* * *
"You're quite certain you wish to rent the house?"
Adelaide pointedly frowned at the landlord's agent, a Mr. Marcus Pennington. "You keep asking me that." She knew she sounded impatient. Well, she was.
Why does he keep going on about me wanting the place? Shouldn't he be anxious to do his master's bidding and rent it to me?
"It's just the house is rather large. You and your husband will rattle around in it."
"As long as we're paying for the privilege to rattle, I don't see the problem."
Marcus, short in stature, was stoop-shouldered in the same way as many taller men were. This gave him a constantly cringing look, like that of a beaten dog. When he failed to meet her gaze with his shadowed eyes, ones hooded by the brim of his black derby, it only enhanced this mental image. "Well, if you're absolutely sure..."
Then it hit Adelaide. The man's trying to warn me off. Why?
"Is something wrong here?"
A moment's silence. "Oh, no," he said, at last, "as far as I know, the house is fine."
"Is it haunted?" This was a silly question, Adelaide knew, spoken only on a sudden impulse, but she didn't know what else the problem might be. The multi-storeyed place did have a certain eerie quality to it, built of dirty-red brick as it was, and being an extreme, even to the point of tasteless, example of Victorian architecture. The manse was replete with verandas, multiple cupolas, and several towers. Lichen-stained gingerbread encrusted all the eaves and rooflines.
Pennington's eyes grew worrisomely large. "Of course, the house isn't haunted," he said, flatly, unequivocally. However, his peculiar look belied the reassuring tone of his words, almost as if, like a lawyer, he was limiting his statement in some evasive way.
This didn't help allay any of Adelaide's suspicions. "Are you quite sure--that the house isn't supposedly inhabited by a ghost? I hear lots of old houses up here in Scotland are purported to be."
"No," he said, waving one hand in a deprecating manner, "there's no history of that. Besides, as rational and educated people, we both know there isn't any such thing."
"So there's nothing else wrong with the place?"
"I assure you all is in excellent order. Lord Bartley prides himself on his properties."
"And yet, the cost of the lease is so low," Adelaide countered, "odd for such a grand old place."
"Not really." Marcus looked less afraid now, as if the subject had steered itself to a safer course. "Being so far from the village and even farther from Glasgow, it isn't handy for someone who has to travel to work, and it's not big enough to be a paying farm. Unless someone wants a retreat, as you and your husband seem to, there just aren't many takers. It's so...isolated."
"Hmm, I would think it a marvellous place to raise children."
"Ah, there's one small drawback to that." He looked frightened again.
What's wrong with the man? Adelaide wondered. Aloud, she asked, "Drawback?"
"The river there," he pointed to the northern boundary of the property, "is terribly swift. The currents are dangerous at the bend. They form a constant vortex that can suck one under and it would be unlikely they'd make it out again. The rest of the river is safe enough, I suppose, as rivers go, but the riverbank, just south of where that little stone bridge is, just isn't a place you should go near. One slip on the wet grass and you could end up in the water, drowned."
"Hence, this is not a particularly desirable place for children. Yes, I see." Adelaide was silent a moment, considering this negative fact. But she quickly dismissed it as inconsequential. After all, she and Barnaby had no children. Even if they eventually did, it would be some time before such would reach the wandering toddler stage. By then, they would have all moved on. She and Barnaby always wanted to see and explore new things. Being fairly well off, they had the means to indulge this inclination and never stayed in one place long.
"That's not a problem for us," she said, firmly.
"Very well." Marcus gave her a relieved look. "Shall we go back to my office and sign the lease?"
"An excellent idea," Adelaide agreed. With both of them dressed in dusters and goggles, but with her wearing a broad-brimmed bonnet, and he his derby, they rode to town in his Bugatti horseless carriage. The journey was a boring one, for all the man talked about was his new motorcar. Adelaide paid scant attention. She was busy, mentally redecorating the house. But signing the lease hadn't been such an excellent idea after all, not in retrospect. And although Marcus had told the truth, in hindsight, she realized it had been only a partial truth, one intended to be obviously obfuscating in its limitations. If only she had thought to ask him at the time if anyone had actually drowned in the river. Unfortunately, Adelaide had not. So it wasn't until several weeks after she and Barnaby had moved in, and he'd then left her for a week of fishing up in the highlands with his cronies, that poor Adelaide learned the terrible truth.
Feeling the need for exercise, despite the dismal spring weather, she'd chosen a circular path to walk early one morning. Dressed in practical brown tweeds and wearing a no-nonsense hat, Adelaide left the warm confines of the old house for the damp and cold of the outside. This morning, two days after Barnaby's departure, there was a low, thick mist reaching about waist high. Heavy-looking, pendulous clouds hung from the sky, as if desirous of meeting up with the grey miasma below.
She glanced back at the house, wondering if she should continue. She was afraid that, if the mist became worse, she might lose her way. The opaque fog clung like a stubborn thing to the foundations of the mansion there, making it seem as if the great pile of stone sat in a vast plain of dull cloud. Like sightless eyes, blank windows stared back at her. Adelaide, finding this vaguely disturbing, turned away from that view to survey the surrounding landscape. In places, as if fitful at being so subdued, tendrils of grey vapours lifted languidly upward to suspend themselves in errant patches and wisps about the landscape. This was especially true by the river, where a dense, meandering stream of fog demarcated the waterway's course.
No wonder they always refer to this as being "misty Scotland," she thought. How she longed for the south of England and the sun there. Scotland, she now felt, had been a mistake. Well, she hoped Barnaby was enjoying his outing. Someone ought to be happy here, even if it couldn't be her. Resolute now, Adelaide waded through the waist-high mist, determined to have her exercise.
About twenty minutes later, deep in thought as she was returning to the manse and its promised warmth, Adelaide realized she'd ventured very near the river. Too near for safety's sake, she felt, when she realized how close to the bridge she was.
She paused, better to get her bearings. Just then, the fog suddenly lifted from the river immediately downstream, creating a transient patch of clarity. The murky waters, so brown from the dissolved peat they carried, were visible for the space of about fifty yards, as they rushed, foaming with a dirty froth, on around the far bend.
Then, not far from where she stood, Adelaide spotted what she first thought were two small logs floating in the water there, doing slow circles about each other. Oddly, they didn't seem at all affected by the rapid current, which by rights should have carried them away.
Something was strange about the logs. She examined them more closely. Her hand flew to her mouth to stifle an incipient scream.
They were bodies! Children, by the size and look of them, and fully dressed. Even as Adelaide realized this, one of the two forms rolled slowly over in the water, pushed by the vagaries of the current, no doubt. The sightless eyes of a blonde girl, about the age of eleven, stared up at her. The albino-pallid skin, the bluish tinge to the lips, and those dreadful, blank eyes told their story. The girl was dead. She had been for some time, judging by her appalling appearance. Even as Adelaide realized this, the other body leisurely rolled over, now coming face up as well. It was a young boy, probably even younger than the girl. His raven hair drifted on the surface of the water, floating like Medusa's snakes about his head. His dark eyes seemed to gaze blindly at her, as if accusing.
Too much! Too much to realize, to take in all at once, and too much for her to handle. Adelaide surrendered to her abject terror. She screamed for real then, unable to control herself or her horror at such a ghastly sight. She spun around, now in a complete panic, intent on running away. Even as she did so, she caught sight of something. A frantic glance toward the bridge to confirm this, and she saw the figure of a woman huddled there, leaning over the edge, hands to her face, as if crying. The mother?
Help, Adelaide thought as she fled toward the safety of the house. Oh, God, I need help!
She raced across the grounds, hampered in her flight by the heavy tweeds of her ankle-length skirts, which kept swirling and flapping about her legs, getting in the way, making her stumble. Women's fashions in Edwardian Britain did not make for easy running.
Breathless, Adelaide flew up the steps of the veranda. There, she paused only long enough to fling open the front door.
"Maria," she screamed at the top of her lungs for the maid. "Maria, come at once!"
In seconds, a buxom and white-capped older woman appeared in the doorway leading to the library, a dust cloth still clutched in her hands. Her eyes went wide with sudden concern when she saw Adelaide.
"Yes, ma'am," she said, "what's wrong? What's the trouble, ma'am?"
"Drowned children...in the river," gasped out Adelaide, as she leaned against the doorjamb for support, trying to catch a decent lungful of air for her heaving chest. "And...and a woman on the bridge--their mother, I think. We must phone the police. Oh, God, Maria, they're drowned...dead, both of them!"
The maid's eyes widened even more at this news, her aged face showing an abrupt expression of fear. "Children, you say, ma'am?" Her voice was suddenly squeaky. "Are you quite certain?"
"Yes, drowned! Call the police. At once," she shouted when the maid didn't move. "Do you hear me, woman?"
Maria slowly shook her head. "You've been near the river by the bridge, haven't you, ma'am? Surely, you've been told not to go there. Why did you go there, ma'am?"
Taken aback by this admonition from a mere servant, Adelaide regained some small semblance of control. "Of course, I was warned," she said, hotly. "The water is dangerous there, I know. But I became disorientated in the fog and--" Then she caught herself. Why was she explaining this to a simple domestic? "Don't question me, Maria. Just telephone the police. Do it. Now!"
"I doubt they'll be coming, ma'am. Not for this."
"What?" Adelaide couldn't believe what she was hearing. "There are dead children in the river, a grieving mother--call the police immediately or I'll do it myself and sack you right afterwards." She was shouting again, knew she was bordering on being hysterical.
"As you will, ma'am." Maria's tone was incredibly calm under the circumstances, Adelaide felt. "But I'm telling you, they probably won't come, not for this. You see, they've answered this call before. Those children are ghosts."
"Ghosts?" Adelaide stared at her maid. Had the woman completely lost her mind?
As it turned out, Maria was wrong, but not about the children. The village constable did come, but almost two full hours later. During that time, and partly based on Maria's weird assertions, Adelaide remained in the house.
When the policeman did arrive, with pen and pad in hand, he took down her information, but in an almost lackadaisical manner. Then, together and with great trepidation on Adelaide's part, they ventured to where she'd seen the bodies. There was nothing there, except the endless race of tumultuous brown water sluicing on around the far bend, out of sight. The weeping woman was gone, as well. Even the fog had vanished in the warmth of the day. All was normal...it seemed.
"I tell you they were here," she said, defensively, while at the same time wondering if he thought her utterly mad. "And there was a woman--I'd swear it, standing on that bridge. She looked as if she was crying."
"Aye, ma'am and I'm not doubting your word none." The constable was a tall man, thin, almost willowy in build, and his long face wore a constant expression of sympathy. Whether this was genuine or not, Adelaide had no idea. For all she knew, it was a cultivated look, one created to lull people into believing he was on their side.
"Then why aren't you concerned? Why aren't you more disturbed by this, if you truly believe me?"
He frowned before saying, "Because you're not the first to report this, ma'am. They're apparitions all right. Others have seen them, as well. Other tenants, I mean. Sometimes, they just see the woman on the bridge. Other times, it's the children. You're the only one I know who's seen both at once."
"Ghosts? You truly believe this?"
"Well, you're the fourth tenant in as many years to report this sort of thing. And despite us finding nothing here, I have to believe you all must be seeing something, that it's not just your collective imaginations. Tell me, did anyone speak to you of this before you saw what you saw, perhaps unduly influencing you about it in some way?"
"No. Nobody, In fact, Mr. Pennington told me the property wasn't haunted," she said, bitterly.
"He didn't prevaricate, ma'am. The property itself doesn't seem to have a problem. It's the river right along here that seems to be cursed."
"Surely, you can't countenance such a thing, not as a constable?"
"I'm not saying I believe, ma'am. I'm just saying the people who live here often see something strange by this river that frightens the Dickens out of them."
"But if they are ghosts..." and here Adelaide hesitated, because she couldn't believe she was even asking such a thing, "whose are they? What happened?"
"Your maid could tell you better than I," he said, frowning again. "But it seems the children did live in the house some time ago, late in the last century. The story goes the woman you saw on the bridge was their governess. The children drowned here while in her care, or so they say."
"So she's grieving for their loss." Adelaide was silent a moment, considering all this. "It's all so utterly fantastic!"
"Aye, it is a wee bit farfetched for a ghost story, even by our Scots' standards, but I'm just telling you what I've heard. How much of it is true, I canna' say. But my advice is to stay well away from this part of the river, just in case. No good will come of seeing those dead bairns again."
"Don't worry," she told him, "I won't be going anywhere near here again."
"I suppose you'll be movin' on soon enough now, just like the rest?"
Adelaide nodded. "If I have anything to say about it." She gave a real shudder, felt the hair on her arms stand on end. "The last thing I want to do is stay here now."
Together, they walked away from the edge of the dark river, much to Adelaide's relief. The constable departed soon after that. It was then Adelaide called for her maid.
"Maria," she said, when the woman appeared, "You knew about this haunting, didn't you?"
The contrite woman nodded. "Yes. Sorry, ma'am."
"Why didn't you inform me?"
Now Maria looked her directly in the eye, as she said, "I've never seen it myself, so I could'na say if it were even true. And would you have been staying here, ma'am, if I had told you? I needed this employment, you see. Besides, what person would believe such a thing if they hadn't witnessed it for themselves? They'd think me daft for trying to tell them."
The woman's logic was unassailable. "Yes," Adelaide said, "I do see your point. Truth is I wouldn't have believed you. Even now, part of me keeps saying I just had a hallucination."
"I'm thinking it's no hallucination, ma'am," Maria said. She wore a sympathetic expression. "You've seen the governess and those children, right enough. They don't manifest to everybody, though, thank the Good Lord."
"Then why me?"
Maria shrugged. "Nobody knows why they choose certain people, but it always seems to be women who see them, usually the head of the household, too."
"It must have been an awful accident, a terrible one, to leave such troubled spirits behind."
Now the maid's face grew sombre, as she said, "No one knows rightly what happened down by that river, ma'am. Some say the children slipped and fell in, and she jumped in to save them. Some say she pushed them in, and then lost her balance and fell in, too."
"Pushed them?" Adelaide echoed, astonished by such an idea. "Why would their governess do such a thing?"
Maria shrugged. "I'm just repeating what I've heard. Some say the woman, Carmen, her name was, from some foreign place like Spain, had an evil hold over those children. But you know how gossip is about such things."
"No," Adelaide countered, "I really don't. I've never been in such a situation before, never thought I could possibly be."
"So you'll be leaving here, ma'am?"
Adelaide focused solely on the maid now. "You can come with us, if you like. You're a good worker. But I suppose you have family here you wouldn't want to leave?"
Maria shook her head. "I've no one, ma'am. Me husband's long dead. I have no living relatives. And the likes of this place don't suit me, never have."
"Then consider yourself still in our employ when we leave here." Adelaide said.
"Thank you, ma'am. Thanks be to you very much."
With this settled to Adelaide's satisfaction, she turned to her task of readying for their departure. Although she hadn't contacted Barnaby on the matter, simply couldn't because there was no way in which to do so, given his remote location in the highlands, she was confidant he'd agree with her plans when he heard everything. Adelaide wanted to vacate south to Brighton as quickly as possible. To this end, she set the wheels in motion for their departure. She ordered a removal van to come just two days after Barnaby was due to return. Maria was set the task of packing all the fragile items, while she, Adelaide, concentrated on the less breakable objects.
Adelaide was determined he'd be faced with a fait accompli when Barnaby came home, Although like most women of her times, usually in the habit of giving into their men on most major decisions, on this matter she would brook no argument. Adelaide wanted away from this place as fast as humanly possible. And if Barnaby didn't want to go with her, well...she would just jolly well leave him behind. Let him deal with the "apparitions," as the constable had called them. Even so, there were days yet before he would return. And although kept busy with packing during the day (all thoughts of taking any exercise outside now long gone), Adelaide felt keenly, the long nights. She had a dread of being alone in her bedroom. So instead, she would spend a great deal of time in the evening sitting in the library, the cosiest room in the house, There, with oil lamps blazing and a fire roaring in the fireplace, Adelaide would just sit by the hour, wishing the night away.
All during this time, Adelaide felt a slow but steady tension building. She would often find herself unconsciously glancing toward the window. She didn't know what she thought she might see there. After all, the drapes were tightly drawn.
This went on for several more days and nights, this incremental increase in a nameless tension, a mounting anxiety. The dreary weather didn't help. Even the very day Barnaby had pledged to return home started as an awful one. Rain poured down unceasingly. The house felt cold and damp, despite the fires laid by the charwoman, ones that Maria kept burning brightly.
By midday, it was so dark as to seem like evening when Adelaide looked outside. The kitchen window was the most convenient for this, for she sat near it, at the wooden table there, making up baskets of food for the village poor. She didn't know what else to do with the provisions, Dry and tinned goods could be safely stowed for the trip. However, fresh meats, along with vegetables and ripe fruits, would not survive the journey to Brighton.
During a brief respite from her efforts, she casually glanced for what seemed like the hundreth time, at the dismal scene outside. She realized with a sudden fright that a figure stood on the bridge again. There she was, a woman made small by distance, and one bent against the driving rain, crying.
Fear, now a palpable thing, rose up in Adelaide at the eerie sight. But safe in the house, Adelaide also felt a sorrow for the woman, too. Whatever had happened with those children, the spectre's incredible grief certainly seemed real enough. She looked inconsolable. Adelaide wished she could help, somehow. Her heart went out to her.
Adelaide wrenched her gaze away from the unholy view. It was best not to look too long upon such a supernatural thing, even from this safe vantage point. When her eyes kept straying in that direction anyway, she rose, moved around the table, and seated herself with her back to the window.
What she did not do was call Maria. Adelaide was determined to keep this terrible vision, this ghastly secret to herself, not to spread her disquiet to her maid. For one thing, they'd all be gone from here within just a couple more days, if all went well. They just had to get through this for a short while longer.
For another, if her maid saw what she saw, she might not stay, thus leaving Adelaide there all alone. To speak knowingly of ghosts was not the same thing at all as actually seeing them, Adelaide suspected. The maid's bravery might hang upon her very lack of such an actual experience. Anyway, Adelaide had no wish to test this theory. Thinking this, she even closed the curtains.
Yet, try as she might, she could not cleanse the image from her mind. With her need for release from the horrible tension reaching breaking point, she finally gave in to what she felt was the inevitable. Adelaide decided to confront the grief-stricken phantom. She would not, however, go anywhere near the bank below the bridge. Adelaide had no wish to tempt fate to that degree. "I'm going out for a moment," she called to Maria, as she shrugged into her husband's spare oilskins.
"Is that wise, ma'am?" Maria had appeared at the top of the stairs, broom in hand. "Wouldn't it be better to just stay inside on such a terrible day?" Her real reason for not wanting Adelaide to go was obvious. But it remained an unspoken hazard between them.
"I won't be but a few minutes," Adelaide promised, as she tugged on her Wellingtons. "I just need a quick breath of fresh air. With all these fires going, it's stifling in here."
This was an outright lie, for the fires had made little incursion in the chill damp pervading the place like a frosty pall, but she had to say something, to justify why she was going out. She didn't want to frighten Maria with her real reason. The maid just stood at the top of the steps, wearing a reproving frown, as Adelaide left the house.
Standing in the shelter of the front veranda, Adelaide now felt strong misgivings. What had seemed like a brave thing to do, to confront the poor ghost by what little daylight there remained, and somehow try to console it, maybe even help lay it to rest somehow, now seemed a patently absurd notion, an idea too ridiculous in the extreme. What was she thinking? She almost turned then and went back into her home.
But she knew it would only be to return to an intolerable tension. Her apprehension over the last few days had reached an impossible level for her. It ate at her, fed on her doubts. She had to end this somehow.
Thinking this, she set off for the bridge, head bent against the continuing downpour. Chilly rivulets of water found their way inside her hood, coursed coldly down her neck. Adelaide crossed the vast swathe of soaking front lawn in a shortcut to the end of the curved drive. Then she headed toward the stone bridge, making sure to steer a path that brought her to just the north of it. She didn't want to go near where she had seen the children. When she was within hailing distance of the thing upon the bridge, she stopped.
"Hello," she shouted, but tentatively, knowing it was an inadequate greeting for something of such ilk. "Can I help you?"
The figure dropped its hands from its face. A true shade of darkness now, the thing turned toward her. Adelaide gasped, took an unconscious step backward. The woman had ravaged features. She was pale to an impossible whiteness, had a face lined and drawn. Her dark eyes, like holes torn in the very fabric of the universe, had even blacker shadows under them. She stared at Adelaide. She began to move toward her. Adelaide could only describe it as a glide, for the creature didn't seem to be walking at all, just...drifting.
She stepped back as the thing moved off the bridge. "Please," she called out. "Don't come so close. I'm only trying to help."
The monstrous entity didn't seem to hear her. Instead, the creature drifted ever closer. Now Adelaide found herself walking backward, wanting to turn and run, but afraid to take her eyes off the dead governess. She knew now this had been a terrible mistake. There was no aiding such an appalling thing, no consoling this ghastly atrocity.
The distance between them disappeared with each passing second. Adelaide walked faster now, stumbling in her haste to back up. Then, the phantasm abruptly stopped. It was only yards away from her.
"I just want to help," Adelaide repeated weakly. "I know you grieve terribly, and I just wanted to help somehow."
The ghost of the governess opened her mouth. Blackness reigned within. Then, banshee-like, it emitted a bloodcurdling scream, one that melted Adelaide's insides to water. This thing wanted no help from her. It just wanted her! Adelaide knew this now.
She turned to run. One foot slipped, went out from under her. She found herself sliding and then tumbling down the very bank she'd so wished to avoid. Somehow, in all her backing away from the hellish creature, she'd ended up precisely where she'd least wanted to be. Sliding again, Adelaide reached out with her gloved hands. She desperately, but to no avail, tried to clutch the sod, slow her descent down the bank to the river.
"Help!" she screamed, despite knowing there was no one to hear. "Oh, God! Please help me!" Still she slid, unable to get a handhold in the slick grass with those damnable gloves.
I'm going to die, she thought. Then, as if by a miracle, she reached a slightly more level area. Her precipitous slide halted. Frantic, she ripped off her gloves. She gripped the wet grass with bare fingers, clutching at it.
Saved! she thought, relieved.
But when she raised her head, she found the detestable abomination standing above her on the edge of the embankment, looking down at her, a rictus of a smile on her ashen-coloured lips. A sinking dread came over Adelaide. Fearfully and ever so slowly, she turned her head to look below her. There, just feet away, were the children. With blank stares fixed upon her, they crawled, crab-like, up the slope, slick dark things in soaked clothing, fingers like claws reaching for her.
Then Adelaide knew. Intrinsically, the knowledge was suddenly within her, as if placed there by the ghouls coming toward her. There had been no accident. The children hadn't fallen into the river while playing. Nor had the governess pushed them. In fact, she and the children had played willing parts together in that long ago drama.
A suicide pact; rather than lose the only thing in their lives they cared about, they'd decided to die with their governess, rather than have her leave, as she had been ordered to do. So here, by a river darkly, in sight of a home they hated, they'd all willingly killed themselves.
They were so very close now, so very close. Adelaide whimpered. And so alone. She felt it. They were so terribly alone. They wanted company--her company, anyone's, in the black world beyond the grave they inhabited, chained as they were to this earthly hell by the terrible deed of suicide.
Just as the boy's cadaverous hand reached to touch her leg, Adelaide shut her eyes and screamed as she had never screamed before.
"Adelaide!" It was Barnaby's voice. "Adelaide, dearest, are you all right?"
Afraid it was some trick, some evil ploy of the children and their governess to lure her into opening her eyes, she groaned, "I won't look. I won't!" She waited for dead fingers to grasp and pull her down into the peat-stained waters of the river.
"Adelaide." A living hand closed on her left one where she gripped the sod.
She opened her eyes. Her husband, Barnaby, leaned over her, his face a mask of concern. "Darling, are you all right? Good Lord, you almost went into the river. You'd have been drowned for sure."
"The children..." she started to say, but then stopped. She looked down the bank below her.
There was no sign of them. She looked back up at Barnaby, and beyond him. There was no sign of the weeping woman, either.
"Barnaby," she cried. "Oh, God, Barnaby, please get me out of here."
He made soothing noises as he pulled her up the slope, and then helped her to her feet. He hugged her to him. "Maria told me what's been happening. She was afraid you might be in trouble out here."
Adelaide looked up at him. "She told you about the ghosts?" she asked in a small voice. He nodded.
"Did you see them?"
He shook his head.
"Then you don't believe me." She knew she said this in a dull, dispirited voice.
"I believe you, Adelaide. You're a rational person, so I believe there is something wrong or evil here, and we can't stay. Besides, Maria isn't a fool. She said the police have had to deal with this before, to no avail, apparently. Let's go home," he added, as he cradled her in his arms.
"To Brighton?" she asked, as he helped her further up the embankment.
"To Brighton," he agreed. "Besides, the weather here is absolutely foul. I'd be damned if I'd continue to live in this place."
"Yes," she whispered, "damned. That...we most certainly would be..."