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Abbeys And Castles by H. James, Jr.

It is a frequent reflection with the stranger in England that the beauty and interest of the country are private property, and that to get access to them a key is always needed. The key may be large or it may be small, but it must be something that will turn a lock. Of the things that charm an American observer in the land of parks and castles, I can think of very few that do not come under this definition of private property. When I have mentioned the hedgerows and the churches I have almost exhausted the list. You can enjoy a hedgerow from the public road, and I suppose that even if you are a Dissenter you may enjoy a Norman abbey from the street. If, therefore, one talks of anything beautiful in England, the presumption will be that it is private; and indeed such is my admiration of this delightful country that I feel inclined to say that if one talks of anything private, the presumption will be that it is beautiful. Here is something of a dilemma. If the observer permits himself to commemorate charming impressions, he is in danger of giving to the world the fruits of friendship and hospitality. If, on the other hand, he withholds his impression, he lets something admirable slip away without having marked its passage, without having done it proper honor. He ends by mingling discretion with enthusiasm, and he says to himself that it is not treating a country ill to talk of its treasures when the mention of each connotes, as the metaphysicians say, an act of private courtesy.

The impressions I have in mind in writing these lines were gathered in a part of England of which I had not before had even a traveller's glimpse; but as to which, after a day or two, I found myself quite ready to agree with a friend who lived there, and who knew and loved it well, when he said very frankly, "I do believe it is the loveliest corner of the world!" This was not a dictum to quarrel about, and while I was in the neighborhood I was quite of his mind. I felt that it would not take a great deal to make me care for it very much as he cared for it: I had a glimpse of the peculiar tenderness with which such a country may be loved. It is a capital example of the great characteristic of English scenery—of what I should call density of feature. There are no waste details; everything in the landscape is something particular—has a history, has played a part, has a value to the imagination. It is a country of hills and blue undulations, and, though none of the hills are high, all of them are interesting—interesting as such things are interesting in an old, small country, by a kind of exquisite modulation, something suggesting that outline and coloring have been retouched and refined, as it were, by the hand of Time. Independently of its castles and abbeys, the definite relics of the ages, such a landscape seems historic. It has human relations, and it is intimately conscious of them. That little speech about the loveliness of his county, or of his own part of his county, was made to me by my companion as we walked up the grassy slope of a hill, or "edge," as it is called there, from the crests of which we seemed in an instant to look away over half of England. Certainly I should have grown fond of such a view as that. The "edge" plunged down suddenly, as if the corresponding slope on the other side had been excavated, and one might follow the long ridge for the space of an afternoon's walk with this vast, charming prospect before one's eyes. Looking across an English county into the next but one is a very pretty entertainment, the county seeming by no means so small as might be supposed. How can a county seem small in which, from such a vantage-point as the one I speak of, you see, as a darker patch across the lighter green, the twelve thousand acres of Lord So-and-So's woods? Beyond these are blue undulations of varying tone, and then another bosky-looking spot, which you learn to be about the same amount of manorial umbrage belonging to Lord Some-One-Else. And to right and left of these, in shaded stretches, lie other estates of equal consequence. It was therefore not the smallness but the vastness of the country that struck me, and I was not at all in the mood of a certain American who once, in my hearing, burst out laughing at an English answer to my inquiry as to whether my interlocutor often saw Mr. B——. "Oh no," the answer had been, "we never see him: he lives away off in the West." It was the western part of his county our friend meant, and my American humorist found matter for infinite jest in his meaning. "I should as soon think," he declared, "of saying my western hand and my eastern."

I do not think, even, that my disposition to form a sentimental attachment for this delightful region—for its hillside prospect of old red farmhouses lighting up the dark-green bottoms, of gables and chimney-tops of great houses peeping above miles of woodland, and, in the vague places of the horizon, of far-away towns and sites that one had always heard of—was conditioned upon having "property" in the neighborhood, so that the little girls in the town should suddenly drop courtesies to me in the street; though that too would certainly have been pleasant. At the same time, having a little property would without doubt have made the sentiment stronger. People who wander about the world without money have their dreams—dreams of what they would buy if their pockets were lined. These dreams are very apt to have relation to a good estate in any neighborhood in which the wanderer happens to find himself. For myself, I have never been in a country so unattractive that it did not seem a peculiar felicity to be able to purchase the most considerable house it contained. In New England and other portions of the United States I have coveted the large mansion with Greek columns and a pediment of white-painted timber: in Italy I should have made proposals for the yellow-walled villa with statues on the roof. In England I have rarely gone so far as to fancy myself in treaty for the best house, but, short of this, I have never failed to feel that ideal comfort for the time would be to call one's self owner of what is denominated here a "good" place. Is it that English country life seems to possess such irresistible charms? I have not always thought so: I have sometimes suspected that it is dull; I have remembered that there is a whole literature devoted to exposing it (that of the English novel "of manners"), and that its recorded occupations and conversations occasionally strike one as lacking a certain desirable salt. But, for all that, when, in the region to which I allude, my companion spoke of this and that place being likely sooner or later to come to the hammer, it seemed as if nothing could be more delightful than to see the hammer fall upon an offer made by one's self. And this in spite of the fact that the owners of the places in question would part with them because they could no longer afford to keep them up. I found it interesting to learn, in so far as was possible, what sort of income was implied by the possession of country-seats such as are not in America a concomitant of even the largest fortunes; and if in these interrogations I sometimes heard of a very long rent-roll, on the other hand I was frequently surprised at the slenderness of the resources attributed to people living in the depths of an oak-studded park. Then, certainly, English country life seemed to me the most advantageous thing in the world: on these terms one would gladly put up with a little dulness. When I reflected that there were thousands of people dwelling in brownstone houses in numbered streets in New York who were at as great a cost to make a reputable appearance in those harsh conditions as some of the occupants of the grassy estates of which I had a glimpse, the privileges of the latter class appeared delightfully cheap.

There was one place in particular of which I said to myself that if I had the money to buy it, I would simply walk up to the owner and pour the sum in sovereigns into his hat. I saw this place, unfortunately, to small advantage: I saw it in the rain. But I am rather glad that fine weather did not meddle with the affair, for I think that in this case the irritation of envy would have been really too acute. It was a rainy Sunday, and the rain was serious. I had been in the house all day, for the weather can best be described by my saying that it had been deemed an exoneration from church-going. But in the afternoon, the prospective interval between lunch and tea assuming formidable proportions, my host took me out to walk, and in the course of our walk he led me into a park which he described as "the paradise of a small English country gentleman." Well it might be: I have never seen such a collection of oaks. They were of high antiquity and magnificent girth and stature: they were strewn over the grassy levels in extraordinary profusion, and scattered upon and down the slopes in a fashion than which I have seen nothing more charming since I last looked at the chestnut trees on the banks of the Lake of Como. It appears that the place was not very vast, but I was unable to perceive its limits. Shortly before we turned into the park the rain had renewed itself, so that we were awkwardly wet and muddy; but, being near the house, my companion proposed to leave his card in a neighborly way. The house was most agreeable: it stood on a kind of terrace in the midst of a lawn and garden, and the terrace looked down on one of the handsomest rivers in England, and across to those blue undulations of which I have already spoken. On the terrace also was a piece of ornamental water, and there was a small iron paling to divide the lawn from the park. All this I beheld in the rain. My companion gave his card to the butler, with the observation that we were too much bespattered to come in; and we turned away to complete our circuit. As we turned away I became acutely conscious of what I should have been tempted to call the cruelty of this proceeding. My imagination gauged the whole position. It was a Sunday afternoon, and it was raining. The house was charming, the terrace delightful, the oaks magnificent, the view most interesting. But the whole thing was—not to repeat the epithet "dull," of which just now I made too gross a use—the whole thing was quiet. In the house was a drawing-room, and in the drawing-room was—by which I meant must be—a lady, a charming English lady. There was, it seemed to me, no fatuity in believing that on this rainy Sunday afternoon it would not please her to be told that two gentlemen had walked across the country to her door only to go through the ceremony of leaving a card. Therefore, when, before we had gone many yards, I heard the butler hurrying after us, I felt how just my sentiment of the situation had been. Of course we went back, and I carried my muddy shoes into the drawing-room—just the drawing-room I had imagined—where I found—I will not say just the lady I had imagined, but—a lady even more charming. Indeed, there were two ladies, one of whom was staying in the house. In whatever company you find yourself in England, you may always be sure that some one present is "staying." I seldom hear this participle now-a-days without remembering an observation made to me in France by a lady who had seen much of English manners: "Ah, that dreadful word staying! I think we are so happy in France not to be able to translate it—not to have any word that answers to it." The large windows of the drawing-room I speak of looked away over the river to the blurred and blotted hills, where the rain was drizzling and drifting. It was very quiet: there was an air of leisure. If one wanted to do something here, there was evidently plenty of time—and indeed of every other appliance—to do it. The two ladies talked about "town:" that is what people talk about in the country. If I were disposed I might represent them as talking about it with a certain air of yearning. At all events, I asked myself how it was possible that one should live in this charming place and trouble one's head about what was going on in London in July. Then we had excellent tea.

I have narrated this trifling incident because there seemed to be some connection between it and what I was going to say about the stranger's sense of country life being the normal, natural, typical life of the English. In America, however comfortably people may live in the country, there is always, relatively speaking, an air of picnicking about their establishments. Their habitations, their arrangements, their appointments, are more or less provisional. They dine at different hours from their city hours; they wear different clothing; they spend all their time out of doors. The English, on the other hand, live according to the same system in Devonshire and in Mayfair—with the difference, perhaps, that in Devonshire, where they have people "staying" with them, the system is rather more rigidly applied. The picnicking, if picnicking there is to be, is done in town. They keep their best things in the country—their best books, their best furniture, their best pictures—and their footing in London is as provisional as ours is at our "summer retreats." The English smile a good deal—or rather would smile a good deal if they had more observation of it—at the fashion in which we American burghers stow ourselves away for July and August in white wooden boarding-houses beside dusty, ill-made roads. But it is fair to say that these improvised homes are not immeasurably more barbaric than the human entassement that takes place in London "apartments" during the months of May and June. Whoever has had unhappy occasion to look for lodgings at this period, and to explore the mysteries of the little black houses in the West End which have a neatly-printed card suspended in the door-light, will admit that from the obligation to rough it our more luxurious kinsmen are not altogether exempt. We rough it, certainly, more than they do, but we rough it in the country, where Nature herself is rough, and they rough it in the heart of the largest and most splendid of cities. In England, in the country, Nature as well as civilization is smooth, and it seems perfectly consistent, even at midsummer, to dress for dinner; albeit that when so costumed you cannot conveniently lie on the grass. But in England you do not particularly expect to lie on the grass, especially in the evening. The aspect of the usual English country-houses sufficiently indicates the absence of that informal culture of the open air into which the American villeggiatura generally resolves itself; and one reason why I mentioned just now the excellent dwelling which I visited in the rain was that, as I approached it, it struck me as so good an example of all that, for American rural purposes, a house should not be. It was indeed built of stone, or of brick stuccoed over; which, as they say in England, is a "great pull." But except that it was detached and gabled, it belonged quite to the class of city houses. Its walls were straight and bare, and its windows, though wide, were short. It might have been deposited in Belgravia without in the least seeming out of place: it conformed to the rigid London model. It had no external galleries, no breezy piazzas, no long windows opening upon them, no doors disposed for propagating draughts. But, indeed, I have never seen an English house furnished with what we call a piazza; and I must add that I have rarely known an English summer day on which it would have been convenient to sit in a propagated draught.

It seems, however, grossly unthankful to say that English country-houses lack anything when one has received delightful impressions of what they possess. What is a draughty doorway to an old Norman portal, massively arched and quaintly sculptured, across whose hollow threshold the eye of fancy may see the ghosts of monks and the shadows of abbots pass noiselessly to and fro? What is a paltry piazza to a beautiful ambulatory of the thirteenth century—a long stone gallery or cloister repeated in two stories, with the interstices of its carven lattice now glazed, but with its long, low, narrow, charming vista still perfect and picturesque—with its flags worn away by monkish sandals, and with huge round-arched doorways opening from its inner side into great rooms roofed like cathedrals? What are the longest French windows, with the most patented latches, to narrow casements of almost defensive aspect set in embrasures three feet deep and ornamented with little grotesque mediæval faces? To see one of these small monkish masks grinning at you while you dress and undress, or while you look up in the intervals of inspiration from your letter-writing, is a simple detail in the entertainment of living in an ancient priory. This entertainment is inexhaustible, for every step you take in such a house confronts you in one way or another with the remote past. You feast upon picturesqueness, you inhale history. Adjoining the house is a beautiful ruin, part of the walls and windows and bases of the piers of the magnificent church administered by your predecessor the abbot. These relics are very desultory, but they are still abundant, and they testify to the great scale and the stately beauty of the abbey. You may lie upon the grass at the base of an ivied fragment, measure the girth of the great stumps of the central columns, half smothered in soft creepers, and think how strange it is that in this quiet hollow, in the midst of lonely hills, so exquisite and elaborate a work of art should have arisen. It is but an hour's walk to another great ruin, which has held together more completely. There the central tower stands erect to half its altitude, and the round arches and massive pillars of the nave make a perfect vista on the unencumbered turf. You get an impression that when Catholic England was in her prime great abbeys were as thick as milestones. By native amateurs, even now, the region is called "wild," though to American eyes it seems thoroughly suburban in its smoothness and finish. There is a noiseless little railway running through the valley, and there is an ancient little town at the abbey gates—a town, indeed, with no great din of vehicles, but with goodly brick houses, with a dozen "publics," with tidy, whitewashed cottages, and with little girls, as I have said, bobbing courtesies in the street. But even now, if one had wound one's way into the valley by the railroad, it would be rather a surprise to find a small ornamental cathedral in a spot on the whole so natural and pastoral. How impressive then must the beautiful church have been in the days of its prosperity, when the pilgrim came down to it from the grassy hillside and its bells made the stillness sensible! The abbey was in those days a great affair: as my companion said, it sprawled all over the place. As you walk away from it you think you have got to the end of its traces, but you encounter them still in the shape of a rugged outhouse grand with an Early-English arch, or an ancient well hidden in a kind of sculptured cavern. It is noticeable that even if you are a traveller from a land where there are no Early-English—and indeed few Late-English—arches, and where the well-covers are, at their hoariest, of fresh-looking shingles, you grow used with little delay to all this antiquity. Anything very old seems extremely natural: there is nothing we accept so implicitly as the past. It is not too much to say that after spending twenty-four hours in a house that is six hundred years old, you seem yourself to have lived in it for six hundred years. You seem yourself to have hollowed the flags with your tread and to have polished the oak with your touch. You walk along the little stone gallery where the monks used to pace, looking out of the Gothic window-places at their beautiful church, and you pause at the big round, rugged doorway that admits you to what is now the drawing-room. The massive step by which you ascend to the threshold is a trifle crooked, as it should be: the lintels are cracked and worn by the myriad-fingered years. This strikes your casual glance. You look up and down the miniature cloister before you pass in: it seems wonderfully old and queer. Then you turn into the drawing-room, where you find modern conversation and late publications and the prospect of dinner. The new life and the old have melted together: there is no dividing-line. In the drawing-room wall is a queer funnel-shaped hole, with the broad end inward, like a small casemate. You ask a lady what it is, but she doesn't know. It is something of the monks: it is a mere detail. After dinner you are told that there is of course a ghost—a gray friar who is seen in the dusky hours at the end of passages. Sometimes the servants see him, and afterward go surreptitiously to sleep in the town. Then, when you take your chamber-candle and go wandering bedward by a short cut through empty rooms, you are conscious of a peculiar sensation which you hardly know whether to interpret as a desire to see the gray friar or as an apprehension that you will see him.

A friend of mine, an American, who knew this country, had told me not to fail, while I was in the neighborhood, to go to S——. "Edward I. and Elizabeth," he said, "are still hanging about there." Thus admonished, I made a point of going to S——, and I saw quite what my friend meant. Edward I. and Elizabeth, indeed, are still to be met almost anywhere in the county: as regards domestic architecture, few parts of England are still more vividly Old English. I have rarely had, for a couple of hours, the sensation of dropping back personally into the past in a higher degree than while I lay on the grass beside the well in the little sunny court of this small castle, and idly appreciated the still definite details of mediæval life. The place is a capital example of what the French call a small gentilhommière of the thirteenth century. It has a good deep moat, now filled with wild verdure, and a curious gatehouse of a much later period—the period when the defensive attitude had been wellnigh abandoned. This gatehouse, which is not in the least in the style of the habitation, but gabled and heavily timbered, with quaint cross-beams protruding from surfaces of coarse white stucco, is a very picturesque anomaly in regard to the little gray fortress on the other side of the court. I call this a fortress, but it is a fortress which might easily have been taken, and it must have assumed its present shape at a time when people had ceased to peer through narrow slits at possible besiegers. There are slits in the outer walls for such peering, but they are noticeably broad and not particularly oblique, and might easily have been applied to the uses of a peaceful parley. This is part of the charm of the place: human life there must have lost an earlier grimness: it was lived in by people who were beginning to feel comfortable. They must have lived very much together: that is one of the most obvious reflections in the court of a mediæval dwelling. The court was not always grassy and empty, as it is now, with only a couple of gentlemen in search of impressions lying at their length, one of whom has taken a wine-flask out of his pocket and has colored the clear water drawn for them out of the well in a couple of tumblers by a decent, rosy, smiling, talking old woman, who has come bustling out of the gatehouse, and who has a large, dropsical, innocent husband standing about on crutches in the sun and making no sign when you ask after his health. This poor man has reached that ultimate depth of human simplicity at which even a chance to talk about one's ailments is not appreciated. But the civil old woman talks for every one, even for an artist who has come out of one of the rooms, where I see him afterward reproducing its mouldering quaintness. The rooms are all unoccupied and in a state of extreme decay, though the castle is, as yet, far from being a ruin. From one of the windows I see a young lady sitting under a tree across a meadow, with her knees up, dipping something into her mouth. It is a camel's hair paint-brush: the young lady is sketching. These are the only besiegers to which the place is exposed now, and they can do no great harm, as I doubt whether the young lady's aim is very good. We wandered about the empty interior, thinking it a pity things should be falling so to pieces. There is a beautiful great hall—great, that is, for a small castle (it would be extremely handsome in a modern house)—with tall, ecclesiastical-looking windows, and a long staircase at one end climbing against the wall into a spacious bedroom. You may still apprehend very well the main lines of that simpler life; and it must be said that, simpler though it was, it was apparently by no means destitute of many of our own conveniences. The chamber at the top of the staircase ascending from the hall is charming still, with its irregular shape, its low-browed ceiling, its cupboards in the walls, and its deep bay window formed of a series of small lattices. You can fancy people stepping out from it upon the platform of the staircase, whose rugged wooden logs, by way of steps, and solid, deeply-guttered hand-rail, still remain. They looked down into the hall, where, I take it, there was always a certain congregation of retainers, much lounging and waiting and passing to and fro, with a door open into the court. The court, as I said just now, was not the grassy, æsthetic spot which you may find it at present of a summer's day: there were beasts tethered in it, and hustling men-at-arms, and the earth was trampled into puddles. But my lord or my lady, looking down from the chamber-door, could pick out the man wanted and bawl down an order, with a threat to fling something at his head if it were not instantly performed. The sight of the groups on the floor beneath, the calling up and down, the oaken tables spread, and the brazier in the middle,—all this seemed present again; and it was not difficult to pursue the historic vision through the rest of the building—through the portion which connected the great hall with the tower (here the confederate of the sketching young lady without had set up the peaceful three-legged engine of his craft); through the dusky, roughly circular rooms of the tower itself, and up the corkscrew staircase of the same to that most charming part of every old castle, where visions must leap away off the battlements to elude you—the sunny, breezy platform at the tower-top, the place where the castle-standard hung and the vigilant inmates surveyed the approaches. Here, always, you really overtake the impression of the place—here, in the sunny stillness, it seems to pause, panting a little, and give itself up.

It was not only at Stokesay—I have written the name at last, and I will not efface it—that I lingered a while on the quiet platform of the keep to enjoy the complete impression so overtaken. I spent such another half hour at Ludlow, which is a much grander and more famous monument. Ludlow, however, is a ruin—the most impressive and magnificent of ruins. The charming old town and the admirable castle form a capital object of pilgrimage. Ludlow is an excellent example of a small English provincial town that has not been soiled and disfigured by industry: I remember there no tall chimneys and smoke-streamers, with their attendant purlieus and slums. The little city is perched upon a hill near which the goodly Severn wanders, and it has a noticeable air of civic dignity. Its streets are wide and clean, empty and a little grass-grown, and bordered with spacious, soberly-ornamental brick houses, which look as if there had been more going on in them in the first decade of the century than there is in the present, but which can still, nevertheless, hold up their heads and keep their window-panes clear, their knockers brilliant and their doorsteps whitened. The place looks as if seventy years ago it had been the centre of a large provincial society, and as if that society had been very "good of its kind." It must have transported itself to Ludlow for the season—in rumbling coaches and heavyish curricles—and there entertained itself in decent emulation of that metropolis which a choice of railway-lines had not as yet placed within its immediate reach. It had balls at the assembly-rooms; it had Mrs. Siddons to play; it had Catalani to sing. Miss Austin's and Miss Edgeworth's heroines might perfectly well have had their first love-affair there: a journey to Ludlow would certainly have been a great event to Fanny Price or Anne Eliot, to Helen or Belinda. It is a place on which a provincial "gentry" has left a sensible stamp. I have seldom seen so good a collection of houses of the period between the elder picturesqueness and the modern baldness. Such places, such houses, such relics and intimations, always carry me back to the near antiquity of that pre-Victorian England which it is still easy for a stranger to picture with a certain vividness, thanks to the partial survival of many of its characteristics. It is still easy for a stranger who has stayed a while in England to form an idea of the tone, the habits, the aspect of English social life before its classic insularity had begun to wane, as all observers agree that it did, about thirty years ago. It is true that the mental operation in this matter reduces itself to fancying some of the things which form what Mr. Matthew Arnold would call the peculiar "notes" of England infinitely exaggerated—the rigidly aristocratic constitution of society, for instance; the unæsthetic temper of the people; the private character of most kinds of comfort and entertainment. Let an old gentleman of conservative tastes, who can remember the century's youth, talk to you at a club temporis acti—tell you wherein it is that from his own point of view London, as a residence for a gentleman, has done nothing but fall off for the last forty years. You will listen, of course, with an air of decent sympathy, but privately you will be saying to yourself how difficult a place of sojourn London must have been in those days for a stranger—how little cosmopolitan, how bound, in a thousand ways, with narrowness of custom. What is true of the metropolis at that time is of course doubly true of the provinces; and a genteel little city like the one I am speaking of must have been a kind of focus of insular propriety. Even then, however, the irritated alien would have had the magnificent ruins of the castle to dream himself back into good-humor in. They would effectually have transported him beyond all waning or waxing Philistinisms.

Ludlow Castle is an example of a great feudal fortress, as the little castellated manor I spoke of a while since is an example of a small one. The great courtyard at Ludlow is as large as the central square of a city, but now it is all vacant and grassy, and the day I was there a lonely old horse was tethered and browsing in the middle of it. The place is in extreme dilapidation, but here and there some of its more striking features have held well together, and you may get a very sufficient notion of the immense scale upon which things were ordered in the day of its strength. It must have been garrisoned with a small army, and the vast enceinte must have enclosed a stalwart little world. Such an impression of thickness and duskiness as one still gets from fragments of partition and chamber—such a sense of being well behind something, well out of the daylight and its dangers—of the comfort of the time having been security, and security incarceration! There are prisons within the prison—horrible unlighted caverns of dismal depth, with holes in the roof through which Heaven knows what odious refreshment was tossed down to the poor groping détenu. There is nothing, surely, that paints one side of the Middle Ages more vividly than this fact that fine people lived in the same house with their prisoners, and kept the key in their pocket. Fancy the young ladies of the family working tapestry in their "bower" with the knowledge that at the bottom of the corkscrew staircase one of their papa's enemies was sitting month after month in mouldy midnight! But Ludlow Castle has brighter associations than these, the chief of which I should have mentioned at the outset. It was for a long period the official residence of the governors—the "lords presidents" they were called—of the Marches of Wales, and it was in the days of its presidential splendor that Milton's Comus was acted in the great hall. Wandering about in shady corners of the ruin, it is the echo of that enchanting verse that we should try to catch, and not the faint groans of some encaverned malefactor. Other verse was also produced at Ludlow—verse, however, of a less sonorous quality. A portion of Samuel Butler's Hudibras was composed there. Let me add that the traveller who spends a morning at Ludlow will naturally have come thither from Shrewsbury, of which place I have left myself no space to speak, though it is worth, and well worth, an allusion. Shrewsbury is a museum of beautiful old gabled, cross-timbered house-fronts.