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Charles Dickens > Great Expectations > Chapter 54

Great Expectations

Chapter 54

It was one of those March days when the sun shines hot and the wind

blows cold: when it is summer in the light, and winter in the

shade. We had out pea-coats with us, and I took a bag. Of all my

worldly possessions I took no more than the few necessaries that

filled the bag. Where I might go, what I might do, or when I might

return, were questions utterly unknown to me; nor did I vex my mind

with them, for it was wholly set on Provis's safety. I only

wondered for the passing moment, as I stopped at the door and

looked back, under what altered circumstances I should next see

those rooms, if ever.

We loitered down to the Temple stairs, and stood loitering there,

as if we were not quite decided to go upon the water at all. Of

course I had taken care that the boat should be ready and

everything in order. After a little show of indecision, which there

were none to see but the two or three amphibious creatures

belonging to our Temple stairs, we went on board and cast off;

Herbert in the bow, I steering. It was then about high-water -

half-past eight.

Our plan was this. The tide, beginning to run down at nine, and

being with us until three, we intended still to creep on after it

had turned, and row against it until dark. We should then be well

in those long reaches below Gravesend, between Kent and Essex,

where the river is broad and solitary, where the waterside

inhabitants are very few, and where lone public-houses are

scattered here and there, of which we could choose one for a

resting-place. There, we meant to lie by, all night. The steamer

for Hamburg, and the steamer for Rotterdam, would start from London

at about nine on Thursday morning. We should know at what time to

expect them, according to where we were, and would hail the first;

so that if by any accident we were not taken abroad, we should have

another chance. We knew the distinguishing marks of each vessel.

The relief of being at last engaged in the execution of the

purpose, was so great to me that I felt it difficult to realize the

condition in which I had been a few hours before. The crisp air,

the sunlight, the movement on the river, and the moving river

itself - the road that ran with us, seeming to sympathize with us,

animate us, and encourage us on - freshened me with new hope. I

felt mortified to be of so little use in the boat; but, there were

few better oarsmen than my two friends, and they rowed with a

steady stroke that was to last all day.

At that time, the steam-traffic on the Thames was far below its

present extent, and watermen's boats were far more numerous. Of

barges, sailing colliers, and coasting traders, there were perhaps

as many as now; but, of steam-ships, great and small, not a tithe

or a twentieth part so many. Early as it was, there were plenty of

scullers going here and there that morning, and plenty of barges

dropping down with the tide; the navigation of the river between

bridges, in an open boat, was a much easier and commoner matter in

those days than it is in these; and we went ahead among many skiffs

and wherries, briskly.

Old London Bridge was soon passed, and old Billingsgate market with

its oyster-boats and Dutchmen, and the White Tower and Traitor's

Gate, and we were in among the tiers of shipping. Here, were the

Leith, Aberdeen, and Glasgow steamers, loading and unloading goods,

and looking immensely high out of the water as we passed alongside;

here, were colliers by the score and score, with the coal-whippers

plunging off stages on deck, as counterweights to measures of coal

swinging up, which were then rattled over the side into barges;

here, at her moorings was to-morrow's steamer for Rotterdam, of

which we took good notice; and here to-morrow's for Hamburg, under

whose bowsprit we crossed. And now I, sitting in the stern, could

see with a faster beating heart, Mill Pond Bank and Mill Pond


"Is he there?" said Herbert.

"Not yet."

"Right! He was not to come down till he saw us. Can you see his


"Not well from here; but I think I see it. - Now, I see him! Pull

both. Easy, Herbert. Oars!"

We touched the stairs lightly for a single moment, and he was on

board and we were off again. He had a boat-cloak with him, and a

black canvas bag, and he looked as like a river-pilot as my heart

could have wished. "Dear boy!" he said, putting his arm on my

shoulder as he took his seat. "Faithful dear boy, well done.

Thankye, thankye!"

Again among the tiers of shipping, in and out, avoiding rusty

chain-cables frayed hempen hawsers and bobbing buoys, sinking for

the moment floating broken baskets, scattering floating chips of

wood and shaving, cleaving floating scum of coal, in and out, under

the figure-head of the John of Sunderland making a speech to the

winds (as is done by many Johns), and the Betsy of Yarmouth with a

firm formality of bosom and her nobby eyes starting two inches out

of her head, in and out, hammers going in shipbuilders'yards, saws

going at timber, clashing engines going at things unknown, pumps

going in leaky ships, capstans going, ships going out to sea, and

unintelligible sea-creatures roaring curses over the bulwarks at

respondent lightermen, in and out - out at last upon the clearer

river, where the ships' boys might take their fenders in, no longer

fishing in troubled waters with them over the side, and where the

festooned sails might fly out to the wind.

At the Stairs where we had taken him abroad, and ever since, I had

looked warily for any token of our being suspected. I had seen

none. We certainly had not been, and at that time as certainly we

were not, either attended or followed by any boat. If we had been

waited on by any boat, I should have run in to shore, and have

obliged her to go on, or to make her purpose evident. But, we held

our own, without any appearance of molestation.

He had his boat-cloak on him, and looked, as I have said, a natural

part of the scene. It was remarkable (but perhaps the wretched life

he had led, accounted for it), that he was the least anxious of any

of us. He was not indifferent, for he told me that he hoped to live

to see his gentleman one of the best of gentlemen in a foreign

country; he was not disposed to be passive or resigned, as I

understood it; but he had no notion of meeting danger half way.

When it came upon him, he confronted it, but it must come before he

troubled himself.

"If you knowed, dear boy," he said to me, "what it is to sit here

alonger my dear boy and have my smoke, arter having been day by day

betwixt four walls, you'd envy me. But you don't know what it is."

"I think I know the delights of freedom," I answered.

"Ah," said he, shaking his head gravely. "But you don't know it

equal to me. You must have been under lock and key, dear boy, to

know it equal to me - but I ain't a-going to be low."

It occurred to me as inconsistent, that for any mastering idea, he

should have endangered his freedom and even his life. But I

reflected that perhaps freedom without danger was too much apart

from all the habit of his existence to be to him what it would be

to another man. I was not far out, since he said, after smoking a


"You see, dear boy, when I was over yonder, t'other side the world,

I was always a-looking to this side; and it come flat to be there,

for all I was a-growing rich. Everybody knowed Magwitch, and

Magwitch could come, and Magwitch could go, and nobody's head would

be troubled about him. They ain't so easy concerning me here, dear

boy - wouldn't be, leastwise, if they knowed where I was."

"If all goes well," said I, "you will be perfectly free and safe

again, within a few hours."

"Well," he returned, drawing a long breath, "I hope so."

"And think so?"

He dipped his hand in the water over the boat's gunwale, and said,

smiling with that softened air upon him which was not new to me:

"Ay, I s'pose I think so, dear boy. We'd be puzzled to be more

quiet and easy-going than we are at present. But - it's a-flowing

so soft and pleasant through the water, p'raps, as makes me think

it - I was a-thinking through my smoke just then, that we can no

more see to the bottom of the next few hours, than we can see to

the bottom of this river what I catches hold of. Nor yet we can't

no more hold their tide than I can hold this. And it's run through

my fingers and gone, you see!" holding up his dripping hand.

"But for your face, I should think you were a little despondent,"

said I.

"Not a bit on it, dear boy! It comes of flowing on so quiet, and of

that there rippling at the boat's head making a sort of a Sunday

tune. Maybe I'm a-growing a trifle old besides."

He put his pipe back in his mouth with an undisturbed expression of

face, and sat as composed and contented as if we were already out

of England. Yet he was as submissive to a word of advice as if he

had been in constant terror, for, when we ran ashore to get some

bottles of beer into the boat, and he was stepping out, I hinted

that I thought he would be safest where he was, and he said. "Do

you, dear boy?" and quietly sat down again.

The air felt cold upon the river, but it was a bright day, and the

sunshine was very cheering. The tide ran strong, I took care to

lose none of it, and our steady stroke carried us on thoroughly

well. By imperceptible degrees, as the tide ran out, we lost more

and more of the nearer woods and hills, and dropped lower and lower

between the muddy banks, but the tide was yet with us when we were

off Gravesend. As our charge was wrapped in his cloak, I purposely

passed within a boat or two's length of the floating Custom House,

and so out to catch the stream, alongside of two emigrant ships,

and under the bows of a large transport with troops on the

forecastle looking down at us. And soon the tide began to slacken,

and the craft lying at anchor to swing, and presently they had all

swung round, and the ships that were taking advantage of the new

tide to get up to the Pool, began to crowd upon us in a fleet, and

we kept under the shore, as much out of the strength of the tide

now as we could, standing carefully off from low shallows and


Our oarsmen were so fresh, by dint of having occasionally let her

drive with the tide for a minute or two, that a quarter of an

hour's rest proved full as much as they wanted. We got ashore among

some slippery stones while we ate and drank what we had with us,

and looked about. It was like my own marsh country, flat and

monotonous, and with a dim horizon; while the winding river turned

and turned, and the great floating buoys upon it turned and turned,

and everything else seemed stranded and still. For, now, the last

of the fleet of ships was round the last low point we had headed;

and the last green barge, straw-laden, with a brown sail, had

followed; and some ballast-lighters, shaped like a child's first

rude imitation of a boat, lay low in the mud; and a little squat

shoal-lighthouse on open piles, stood crippled in the mud on stilts

and crutches; and slimy stakes stuck out of the mud, and slimy

stones stuck out of the mud, and red landmarks and tidemarks stuck

out of the mud, and an old landing-stage and an old roofless building

slipped into the mud, and all about us was stagnation and mud.

We pushed off again, and made what way we could. It was much harder

work now, but Herbert and Startop persevered, and rowed, and rowed,

and rowed, until the sun went down. By that time the river had

lifted us a little, so that we could see above the bank. There was

the red sun, on the low level of the shore, in a purple haze, fast

deepening into black; and there was the solitary flat marsh; and

far away there were the rising grounds, between which and us there

seemed to be no life, save here and there in the foreground a

melancholy gull.

As the night was fast falling, and as the moon, being past the

full, would not rise early, we held a little council: a short one,

for clearly our course was to lie by at the first lonely tavern we

could find. So, they plied their oars once more, and I looked out

for anything like a house. Thus we held on, speaking little, for

four or five dull miles. It was very cold, and, a collier coming by

us, with her galley-fire smoking and flaring, looked like a

comfortable home. The night was as dark by this time as it would be

until morning; and what light we had, seemed to come more from the

river than the sky, as the oars in their dipping struck at a few

reflected stars.

At this dismal time we were evidently all possessed by the idea that

we were followed. As the tide made, it flapped heavily at irregular

intervals against the shore; and whenever such a sound came, one or

other of us was sure to start and look in that direction. Here and

there, the set of the current had worn down the bank into a little

creek, and we were all suspicious of such places, and eyed them

nervously. Sometimes, "What was that ripple?" one of us would say

in a low voice. Or another, "Is that a boat yonder?" And

afterwards, we would fall into a dead silence, and I would sit

impatiently thinking with what an unusual amount of noise the oars

worked in the thowels.

At length we descried a light and a roof, and presently afterwards

ran alongside a little causeway made of stones that had been picked

up hard by. Leaving the rest in the boat, I stepped ashore, and

found the light to be in a window of a public-house. It was a dirty

place enough, and I dare say not unknown to smuggling adventurers;

but there was a good fire in the kitchen, and there were eggs and

bacon to eat, and various liquors to drink. Also, there were two

double-bedded rooms - "such as they were," the landlord said. No

other company was in the house than the landlord, his wife, and a

grizzled male creature, the "Jack" of the little causeway, who was

as slimy and smeary as if he had been low-water mark too.

With this assistant, I went down to the boat again, and we all came

ashore, and brought out the oars, and rudder, and boat-hook, and

all else, and hauled her up for the night. We made a very good meal

by the kitchen fire, and then apportioned the bedrooms: Herbert and

Startop were to occupy one; I and our charge the other. We found

the air as carefully excluded from both, as if air were fatal to

life; and there were more dirty clothes and bandboxes under the

beds than I should have thought the family possessed. But, we

considered ourselves well off, notwithstanding, for a more solitary

place we could not have found.

While we were comforting ourselves by the fire after our meal, the

Jack - who was sitting in a corner, and who had a bloated pair of

shoes on, which he had exhibited while we were eating our eggs and

bacon, as interesting relics that he had taken a few days ago from

the feet of a drowned seaman washed ashore - asked me if we had

seen a four-oared galley going up with the tide? When I told him

No, he said she must have gone down then, and yet she "took up

too," when she left there.

"They must ha' thought better on't for some reason or another,"

said the Jack, "and gone down."

"A four-oared galley, did you say?" said I.

"A four," said the Jack, "and two sitters."

"Did they come ashore here?"

"They put in with a stone two-gallon jar, for some beer. I'd

ha'been glad to pison the beer myself," said the Jack, "or put some

rattling physic in it."


"I know why," said the Jack. He spoke in a slushy voice, as if much

mud had washed into his throat.

"He thinks," said the landlord: a weakly meditative man with a pale

eye, who seemed to rely greatly on his Jack: "he thinks they was,

what they wasn't."

"I knows what I thinks," observed the Jack.

"You thinks Custum 'Us, Jack?" said the landlord.

"I do," said the Jack.

"Then you're wrong, Jack."

"Am I!"

In the infinite meaning of his reply and his boundless confidence

in his views, the Jack took one of his bloated shoes off, looked

into it, knocked a few stones out of it on the kitchen floor, and

put it on again. He did this with the air of a Jack who was so

right that he could afford to do anything.

"Why, what do you make out that they done with their buttons then,

Jack?" asked the landlord, vacillating weakly.

"Done with their buttons?" returned the Jack. "Chucked 'em

overboard. Swallered 'em. Sowed 'em, to come up small salad. Done

with their buttons!"

"Don't be cheeky, Jack," remonstrated the landlord, in a melancholy

and pathetic way.

"A Custum 'Us officer knows what to do with his Buttons," said the

Jack, repeating the obnoxious word with the greatest contempt,

"when they comes betwixt him and his own light. A Four and two

sitters don't go hanging and hovering, up with one tide and down

with another, and both with and against another, without there

being Custum 'Us at the bottom of it." Saying which he went out in

disdain; and the landlord, having no one to reply upon, found it

impracticable to pursue the subject.

This dialogue made us all uneasy, and me very uneasy. The dismal

wind was muttering round the house, the tide was flapping at the

shore, and I had a feeling that we were caged and threatened. A

four-oared galley hovering about in so unusual a way as to attract

this notice, was an ugly circumstance that I could not get rid of.

When I had induced Provis to go up to bed, I went outside with my

two companions (Startop by this time knew the state of the case),

and held another council. Whether we should remain at the house

until near the steamer's time, which would be about one in the

afternoon; or whether we should put off early in the morning; was

the question we discussed. On the whole we deemed it the better

course to lie where we were, until within an hour or so of the

steamer's time, and then to get out in her track, and drift easily

with the tide. Having settled to do this, we returned into the

house and went to bed.

I lay down with the greater part of my clothes on, and slept well

for a few hours. When I awoke, the wind had risen, and the sign of

the house (the Ship) was creaking and banging about, with noises

that startled me. Rising softly, for my charge lay fast asleep, I

looked out of the window. It commanded the causeway where we had

hauled up our boat, and, as my eyes adapted themselves to the light

of the clouded moon, I saw two men looking into her. They passed by

under the window, looking at nothing else, and they did not go down

to the landing-place which I could discern to be empty, but struck

across the marsh in the direction of the Nore.

My first impulse was to call up Herbert, and show him the two men

going away. But, reflecting before I got into his room, which was

at the back of the house and adjoined mine, that he and Startop had

had a harder day than I, and were fatigued, I forbore. Going back

to my window, I could see the two men moving over the marsh. In

that light, however, I soon lost them, and feeling very cold, lay

down to think of the matter, and fell asleep again.

We were up early. As we walked to and fro, all four together,

before breakfast, I deemed it right to recount what I had seen.

Again our charge was the least anxious of the party. It was very

likely that the men belonged to the Custom House, he said quietly,

and that they had no thought of us. I tried to persuade myself that

it was so - as, indeed, it might easily be. However, I proposed

that he and I should walk away together to a distant point we could

see, and that the boat should take us aboard there, or as near

there as might prove feasible, at about noon. This being considered

a good precaution, soon after breakfast he and I set forth, without

saying anything at the tavern.

He smoked his pipe as we went along, and sometimes stopped to clap

me on the shoulder. One would have supposed that it was I who was

in danger, not he, and that he was reassuring me. We spoke very

little. As we approached the point, I begged him to remain in a

sheltered place, while I went on to reconnoitre; for, it was

towards it that the men had passed in the night. He complied, and I

went on alone. There was no boat off the point, nor any boat drawn

up anywhere near it, nor were there any signs of the men having

embarked there. But, to be sure the tide was high, and there might

have been some footpints under water.

When he looked out from his shelter in the distance, and saw that I

waved my hat to him to come up, he rejoined me, and there we

waited; sometimes lying on the bank wrapped in our coats, and

sometimes moving about to warm ourselves: until we saw our boat

coming round. We got aboard easily, and rowed out into the track of

the steamer. By that time it wanted but ten minutes of one o'clock,

and we began to look out for her smoke.

But, it was half-past one before we saw her smoke, and soon

afterwards we saw behind it the smoke of another steamer. As they

were coming on at full speed, we got the two bags ready, and took

that opportunity of saying good-bye to Herbert and Startop. We had

all shaken hands cordially, and neither Herbert's eyes nor mine

were quite dry, when I saw a four-oared galley shoot out from under

the bank but a little way ahead of us, and row out into the same


A stretch of shore had been as yet between us and the steamer's

smoke, by reason of the bend and wind of the river; but now she was

visible, coming head on. I called to Herbert and Startop to keep

before the tide, that she might see us lying by for her, and I

adjured Provis to sit quite still, wrapped in his cloak. He

answered cheerily, "Trust to me, dear boy," and sat like a statue.

Meantime the galley, which was very skilfully handled, had crossed

us, let us come up with her, and fallen alongside. Leaving just

room enough for the play of the oars, she kept alongside, drifting

when we drifted, and pulling a stroke or two when we pulled. Of the

two sitters one held the rudder lines, and looked at us attentively

- as did all the rowers; the other sitter was wrapped up, much as

Provis was, and seemed to shrink, and whisper some instruction to

the steerer as he looked at us. Not a word was spoken in either


Startop could make out, after a few minutes, which steamer was

first, and gave me the word "Hamburg," in a low voice as we sat

face to face. She was nearing us very fast, and the beating of her

peddles grew louder and louder. I felt as if her shadow were

absolutely upon us, when the galley hailed us. I answered.

"You have a returned Transport there," said the man who held the

lines. "That's the man, wrapped in the cloak. His name is Abel

Magwitch, otherwise Provis. I apprehend that man, and call upon him

to surrender, and you to assist."

At the same moment, without giving any audible direction to his

crew, he ran the galley abroad of us. They had pulled one sudden

stroke ahead, had got their oars in, had run athwart us, and were

holding on to our gunwale, before we knew what they were doing.

This caused great confusion on board the steamer, and I heard them

calling to us, and heard the order given to stop the paddles, and

heard them stop, but felt her driving down upon us irresistibly. In

the same moment, I saw the steersman of the galley lay his hand on

his prisoner's shoulder, and saw that both boats were swinging

round with the force of the tide, and saw that all hands on board

the steamer were running forward quite frantically. Still in the

same moment, I saw the prisoner start up, lean across his captor,

and pull the cloak from the neck of the shrinking sitter in the

galley. Still in the same moment, I saw that the face disclosed,

was the face of the other convict of long ago. Still in the same

moment, I saw the face tilt backward with a white terror on it that

I shall never forget, and heard a great cry on board the steamer

and a loud splash in the water, and felt the boat sink from under


It was but for an instant that I seemed to struggle with a thousand

mill-weirs and a thousand flashes of light; that instant past, I

was taken on board the galley. Herbert was there, and Startop was

there; but our boat was gone, and the two convicts were gone.

What with the cries aboard the steamer, and the furious blowing off

of her steam, and her driving on, and our driving on, I could not

at first distinguish sky from water or shore from shore; but, the

crew of the galley righted her with great speed, and, pulling

certain swift strong strokes ahead, lay upon their oars, every man

looking silently and eagerly at the water astern. Presently a dark

object was seen in it, bearing towards us on the tide. No man

spoke, but the steersman held up his hand, and all softly backed

water, and kept the boat straight and true before it. As it came

nearer, I saw it to be Magwitch, swimming, but not swimming freely.

He was taken on board, and instantly manacled at the wrists and


The galley was kept steady, and the silent eager look-out at the

water was resumed. But, the Rotterdam steamer now came up, and

apparently not understanding what had happened, came on at speed.

By the time she had been hailed and stopped, both steamers were

drifting away from us, and we were rising and falling in a troubled

wake of water. The look-out was kept, long after all was still

again and the two steamers were gone; but, everybody knew that it

was hopeless now.

At length we gave it up, and pulled under the shore towards the

tavern we had lately left, where we were received with no little

surprise. Here, I was able to get some comforts for Magwitch -

Provis no longer - who had received some very severe injury in the

chest and a deep cut in the head.

He told me that he believed himself to have gone under the keel of

the steamer, and to have been struck on the head in rising. The

injury to his chest (which rendered his breathing extremely

painful) he thought he had received against the side of the galley.

He added that he did not pretend to say what he might or might not

have done to Compeyson, but, that in the moment of his laying his

hand on his cloak to identify him, that villain had staggered up

and staggered back, and they had both gone overboard together; when

the sudden wrenching of him (Magwitch) out of our boat, and the

endeavour of his captor to keep him in it, had capsized us. He told

me in a whisper that they had gone down, fiercely locked in each

other's arms, and that there had been a struggle under water, and

that he had disengaged himself, struck out, and swum away.

I never had any reason to doubt the exact truth of what he thus

told me. The officer who steered the galley gave the same account

of their going overboard.

When I asked this officer's permission to change the prisoner's wet

clothes by purchasing any spare garments I could get at the

public-house, he gave it readily: merely observing that he must

take charge of everything his prisoner had about him. So the

pocketbook which had once been in my hands, passed into the

officer's. He further gave me leave to accompany the prisoner to

London; but, declined to accord that grace to my two friends.

The Jack at the Ship was instructed where the drowned man had gone

down, and undertook to search for the body in the places where it

was likeliest to come ashore. His interest in its recovery seemed

to me to be much heightened when he heard that it had stockings on.

Probably, it took about a dozen drowned men to fit him out

completely; and that may have been the reason why the different

articles of his dress were in various stages of decay.

We remained at the public-house until the tide turned, and then

Magwitch was carried down to the galley and put on board. Herbert

and Startop were to get to London by land, as soon as they could.

We had a doleful parting, and when I took my place by Magwitch's

side, I felt that that was my place henceforth while he lived.

For now, my repugnance to him had all melted away, and in the

hunted wounded shackled creature who held my hand in his, I only

saw a man who had meant to be my benefactor, and who had felt

affectionately, gratefully, and generously, towards me with great

constancy through a series of years. I only saw in him a much

better man than I had been to Joe.

His breathing became more difficult and painful as the night drew

on, and often he could not repress a groan. I tried to rest him on

the arm I could use, in any easy position; but, it was dreadful to

think that I could not be sorry at heart for his being badly hurt,

since it was unquestionably best that he should die. That there

were, still living, people enough who were able and willing to

identify him, I could not doubt. That he would be leniently

treated, I could not hope. He who had been presented in the worst

light at his trial, who had since broken prison and had been tried

again, who had returned from transportation under a life sentence,

and who had occasioned the death of the man who was the cause of

his arrest.

As we returned towards the setting sun we had yesterday left behind

us, and as the stream of our hopes seemed all running back, I told

him how grieved I was to think that he had come home for my sake.

"Dear boy," he answered, "I'm quite content to take my chance. I've

seen my boy, and he can be a gentleman without me."

No. I had thought about that, while we had been there side by side.

No. Apart from any inclinations of my own, I understood Wemmick's

hint now. I foresaw that, being convicted, his possessions would be

forfeited to the Crown.

"Lookee here, dear boy," said he "It's best as a gentleman should

not be knowed to belong to me now. Only come to see me as if you

come by chance alonger Wemmick. Sit where I can see you when I am

swore to, for the last o' many times, and I don't ask no more."

"I will never stir from your side," said I, "when I am suffered to

be near you. Please God, I will be as true to you, as you have been

to me!"

I felt his hand tremble as it held mine, and he turned his face

away as he lay in the bottom of the boat, and I heard that old

sound in his throat - softened now, like all the rest of him. It

was a good thing that he had touched this point, for it put into my

mind what I might not otherwise have thought of until too late:

That he need never know how his hopes of enriching me had perished.

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