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A White Heron
A BUSINESS MAN.
Sarah Orne Jewett
If a man chooses a profession it is, or ought to be, with other desires than that of growing rich. He may wish to be skillful and learned as a means of self-development and helping his fellow-men, and if he is successful nobody has a right to sneer at him because he does not make a fortune. But when most men enter a mercantile life it is with the acknowledged purpose of making money. The world has a right, too, to look on with interest to find what they do with their money afterward. Dollars are of primary consideration to the standing of a business man, and are only secondary to a clergyman or a doctor - that is, when one judges by public rather than private conditions and indications of success. Yet the money-getter may win great wealth, and fail completely of reaching his highest value, and reward, and satisfaction as a human being.
People often said that there was something in the blood of the Cravens (their true name shall be a secret) which hungered for possession and was always seeking to gratify its love of acquisition. John Craven, the proud inheritor of a name already well known in business circles, certainly loved the thought of his thousands and hundred thousands. He felt a vast pleasure in letting his eyes glance down the columns of figures in his private account-book - a gratified sense of security and abundance which none of the fruits of his wealth had power to bestow. The fine house in which he lived, his handsome young children, all failed to be so completely rewarding to his eye and heart as the special page or two where the chief items of his property were represented by straight-stemmed fours and ones and delicately-curved threes and sixes and nines. He was a man who never directly wronged any one, but who was determined to succeed and to make money. He thought little of his personal relation to society, and still less of his relation to the next world. All his mind was bent upon making a splendid financial success, and though early in life this end was gained, he still went on planning great gains and glories, and looked upon himself as one of the younger business men of his city, until long after he was a grandfather.
Then the tide of satisfaction seemed at last to turn. One thing after another forced him to waver and to hesitate in these great manipulations of his capital. Mr. Craven was keen and quick to grasp his business opportunities, but little things annoyed him, and he became sensitive where once he had been indifferent. He was just transferring his chief office and warehouse to a noble new building, when for the first time in his life he became seriously ill, and from necessity his eldest son was promoted temporarily to the head of the business.
It was a strange surprise when the family physician told him that he could no longer bear what he could once; that a man of his years must favor himself; and finally advised that a few months in Europe would do him the much needed good. John Craven was startled and angry at first; he had always looked forward to such a holiday, and had already enjoyed foreign sights by proxy, since his family had crossed the ocean repeatedly, like other families of their social station. But this seemed to mean only that the girls wished to go again, and at first he emphatically refused to be made the victim of such a conspiracy.
When he visited his place of business, however, after his illness, he was made somewhat low spirited. The new warehouse was occupied now, and it was fatiguingly large and noisy. Young John was getting on very well; he might be all the more use by and by if he had the chance of trying his hand now. He could not do much mischief, the elder man thought, as he sank into his great cushioned chair with a little sigh. He had meant to give orders that his familiar desk and wooden armchair should be brought from the old counting-room, but it was too late now, and to be sure they would be quite out of place in all this magnificence of plate glass and mahogany. Yes, Jack was right; this new office was in keeping with the position of the firm, and the senior partner looked into his new safe with pride and approval, and complimented his son upon the way he had managed things. The old grandfather who had trained him used to sit on a high stool, and wear a green baize jacket, in the first dingy counting-room. "He started us - he started us," said John Craven to himself; then he felt a little shaky and sat down again, saying that he would not go through the house until next day, perhaps. He had hardly got back his strength, but Jack might bring the statements. There were a number of new clerks even in the inner office, and one had a crafty, small face. "I don't like that fellow's looks," he muttered. "Who got him here, I should like to know!" But Jack responded, with wounded pride, that this was the smartest book-keeper in New York; he had been trying to get him into their employ for a year.
Somehow, for the first time John Craven was conscious that he was getting to be old. He grumbled something about the boys pulling and hauling him and his affairs, and wishing him out of their way. The pomp of the new counting-room, the self-sufficiency of Jack, dazzled and angered him not a little. He had thought it indispensable to the welfare of this great business that he should not miss a day at his desk, all through the busiest times of the year. But here was the establishment running along on its manifold and ponderous track, just as well as if he had been at the post of guidance. Well, not every man had given his affairs such a good momentum; he had only followed out the founder's principles, too, and he thought again of the sturdy grandfather in the baize jacket. After all, it was good for the son and successor; he would stand well in the row of John Cravens. Jack was married and settled. He had as handsome a house as his father's,. a block higher up the avenue. The rascal had even grown a little patronizing of late, but John Craven, the elder, had no intention of being called an old man yet.
There were some questions to ask about the real estate investments that day, but Jack could not answer for these. Walter had been looking after that part of the property, and Walter was out of town. "So they had divided the responsibility between them, had they?" the father grumbled; but Jack brought a great handful of cheques and papers to be signed, and the two men lunched and joked together. The firm was already larger than the senior partner approved. It was no use to talk about adding another member. But Jack took advantage of his father's smiles to suggest the admission of a brother-in-law, the husband of the youngest daughter. "I'll think it over," replied the chief, turning to look for his penholder. "No, his capital is no inducement. We're carrying sail enough for the present, unless times change for the better."
Jack went back to his own desk a little annoyed. He did not like to give up his authority. Was it only a month since the old gentleman had been away? It seemed like a year.
John Craven took the doctor's advice, after all, and went to Europe. He had felt strangely weak and unequal to much effort ever since his illness, and he grasped at the promised renewal of his health. There was great satisfaction at meeting some of his old correspondents on the other side; he wholly enjoyed his journeyings, and was satisfied with the careful reports from home. He was proud, too, of some new outlooks and connections which he succeeded in forming. "In a business way," he was fond of saying to his wife, "the time had been well spent." But Mrs. Craven lost no chance of urging her husband to give up the business to the boys. He had overworked himself, she pleaded over and over again, it was no use to break down his health altogether. He knew very well now that he could not bear what he could once. The truth was, the ways of doing business were changing - these submarine telegraphs were doing as much harm as good. The time had gone by when a man could get private advices of a rise in values, and quickly increase his stock to control the market. Now, what one knew the rest knew, and it was simply a question of who could sell cheapest. John Craven talked it over again and again with idling merchants like himself.
Not long after their return the great sorrow of his life came to him in his wife's death. It was harder to bear the loss then than it ever could have been before.[,] They had loved each other with a sober, undemonstrative affection, which was as permanent and unquestioned as the air they breathed. In the earlier years, while he was immersed, as he often said, in business cares, and the good woman was careful and troubled about many things, - her growing children, her household, and her social relations, - they had gone their separate ways without much reference to each other, satisfied with a mutual confidence and inspiration. For the first time in these later months they had sometimes spent all the hours of the days together, and had been more lover-like and affectionate than ever before. They sometimes talked in the long twilights of the English lakes or the soft sunshine of Italy about what they would do together when they reached home; and John Craven felt less annoyance at the thought of his boys' business capacity. He would have more time at home than ever before; he even grew interested in his wife's small charitable enterprises, and lent a willing ear to her confidences, and knew at last what good his generous cheques had done in public and private needs. He had never found time to think much of these things. But alas, good Mrs. Craven died after a short illness, within a week or two of their arrival home, and the great house with its unpacked treasures, which they had chosen together, was left desolate.
It was harder than ever for this business man to assure himself that a man need not be old at his age; but somehow he had let go his active oversight of affairs, while he could summon no interest to fill the place of that to which he had given all his time and thought. He cared nothing for books or for art, or, saddest of all, his fashionable daughter thought, for society. He had given away much money because others expected it, but he had never given himself with his dollars. He was sometimes angry with the boys, and sometimes thankful to give up his responsibility, but he wished such relinquishment to be voluntary; it should not be taken for granted. His daughters were eager to have their share of his favor; they came to him with stories of the boys' assumption of authority and precedence. They were all dependent upon him in one way or another, and John Craven told himself more than once that he should like to see one of the crowd who had made his own way in the world. They were all respectful and affectionate. The girls told him again and again that they were so glad that their husbands were able to relieve him of care, and were men he could trust. Yes, he surely had a great deal to be thankful for; it seemed to be nobody's fault that he was laid on the shelf. Jack was sometimes overbearing and self-confident about the business. It was amazing that he himself, who had been counted one of the most daring, far-sighted, and enterprising men of his day, should be constantly made to feel that he was an old fogy and fast drifting astern of the times. Who should understand the times if not a man of his experience? As the long months went by, the days when he did not go to his office were of more and more frequent occurrence. The chief value of his presence seemed to be for the subscription lists, which by no means passed him by, and one day there was a vehement outbreak of anger against young Jack, who had ventured to suggest the propriety of a smaller sum than his father had seen fit to bestow. "You may be making money, but whose money are you making it with," the old man demanded, while Jack spoke soothingly and glanced round at the other desks. He did not look as if he would like to knock his father down, as he used in case of differences when they both were younger, and the senior partner was injured by this slighting of their present equality. "You treat me as if I were an old woman," he said, and went away. Jack was such an insufferable prig, and there was Jack's boy, who ought to be at a desk, already parading about the park with his dog cart and saddle-horses -- a good-for-nothing dandy. Times had changed indeed!
When Mr. Craven did not go down town in the morning he sometimes took his stick and walked eastward along the street that made a right angle with the avenue nearest his house. He did not like to meet his acquaintances, even ladies, in business hours, but he found it amusing to watch the progress of some buildings not a great distance away. The contrast between this district and the region of his own home was very striking, though he found himself by no means in the most squalid portion of his native city. On the contrary, there was even a sort of thriftiness. John Craven had more than once complimented the good landlord, whoever he might be, of one long row of small brick houses. The occupants were evidently people of small means, but most respectable and orderly, and at the end of the block was a shop or two - a druggist's, and a gay little place which held out inducements to womankind, of thread and needles, neckties, and even letter-paper and calico prints. "Good thing, good thing," the rich ex-merchant would say approvingly, "if only the women don't waste their time, and travel way down to Stewart's for every spool of cotton."
It happened that John Craven walked slowly by one morning just as the owner of this place of business was opening his shutters. He was a bright-faced young man of two or three and twenty, and the elderly gentleman hesitated, then stopped and said good-morning.
The young man looked around cheerfully. "Good-day, sir," he answered; can I do anything for you in my line?" And Mr. Craven smiled benignantly, without committing himself to any definite reply. "You are on time, I see," he said presently, tapping the pavement with his cane as the proprietor fastened the shutter back with a sufficient snap. There was only one window to the little store, but its contents were most alluringly arranged. "Yes, sir, time's money," answered the admiring owner of the trifling wares. "I should be glad to have you step inside," and with a glance along the street toward the avenue, Mr. Craven accepted the invitation. It was still early in the morning, he had not been sleeping well of late, and his luxurious household was hardly astir. His eldest daughter had come home with her family to keep the house for him after her mother's death. Her husband was the least prosperous of the sons or sons-in-law, and to tell the truth John Craven was not at all fond of him, and never had been.
There was something delightfully cordial and sincere in the younger merchant's hospitality. At any rate it was stronger than his guest's reasons for not accepting it, and Mr. Craven bowed gravely and went in at the door. He took no notice of anything in particular. The cheap goods did not invite his attention in detail, but he seated himself on one of the two light stools which were provided for the comfort of possible customers, and asked, looking about him in an interested way, how long the business had been established.
"Only a month or two," answered the young man, and a boyish color spread quickly over his face. "I hope there's a good chance here! I don't see why I shouldn't do well. I seem to have the good-will of the neighborhood, so far. There are some dressmakers near by who do a pile of work: one of them does stitching and finishing for Madame Blanc, and has all she can carry. I fill any orders, you know, for goods I don't carry in stock. I hope I shall do well here, and I don't mind saying I shall sell out the business when it gets to be worth anything, and strike for something better. I wish I was a little nearer the avenue. I know a fellow who keeps a first-rate class of goods up in Thirtieth Street that's getting rich. You see the seamstresses in some of the big houses give him all their trade, and about keep him going."
Mr. Craven returned the hopeful smile of his entertainer, and slowly unfastened his overcoat. He felt a little tired and lonely that morning, and did not wear the look of a prosperous man. The coat itself was a comfortable old one he had insisted upon keeping when his daughter had suggested the presentation of it to a deserving German mother to make over for her children. Somehow Mr. Craven liked to wear it in these morning walks away from the avenue. The buttons were loose, and one of them actually came off at this moment and rolled behind some boxes that were piled at the end of the counter. William Chellis the shopkeeper looked after it, but some instinct that he could hardly explain led him to ignore the trivial accident. The old gentleman looked as if he had seen better days. The button-holes of the coat were frayed, and a bit of the lining was hanging. Chellis had often seen the old fellow go by about this time in the morning, stopping once in a while to speak to some children, or to exchange greetings with the bricklayers who were tending the great mortar-box in front of the new block.
They talked together for a few minutes in a friendly way. Chellis was arranging his wares, and when the visitor rose to go he darted forward to open the door for him. "I should be pleased to have you drop in any time, sir," he said, with pleasant deference. "I hope you'll remember to mention the store if you have any ladies at home. My goods are mostly in their line."
"Do you keep pins?" asked Mr. Craven, turning back with evident pleasure, to make an investment in four papers. He could find somebody to give them to, and there was a satisfaction in putting the little package in his pocket. He was used to writing cheques for his purchases, and was a little uncertain, as he took some change from his waistcoat pocket, about the state of his present finances.
"There never is much doing this time in the morning," explained the proprietor. "My customers either come toward night, or run over here at noon time. I ought to have somebody to help me, for I shut up now when I go down town to fill my orders. I want to get on as cheap as I can, though, for the present. All great things must have a beginning," he added as he opened the door the second time. There was something delightfully fresh and energetic about the young man. John Craven sighed to remember that there was a time when his own future lay all before him. The winter wind had risen and was whirling the dust and bits of paper along the bare pavement, and as he went away toward the avenue, he had to stop more than once and turn his back to the unwholesome gale. He happened to be just opposite a window at one time, where a sweet-faced young girl sat sewing busily. There were some half-finished garments on the table beside her; a very pretty girl she was, and she looked frankly up at the elderly man, and even gave him a bright smile of unconscious sympathy and friendliness.
The whole day afterward, while the wind blew and the weather was cold, and a few flakes of snow clicked against the windows, John Craven sat by the library fire trying to read newspapers and dozing and meditating by turns. He tried once or twice to allure his younger grandchildren down to keep him company, but they were needed up-stairs to practice for a famous fancy ball in aid of some children's hospital. They were to have fine costumes and be prominent in the dances, and could only chatter to him of these things if they stayed. Their mother had rebuked him for staying out of doors so long on a chilly morning. He was late to breakfast, and she reproached him for making her uneasy. He might have a fall any day, or be knocked over by the passing carts.
"I should like to have my liberty," the old man answered, with more severity than was usual with him. He did not feel so old as other people seemed to consider him - life was nor very amusing of late. But certainly he was much interested in his new acquaintance of the side street. "I'll watch that lad," Mr. Craven assured himself," and by and by, if he does well, I'll let him have some capital." While, with rare sentiment, he also wondered if the nice girl who sewed by the window and the brisk young merchant were aware of each other's existence.
The question was answered no later than the next morning but one. Between the two interviews a serious trial came to our hero. He had been vastly punctual at the fortnightly meetings of a certain notable company, of which he had been chief originator, and had clung more and more of late to this one of the last of his active business duties. He felt unusually clear and capable as he entered the directors' room, but being early he was adroitly tendered a suggestion that he should resign his place on the board in favor of his son Jack. H could find no fault with the delicate manner in which this suggestion was made. There was a troublesome, decrepit old fellow, who had been in the way for half a dozen years, and it was proposed that the two senior directors should be put on a sort of retired list. The friend who spoke alluded to the annoyance Mr. Craven must receive from his feeling of obligation to attend the meetings now that he had shaken off so entirely the cares of business. He held so large an interest in the property that it would not have done to remove him from a part in its active control, except through his own agency, and John Craven, who was a proud man, told himself with a flash of anger that this was some of Jack's doings, and quietly acquiesced. "They knock the old folks on the head in the South Sea Islands," he grumbled next day, when he saw a too prompt series of resolutions on his retirement included in the financial report of his company. He wondered if his wife knew how lonely he was, and counted up with surprise the months since she had been taken away from him.
The morning afterward was clear and spring-like, and he went out earlier than usual. The pleasant weather was in itself a comfort, and he found himself taking quicker steps than usual toward the little store. It was already open, and there was a customer who turned a not unfamiliar face toward the door as Mr. Craven opened it. The two young people were talking eagerly, and both blushed a little in a pretty, conscious way, and said good-morning, as if the new-comer were an old friend. "This is a pleasanter day than when I had to come to a halt next your window," said the old gentleman, gallantly. He had been hurrying, and was glad to accept the seat which the younger man pushed toward him.
"There were a few little things I thought they could make use of at the house," said Mr. Craven presently, to explain his appearance - hut he did not look about for the necessary goods. "How are you getting on?" he asked, in a benevolent and paternal fashion, and they turned to acquaint this friendly stranger with an assurance of their excellent prospects. Evidently the young people had a very particular interest in each other, and Mr. Craven became sure that their marriage depended upon young Chellis's future income. There was a debt of a few hundred dollars on the stock; it had been a tremendous venture for the fellow, and the wise old business man shook his head, as he was made to understand the position of affairs. "If you could only pay off those accounts now," he said soberly, "so that you could be handling for yourself the money that is coming in." And young Chellis looked wistful and determined as he nodded his head in assent.
There was a painful silence of a moment or two which Chellis himself broke. "You lost a button off your coat when you were in day before yesterday morning, sir. I found it afterward and laid it by. Miss Brooks has got a needle with her now, I dare say, and she'll sew it on for you if you will let her;" and John Craven looked from one face to the other with pleased surprise. He would have been amused if he had known that they had talked about him several times, and had made up their minds that he was a bachelor who boarded somewhere in that region - a man who had seen better days, and was now poor and friendless. Miss Brooks had ventured to wish that he might have a little money which he would like to put into such a thriving and rising business venture as her lover's. But the lover had replied with deeper wisdom that the elderly stranger did not wear the look of a prosperous man. Poor John Craven, with his houses and lands, his blocks of buildings, and his interest in a line of steamers, his manufactories, and his mortgages, and bank stocks, and railroad stocks, and his luxurious children, whom he had housed in palaces! He felt poorer, after all, than these young creatures, who still had their fortunes to make, and whose best capital was their love for each other.
But in the last few dragging years nothing had given him such a hearty pleasure as his new interest in this little enterprise of the fancy goods store on East Number Street. His cautious business instinct made him very careful to know his ground. Then one day, to young Chellis's great delight, when he was beginning to fear his creditors and look older and more troubled than usual, the kindly guest counted out a sum of money as if it were all he had in the world, and begged to go into partnership, waiving all formalities. The two men sat down together as if they were alike twenty-two, and embarked upon courageous plans for future gains. Sometimes of late, Mr. Craven - who let himself be called Mr. Brown, though his honest heart revolted from the deception - postponed his visit until after the late breakfast and spent as much of the day as he chose with his new friend. What sagacity of advice the old merchant imparted to the new one time would fail for describing. Chellis had long ago made up his mind that his benefactor must have had an unusual business career and been wrecked in some great financial crisis.
The situation was not without its dangers. Even the walk along East Number Street was beset with fears, and John Craven varied his line of approach from day to day. Once he beheld with dismay the entrance of one of his own housemaids upon his new place of business, as he stood behind the high desk casting up a column of figures. Luckily there was an inner room, to which he stealthily retreated with beating heart, and listened there to the loud, unmannerly tones of the woman who was at home a most soft-spoken and servile creature. But this accident did not happen again, and he felt more and more secure in the companionship of his young partner. It was surprising how his youthful zest and ambition seemed, for a time, to return; how pleased he was when an uncommonly good day's trade was reported. He shook his head when the young folks asked him to come to their wedding, but he slipped as large a bill as he dared into the bride's work-roughened little hand and stole away toward his own house. It had made him desolate to see the rooms the lovers were to live in. They had asked their benefactor to visit their new home in such a way that he could not refuse, and they told him they never could have got on so well without his help. Little Miss Brooks was not going to give up her sewing at present. She would take care of their tiny housekeeping and earn all she could in the spare time, just as she had always done. They did not seem like city people at all; they had the simple ways of country folks. And John Craven thought of them with deep affection as he sat at the head of his glittering dinner-table that night, and lifted a glass of his best wine in a shaking hand to drink secretly to Mr. and Mrs. William Chellis's health and prosperity.
At last there came a time, late one spring, when the old business man seemed much feebler than he had ever before. He hardly ever went down to the great office now, and was even glad when the rare expedition was safely over with. Once or twice he took his seat at some assembly, but he was an inefficient figure-head, and was more annoyed than otherwise with the empty show of deference from his inferiors in office. Every day when it was possible, however, he paid an early visit to his young friends in East Number Street, and on many a morning when there were a few customers coming in, he gave the ambitious proprietor warnings and suggestions. There was a young boy added to the force of this mercantile experiment, a lad from Vermont, whose bright face seemed to please the old gentleman, and on one of the last visits Chellis sent him home with Mr. Craven. It caused a good deal of curiosity and interest when the adventure was recounted, for he had helped the infirm guest up the high steps of one of the best avenue houses. But the morning calls were nearly done. Mr. Craven only appeared once more, and then when the owner of the little shop had gone down town. He and his young wife talked a great deal that night about their benefactor. "He's been the making of me," said Chellis to himself, sadly, as the days went by after that and his friend did not come again.
For a long time Mr. Craven's daughter had said proudly that her father was able to take an hour or two's walk early every morning; in these late spring days she had complained fretfully that he used up all his strength in doing so much, and that he was fit for nothing all the rest of the day. At length John Craven was taken away to his country place, and before the summer was over he died. The poor rich man had almost ceased to care anything for even the dolls' shopkeeping, as he had often fondly called it, though he was still grateful for the pleasure that came to him as he dreamed of and planned for the future fortune of the happy young people in East Number Street.
His will was made some months before, and was as just to his own family and to public needs as all his dealing had been. There was one codicil which surprised his family entirely, - he left five thousand dollars to one William Chellis, in East Number Street, and among the latest of his private papers was a note to this legatee written in a trembling hand, which contrasted strangely with his former clear signatures.
"I have left something for you as a remembrance," Mr. Craven said. "I have no doubt that you will make your way in the world by its help and your own exertions, and I owe you something for you kindness and respect to an old man. Remember that getting money may make you poor as it has me, and can leave you at last a beggar for a little friendliness, and sympathy, and occupation. There are other things which a man needs beside wealth to make him happy. I am your grateful friend,
The young man's eyes were strangely dimmed as he read. "Good heavens!" he said, awed and astonished. "I used to think sometimes that he wasn't the broken-down old fellow we took him for at first; but there he was all the time, one of the richest men in the city! How pleased he used to be some days to help behind the counter when two or three customers came in together. So that was old John Craven!"
"Perhaps our place made him think of old times, when he was just beginning, himself," hopefully answered the little wife. "I remember the first time I saw him, one windy morning when the dust blew in his face and he turned round and looked right in at the window. He made me feel real bad, he looked so lonesome and wishful. I never thought he was going to give us such a lot of money."
"He's given me something better than that, too," said young Chellis, solemnly; and when the woman beside him looked up to ask what he meant, he only kissed her and went away. There were truly many gains to be had in the world beside money, even if one's heart was set upon being, first of all, A Business Man.
"A Business Man" first appeared in The Times (Philadelphia, PA) March 7, 1885, p. 6 and Los Angeles Sunday Times (Los Angeles, CA) March 8, 1885, p. 4. It was collected Collected in A White Heron, from which this text is taken. Apparent errors have been corrected and indicated with brackets. Before Alan John located the newspaper printings, this story was thought to have appeared first in A White Heron.
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submarine telegraphs: The first trans-Atlantic telegraph cable came into use in 1866.
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English lakes: The Lake Country of Northwestern England, described in poems of William Wordsworth (1770 - 1850) .
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Stewart's: The Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia says: "Architects in New York expertly adapted Renaissance architectural styles to the new iron-and-glass construction to produce a number of remarkably open, clearly articulated, and elegantly proportioned buildings that are now regarded as masterpieces of the technique. The best of these were the Haughwout building (1857) by John P. Gaynor, A. T. Stewart's department store (1859-68; destroyed 1956), designed by John Kellum, ...."
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Edited and annotated by Terry Heller, Coe college
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A White Heron