My Salieri Complex
by Marina Julia Neary
An Untold Story of Griffin and Kemp
(dedicated to H.G. Wells)
University College, London, 1884
"Awake, Samuel! Boarding with a genius will not transform you into one."
That was the voice of reason, one that guided me through most of my career. Yet another voice, one of superstition and vanity, tried to persuade me of the opposite. How I wished to believe that a fraction of Jonathan Griffin's brilliance could project onto me if I only spent enough time in his vicinity! I fancied our brains being like two communicating vessels, with grandiose theories and mysteries passing between them. Little by little, that toxic swamp of self-flattering fantasies sucked me in.
Griffin, a native of Cardiff, was almost three years younger than I but only one year behind in his coursework. He transferred to University College in the autumn of 1883, allegedly to study medicine. I emphasize the word "allegedly". From the very beginning I had serious doubts that this man had any intention of treating patients for the rest of his life. As I learned later, medicine was the profession of his father's choice. Griffin feigned compliance only to gain access to London's best library and laboratory. He took most interest in optical density and refraction index, two topics that had very little to do with medicine.
We enrolled in the same physics seminar led by Professor Handley, my intellectual father, who promised me an assistant's position after my graduation as well as the hand of his daughter Elizabeth. Everyone in the department regarded me as Professor Handley's heir, the future king of the laboratory. At least, that was the case until Griffin's arrival. In one week this eighteen-year old boy with a Welsh accent toppled the hierarchy that had been in place since my first solo demonstration in 1881. When Griffin would enter the lecture hall, all the chatter would cease and then turn into a collective sigh of veneration.
It happened so quickly that I did not even have enough time to grow suspicious, or indignant, or bitter. He snatched my invisible crown and placed it on his perfectly shaped head, atop a cloud of snow-white curls.
Griffin was the only albino I had ever encountered. At first he struck me as a member of an entirely different race, one that Darwin and Kingsley would declare as superior to their own, a race untainted by unnecessary pigment. Later I learned that the condition had its disadvantages. Griffin's eyes, garnet-red, were extremely sensitive to the light, obliging him to wear spectacles made of tinted glass and a hat. Between those eyes a permanent crease was forming, growing deeper by the month. I studied that crease furtively, as if it were some hieroglyph, a clue to the mysteries of his mind.
As a child I suffered from respiratory distress. The slightest physical exertion caused me to pant and wheeze, cutting me off from the games of my sturdier peers. No, they did not taunt me. They simply refused to acknowledge my existence. At the time I would have preferred open ridicule to utter indifference. I found consolation in corresponding with Robert Louis Stevenson, who had also had a "weak chest" and spent much of his childhood in sickbed. He had shared with me the early drafts of his novels and poems. I read "The Treasure Island" long before it was published. His bewildering adventures distracted me from my affliction, provided me with an opportunity to step out of my treacherous, uncooperative body. By the age of sixteen I had reconciled with the thought that I would have no companions save for the merry crew of the schooner Hispaniola.
All that changed when I came to University College and discovered that in matters of intellect I surpassed most of my peers. Suddenly, my physical infirmities became inconsequential. A former outcast, I became the most sought-after individual in the entire medical department. My peers, who snubbed me during my adolescence, now fought for a chance to have me for a study partner. They rapped on the door of my flat, attempted subtle bribes, invited me to family outings. For once, I had the power of rejecting one companion in favor of another. I think back to the winter of 1881 and the succession of triumphs: my first public demonstration before the entire department, my first dinner at Professor Handley's house, my first evening with Elizabeth without a chaperone. Unnoticeably to myself, I outgrew my malady. This spontaneous recovery prompted me to make a vow to God that I would devote my life to treating the ailments of the lungs.
Then the white-haired Welshman barged into my kingdom, and my wheezing attacks returned, with doubled intensity. When I was near him, I lacked for air. Griffin was stealing oxygen from me. As slender as he was, as few personal possessions as he had, somehow he occupied most of the two-bedroom flat that we shared. Every corner bore the mark of his presence. Some elusive spirit reigned there, leaving very little space for me.
Griffin's bedroom served as his personal laboratory where he would continue his experiments into midnight. His dowry included an assortment of glass tubes in which he would heat and mix various chemicals. I knew better than to pry into the nature of Griffin's experiments, but I suspected it was the fume seeping from under the closed door of his bedroom that triggered my coughing attacks.
Still, I had no grounds for complaints, as there was nothing criminal about Griffin's behavior. Who can fault a science student for diligence? If his work stirred my old illness, it was my private ordeal. Remains of pride forbade me to vocalize my growing discontent. Most of all I feared being accused of having a Salieri complex. There was nothing left for me to do except drive my anger deep into my inflamed chest. When the tightness in the lungs became unbearable, I would simply go outside or wander the corridors of the residence hall.
Nobody ever found out how many nights I spent on the cushions in the lounge. And nobody found out about the tempest inside my head. It was not my crown that I missed -- it was my freedom. I learned what it meant to be a spiritual captive of another human being.
I knew that when my schoolmates knocked on our door, it was most likely for Griffin, not me. Rarely would he deign to come out of his sanctuary and greet them. Usually he would remain behind the closed door upon which our schoolmates would throw furtive, longing glances. With the immediacy of small children they would elbow each other and whisper.
"How long can he toy with explosives?"
"I know: he's making a bride for himself."
"No, he's building a time machine."
"Stop reading so much Jules Verne, dearest. It will do your pretty little head no good."
"At least I can read, unlike some of us."
"I tell you, albinos are all evil. It's a mark of the Devil."
"Listen to you! Sounding like you're straight from Oxford. Believing in the devil is no longer fashionable."
"Well, if the Devil exists, Griffin is his incarnation."
"Bah, you're just envious!"
"I say, he's dissecting rats."
"Bosh! One doesn't need to go to a university for that."
"This is no university. It's a glorified butchery."
"Gentlemen, is it just my imagination, or does Griffin's hair look a bit whiter than it was before? I didn't think it was possible. And his skin! Did you see his skin? It's translucent. You can see the veins and everything."
"Here's an idea. Why don't you knock on his door and ask him?"
"Like hell I will! You knock first."
"No, after you!"
Those were the typical conversations. Griffin this, Griffin that...
Yes, they still consulted me on academic matters. I convinced myself that they were doing it out of habit, or duty, or, perhaps, pity.
And yes, I was still welcome at Professor Handley's dinner table, but so was Griffin, although he did not take advantage of this privilege frequently. On those rare occasions when he joined us, Elizabeth would become noticeably distracted. She would study Griffin's face, as deliberately and as blatantly as her upbringing allowed, while he remained oblivious to her presence. He spoke very little and ate even less. Between courses he scribbled in his notebook with which he never parted. His colorless lips kept moving, whispering formulas. His garnet eyes would squint and widen, as if from flashes of light. In those moments he resembled a monk immersed in perpetual prayer. And Elizabeth would sigh and smile sadly. Apparently, the white-haired genius struck a chord that I never had. Not that it mattered to me. One more defeat made no difference.
Handley, delighted to now have two adopted sons, nurtured his own designs. One Friday afternoon, towards the end of the seminar, he suggested before the whole group that Griffin and I should collaborate on a study.
Science professors cannot boast about being the most tactful men in the world. This is no earth-shattering revelation. Handley was no exception to the rule.
"Every semester my students grip each other by the throats for a chance to partner with Samuel Kemp," he said, beaming at his own ingenuity. "This time I decided to try a different approach. I will remove both Kemp and Griffin from the battle and assign them to each other. It would be presumptuous on my behalf to speak for the entire University College, but personally I am very anxious to see what miracles these two brilliant young men can concoct together."
For a few seconds everyone in the hall ceased breathing and looked at Griffin, for he, apparently, had the final say.
"Is this a mandate?" he inquired, tapping his lips with the tip of his pencil.
"Not at all," Handley reassured him hastily, "merely an unobtrusive proposal. Since you and Samuel Kemp already spend a considerable amount of time under the same roof, perhaps, you would use this time more constructively, for the benefit of your respective careers."
Griffin straightened out and clutched his notebook to his chest.
"If this is a mere proposal, then I fear I must politely decline it, Professor. You see, I am not quite ready to share my work with anyone, even Samuel Kemp -- with all due regard."
There was no deliberate hostility in his voice. Still, his declaration solicited a number of stifled gasps from the audience. What? The earth stopped spinning. Samuel Kemp received his first outward rejection! Now everyone was staring at me.
My chest tightened. I felt a sudden need to unbutton my collar. The prospect of having a coughing attack in front of my schoolmates petrified me. God be my witness, I tried not to be angry with Handley. Nor did I doubt his benevolence. The man sincerely believed his idea brilliant.
"Professor," I mumbled, raising a sweaty, trembling hand. "I was about to present the same objection, but Mr. Griffin preceded me. I believe it is in everyone's best interests that we work separately. Following his example, I will take no partner this semester. I would like to think that I have earned my autonomy."
Handley looked perplexed, not heartbroken.
"Who am I to argue with geniuses?"
He turned his back to us and began wiping the blackboard, letting everyone know that the class was dismissed.
Several weeks went by. I remained faithful to my promise to work alone for the semester, spending my time in the mezzanine of the library, avoiding my schoolmates and Handley in particular. The date of my graduation was approaching, which meant I needed to start thinking about my impending marriage. Elizabeth had begun making wedding preparations, and I had no idea what that ceremony entailed. She had mentioned names of places, churches and reception halls, I had never heard of. In truth, my knowledge of London outside Bloomsbury was rather sketchy. I simply never had a reason to leave the cluster of buildings that comprised University College.
One Sunday evening, after the library had closed and I returned into my flat, something unthinkable happened. Griffin emerged from his laboratory and actually spoke to me.
"Samuel," he began with uncharacteristic softness.
I shuddered at the sound of his voice and pinched myself. Griffin had never addressed me, let alone by my given name.
"I was made aware of the inconvenience I have caused you over the past few months," he continued. "I did not know until recently that my experiments were harming your health. You should've informed me at once. And then that horrid incident at the lecture hall! Handley took me by surprise. I suppose, I haven't grown accustomed to his antics. That buffoon of a man..."
I interrupted him quite coldly.
"You were about to say -- "
Did Griffin truly believe it will take a few words of gossip to melt the ice?
"I was about to say that an apology would not be out of place."
"An apology?" I asked, shaking my head in confusion. "From me to you, I suppose?"
"Samuel, I would be honored to have you for a study partner. I was simply waiting for the appropriate moment to initiate you into my discoveries. I did not wish to do it before the entire class. Most of our schoolmates are sheep. But you know that already, don't you? Listen, I'm very glad that I met you, even in a place like this, amidst this bureaucratic circus."
I opened my mouth, but no words came out, only a hoarse wheeze. The glass tubes on the shelf began to blur.
"We have much to discuss, Samuel. It will take some time."
"Honestly, I'm flattered," I muttered, wiping the sweat off my cheeks and neck. "However, I meant what I said in the lecture hall. It isn't in our best interests to collaborate. You see plainly that I am in no state to argue with you. I simply don't have enough air in my lungs. Let us leave things as they are. Please, excuse me."
I turned around, preparing to leave, but Griffin, my idol, my tormentor, stepped towards me and caught me by the shoulders.
"I need one full night to work," he continued, as if he had not heard my objections. "Come back in the morning, and I will be ready to share my findings with you. This will be the last inconvenience to which you'll be subjected, one last favor. It will be worth your wait, Sam. I promise."
Losing footing, I leaned forward and buried my face on his chest, convinced that I was dying. The fumes from his shirt and his white hair were poisoning me. It was the first time we came into physical contact. Before then he had not as much as shaken my hand. Even on the verge of a swoon I could not help noticing how hot his skin was. Any other human being would be delirious at such body temperature. The protein in the blood begins to curdle at forty-two Celsius. It was one of the first facts I learned in my medical coursework. And Griffin's temperature must have been close to forty-five. But then, he was no ordinary human being. His body chemistry must have been different, either from birth or as result of mysterious manipulations on his part. And now this alien creature was embracing me, trying to cajole me into his plot.
Terrified and jubilant at the same time, I threw my arms around his neck and clung to him, coughing and laughing.
Suddenly, I heard him whisper.
"Collect yourself, Samuel."
It was neither a plea nor an attempt to comfort me but an order. Of course, he had no time for this.
Still panting, I released him. He escorted me to the door and, with a slap on the back, pushed me into the dark hall.
"Good night, Samuel."
When I came to my senses, I was walking down Gower Street, where every stone in the pavement was familiar to me. Over the last few months I had learned the pattern of the cobblestone. Those clusters of ovals and lopsided rectangles had turned into a mosaic of bewilderment and muffled fury. But that night I felt strange heat radiating from those stones, like the heat from Jonathan's hands. Those stones were alive. They whispered to me, as I was still trying to make sense of the sudden reversal of fate.
He and I... How blind, how inattentive we both had been!
I must confess that the promise of partnership and camaraderie with Jonathan thrilled me more than my engagement to Elizabeth. Her acceptance of my proposal held no triumph for me. I never pursued her aggressively, and she never resisted. One evening Professor Handley, as unceremonious a matchmaker as he was a peacemaker, simply seated us side by side at the dinner table. It was a marriage of reverence that we shared for her father. When we said "yes", it was not so much to each other but to Professor Handley.
Elizabeth was sturdy and well-mannered, though not remarkably beautiful, not in the same sense that Jonathan was. Before meeting him, I had never regarded other human beings as beautiful or ugly. My aesthetic sensibilities awakened fairly late. Suddenly, I discovered the desire to look at another face, marveling at the clean, elongated lines of the profile and the exquisite translucency of skin. It struck me as strange that the elation, the source of which should have been Elizabeth, was instead sparked by Jonathan. Strange, but not in any way wrong.
In the morning, when I stopped by our flat to change my shirt and fetch my textbooks, I found Jonathan's room empty. I assumed I would meet him in the lecture hall. I could not help wondering how we would behave in front of our schoolmates. Would we publicize our newly formed friendship? Perhaps, he would prefer to keep it a secret and then stun the entire department at the end of the semester.
I have witnessed, on more than one occasion, scenes of jubilation when study partners, after receiving an award for a successful demonstration, would hang on each other's necks, skip, squeal like pups and kiss each other "on the brain" as the called it. Then they would rip off their ties and give each other back rides up and down the hall, to the applause of their mates. It was a chance for these future high priests of science to temporarily turn into savages. Thankfully, they did not practice such boorish antics with me, knowing my distaste for them. Perhaps, I had a stricter upbringing. Undoubtedly, even the most civilized men need a released, especially if it is well-earned. Still, I could not fathom embracing Jonathan by the shoulders in public, no matter how much I wanted to.
When I entered the lecture hall, I saw Handley's assistant. The professor himself was absent. So was Griffin.
When the assistant saw me, he pulled me aside.
"Mr. Kemp, Professor Handley wishes to see you in his office."
The request to see the professor in private did not disturb me. I could not recall doing anything that would lead to repercussions. I assumed that the nature of the conversation would be purely academic. Perhaps, Griffin informed Handley about our decision to collaborate and requested some funds from the department.
With a fairly light heart, I came into Handley's office. He was there in the company of another professor by the name of Ellsworth.
"Please, sit down," Handley commanded, pointing at a vacant armchair. "I am afraid I have some disturbing news. Your flat mate Griffin was taken to the infirmary earlier this morning, in a very grave condition."
"God help him," I mumbled, sitting down on the edge of the chair. "What happened?"
"Nobody knows for certain. He won't talk to the doctor. He exhibits every symptom of severe poisoning: vomiting, pallor, listlessness, reduced circulation in the limbs."
"Well, can I see him?"
"Not yet. The doctors insist on keeping him secluded."
"Why on earth?"
Here Ellsworth intruded.
"Samuel, do you know why we called you here?"
"Because I am Jonathan's friend, naturally."
"How odd," Ellsworth commented, rubbing his chin. "I did not think that Jonathan had any friends. But he certainly had his share of enviers. The doctors have reasons to believe that what he is suffering from is no ordinary infection. There is evidence of highly toxic substance in his bloodstream. The director is contemplating bringing in the constable, who may wish to question those with whom Griffin has had contact. We wanted to prepare you for this possibility. You may be among the first ones to be interrogated."
Had I had any strength left in my legs, I would have leaped up from the chair. All I could do was press my fingers into the wooden arms.
"Don't fear, Samuel, we aren't trying to incriminate you," Handley chimed in hastily. "On the contrary, we are trying to protect you."
"I know what made Griffin ill," I blurted out, staring into the floor. "He drank one of his concoctions."
The professors shook their heads in tandem.
"You aren't implying that it was a suicide attempt, are you?" asked Ellsworth.
"Nothing of the sort! It was an experiment."
"Yes! The substance he took was supposed to destroy the pigment in his blood without altering its properties. I've heard him mumble formulas in his sleep. Pigments, optical density, refraction index, transparency of living tissues, radiation machine..."
The professors assumed the same pose -- arms crossed, heads tilted. As I continued, Handley's eyebrow kept arching steeper and steeper.
"So, what was the objective of his experiments?" he inquired. "In your opinion, what was Griffin trying to accomplish?"
Handley's dimwittedness infuriated me indescribably. How long would it take him to assemble the pieces of the puzzle?
"Gentlemen," I said, struggling to keep my voice steady, "is it not obvious that Griffin's goal was to turn invisible?"
Both professors burst out laughing. Handley was so amused that he needed to pour himself a glass of water from the carafe on his desk.
"Scientific impossibility aside," he resumed after the first sip, "why would a young man endowed with Griffin's appearance wish to make himself invisible? I couldn't help noticing the effect he has on the fair sex."
"Griffin doesn't care about women!" I exclaimed. "You don't understand. He doesn't care about anyone, least of all himself. He will risk his life for his work. I've grown to know Griffin like no other. You can laugh at me now to your hearts' content. You didn't stand behind the closed door of his bedroom for hours, listening to him rant in his sleep. Please, let me see him. I can persuade him to let the doctors treat him. He'll listen to me. We can save him. I've been thinking of little less for the past four months."
My eyes must have been tearing, because Handley offered me his handkerchief. Ellsworth leaned over to his colleague and mumbled loudly enough for me to hear.
"Something tells me that this is no longer a story of Mozart and Salieri. Rather, it is a story of Byron and Shelley."
Handley, who was not very versed in romantic literature, did not understand the allusion at once. He began chewing on his lower lip as he usually did to mask his ignorance.
"This would be far worse for the school's reputation," Ellsworth continued hissing in his ear. "Sensitive young men, when deprived of female companionship for prolonged stretches of time, can fall into all sorts of unwholesome, unnatural affections towards each other. Don't you know? In ancient Sparta..."
The more Ellsworth spoke, the more perplexed Handley grew. History was another subject outside of his expertise. Both carried on as if I were not present.
"Of what crime exactly am I being accused?" I asked at last, glancing up. "Let us be clear. Is it attempted murder or homosexuality?"
Now that was a word that Handley understood. His jaw dropped, and his hand grasped his tie as if it were choking him.
"Young man! Have you no shame?"
"Shame? Shouldn't you be posing this question to your colleague? A student is dying, and Professor Ellsworth revels in the most piquant practices of ancient Spartans. Apparently, that is where his mind dwells. Those night walks that he took down Gower Street with the drama professor must've led to Sparta. But who am I to judge? After all, this is a secular, liberal university, a cradle of progress. Still, all you care about is your precious reputation. It comes before everything, even science. And then you wonder why students hide from you."
Handley threw a plaintive glance at his colleague.
"My weak heart won't take it. I'm getting much too old for such an ordeal. What is happening to our institution? And above all, why is this happening on my watch? Two of my best students... After everything I've done for them! I gave Samuel a seat at my dinner table and my beautiful daughter in marriage. And this is his gratitude I receive!"
"Right before the end of the semester, too!" Ellsworth replied sympathetically.
"Let me see Griffin," I demanded through my teeth. "I don't care whom you drag into this. I will stand before the entire Scotland Yard if necessary. I have nothing to hide, and I don't need anyone's protection."
Handley pulled his tie off his neck and wrapped it around his fist.
"Go," he muttered half-audibly, swinging the silk ribbon towards the door.
The drowsy nurse on duty barely stirred as I entered the chilly hall of the infirmary. All curtains were closed tight at Griffin's request, who was the only patient there that day. For a minute I lingered at his bedside, studying the outline of his scrawny body under the white sheet. He did not acknowledge my visit in any way, even though he was wide awake. His eyes were fixed on the ceiling, and his hands were still clutching his notebook.
A malicious thought flashed through my head. This was my opportunity to exact revenge, however superficial. I could threaten to expose his failed experiment to our schoolmates, to make him the laughing stock of the entire University College.
But that moment of gloating lasted only a second. I reminded myself that I was a doctor in training and, as such, took the liberty of feeling his forehead. Now, it was not much warmer to the touch than the metal bedpost. I estimated that his body temperature was barely hovering above thirty degrees.
Judging from the hue of his skin, his experiment was not a complete failure. He looked even paler than before, which led me to conclude that he succeeded at destroying some of the pigment in his red blood cells.
"What a shame, Samuel," he began, still staring upward.
His voice was surprisingly strong, given his wretched condition. He did not look defeated in the least.
"I had every intention of initiating you into my work," he continued, "but you simply can't keep your mouth shut."
"Neither can you," I retaliated, sitting down on the edge of his bed. "You ought to consider gagging yourself for the night."
"How much did you hear?"
"Enough to confirm my theory that you were not here to study medicine."
"I wish I could," he lamented. "Sometimes I wish I could take interest in something as mundane as medicine and practice it for the rest of my life. I wish I could be content with Handley for a professor and his homely daughter for a wife. But I'll never be like the others. I always suspected it, but when I came here, all doubt was removed. This is no place to practice science."
His head twitched on the pillow, and his gaze shifted to me. This sudden attempt to make eye contact threw me into a state of slight panic. I came close to jumping up from his bed. His icy hand released the notebook and seized my wrist.
"I must leave at once," he declared.
"Perhaps, it would be for the better," I muttered faintly. "No need to stay in a place where you feel stifled."
For an instant I thought that he was going to ask me to abandon everything and follow him, to the end of the world, wherever he was going. I don't know what made me think he would propose such a thing.
He released my wrist as suddenly as he seized it.
"By the way, you need not fear," I continued. "Nobody will find out."
"Oh, yes, they certainly will find out," Griffin objected. "The whole world will -- in due time. And those rotten hogs from the academia who scoffed at me will tremble. The whole world will tremble."
The whole world! Griffin despised it enough to want to hide himself from it, yet at the same time he coveted it enough to want to dominate it.
"Will I ever see you again?" I asked.
"Not if everything goes according to my plan. I'll be sure to visit you when my work is complete. You won't see me, but you'll hear my voice and feel my grip."
He arched his back on the mattress and laughed.
"Jonathan, you'll kill yourself!" I said, rising to my feet and backing away from his bed.
"Don't let your hopes soar."
Five days later Griffin left the university, citing poor health in his exit letter. One afternoon I returned from the lectures and found the flat cleared of his possessions except for one cracked tube that he left behind and which I kept it as a souvenir.
Once again, I could spend the nights under my roof without the fear of suffocating. Once again, I was the king of the laboratory. Not that it mattered anymore. My schoolmates began flocking back to me, their demeanor being apologetic, almost servile. I did not respond to their insinuations. Their voices blended into one indistinct buzz. The only voice I heard distinctly was that of my former flat mate. Jonathan succeeded at infecting me with his contempt for the University College. I began viewing that place with his eyes and feeling stifled there. Once my coronation site, it suddenly became my prison. Graduation could not come soon enough. I did complete my solo demonstration and even received an award which left me completely indifferent.
Needless to say, I never accepted the teaching position that Professor Handley had promised to me. Nor did I end up marrying Elizabeth. It was difficult to say which one of us was more relieved to break the engagement.
Stevenson continued writing to me, sending drafts of his stories and poems, but I never responded.
I felt that by continuing to love my respectable, philistine life that Jonathan despised so, I would somehow betray him. Perhaps, if I proved myself worthy and denounced all things ordinary, he would return to me and share his secrets at last. Those sentiments were completely absurd and ludicrous. I owed Griffin nothing. No man should have such power over another.
When nobody was watching, I would pinch, slap and shake myself, trying to break free from that bizarre vision of Jonathan, the white-haired, garnet-eyed angel dissolving into air.
© 2010 Marina Julia Neary
Bio: Marina Julia Neary is an award-winning historical essayist, multilingual arts and entertainment journalist, poet, playwright, actress, dancer and choreographer. Two of her plays based on the lives of historical figures have been staged in Greenwich (Connecticut) and Ney York; her poems have appeared in literary journals such as First Edition, Alimentum, and The Recorder, and her stories have been featured in Bewildering Stories, where she is now a member of the editorial staff. For more on Ms. Neary's various projects, visit M. J. Neary.
E-mail: Marina Julia Neary
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