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THE EXCURSION

BOOK EIGHTH

THE PARSONAGE

          THE pensive Sceptic of the lonely vale
          To those acknowledgments subscribed his own,
          With a sedate compliance, which the Priest
          Failed not to notice, inly pleased, and said:--
          "If ye, by whom invited I began
          These narratives of calm and humble life,
          Be satisfied, 'tis well,--the end is gained;
          And, in return for sympathy bestowed
          And patient listening, thanks accept from me.
          --Life, death, eternity! momentous themes                   10
          Are they--and might demand a seraph's tongue,
          Were they not equal to their own support;
          And therefore no incompetence of mine
          Could do them wrong. The universal forms
          Of human nature, in a spot like this,
          Present themselves at once to all men's view:
          Ye wished for act and circumstance, that make
          The individual known and understood;
          And such as my best judgment could select
          From what the place afforded, have been given;              20
          Though apprehensions crossed me that my zeal
          To his might well be likened, who unlocks
          A cabinet stored with gems and pictures--draws
          His treasures forth, soliciting regard
          To this, and this, as worthier than the last,
          Till the spectator, who awhile was pleased
          More than the exhibitor himself, becomes
          Weary and faint, and longs to be released.
          --But let us hence! my dwelling is in sight,
          And there--"
                        At this the Solitary shrunk                   30
          With backward will; but, wanting not address
          That inward motion to disguise, he said
          To his Compatriot, smiling as he spake;
          --"The peaceable remains of this good Knight
          Would be disturbed, I fear, with wrathful scorn,
          If consciousness could reach him where he lies
          That one, albeit of these degenerate times,
          Deploring changes past, or dreading change
          Foreseen, had dared to couple, even in thought,
          The fine vocation of the sword and lance                    40
          With the gross aims and body-bending toil
          Of a poor brotherhood who walk the earth
          Pitied, and, where they are not known, despised.

            Yet, by the good Knight's leave, the two estates
          Are graced with some resemblance. Errant those,
          Exiles and wanderers--and the like are these;
          Who, with their burthen, traverse hill and dale,
          Carrying relief for nature's simple wants.
          --What though no higher recompense be sought
          Than honest maintenance, by irksome toil                    50
          Full oft procured, yet may they claim respect,
          Among the intelligent, for what this course
          Enables them to be and to perform.
          Their tardy steps give leisure to observe,
          While solitude permits the mind to feel;
          Instructs, and prompts her to supply defects
          By the division of her inward self
          For grateful converse: and to these poor men
          Nature (I but repeat your favourite boast)
          Is bountiful--go wheresoe'er they may;                      60
          Kind nature's various wealth is all their own.
          Versed in the characters of men; and bound,
          By ties of daily interest, to maintain
          Conciliatory manners and smooth speech;
          Such have been, and still are in their degree,
          Examples efficacious to refine
          Rude intercourse; apt agents to expel,
          By importation of unlooked-for arts,
          Barbarian torpor, and blind prejudice;
          Raising, through just gradation, savage life                70
          To rustic, and the rustic to urbane.
          --Within their moving magazines is lodged
          Power that comes forth to quicken and exalt
          Affections seated in the mother's breast,
          And in the lover's fancy; and to feed
          The sober sympathies of long-tried friends.
          --By these Itinerants, as experienced men,
          Counsel is given; contention they appease
          With gentle language, in remotest wilds,
          Tears wipe away, and pleasant tidings bring;                80
          Could the proud quest of chivalry do more?"

            "Happy," rejoined the Wanderer, "they who gain
          A panegyric from your generous tongue!
          But, if to these Wayfarers once pertained
          Aught of romantic interest, it is gone.
          Their purer service, in this realm at least,
          Is past for ever.--An inventive Age
          Has wrought, if not with speed of magic, yet
          To most strange issues. I have lived to mark
          A new and unforeseen creation rise                          90
          From out the labours of a peaceful Land
          Wielding her potent enginery to frame
          And to produce, with appetite as keen
          As that of war, which rests not night or day,
          Industrious to destroy! With fruitless pains
          Might one like me 'now' visit many a tract
          Which, in his youth, he trod, and trod again,
          A lone pedestrian with a scanty freight,
          Wished-for, or welcome, wheresoe'er he came--
          Among the tenantry of thorpe and vill;                     100
          Or straggling burgh, of ancient charter proud,
          And dignified by battlements and towers
          Of some stern castle, mouldering on the brow
          Of a green hill or bank of rugged stream.
          The foot-path faintly marked, the horse-track wild,
          And formidable length of plashy lane,
          (Prized avenues ere others had been shaped
          Or easier links connecting place with place)
          Have vanished--swallowed up by stately roads
          Easy and bold, that penetrate the gloom                    110
          Of Britain's farthest glens. The Earth has lent
          Her waters, Air her breezes; and the sail
          Of traffic glides with ceaseless intercourse,
          Glistening along the low and woody dale;
          Or, in its progress, on the lofty side,
          Of some bare hill, with wonder kenned from far.

            Meanwhile, at social Industry's command,
          How quick, how vast an increase! From the germ
          Of some poor hamlet, rapidly produced
          Here a huge town, continuous and compact,                  120
          Hiding the face of earth for leagues--and there,
          Where not a habitation stood before,
          Abodes of men irregularly massed
          Like trees in forests,--spread through spacious tracts,
          O'er which the smoke of unremitting fires
          Hangs permanent, and plentiful as wreaths
          Of vapour glittering in the morning sun.
          And, wheresoe'er the traveller turns his steps,
          He sees the barren wilderness erased,
          Or disappearing; triumph that proclaims                    130
          How much the mild Directress of the plough
          Owes to alliance with these new-born arts!
          --Hence is the wide sea peopled,--hence the shores
          Of Britain are resorted to by ships
          Freighted from every climate of the world
          With the world's choicest produce. Hence that sum
          Of keels that rest within her crowded ports,
          Or ride at anchor in her sounds and bays;
          That animating spectacle of sails
          That, through her inland regions, to and fro               140
          Pass with the respirations of the tide,
          Perpetual, multitudinous! Finally,
          Hence a dread arm of floating power, a voice
          Of thunder daunting those who would approach
          With hostile purposes the blessed Isle,
          Truth's consecrated residence, the seat
          Impregnable of Liberty and Peace.

            And yet, O happy Pastor of a flock
          Faithfully watched, and, by that loving care
          And Heaven's good providence, preserved from taint!        150
          With you I grieve, when on the darker side
          Of this great change I look; and there behold
          Such outrage done to nature as compels
          The indignant power to justify herself;
          Yea, to avenge her violated rights,
          For England's bane.--When soothing darkness spreads
          O'er hill and vale," the Wanderer thus expressed
          His recollections, "and the punctual stars,
          While all things else are gathering to their homes,
          Advance, and in the firmament of heaven                    160
          Glitter--but undisturbing, undisturbed;
          As if their silent company were charged
          With peaceful admonitions for the heart
          Of all-beholding Man, earth's thoughtful lord;
          Then, in full many a region, once like this
          The assured domain of calm simplicity
          And pensive quiet, an unnatural light
          Prepared for never-resting Labour's eyes
          Breaks from a many-windowed fabric huge;
          And at the appointed hour a bell is heard--                170
          Of harsher import than the curfew-knoll
          That spake the Norman Conqueror's stern behest--
          A local summons to unceasing toil!
          Disgorged are now the ministers of day;
          And, as they issue from the illumined pile,
          A fresh band meets them, at the crowded door--
          And in the courts--and where the rumbling stream,
          That turns the multitude of dizzy wheels,
          Glares, like a troubled spirit, in its bed
          Among the rocks below. Men, maidens, youths,               180
          Mother and little children, boys and girls,
          Enter, and each the wonted task resumes
          Within this temple, where is offered up
          To Gain, the master idol of the realm,
          Perpetual sacrifice. Even thus of old
          Our ancestors, within the still domain
          Of vast cathedral or conventual church,
          Their vigils kept; where tapers day and might
          On the dim altar burned continually,
          In token that the House was evermore                       190
          Watching to God. Religious men were they;
          Nor would their reason, tutored to aspire
          Above this transitory world, allow
          That there should pass a moment of the year,
          When in their land the Almighty's service ceased.

            Triumph who will in these profaner rites
          Which we, a generation self-extolled,
          As zealously perform! I cannot share
          His proud complacency:--yet do I exult,
          Casting reserve away, exult to see                         200
          An intellectual mastery exercised
          O'er the blind elements; a purpose given,
          A perseverance fed; almost a soul
          Imparted--to brute matter. I rejoice,
          Measuring the force of those gigantic powers
          That, by the thinking mind, have been compelled
          To serve the will of feeble-bodied Man.
          For with the sense of admiration blends
          The animating hope that time may come
          When, strengthened, yet not dazzled, by the might          210
          Of this dominion over nature gained,
          Men of all lands shall exercise the same
          In due proportion to their country's need;
          Learning, though late, that all true glory rests,
          All praise, all safety, and all happiness,
          Upon the moral law. Egyptian Thebes,
          Tyre, by the margin of the sounding waves,
          Palmyra, central in the desert, fell;
          And the Arts died by which they had been raised.
          --Call Archimedes from his buried tomb                     220
          Upon the grave of vanished Syracuse,
          And feelingly the Sage shall make report
          How insecure, how baseless in itself,
          Is the Philosophy whose sway depends
          On mere material instruments;--how weak
          Those arts, and high inventions, if unpropped
          By virtue.--He, sighing with pensive grief,
          Amid his calm abstractions, would admit
          That not the slender privilege is theirs
          To save themselves from blank forgetfulness!"              230

            When from the Wanderer's lips these words had fallen,
          I said, "And, did in truth those vaunted Arts
          Possess such privilege, how could we escape
          Sadness and keen regret, we who revere,
          And would preserve as things above all price,
          The old domestic morals of the land,
          Her simple manners, and the stable worth
          That dignified and cheered a low estate?
          Oh! where is now the character of peace,
          Sobriety, and order, and chaste love,                      240
          And honest dealing, and untainted speech,
          And pure good-will, and hospitable cheer;
          That made the very thought of country-life
          A thought of refuge, for a mind detained
          Reluctantly amid the bustling crowd?
          Where now the beauty of the sabbath kept
          With conscientious reverence, as a day
          By the almighty Lawgiver pronounced
          Holy and blest? and where the winning grace
          Of all the lighter ornaments attached                      250
          To time and season, as the year rolled round?"

            "Fled!" was the Wanderer's passionate response,
          "Fled utterly! or only to be traced
          In a few fortunate retreats like this;
          Which I behold with trembling, when I think
          What lamentable change, a year--a month--
          May bring; that brook converting as it runs
          Into an instrument of deadly bane
          For those, who, yet untempted to forsake
          The simple occupations of their sires,                     260
          Drink the pure water of its innocent stream
          With lip almost as pure.--Domestic bliss
          (Or call it comfort, by a humbler name,)
          How art thou blighted for the poor Man's heart!
          Lo! in such neighbourhood, from morn to eve,
          The habitations empty! or perchance
          The Mother left alone,--no helping hand
          To rock the cradle of her peevish babe;
          No daughters round her, busy at the wheel,
          Or in dispatch of each day's little growth                 270
          Of household occupation; no nice arts
          Of needle-work; no bustle at the fire,
          Where once the dinner was prepared with pride;
          Nothing to speed the day, or cheer the mind;
          Nothing to praise to teach, or to command!

            The Father, if perchance he still retain
          His old employments, goes to field or wood,
          No longer led or followed by the Sons;
          Idlers perchance they were,--but in 'his' sight;
          Breathing fresh air, and treading the green earth:         280
          'Till their short holiday of childhood ceased,
          Ne'er to return! That birthright now is lost.
          Economists will tell you that the State
          Thrives by the forfeiture--unfeeling thought,
          And false as monstrous! Can the mother thrive
          By the destruction of her innocent sons
          In whom a premature necessity
          Blocks out the forms of nature, preconsumes
          The reason, famishes the heart, shuts up
          The infant Being in itself, and makes                      290
          Its very spring a season of decay!
          The lot is wretched, the condition sad,
          Whether a pining discontent survive,
          And thirst for change; or habit hath subdued
          The soul deprest, dejected--even to love
          Of her close tasks, and long captivity.

            Oh, banish far such wisdom as condemns
          A native Briton to these inward chains,
          Fixed in his soul, so early and so deep;
          Without his own consent, or knowledge, fixed!              300
          He is a slave to whom release comes not,
          And cannot come. The boy, where'er he turns,
          Is still a prisoner; when the wind is up
          Among the clouds, and roars through the ancient woods;
          Or when the sun is shining in the east,
          Quiet and calm. Behold him--in the school
          Of his attainments? no; but with the air
          Fanning his temples under heaven's blue arch.
          His raiment, whitened o'er with cotton-flakes
          Or locks of wool, announces whence he comes.               310
          Creeping his gait and cowering, his lip pale,
          His respiration quick and audible;
          And scarcely could you fancy that a gleam
          Could break from out those languid eyes, or a blush
          Mantle upon his cheek. Is this the form,
          Is that the countenance, and such the port,
          Of no mean Being? One who should be clothed
          With dignity befitting his proud hope;
          Who, in his very childhood, should appear
          Sublime from present purity and joy!                       320
          The limbs increase; but liberty of mind
          Is gone for ever; and this organic frame,
          So joyful in its motions, is become
          Dull, to the joy of her own motions dead;
          And even the touch, so exquisitely poured
          Through the whole body, with a languid will
          Performs its functions; rarely competent
          To impress a vivid feeling on the mind
          Of what there is delightful in the breeze,
          The gentle visitations of the sun,                         330
          Or lapse of liquid element--by hand,
          Or foot, or lip, in summer's warmth--perceived.
          --Can hope look forward to a manhood raised
          On such foundations?"
                                 "Hope is none for him!"
          The pale Recluse indignantly exclaimed,
          "And tens of thousands suffer wrong as deep.
          Yet be it asked, in justice to our age,
          If there were not, before those arts appeared,
          These structures rose, commingling old and young,
          And unripe sex with sex, for mutual taint;                 340
          If there were not, 'then', in our far-famed Isle,
          Multitudes, who from infancy had breathed
          Air unimprisoned, and had lived at large;
          Yet walked beneath the sun, in human shape,
          As abject, as degraded? At this day,
          Who shall enumerate the crazy huts
          And tottering hovels, whence do issue forth
          A ragged Offspring, with their upright hair
          Crowned like the image of fantastic Fear;
          Or wearing, (shall we say?) in that white growth           350
          An ill-adjusted turban, for defence
          Or fierceness, wreathed around their sunburnt brows,
          By savage Nature? Shrivelled are their lips,
          Naked, and coloured like the soil, the feet
          On which they stand; as if thereby they drew
          Some nourishment, as trees do by their roots,
          From earth, the common mother of us all.
          Figure and mien, complexion and attire,
          Are leagued to strike dismay; but outstretched hand
          And whining voice denote them supplicants                  360
          For the least boon that pity can bestow.
          Such on the breast of darksome heaths are found;
          And with their parents occupy the skirts
          Of furze-clad commons; such are born and reared
          At the mine's mouth under impending rocks;
          Or dwell in chambers of some natural cave;
          Or where their ancestors erected huts,
          For the convenience of unlawful gain,
          In forest purlieus; and the like are bred,
          All England through, where nooks and slips of ground       370
          Purloined, in times less jealous than our own,
          From the green margin of the public way,
          A residence afford them, 'mid the bloom
          And gaiety of cultivated fields.
          Such (we will hope the lowest in the scale)
          Do I remember oft-times to have seen
          'Mid Buxton's dreary heights. In earnest watch,
          Till the swift vehicle approach, they stand;
          Then, following closely with the cloud of dust,
          An uncouth feat exhibit, and are gone                      380
          Heels over head, like tumblers on a stage.
          --Up from the ground they snatch the copper coin,
          And, on the freight of merry passengers
          Fixing a steady eye, maintain their speed;
          And spin--and pant--and overhead again,
          Wild pursuivants! until their breath is lost,
          Or bounty tires--and every face, that smiled
          Encouragement, hath ceased to look that way.
          --But, like the vagrants of the gipsy tribe,
          These, bred to little pleasure in themselves,              390
          Are profitless to others.
                                     Turn we then
          To Britons born and bred within the pale
          Of civil polity, and early trained
          To earn, by wholesome labour in the field,
          The bread they eat. A sample should I give
          Of what this stock hath long produced to enrich
          The tender age of life, ye would exclaim,
          'Is this the whistling plough-boy whose shrill notes
          Impart new gladness to the morning air!'
          Forgive me if I venture to suspect                         400
          That many, sweet to hear of in soft verse,
          Are of no finer frame. Stiff are his joints;
          Beneath a cumbrous frock, that to the knees
          Invests the thriving churl, his legs appear,
          Fellows to those that lustily upheld
          The wooden stools for everlasting use,
          Whereon our fathers sate. And mark his brow
          Under whose shaggy canopy are set
          Two eyes--not dim, but of a healthy stare--
          Wide, sluggish, blank, and ignorant, and strange--         410
          Proclaiming boldly that they never drew
          A look or motion of intelligence
          From infant-conning of the Christ-crossrow,
          Or puzzling through a primer, line by line,
          Till perfect mastery crown the pains at last.
          --What kindly warmth from touch of fostering hand,
          What penetrating power of sun or breeze,
          Shall e'er dissolve the crust wherein his soul
          Sleeps, like a caterpillar sheathed in ice?
          This torpor is no pitiable work                            420
          Of modern ingenuity; no town
          Nor crowded city can be taxed with aught
          Of sottish vice or desperate breach of law,
          To which (and who can tell where or how soon?)
          He may be roused. This Boy the fields produce:
          His spade and hoe, mattock and glittering scythe,
          The carter's whip that on his shoulder rests
          In air high-towering with a boorish pomp,
          The sceptre of his sway; his country's name,
          Her equal rights, her churches and her schools--           430
          What have they done for him? And, let me ask,
          For tens of thousands uninformed as he?
          In brief, what liberty of 'mind' is here?"

            This ardent sally pleased the mild good Man,
          To whom the appeal couched in its closing words
          Was pointedly addressed; and to the thoughts
          That, in assent or opposition, rose
          Within his mind, he seemed prepared to give
          Prompt utterance; but the Vicar interposed
          With invitation urgently renewed.                          440
          --We followed, taking as he led, a path
          Along a hedge of hollies dark and tall,
          Whose flexile boughs low bending with a weight
          Of leafy spray, concealed the stems and roots
          That gave them nourishment. When frosty winds
          Howl from the north, what kindly warmth, methought,
          Is here--how grateful this impervious screen!
          --Not shaped by simple wearing of the foot
          On rural business passing to and fro
          Was the commodious walk: a careful hand                    450
          Had marked the line, and strewn its surface o'er
          With pure cerulean gravel, from the heights
          Fetched by a neighbouring brook.--Across the vale
          The stately fence accompanied our steps;
          And thus the pathway, by perennial green
          Guarded and graced, seemed fashioned to unite,
          As by a beautiful yet solemn chain,
          The Pastor's mansion with the house of prayer.

            Like image of solemnity, conjoined
          With feminine allurement soft and fair,                    460
          The mansion's self displayed;--a reverend pile
          With bold projections and recesses deep;
          Shadowy, yet gay and lightsome as it stood
          Fronting the noontide sun. We paused to admire
          The pillared porch, elaborately embossed;
          The low wide windows with their mullions old;
          The cornice, richly fretted, of grey stone;
          And that smooth slope from which the dwelling rose,
          By beds and banks Arcadian of gay flowers
          And flowering shrubs, protected and adorned:               470
          Profusion bright! and every flower assuming
          A more than natural vividness of hue,
          From unaffected contrast with the gloom
          Of sober cypress, and the darker foil
          Of yew, in which survived some traces, here
          Not unbecoming, of grotesque device
          And uncouth fancy. From behind the roof
          Rose the slim ash and massy sycamore,
          Blending their diverse foliage with the green
          Of ivy, flourishing and thick, that clasped                480
          The huge round chimneys, harbour of delight
          For wren and redbreast,--where they sit and sing
          Their slender ditties when the trees are bare.
          Nor must I leave untouched (the picture else
          Were incomplete) a relique of old times
          Happily spared, a little Gothic niche
          Of nicest workmanship; that once had held
          The sculptured image of some patron-saint,
          Or of the blessed Virgin, looking down
          On all who entered those religious doors.                  490

            But lo! where from the rocky garden-mount
          Crowned by its antique summer-house--descends,
          Light as the silver fawn, a radiant Girl;
          For she hath recognised her honoured friend,
          The Wanderer ever welcome! A prompt kiss
          The gladsome Child bestows at his request;
          And, up the flowery lawn as we advance,
          Hangs on the old Man with a happy look,
          And with a pretty restless hand of love.
          --We enter--by the Lady of the place                       500
          Cordially greeted. Graceful was her port:
          A lofty stature undepressed by time,
          Whose visitation had not wholly spared
          The finer lineaments of form and face;
          To that complexion brought which prudence trusts in
          And wisdom loves.--But when a stately ship
          Sails in smooth weather by the placid coast
          On homeward voyage, what--if wind and wave,
          And hardship undergone in various climes,
          Have caused her to abate the virgin pride,                 510
          And that full trim of inexperienced hope
          With which she left her haven--not for this,
          Should the sun strike her, and the impartial breeze
          Play on her streamers, fails she to assume
          Brightness and touching beauty of her own,
          That charm all eyes. So bright, so fair, appeared
          This goodly Matron, shining in the beams
          Of unexpected pleasure.--Soon the board
          Was spread, and we partook a plain repast.

            Here, resting in cool shelter, we beguiled               520
          The mid-day hours with desultory talk;
          From trivial themes to general argument
          Passing, as accident or fancy led,
          Or courtesy prescribed. While question rose
          And answer flowed, the fetters of reserve
          Dropping from every mind, the Solitary
          Resumed the manners of his happier days;
          And in the various conversation bore
          A willing, nay, at times, a forward part;
          Yet with the grace of one who in the world                 530
          Had learned the art of pleasing, and had now
          Occasion given him to display his skill,
          Upon the stedfast 'vantage-ground of truth.
          He gazed, with admiration unsuppressed,
          Upon the landscape of the sun-bright vale,
          Seen, from the shady room in which we sate,
          In softened perspective; and more than once
          Praised the consummate harmony serene
          Of gravity and elegance, diffused
          Around the mansion and its whole domain;                   540
          Not, doubtless, without help of female taste
          And female care.--"A blessed lot is yours!"
          The words escaped his lip, with a tender sigh
          Breathed over them: but suddenly the door
          Flew open, and a pair of lusty Boys
          Appeared, confusion checking their delight.
          --Not brothers they in feature or attire,
          But fond companions, so I guessed, in field,
          And by the river's margin--whence they come,
          Keen anglers with unusual spoil elated.                    550
          One bears a willow-pannier on his back,
          The boy of plainer garb, whose blush survives
          More deeply tinged. Twin might the other be
          To that fair girl who from the garden-mount
          Bounded:--triumphant entry this for him!
          Between his hands he holds a smooth blue stone,
          On whose capacious surface see outspread
          Large store of gleaming crimson-spotted trouts;
          Ranged side by side, and lessening by degrees
          Up to the dwarf that tops the pinnacle.                    560
          Upon the board he lays the sky-blue stone
          With its rich freight; their number he proclaims;
          Tells from what pool the noblest had been dragged;
          And where the very monarch of the brook,
          After long struggle, had escaped at last--
          Stealing alternately at them and us
          (As doth his comrade too) a look of pride:
          And, verily, the silent creatures made
          A splendid sight, together thus exposed;
          Dead--but not sullied or deformed by death,                570
          That seemed to pity what he could not spare.

            But oh, the animation in the mien
          Of those two boys! yea in the very words
          With which the young narrator was inspired,
          When, as our questions led, he told at large
          Of that day's prowess! Him might I compare,
          His looks, tones, gestures, eager eloquence,
          To a bold brook that splits for better speed,
          And at the self-same moment, works its way
          Through many channels, ever and anon                       580
          Parted and re-united: his compeer
          To the still lake, whose stillness is to sight
          As beautiful--as grateful to the mind.
          --But to what object shall the lovely Girl
          Be likened? She whose countenance and air
          Unite the graceful qualities of both,
          Even as she shares the pride and joy of both.

            My grey-haired Friend was moved; his vivid eye
          Glistened with tenderness; his mind, I knew,
          Was full; and had, I doubted not, returned,                590
          Upon this impulse, to the theme--erewhile
          Abruptly broken off. The ruddy boys
          Withdrew, on summons to their well-earned meal;
          And He--to whom all tongues resigned their rights
          With willingness, to whom the general ear
          Listened with readier patience than to strain
          Of music, lute or harp, a long delight
          That ceased not when his voice had ceased--as One
          Who from truth's central point serenely views
          The compass of his argument--began                         600
          Mildly, and with a clear and steady tone.


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