The Ethics of the Dust, by John Ruskin

Lecture II.

The Pyramid Builders.

In the large Schoolroom, to which everybody has been summoned by ringing of the great bell.

L. So you have all actually come to hear about crystallisation! I cannot conceive why, unless the little ones think that the discussion may involve some reference to sugar-candy.

(Symptoms of high displeasure among the younger members of council. Isabel frowns severely at L., and shakes her head violently.)

My dear children, if you knew it, you are yourselves, at this moment, as you sit in your ranks, nothing, in the eye of a mineralogist, but a lovely group of rosy sugar-candy, arranged by atomic forces. And even admitting you to be something more, you have certainly been crystallising without knowing it. Did I not hear a great hurrying and whispering, ten minutes ago, when you were late in from the playground; and thought you would not all be quietly seated by the time I was ready:— besides some discussion about places — something about ‘it’s not being fair that the little ones should always be nearest?’ Well, you were then all being crystallised. When you ran in from the garden, and against one another in the passages, you were in what mineralogists would call a state of solution, and gradual confluence; when you got seated in those orderly rows, each in her proper place, you became crystalline. That is just what the atoms of a mineral do, if they can, whenever they get disordered: they get into order again as soon as may be.

I hope you feel inclined to interrupt me, and say, ‘But we know our places; how do the atoms know theirs? And sometimes we dispute about our places; do the atoms — (and, besides, we don’t like being compared to atoms at all) — never dispute about theirs?’ Two wise questions these, if you had a mind to put them! it was long before I asked them myself, of myself. And I will not call you atoms any more. May I call you — let me see — ‘primary molecules?’ (General dissent, indicated in subdued but decisive murmurs.) No! not even, in familiar Saxon, ‘dust?’

(Pause, with expression on faces of sorrowful doubt; Lily gives voice to the general sentiment in a timid ‘Please don’t.‘)

No, children, I won’t call you that; and mind, as you grow up, that you do not get into an idle and wicked habit of calling yourselves that. You are something better than dust, and have other duties to do than ever dust can do; and the bonds of affection you will enter into are better than merely ‘getting into order.’ But see to it, on the other hand, that you always behave at least as well as ‘dust;’ remember, it is only on compulsion, and while it has no free permission to do as it likes, that it ever gets out of order; but sometimes, with some of us, the compulsion has to be the other way — hasn’t it? (Remonstratory whispers, expressive of opinion that the Lecturer is becoming too personal.) I’m not looking at anybody in particular — indeed I am not. Nay, if you blush so, Kathleen, how can one help looking? We’ll go back to the atoms.

‘How do they know their places?’ you asked, or should have asked. Yes, and they have to do much more than know them: they have to find their way to them, and that quietly and at once, without running against each other.

We may, indeed, state it briefly thus:— Suppose you have to build a castle, with towers and roofs and buttresses, out of bricks of a given shape, and that these bricks are all lying in a huge heap at the bottom, in utter confusion, upset out of carts at random. You would have to draw a great many plans, and count all your bricks, and be sure you had enough for this and that tower, before you began, and then you would have to lay your foundation, and add layer by layer, in order, slowly.

But how would you be astonished, in these melancholy days, when children don’t read children’s books, nor believe any more in fairies, if suddenly a real benevolent fairy, in a bright brick-red gown, were to rise in the midst of the red bricks, and to tap the heap of them with her wand, and say: ‘Bricks, bricks, to your places!’ and then you saw in an instant the whole heap rise in the air, like a swarm of red bees, and — you have been used to see bees make a honeycomb, and to think that strange enough, but now you would see the honeycomb make itself! — You want to ask something, Florrie, by the look of your eyes.

Florrie. Are they turned into real bees, with stings?

L. No, Florrie; you are only to fancy flying bricks, as you saw the slates flying from the roof the other day in the storm; only those slates didn’t seem to know where they were going, and, besides, were going where they had no business: but my spell-bound bricks, though they have no wings, and what is worse, no heads and no eyes, yet find their way in the air just where they should settle, into towers and roofs, each flying to his place and fastening there at the right moment, so that every other one shall fit to him in his turn.

Lily. But who are the fairies, then, who build the crystals?

L. There is one great fairy, Lily, who builds much more than crystals; but she builds these also. I dreamed that I saw her building a pyramid, the other day, as she used to do, for the Pharaohs.

Isabel. But that was only a dream?

L. Some dreams are truer than some wakings, Isabel; but I won’t tell it you unless you like.

Isabel. Oh, please, please.

L. You are all such wise children, there’s no talking to you; you won’t believe anything.

Lily. No, we are not wise, and we will believe anything, when you say we ought.

L. Well, it came about this way. Sibyl, do you recollect that evening when we had been looking at your old cave by Cumæ, and wondering why you didn’t live there still; and then we wondered how old you were; and Egypt said you wouldn’t tell, and nobody else could tell but she; and you laughed — I thought very gaily for a Sibyl — and said you would harness a flock of cranes for us, and we might fly over to Egypt if we liked, and see.

Sibyl. Yes, and you went, and couldn’t find out after all!

L. Why, you know, Egypt had been just doubling that third pyramid of hers;1 and making a new entrance into it; and a fine entrance it was! First, we had to go through an ante-room, which had both its doors blocked up with stones; and then we had three granite portcullises to pull up, one after another; and the moment we had got under them, Egypt signed to somebody above; and down they came again behind us, with a roar like thunder, only louder; then we got into a passage fit for nobody but rats, and Egypt wouldn’t go any further herself, but said we might go on if we liked; and so we came to a hole in the pavement, and then to a granite trap-door — and then we thought we had gone quite far enough, and came back, and Egypt laughed at us.

Egypt. You would not have had me take my crown off, and stoop all the way down a passage fit only for rats?

L. It was not the crown, Egypt — you know that very well. It was the flounces that would not let you go any farther. I suppose, however, you wear them as typical of the inundation of the Nile, so it is all right.

Isabel. Why didn’t you take me with you? Where rats can go, mice can. I wouldn’t have come back.

L. No, mousie; you would have gone on by yourself, and you might have waked one of Pasht’s cats.2 and it would have eaten you. I was very glad you were not there. But after all this, I suppose the imagination of the heavy granite blocks and the underground ways had troubled me, and dreams are often shaped in a strange opposition to the impressions that have caused them; and from all that we had been reading in Bunsen about stones that couldn’t be lifted with levers, I began to dream about stones that lifted themselves with wings.

Sibyl. Now you must just tell us all about it.

L. I dreamed that I was standing beside the lake, out of whose clay the bricks were made for the great pyramid of Asychis.3 They had just been all finished, and were lying by the lake margin, in long ridges, like waves. It was near evening; and as I looked towards the sunset, I saw a thing like a dark pillar standing where the rock of the desert stoops to the Nile valley. I did not know there was a pillar there, and wondered at it; and it grew larger, and glided nearer, becoming like the form of a man, but vast, and it did not move its feet, but glided like a pillar of sand. And as it drew nearer, I looked by chance past it, towards the sun; and saw a silver cloud, which was of all the clouds closest to the sun (and in one place crossed it), draw itself back from the sun, suddenly. And it turned, and shot towards the dark pillar; leaping in an arch, like an arrow out of a bow. And I thought it was lightning; but when it came near the shadowy pillar, it sank slowly down beside it, and changed into the shape of a woman, very beautiful, and with a strength of deep calm in her blue eyes. She was robed to the feet with a white robe; and above that, to her knees, by the cloud which I had seen across the sun; but all the golden ripples of it had become plumes, so that it had changed into two bright wings like those of a vulture, which wrapped round her to her knees. She had a weaver’s shuttle hanging over her shoulder, by the thread of it, and in her left hand, arrows, tipped with fire.

Isabel (clapping her hands). Oh! it was Neith, it was Neith! I know now.

L. Yes; it was Neith herself; and as the two great spirits came nearer to me, I saw they were the Brother and Sister — the pillared shadow was the Greater Pthah.4 And I heard them speak, and the sound of their words was like a distant singing. I could not understand the words one by one; yet their sense came to me; and so I knew that Neith had come down to see her brother’s work, and the work that he had put into the mind of the king to make his servants do. And she was displeased at it; because she saw only pieces of dark clay: and no porphyry, nor marble, nor any fair stone that men might engrave the figures of the gods upon. And she blamed her brother, and said, ‘Oh, Lord of truth! is this then thy will, that men should mould only four-square pieces of clay: and the forms of the gods no more?’ Then the Lord of truth sighed, and said, ‘Oh! sister, in truth they do not love us; why should they set up our images? Let them do what they may, and not lie — let them make their clay four-square; and labour; and perish.’

Then Neith’s dark blue eyes grew darker, and she said, ‘Oh, Lord of truth! why should they love us? their love is vain; or fear us? for their fear is base. Yet let them testify of us, that they knew we lived for ever.’

But the Lord of truth answered, ‘They know, and yet they know not. Let them keep silence; for their silence only is truth.’

But Neith answered, ‘Brother, wilt thou also make league with Death, because Death is true? Oh! thou potter, who hast cast these human things from thy wheel, many to dishonour, and few to honour; wilt thou not let them so much as see my face; but slay them in slavery?’

But Pthah only answered, ‘Let them build, sister, let them build.’

And Neith answered, ‘What shall they build, if I build not with them?’

And Pthah drew with his measuring rod upon the sand. And I saw suddenly, drawn on the sand, the outlines of great cities, and of vaults, and domes, and aqueducts, and bastions, and towers, greater than obelisks, covered with black clouds. And the wind blew ripples of sand amidst the lines that Pthah drew, and the moving sand was like the marching of men. But I saw that wherever Neith looked at the lines, they faded, and were effaced.

‘Oh, Brother!’ she said at last, ‘what is this vanity? If I, who am Lady of wisdom, do not mock the children of men, why shouldst thou mock them, who art Lord of truth?’ But Pthah answered, ‘They thought to bind me; and they shall be bound. They shall labour in the fire for vanity.’

And Neith said, looking at the sand, ‘Brother, there is no true labour here — there is only weary life and wasteful death.’

And Pthah answered, ‘Is it not truer labour, sister, than thy sculpture of dreams?’

Then Neith smiled; and stopped suddenly.

She looked to the sun; its edge touched the horizon-edge of the desert. Then she looked to the long heaps of pieces of clay, that lay, each with its blue shadow, by the lake shore.

‘Brother,’ she said, ‘how long will this pyramid of thine be in building?’

‘Thoth will have sealed the scroll of the years ten times, before the summit is laid.’

‘Brother, thou knowest not how to teach thy children to labour,’ answered Neith. ‘Look! I must follow Phre beyond Atlas; shall I build your pyramid for you before he goes down?’ And Pthah answered, ‘Yea, sister, if thou canst put thy winged shoulders to such work.’ And Neith drew herself to her height; and I heard a clashing pass through the plumes of her wings, and the asp stood up on her helmet, and fire gathered in her eyes. And she took one of the flaming arrows out of the sheaf in her left hand, and stretched it out over the heaps of clay. And they rose up like flights of locusts, and spread themselves in the air, so that it grew dark in a moment. Then Neith designed them places with her arrow point; and they drew into ranks, like dark clouds laid level at morning. Then Neith pointed with her arrow to the north, and to the south, and to the east, and to the west, and the flying motes of earth drew asunder into four great ranked crowds; and stood, one in the north, and one in the south, and one in the east, and one in the west — one against another. Then Neith spread her wings wide for an instant, and closed them with a sound like the sound of a rushing sea; and waved her hand towards the foundation of the pyramid, where it was laid on the brow of the desert. And the four flocks drew together and sank down, like sea-birds settling to a level rock; and when they met, there was a sudden flame, as broad as the pyramid, and as high as the clouds; and it dazzled me; and I closed my eyes for an instant; and when I looked again, the pyramid stood on its rock, perfect; and purple with the light from the edge of the sinking sun.

The younger children (variously pleased). I’m so glad! How nice! But what did Pthah say?

L. Neith did not wait to hear what he would say. When I turned back to look at her, she was gone; and I only saw the level white cloud form itself again, close to the arch of the sun as it sank. And as the last edge of the sun disappeared, the form of Pthah faded into a mighty shadow, and so passed away.

Egypt. And was Neith’s pyramid left?

L. Yes; but you could not think, Egypt, what a strange feeling of utter loneliness came over me when the presence of the two gods passed away. It seemed as if I had never known what it was to be alone before; and the unbroken line of the desert was terrible.

Egypt. I used to feel that, when I was queen: sometimes I had to carve gods, for company, all over my palace. I would fain have seen real ones, if I could.

L. But listen a moment yet, for that was not quite all my dream. The twilight drew swiftly to the dark, and I could hardly see the great pyramid; when there came a heavy murmuring sound in the air; and a horned beetle, with terrible claws, fell on the sand at my feet, with a blow like the beat of a hammer. Then it stood up on its hind claws, and waved its pincers at me: and its fore claws became strong arms, and hands; one grasping real iron pincers, and the other a huge hammer; and it had a helmet on its head, without any eyelet holes, that I could see. And its two hind claws became strong crooked legs, with feet bent inwards. And so there stood by me a dwarf, in glossy black armour, ribbed and embossed like a beetle’s back, leaning on his hammer. And I could not speak for wonder; but he spoke with a murmur like the dying away of a beat upon a bell. He said, ‘I will make Neith’s great pyramid small. I am the lower Pthah; and have power over fire. I can wither the strong things, and strengthen the weak; and everything that is great I can make small, and everything that is little I can make great.’ Then he turned to the angle of the pyramid and limped towards it. And the pyramid grew deep purple; and then red like blood, and then pale rose-colour, like fire. And I saw that it glowed with fire from within. And the lower Pthah touched it with the hand that held the pincers; and it sank down like the sand in an hour-glass, — then drew itself together, and sank, still, and became nothing, it seemed to me; but the armed dwarf stooped down, and took it into his hand, and brought it to me, saying, ‘Everything that is great I can make like this pyramid; and give into men’s hands to destroy.’ And I saw that he had a little pyramid in his hand, with as many courses in it as the large one; and built like that, only so small. And because it glowed still, I was afraid to touch it; but Pthah said, ‘Touch it — for I have bound the fire within it, so that it cannot burn.’ So I touched it, and took it into my own hand; and it was cold; only red, like a ruby. And Pthah laughed, and became like a beetle again, and buried himself in the sand, fiercely; throwing it back over his shoulders. And it seemed to me as if he would draw me down with him into the sand; and I started back, and woke, holding the little pyramid so fast in my hand that it hurt me.

Egypt. Holding what in your hand?

L. The little pyramid.

Egypt. Neith’s pyramid?

L. Neith’s, I believe; though not built for Asychis. I know only that it is a little rosy transparent pyramid, built of more courses of bricks than I can count, it being made so small. You don’t believe me, of course, Egyptian infidel; but there it is. (Giving crystal of rose Fluor.)

(Confused examination by crowded audience, over each other’s shoulders and under each other’s arms. Disappointment begins to manifest itself.)

Sibyl (not quite knowing why she and others are disappointed). But you showed us this the other day!

L. Yes; but you would not look at it the other day.

Sibyl. But was all that fine dream only about this?

L. What finer thing could a dream be about than this! It is small, if you will; but when you begin to think of things rightly, the ideas of smallness and largeness pass away. The making of this pyramid was in reality just as wonderful as the dream I have been telling you, and just as incomprehensible. It was not, I suppose, as swift, but quite as grand things are done as swiftly. When Neith makes crystals of snow, it needs a great deal more marshalling of the atoms, by her flaming arrows, than it does to make crystals like this one; and that is done in a moment.

Egypt. But how you do puzzle us! Why do you say Neith does it? You don’t mean that she is a real spirit, do you?

L. What I mean, is of little consequence. What the Egyptians meant, who called her ‘Neith,’ — or Homer, who called her ‘Athena,’ — or Solomon, who called her by a word which the Greeks render as ‘Sophia,’ you must judge for yourselves. But her testimony is always the same, and all nations have received it: ‘I was by Him as one brought up with Him, and I was daily His delight; rejoicing in the habitable parts of the earth, and my delights were with the sons of men.’

Mary. But is not that only a personification?

L. If it be, what will you gain by unpersonifying it, or what right have you to do so? Cannot you accept the image given you, in its life; and listen, like children, to the words which chiefly belong to you as children: ‘I love them that love me, and those that seek me early shall find me?’

(They are all quiet for a minute or two; questions begin to appear in their eyes.)

I cannot talk to you any more to-day. Take that rose-crystal away with you and think.

1 ‘That third pyramid of hers.’

Throughout the dialogues, it must be observed that ‘Sibyl’ is addressed (when in play) as having once been the Cumæan Sibyl; and ‘Egypt’ as having been queen Nitocris, — the Cinderella, and ‘the greatest heroine and beauty’ of Egyptian story. The Egyptians called her ‘Neith the Victorious’ (Nitocris), and the Greeks ‘Face of the Rose’ (Rhodope). Chaucer’s beautiful conception of Cleopatra in the ‘Legend of Good Women,’ is much more founded on the traditions of her than on those of Cleopatra; and, especially in its close, modified by Herodotus’s terrible story of the death of Nitocris, which, however, is mythologically nothing more than a part of the deep monotonous ancient dirge for the fulfilment of the earthly destiny of Beauty; ‘She cast herself into a chamber full of ashes.’

I believe this Queen is now sufficiently ascertained to have either built, or increased to double its former size, the third pyramid of Gizeh: and the passage following in the text refers to an imaginary endeavour, by the Old Lecturer and the children together, to make out the description of that pyramid in the 167th page of the second volume of Bunsen’s ‘Egypt’s Place in Universal History’ — ideal endeavour, — which ideally terminates as the Old Lecturer’s real endeavours to the same end always have terminated. There are, however, valuable notes respecting Nitocris at page 210 of the same volume: but the ‘Early Egyptian History for the Young,’ by the author of Sidney Gray, contains, in a pleasant form, as much information as young readers will usually need.

2 ‘Pyramid of Asychis.’

This pyramid, in mythology, divides with the Tower of Babel the shame, or vain glory, of being presumptuously, and first among great edifices, built with ‘brick for stone.’ This was the inscription on it, according to Herodotus:—

‘Despise me not, in comparing me with the pyramids of stone; for I have the pre-eminence over them, as far as Jupiter has pre-eminence over the gods. For, striking with staves into the pool, men gathered the clay which fastened itself to the staff, and kneaded bricks out of it, and so made me.’

The word I have translated ‘kneaded’ is literally ‘drew;’ in the sense of drawing, for which the Latins used ‘duco;’ and thus gave us our ‘ductile’ in speaking of dead clay, and Duke, Doge, or leader, in speaking of living clay. As the asserted pre-eminence of the edifice is made, in this inscription, to rest merely on the quantity of labour consumed in it, this pyramid is considered, in the text, as the type, at once, of the base building, and of the lost labour, of future ages, so far at least as the spirits of measured and mechanical effort deal with it: but Neith, exercising her power upon it, makes it a type of the work of wise and inspired builders.

3 ‘The Greater Pthah.’

It is impossible, as yet, to define with distinctness the personal agencies of the Egyptian deities. They are continually associated in function, or hold derivative powers, or are related to each other in mysterious triads; uniting always symbolism of physical phenomena with real spiritual power. I have endeavoured partly to explain this in the text of the tenth Lecture: here, it is only necessary for the reader to know that the Greater Pthah more or less represents the formative power of order and measurement: he always stands on a four-square pedestal, ‘the Egyptian cubit, metaphorically used as the hieroglyphic for truth;’ his limbs are bound together, to signify fixed stability, as of a pillar; he has a measuring-rod in his hand; and at Philæ, is represented as holding an egg on a potter’s wheel; but I do not know if this symbol occurs in older sculptures. His usual title is the ‘Lord of Truth.’ Others, very beautiful: ‘King of the Two Worlds, of Gracious Countenance,’ ‘Superintendent of the Great Abode,’ &c., are given by Mr. Birch in Arundale’s ‘Gallery of Antiquities,’ which I suppose is the book of best authority easily accessible. For the full titles and utterances of the gods, Rosellini is as yet the only — and I believe, still a very questionable — authority; and Arundale’s little book, excellent in the text, has this great defect, that its drawings give the statues invariably a ludicrous or ignoble character. Readers who have not access to the originals must be warned against this frequent fault in modern illustration (especially existing also in some of the painted casts of Gothic and Norman work at the Crystal Palace). It is not owing to any wilful want of veracity: the plates in Arundale’s book are laboriously faithful: but the expressions of both face and body in a figure depend merely on emphasis of touch; and, in barbaric art, most draughtsmen emphasise what they plainly see — the barbarism; and miss conditions of nobleness, which they must approach the monument in a different temper before they will discover, and draw with great subtlety before they can express.

The character of the Lower Pthah, or perhaps I ought rather to say, of Pthah in his lower office, is sufficiently explained in the text of the third Lecture; only the reader must be warned that the Egyptian symbolism of him by the beetle was not a scornful one; it expressed only the idea of his presence in the first elements of life. But it may not unjustly be used, in another sense, by us, who have seen his power in new development; and, even as it was, I cannot conceive that the Egyptians should have regarded their beetle-headed image of him (Champollion, ‘Pantheon,’ pl. 12), without some occult scorn. It is the most painful of all their types of any beneficent power; and even among those of evil influences, none can be compared with it, except its opposite, the tortoise-headed demon of indolence.

4 Pasht (p. 24, line 32) is connected with the Greek Artemis, especially in her offices of judgment and vengeance. She is usually lioness-headed; sometimes cat-headed; her attributes seeming often trivial or ludicrous unless their full meaning is known; but the enquiry is much too wide to be followed here. The cat was sacred to her; or rather to the sun, and secondarily to her. She is alluded to in the text because she is always the companion of Pthah (called ‘the beloved of Pthah,’ it may be as Judgment, demanded and longed for by Truth); and it may be well for young readers to have this fixed in their minds, even by chance association. There are more statues of Pasht in the British Museum than of any other Egyptian deity; several of them fine in workmanship; nearly all in dark stone, which may be, presumably, to connect her, as the moon, with the night; and in her office of avenger, with grief.

Thoth (p. 27, line 17), is the Recording Angel of Judgment; and the Greek Hermes Phre (line 20), is the Sun.

Neith is the Egyptian spirit of divine wisdom; and the Athena of the Greeks. No sufficient statement of her many attributes, still less of their meanings, can be shortly given; but this should be noted respecting the veiling of the Egyptian image of her by vulture wings — that as she is, physically, the goddess of the air, this bird, the most powerful creature of the air known to the Egyptians, naturally became her symbol. It had other significations; but certainly this, when in connection with Neith. As representing her, it was the most important sign, next to the winged sphere, in Egyptian sculpture; and, just as in Homer, Athena herself guides her heroes into battle, this symbol of wisdom, giving victory, floats over the heads of the Egyptian kings. The Greeks, representing the goddess herself in human form, yet would not lose the power of the Egyptian symbol, and changed it into an angel of victory. First seen in loveliness on the early coins of Syracuse and Leontium, it gradually became the received sign of all conquest, and the so-called ‘Victory’ of later times; which, little by little, loses its truth, and is accepted by the moderns only as a personification of victory itself, — not as an actual picture of the living Angel who led to victory. There is a wide difference between these two conceptions, — all the difference between insincere poetry, and sincere religion. This I have also endeavoured farther to illustrate in the tenth Lecture; there is however one part of Athena’s character which it would have been irrelevant to dwell upon there; yet which I must not wholly leave unnoticed.

As the goddess of the air, she physically represents both its beneficent calm, and necessary tempest: other storm-deities (as Chrysaor and Æolus) being invested with a subordinate and more or less malignant function, which is exclusively their own, and is related to that of Athena as the power of Mars is related to hers in war. So also Virgil makes her able to wield the lightning herself, while Juno cannot, but must pray for the intervention of Æolus. She has precisely the correspondent moral authority over calmness of mind, and just anger. She soothes Achilles, as she incites Tydides; her physical power over the air being always hinted correlatively. She grasps Achilles by his hair — as the wind would lift it — softly,

‘It fanned his cheek, it raised his hair,

Like a meadow gale in spring.’

She does not merely turn the lance of Mars from Diomed; but seizes it in both her hands, and casts it aside, with a sense of making it vain, like chaff in the wind; — to the shout of Achilles, she adds her own voice of storm in heaven — but in all cases the moral power is still the principal one — most beautifully in that seizing of Achilles by the hair, which was the talisman of his life (because he had vowed it to the Sperchius if he returned in safety), and which, in giving at Patroclus’ tomb, he, knowingly, yields up the hope of return to his country, and signifies that he will die with his friend. Achilles and Tydides are, above all other heroes, aided by her in war, because their prevailing characters are the desire of justice, united in both with deep affections; and, in Achilles, with a passionate tenderness, which is the real root of his passionate anger. Ulysses is her favourite chiefly in her office as the goddess of conduct and design.

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