manner. That comes from spending nearly all his time in the women’s quarters with no other males around. But stupid? I hardly think he can be called that. Don’t you remember when we were still in mourning, that time we were standing watching the monks as they went round the coffin and he stood right in front of us? Everyone said how ill-mannered it was of him and how inconsiderate. But then afterwards he quietly came up to us and explained: “I hope you didn’t think it very inconsiderate of me to stand in front of you like that,” he said, “but I noticed how dirty some of those monks were and I was afraid that the smell of them might distress you.” Then shortly after that, when he was drinking some tea and you said you’d like some too, he stopped one of the old women from emptying the slops out of his cup and filling it up again for you. “No, no,” he said, “that’s dirty! You must wash it first before you pour her any.” Just on the strength of those two incidents I think you ought in fairness to agree that, when he is with girls at any rate, he is perfectly capable. People fail to find out what he is really like because they are put off by his manner.’
‘To hear you speak, it sounds as if the two of you would get on very well together,’ said Er-jie. ‘I think we ought to betroth you to him. Why not?’
San-jie was prevented from answering by Joker’s presence. She merely looked down and occupied herself by cracking a melon-seed between her teeth.
‘They’d make a fine pair,’ said Joker, ‘whether from the point of view of looks or of character. The only thing is, he’s got someone else already. Although it hasn’t been made official yet, it’s as good as certain that he’s going to marry Miss Lin. The reason they haven’t been properly engaged yet is because Miss Lin is so often ill, and also because they are still a bit on the young side; but two or three years from now, as soon as Her Old Ladyship gives the word, they are sure to be.’
They were still discussing this when Rich arrived with a message from Jia Lian.
‘Sir She is sending the Master to Ping-an in a few days’ time on important secret business. He’ll probably be away for fifteen or sixteen days. He can’t come back here tonight, but he says, Mrs You, will you and the Mistress get that business you know about settled, so that when he comes tomorrow, he’ll know what he has to do?’
Having delivered this message, he went back again, taking Joker with him. Er-jie had the gate closed after them and retired early for the night, a good part of which she spent in extracting the required information from her sister.
Jia Lian did not arrive until after noon next day. Er-jie expressed concern that he had come at all.
‘If you have something important to do, you don’t need to put yourself in a rush by coming here. I should hate to be the cause of your starting late.’
‘It isn’t anything really important,’ said Jia Lian, ‘just a job that needs doing which happens to be rather far away. I shall have to leave by the beginning of next month and it will be about half a month before I get back.’
‘Well, while you are away, just concentrate on the job,’ said Er-jie. ‘You don’t have to worry about anything here. We shall be perfectly all right. San-jie isn’t the sort of girl to change her mind overnight and she has definitely chosen her man now. I think you will have to go along with her choice.’
‘Ah yes,’ said Jia Lian. ‘Who is it?’
‘Someone who may not be available at present, in which case it’s anyone’s guess when he will be back,’ she smiled. ‘I must admit, she has a very good eye. And she says that she is prepared to wait as long as it will take – ten years if neces?sary. If by any chance he’s dead or for some reason or other can’t ever come, she says she will cut her hair off and become a nun. She would rather spend the rest of her life in prayer and fasting than marry anyone else.’
‘Well, come on!’ said Jia Lian. ‘Who is this person who has made such a powerful impression on her?’
‘It’s a long story,’ said Er-jie. ‘Five years ago my mother took us both with her to her old home for my grandmother’s birthday. The family had invited a troupe of amateur actors for the occasion, all young men of good family. The one who played the junior male lead was called Liu Xiang-lian. He is the only man my sister is prepared to marry. Last year he got himself into some sort of trouble and had to go into hiding, and we don’t know whether he’s out of it yet or not.’
‘So that’s who it is!’ said Jia Lian. ‘No wonder she is so keen. Yes, she certainly has a good eye. There’s something you probably don’t know about him, though. Young Liu is a very handsome young man, but he’s an awfully cold fish. He has very few real friends. Bao-yu is probably the person he gets on best with. He took himself off somewhere or other last year after beating up that oaf Xue Pan – I suppose because he wanted to avoid meeting us. I haven’t seen him since then. Someone did tell me that they’d heard he was back, but it may have been only a rumour. I can easily find out by asking one of Bao-yu’s pages. – But suppose it is only a rumour. He’s such a rolling stone, it may be years before he comes back again. Won’t it be rather a waste for her to put off marrying for so long?’
‘When our San-jie says she’s going to do something, she does it,’ said Er-jie. ‘I think you will have to go along with her.’
They were interrupted at this point by San-jie herself, who had evidently been listening to their conversation and chose this moment to come into the room.
‘Set your mind at rest, brother-in-law. I am not one of those people who say one thing and mean another; I really do mean what I say. If Liu turns up, I shall marry him. From now on and until he does I shall spend all my time praying, fasting and looking after Mamma. If he has still not turned up when Mamma is no longer here to look after, I shall go into a convent.’
She drew a jade hairpin from her hair and deliberately broke it in two.
‘So be it with me if I do not do exactly as I have sworn!’
She went straight back to her room then; and from that day onwards her conduct was indeed exemplary.
Jia Lian could see that he had no choice but to fall in with her wishes, and after a brief discussion of domestic matters with Er-jie, went home for further discussions with Xi-feng about the preparations for his journey. While at home he sent someone to ask Tealeaf about Liu Xiang-lian.
‘I’m afraid I don’t know,’ said Tealeaf. ‘I should think he probably hasn’t come back yet. If he had, I should almost certainly have got to hear about it.’
Inquiries made among Xiang-lian’s neighbours confirmed that he had not returned. Jia Lian was obliged to report back to Er-jie that he had drawn a blank.
A little before he was due to begin his journey, Jia Lian took leave of Xi-feng and the family, but only in order to spend his last two nights with Er-jie. He found San-jie so altered on this visit as to seem almost a different person. Er-jie, too, showed herself so careful and competent in her manage?ment of the little household that he could see there would be no need to worry about either of them while he was away.
Jia Lian left the city early on the day of his departure and thereafter followed the main road to Ping-an, putting up at some staging-post or hostelry each night and making shorter stops for meals and refreshments during the day. After two days of uneventful travelling he came, on the third day, upon a little caravan moving towards him along the road ahead consisting of a number of pack-animals and some ten or so horsemen, of whom the leading two appeared to be masters and the rest servants. As they drew near enough for him to make out their faces, Jia Lian saw with astonishment that the two leading horsemen were Xue Pan and Liu Xiang-lian and urged his horse forwards to meet them. After greetings and the customary generalities had been exchanged, the three of them went into a near-by inn to sit down together and talk. Jia Lian asked the question that had been puzzling him.
‘After your little incident last year, the rest of us were anxious to make it up between you, but young Liu seemed to have disappeared without a trace. How do you come to be together now?’
‘It’s a very strange story,’ said Xue Pan. ‘My boys and I finished selling our stuff off in the spring and we’ve been on our homeward journey ever since. Everything was going quite smoothly until a couple of days ago. Then just as we were approaching Ping-an, we ran into a gang of robbers who took away all our things. But just at that very moment up pops young Xiang-lian out of nowhere, drives off the robbers, gets all our stuff back for us, and saves our lives. He refused to let me thank him, but in the end he agreed that we should become blood-brothers. We’ve been travelling together ever since. From now on we’re going to be just like real brothers to each other. He’s leaving me at the next crossroads and going off sixty or seventy miles south of here to look up an aunt of his, while I go on ahead to the capital. When I’ve settled my own affairs, I’m going to find a new house for him and fix him up with a nice little wife, and we’re both going to settle down and be family men.’
‘I see,’ said Jia Lian. ‘Well, I’m glad to hear it. It’s a pity we had all that worry for nothing.’
He paused a moment before continuing.
‘You said something a moment ago about finding young Liu a wife. I happen to know of someone who would suit him perfectly.’
He proceeded to tell the other two about his own marriage to Er-jie and how they were anxious to find a husband for her younger sister, omitting to mention, of course, that San-jie had chosen Liu Xiang-lian herself.
‘Don’t say anything about this to the others when you get home,’ he told Xue Pan. ‘I’m waiting until we have a son. I shall tell them about it then.’
Xue Pan seemed delighted.
‘High time, too!’ he said. ‘Cousin Feng is to blame for not giving you one.’
‘There you go again!’ said Xiang-lian, laughing. ‘You mustn’t say things like that to people. Better keep your big mouth shut!’
Xue Pan obediently fell silent, merely observing, before he did so:
‘We ought to take Lian up on his suggestion, though.’
‘I’d always set my heart on marrying a stunningly beautiful girl,’ said Xiang-lian. ‘However, since you both recom?mend this one, I’m prepared to lower my expectations a bit. Yes, all right, Mr Jia. I leave it to you to arrange this, then. I put myself in your hands.’
‘I don’t ask you to believe this now,’ said Jia Lian, smiling. ‘You’ll be able to judge for yourself when you see her: but this sister-in-law of mine is a stunningly beautiful girl. I should go so far as to say she must be one of the most beautiful women who have ever lived.’
Xiang-lian brightened.
‘All right, then. Shall we fix it up when I get back to the capital in about a month’s time, when I have finished seeing my aunt?’
‘If you and I were the only ones involved, I would gladly leave it at that,’ said Jia Lian, ‘but knowing how unpredictable your movements are, I can’t help feeling a little nervous on the girl’s behalf. Suppose you failed to turn up? It could mean a whole lifetime wasted. I think you ought to give me some sort of pledge.’
‘A gentleman’s word ought to be pledge enough,’ said Xiang-lian. ‘In any case, I’m always hard up; I’m not in a position to give you a betrothal gift – particularly when I am on the road like this, away from home.’
‘There’s all my stuff at your disposal,’ said Xue Pan. ‘Help yourself. Give him a share of that.’
‘It isn’t money or jewellery I’m after,’ said Jia Lian. ‘It doesn’t have to be anything valuable. Just give me something you carry about with you that I can take back with me as a token.’
‘At all events, I can’t give you this sword,’ said Xiang-lian. ‘I need it for self-defence. I have got another sword in my luggage I could let you have – well, two swords, really: it’s a pair of swords in one scabbard, what they call a “Duck and Drake” sword. It’s a family heirloom. I never use it, but I always carry it around with me. I could never bear to be parted from it for long, so however much I may wander, if you take that as my pledge, you can be sure of my eventually coming back to get it.’
He handed Jia Lian the heirloom when he had got it out of his bundle, and after a few more drinks the three men remounted, took leave of each other, and went their separate ways.
*
In due course Jia Lian arrived at Ping-an and saw the Military Governor, only to be told that the business he had come about could not be dealt with satisfactorily until some time in the tenth month. As there was no point in staying, he started back the very next day for the capital, calling in first at Er-jie’s place on his arrival.
Er-jie had run the little household during his absence with exemplary circumspection. The courtyard gate had been kept shut and bolted all day and she had received no outside visitors. San-jie, too – a young woman who never did anything by halves – had continued as good as her word. When not actually keeping to her own room, she had spent the whole of the time either ministering to the wants of her mother or sitting and sewing with Er-jie. Jia Lian was gratified to find all these signs of prudent housekeeping on his return and his respect for Er-jie’s wifely virtues increased.
When the greetings and routine questionings were over, he told the sisters about his encounter with Liu Xiang-lian, and getting the Duck and Drake swords out of his luggage, he handed them to San-jie to take care of. San-jie first examined the scabbard. It was embossed with a design of interlacing dragons and sea-monsters and encrusted all over with jewels. Then she took out the swords, identical except that one had the character ‘Duck’ and the other the character Drake’ engraved on its blade. And what blades! Cold, cruel; glittering with the cold brightness of autumn waters. San-jie was enraptured by them. She put them both back into their scabbard and carried them off to her own room, where she hung them up over her bed. Thereafter she would look up at them from time to time and smile, happy in the knowledge that now her future was assured.
After a couple of nights with Er-jie, Jia Lian went back to Rong-guo House to report to his father and to rejoin the other members of the family. He found Xi-feng with the rest. She had by now recovered sufficiently to get about and had resumed her duties as household manager. As soon as he could, he went to see Cousin Zhen and tell him about San-jie and Liu Xiang-lian. Cousin Zhen was lately much taken up with a new acquaintance and had lost his former interest in the You sisters. He therefore received Jia Lian’s news with equanimity and seemed perfectly content to leave the matter in his hands, merely insisting on himself contributing thirty taels towards the expenses, since he feared that Jia Lian’s resources might be inadequate. Jia Lian accepted the money and handed it to Er-jie to spend on San-jie’s trousseau.
Round about the middle of the eighth month Xiang-lian arrived back in the capital and at once went to pay his respects to Aunt Xue and make the acquaintance of Xue Ke. He was told that Xue Pan had been ill in bed almost since the day he got back (some sickness brought on by change of water or the effects of travel) and was still under doctor’s treatment. However, on hearing that Xiang-lian had come, Xue Pan insisted on having him brought into his bedroom. He and his mother, whose earlier resentment against Xiang-lian had been completely banished by her gratitude to him for saving her son’s life, spoke eloquently of their indebtedness, and when the conversation turned to the subject of Xiang-lian’s marriage, they insisted that all the material things required for it should be supplied by them, so that he should have nothing to do himself except name the day. It was now Xiang-lian’s turn to be grateful.
Next day Xiang-lian went to see Bao-yu. The two of them were always wonderfully at ease in each other’s company and Xiang-lian felt sufficiently intimate to ask him confidentially about the circumstances of Jia Lian’s second marriage.
‘I really don’t know – beyond what Tealeaf has told me,’ said Bao-yu. ‘I haven’t been to see them. I don’t really think it’s my business. Tealeaf mentioned that Cousin Lian was very anxious to see you about something, but I don’t know what it was.’
Xiang-lian told him about the various things that had happened to him on his travels, ending up with an account of his encounter with Jia Lian.
‘Congratulations!’ said Bao-yu. ‘You are a lucky man. She’s a ravishingly beautiful girl. The perfect match for a good-looking chap like you!’
‘If she is so beautiful,’ said Xiang-lian, ‘there can be no shortage of suitors wanting to marry her. Why should your cousin pick on me? I’ve never been particularly friendly with him in the past – certainly not to that extent – yet when I met him on this journey, he was so pressing, so insistent that I should give him a definite undertaking to marry her. What am I to make of it? It’s almost as if the girl’s family was doing the pursuing. I can’t help feeling very dubious about the whole affair. I wish I hadn’t given him those swords. I thought of you as the person most likely to be able to help me get to the bottom of this business.’
‘For a person so intelligent you have left it a bit late to start feeling dubious now that you have promised to marry the girl and already given them your pledge,’ said Bao-yu. ‘You started off by saying that you wanted to marry a beauty. Now that you’ve got one, why not leave it at that? Why these suspicions?’
‘You said just now you didn’t even know about her sister’s marriage,’ said Xiang-lian. ‘How do you know she is so beautiful?’
‘I saw her practically every day for a month at Ning-guo House when she and her sister were brought there by Cousin Zhen’s mother-in-law,’ said Bao-yu. ‘How could I fail to know? Ravishingly beautiful. Obviously made for you. You San-jie, you see: even the name makes her yours!’
Xiang-lian stamped impatiently.
‘And everyone else’s, no doubt.’ Bao-yu’s execrable pun had not amused him. ‘It won’t do. This is a thoroughly bad business. The only clean things about that Ning-guo House are the stone lions that stand outside the gate. The very cats and dogs there are corrupted!’
Bao-yu reddened, and Xiang-lian, realizing that he had gone too far, began pumping his bands apologetically.
‘I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have said that. – But surely you can tell me something about her character?’
‘Since you appear to know already, I don’t quite see the point,’ said Bao-yu wryly. ‘In any case, perhaps I’m none too clean myself.’
‘What I said was spoken in the heat of the moment,’ said Xiang-lian. ‘You mustn’t take it to heart.’
‘I’ve already forgotten it,’ said Bao-yu. ‘If you go on talking about it, you will make it seem that the one who has taken it to heart is you.’
Xiang-lian pumped his hands again and took his leave. He was still thoroughly unhappy about the whole affair. At first he thought of going back to Xue Pan and talking it over with him; then he changed his mind, partly because Xue Pan was ill but mainly because in any case he had little confidence in his judgement. In the end he decided that perhaps the best thing would be simply to ask for his pledge back. Once he had made up his mind, he decided to tackle Jia Lian about it immediately. He found him at Er-jie’s place.
Jia Lian, delighted to hear that Xiang-lian had already come to call, came hurrying out to meet him and conducted him to the inside sitting-room to introduce him to his future mother-in-law. He was somewhat surprised when Xiang-lian merely bowed to the old lady instead of making her a kotow and addressed her formally as ‘Mrs You’. The significance of this became apparent presently when tea was served and Xiang-lian came at once to the point.
‘I am afraid that when I met you recently on my travels I acted far too hastily. I didn’t know at the time, hut it seems that my aunt had already in the fourth month chosen another girl to be my wife. When she told me about it, there was obviously nothing I could say. To hold to my agreement with you would have meant disobeying my aunt, and that of course is out of the question. Now, if the pledge I gave you had been gold or silk or something of that sort, I should simply have forgotten about it; but those swords I gave you were a family heirloom left me by my grandfather, so I’m afraid I shall very regretfully have to ask you for them back.’
Jia Lian was unable to take this calmly.
‘Now look here, young Liu, this won’t do, you know! A pledge is a pledge. The whole idea of it is to guard against people having second thoughts like this. An engagement to marry isn’t something you can just jump into and out of at will. I’m afraid what you are proposing is quite impossible.’
Xiang-lian smiled patiently.
‘No doubt you are in the right, and I am perfectly prepared for you to reproach me; but I’m afraid I cannot go through with this marriage under any circumstances.’
Jia Lian seemed about to argue, but Xiang-lian frustrated him by rising to his feet.
‘Could we go and discuss this somewhere else, please? It isn’t very convenient, talking about it in here.’
You San-jie had been able to hear the whole of this conversation quite clearly from her room. She had waited so long for Xiang-lian, and now that at last he had come, he was re?jecting her. It must be because of something he had heard about her in the Jia mansion. He probably thought of her as a shame?less wanton, the sort of woman who throws herself at men, unworthy to be his wife. If she allowed the two men to go off together, there was little likelihood that Jia Lian could do anything to stop him breaking off the engagement; and even if he tried arguing with him, the probable outcome would only be further damage to her reputation. As soon, therefore, as she heard Jia Lian agreeing to go outside with him, she snatched the swords down from the wall, and having first drawn out the Duck and hidden it behind her back, she hurried into the sitting-room to see them.
‘There is no need for you to go out and discuss anything,’ she said. ‘Here is your pledge back.’
The tears were pouring down her cheeks like rain. She held out the scabbard with the single sword in it in her left hand. As Xiang-lian took it, she whipped the other sword out with her right hand and slashed it across her throat. It was all over in a moment.
Red scatter of broken blossoms, and the jade column fallen, Never to rise again …
The terrified servants made futile attempts to resuscitate her, but she was already dead. Old Mrs You wept and screamed, breaking off from time to time to inveigh against Xiang-lian as a murderer. Jia Lian seized hold of Xiang-lian and called for someone to bring a rope, intending to tie him up and take him to the yamen; but Er-jie checked her weeping and did her best to dissuade him.
‘He didn’t force her to do it, it was her own decision. What good will taking him to the yamen do? We don’t want a public scandal on top of everything else. Much better let him go.’
Jia Lian, whose resolution seemed temporarily to have deserted him, let go of Xiang-lian automatically: but Xiang-lian made no attempt to escape.
‘I didn’t know she was like this,’ he said, weeping. ‘She had a noble heart. It wasn’t my luck to have her.’
He lifted up his own voice then and wept, as if he had been weeping for his bride. He stayed with the family until the coffin had been bought and San-jie laid inside it; and when the lid was closed over her, he threw himself on it and clung to it for a long time weeping. Only then did he take leave of them, walking alone out of the gate, blinded by his tears and scarcely knowing where he was going.
As he walked along in a daze, his thoughts full of San-jie’s rare combination of beauty and resoluteness which he had so wantonly rejected, one of Xue Pan’s little pages came looking for him to take him to his new house. Xiang-lian was too distracted to pay the boy much attention and allowed himself to be led there by the hand. It was a pleasant, well-appointed little house While he and the page stood waiting in the sitting-room, he heard a little tinkling noise – the sound made by the girdle-gems of a hurrying woman – and San-jie came into it from outside. She had the Duck cradled in her right arm. Her left hand was holding some sort of album or ledger.
‘I loved you for five years,’ she said. (The tears were still running down her cheeks.) ‘I did not know that your heart was as cold as your face. It was a foolish love, and I have paid for it with my life. Now I am ordered to go to the Fairy Disenchantment’s tribunal in the Land of Illusion to keep the records of the other lovers who are under her jurisdiction. But I could not bear to leave without seeing you just once more before I go. After this I shall never see you again.’
She began to go, but Xiang-lian wanted to question her and tried to stop her going. She spoke again, but this time it sounded more like an incantation.
‘From love I came; from love I now depart. I wasted my life for love, and now that I have woken up, I am ashamed of my folly. From now on we are nothing to each other, you and I – nothing.’
A little gust of wind with a faint fragrance on it seemed to blow past him as she uttered these last words, and the very next moment she had vanished.
Xiang-lian came to himself with a start, uncertain whether or not he had been dreaming. He could see no sign of Xue Pan’s little page when he looked about him, and the new house had turned into a dilapidated temple. Not far from him a Taoist with a crippled leg sat catching and killing his lice. Xiang-lian got up and went over to him.
‘What is this place, holy one?’ he asked, having first clasped his hands and knocked them against his forehead in the ap?propriate salutation. ‘And may I know whom I have the honour of addressing?’
The Taoist chuckled.
‘I don’t know where this place is any more than you do. Nor who I am. It is a place where I am resting a little while before going on elsewhere.’
It felt to Xiang-lian as if a douche of icy water had penetrated him to the bone with its coldness. He understood. Without a moment’s hesitation he drew the companionless Drake out of its scabbard, stretched out his queue, slashed through
… the unnumbered strands,
That bind us to the world and its annoys,
and as soon as the Taoist was ready, followed him out into the world. But where the two of them went to, I have no idea. Other information apart from that will be available in the following chapter.

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