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Chapter 20 The Post of the Olden Time.

  • When the applause had subsided Solomon Flint caused a slight feeling o_epression in the meeting by stating that the subject which he meant to brin_efore them that evening was a historical view of the Post-Office. Most o_hose present felt that they had had more than enough of the Post-Offic_hrust on their attention every day of their lives, and the irreverent membe_entured to call out “Shop,” but he was instantly and indignantly called t_rder.
  • When, however, Solomon went on to state his firm belief that a particula_ranch of the Post-Office began in the immediate neighbourhood of the Garde_f Eden, and that Adam was the first Postmaster-General, the depression gav_ay to interest, not unmingled with curiosity.
  • “You see, my young friends,” continued the lecturer, “our information wit_egard to the origin of the Post-Office is slight. The same may be said as t_he origin of a’most everythink. Taking the little information that we d_ossess, and applying to it the reasoning power which was given to us for th_urpose of investigatin’ an’ discoverin’ truth, I come to the followin_onclusions:—
  • “Adam was a tiller of the ground. There can be no doubt about that. Judgin_rom analogy, we have the best ground for supposing that while Adam wa_igging in the fields Eve was at home preparing the dinner, and otherwis_ttending to the domestic arrangements of the house, or hut, or hovel, o_ave. Dinner being ready, Eve would naturally send little Cain or Abel t_etch their father, and thus, you see, the branch of boy-messengers began.” (Applause, mingled with laughter and cheers.)
  • “Of course,” continued Solomon, “it may be objected—for some people can alway_bject—(Hear, hear)—that these were not _Post-Office_ messengers, but, m_oung friends, it is well known that the greater includes the less. As mankin_s involved in Adam, and the oak is embedded in the acorn, so it may b_aintained that the first faint germ of the Boy-Messenger Branch of the Post- Office was included in Cain and Abel.
  • “Passing, however, from what I may style this Post-Office germ, over man_enturies, during which the records of postal history are few and faint an_ar between, we come down to more modern times—say five or six hundred year_go—and what do we find?” (Here Solomon became solemn.) “We find next t_othink! Absolutely next to nothink! The Boy-Messenger Department had indee_eveloped amazingly, insomuch that, whereas there were only two to begin with, there were in the 15th century no fewer than innumerable millions of ’em i_very region and land and clime to which the ’uman family had penetrated, bu_o section of them had as yet prefixed the word ‘Telegraph’ to their name, an_s to postal arrangements, w’y, they were simply disgraceful. Just think, now, up to the century of which I speak—the fifteenth—there was no regular Post- Office in this country. Letters were conveyed by common carriers at the rate, probably, of three or four miles an hour. Flesh and blood couldn’t stand that, you know, so about the close of the century, places, or ‘posts,’ wer_stablished in some parts of the country, where horses could be hired b_ravellers, and letters might be conveyed. The post-boys of those day_vidently required spurring as well as their horses, for letters of the perio_ave been preserved with the words ‘ _Haste, post haste_ ’ on their backs.
  • Sometimes the writers seem to have been in a particularly desperate hurry. On_etter, written by a great man of the period, had on the back of it the words, ‘In haste; post haste, for thy life, for thy life, for thy life;’ and it i_elieved that this was no idle caution, but a threat which was apt to b_arried out if the post-boy loitered on the way.”
  • It may be remarked that Solomon’s language became more refined as h_roceeded, but lapsed into a free-and-easy style whenever he became jocular.
  • “The first horse-posts,” continued the lecturer, “were established fo_ilitary purposes—the convenience of the public being deemed quite a secondar_atter. Continental nations were in advance of England in postal arrangements, and in the first quarter of the sixteenth century (1514) the foreign merchant_esiding in London were so greatly inconvenienced by the want of regula_etter conveyance, that they set up a Post-Office of their own from London t_ts outports, and appointed their own Postmaster, but, quarrelling amon_hemselves, they referred their dispute to Government. James the Firs_stablished a Post-Office for letters to foreign countries, for the benefit o_nglish merchants, but it was not till the year 1635—in the reign of Charle_he First—that a Post-Office for inland letters was established. It wa_rdained that the Postmaster of England for foreign parts ‘should settle _unning post or two to run night and day between Edinburgh and London, to g_hither and come back again in six days, and to take with them all suc_etters as shall be directed to any post-town in or near that road.’
  • “In 1640 the Post-Office was placed under the care and superintendence of th_rincipal Secretary of State, and became one of the settled institutions o_he country.
  • “Here, then, we have what may be considered the birth of the Post-Office, which is now pretty nigh two centuries and a half old. And what a wonderfu_ifference there is between this infant Post-Office and the man! _Then_ , si_ays; _now_ , less than a dozen hours, between the capitals of England an_cotland—to say nothing of other things. But, my lads, we must not turn up ou_oses at the day of small things.”
  • “Hear, hear,” cried little Grigs, who approved the sentiment.
  • “Lay it to heart then, Grigs,” said Peter Pax, who referred to the fact tha_ittle Grigs’s nose was turned up so powerfully by nature that it could no_elp turning up at things small and great alike.
  • Laughter and great applause were mingled with cries of “Order,” which Solomo_ubdued by holding up his hand.
  • “At the same time,” continued the lecturer, “bye-posts were set a-going t_onnect the main line with large towns, such as Hull, Lincoln, Chester, etcetera. These bye-posts were farmed out to private individuals, and th_ates fixed at 2 pence a single letter to any place under 80 miles; 4 pence u_o 140 miles; 6 pence to any more distant place in England; and 8 pence t_cotland.
  • “From that date forward the infant began to grow—sometimes slowly, sometime_uickly, now and then by spurts—just like other infants, and a horribl_poiled and mismanaged baby it was at first. Those who see it now,—in th_rime of its manhood, wielding its giant strength with such ease, accomplishing all but miraculous work with so great speed, regularity, an_ertainty, and with so little fuss,—can hardly believe what a cross-graine_ittle stupid thing it was in those early days, or what tremendou_ifficulties it had to contend with.
  • “In the first place, the roads in the land were few, and most of the_nconceivably bad, besides which they were infested by highwaymen, who ofte_ook a fancy to rummage the mail-bags and scatter their contents. The post i_hose days was slow, but not sure. Then it experienced some trouble from othe_nfants, of the same family, who claimed a right to share its privileges.
  • Among these was a Post-Office established by the Common Council of London i_irect rivalry to the Parliamentary child. This resulted in a great deal o_quabbling and pamphleteering, also in many valuable improvements—for it i_ell known that opposition is the life of trade. The Council of State, however, came to the conclusion that, in an affair so thoroughly national, th_ffice of Postmaster and the management of the Post-Office ought to rest i_he sole power and disposal of Parliament; the City posts were peremptoril_uppressed; opposition babies were quietly—no doubt righteously—murdered; an_rom that date the carrying of letters has remained the exclusive privilege o_he Crown. But considerable and violent opposition was made to this monopoly.
  • This is a world of opposition, my young friends”—the lecturer was patheti_ere—“and I have no doubt whatever that it was meant to be a world o_pposition”—the lecturer was energetic here, and drew an emphatic “Hear, hear,” from the Scotch members. “Why, it is only by opposition that question_re ventilated and truth is established!
  • “No doubt every member of this ancient and literary Society is well acquainte_ith the name of Hill—(great cheering)—Sir Rowland Hill, who in the year 184_ucceeded in getting introduced to the nation one of the greatest boons wit_hich it has been blessed—namely, the Penny Post.” (Renewed cheering.) “Well, it is a curious and interesting fact that in the middle of the seventeent_entury—more than two hundred years ago—a namesake of Sir Rowland (whether a_ncestor or not I cannot tell), a Mr John Hill, wrote a pamphlet in whic_onopoly was condemned and a penny post suggested. The title of the pamphle_as ‘John Hill’s Penny Post; or, A Vindication of every Englishman in carryin_erchants’ or any other Men’s Letters against any restraints of Farmers o_uch Employment.’ So, you see, in regard to the Penny Post, the coming even_ast its shadow about two hundred years in advance.
  • “The Creeping Era may be the title assigned to this period of Post-Offic_istory. Little was expected of the Post-Office, and not much was done.
  • Nevertheless, considering the difficulties in its way, our infant progresse_onderfully. Its revenue in 1649 was 5000 pounds. Gradually it got upon it_egs. Then it monopolised post-horses and began to run. Waxing bolder, it als_onopolised packet-boats and went to sea. Like all bold and energeti_hildren, it had numerous falls, and experienced many troubles in it_rogress. Nevertheless its heart was kept up by the steady increase of it_evenue, which amounted to 76,000 pounds in 1687. During the followin_eventy-eight years the increase was twofold, and during the next ninety years (to 1854) it was tenfold.
  • “It was hard times with the Post-Office officials about the beginning of las_entury.
  • “During what we may call the Post-boy Era, the officials were maltreated b_obbers on shore and by privateers (next thing to pirates) at sea. In fac_hey were compelled to become men of war. And the troubles and anxieties o_he Postmaster-Generals were proportionately great. The latter had to fit ou_he mail-packets as ships of war, build new ships, and sell old ones, provid_tores and ammunition for the same, engage captains and crews, and attend t_heir disputes, mutinies, and shortcomings. They had also to correspond wit_he deputy-postmasters all over the country about all sorts of matters—chiefl_heir arrears and carelessness or neglect of duty—besides foreig_orrespondence. What the latter involved may be partly gathered from lists o_he articles sent by post at that time. Among other things, we find referenc_o ‘fifteen couple of hounds going to the King of the Romans with a fre_ass.’ A certain ‘Dr Crichton, carrying with him a cow and divers othe_ecessaries,’ is mentioned as having been posted! also ‘two servant-maid_oing as laundresses to my Lord Ambassador Methuen,’ and ‘a deal case wit_our flitches of bacon for Mr Pennington of Rotterdam.’ The captains of th_ail-packets ought to have worn coats of mail, for they had orders to ru_hile they could, to fight when they could not run, and to throw the mail_verboard when fighting failed!
  • “Of course, it is to be hoped, this rule was not strictly enforced whe_octors and females formed part of the mails.
  • “In one case a certain James Vickers, captain of the mail-packet ‘Grac_ogger,’ lay in Dublin Bay waiting till the tide should enable him to get ove_he bar. A French privateer chanced to be on the look-out in these waters, an_ounced upon James Vickers, who was either unable or unwilling to fight. Th_rench captain stripped the ‘Grace Dogger’—as the chronicler writes—‘o_igging, sails, spars, yards, and all furniture wherewith she had bee_rovided for due accommodation of passengers, leaving not so much as a spoone, or a naile, or a hooke to hang anything on.’ Having thus made a clean sweep o_er valuables, and having no use for the hull, the Frenchman ransomed the ‘Grace Dogger’ to poor J.V. for fifty guineas, which the Post-Office had t_ay!
  • “But our mail-packets were not always thus easily or summarily mastered.
  • Sometimes they fought and conquered, but, whatever happened, the result wa_nvariably productive of expense, because wounded men had to be cared for an_ured or pensioned. Thus one Edward James had a donation of 5 pounds, because ‘a musket shot had grazed the tibia of his left leg.’ What the _tibia_ may be, my young friends, is best known to the doctors—I have not taken the trouble t_nquire!” (Hear, hear, and applause.) “Then another got 12 pounds ‘because _hot had divided his frontal muscles and fractured his skull;’ while a thir_eceived a yearly pension of 6 pounds, 13 shillings, 4 pence ‘on account of _hot in the hinder part of the head, whereby a large division of scalp wa_ade.’ Observe what significance there is in that fourpence! Don’t it spea_loquently of the strict justice of the Post-Office authorities of those days?
  • Don’t it tell of tender solicitude on their part thus to gauge the value o_unshot wounds? Might it not be said that the men were carefully rated whe_ounded? One Postmaster-General writes to an agent at Falmouth in regard t_ates: ‘Each arm or leg amputated above the elbow or knee is 8 pounds pe_nnum; below the knee, 20 nobles. Loss of sight of one eye, 4 pounds; of pupi_f the eye, 5 pounds; of sight of both eyes, 12 pounds; of pupils of bot_yes, 14 pounds.’ Our well-known exactitude began to crop up, you see, even i_hose days.
  • “The post-boys—who in many instances were grey-headed men—also gave th_uthorities much trouble, many of them being addicted to strong drink, and no_ few to dilatory habits and dishonesty. One of them was at one time caught i_he act of breaking the laws. At that period the bye-posts were farmed, bu_he post-boys, regardless of farmers’ rights, often carried letters an_rought back answers on their own account—receiving and keeping the hire, s_hat neither the Post-Office nor the farmer got the benefit. The particula_oy referred to was convicted and committed to prison, but as he could not ge_ail—having neither friends nor money—he begged to be whipped instead! Hi_etition was granted, and he was accordingly whipped to his heart’_ontent—or, as the chronicler has it, he was whipped ‘to the purpose.’
  • “Many men of great power and energy contributed to the advance of the Post- Office in those times. I won’t burden your minds with many of their name_owever. One of them, William Dockwra, started a penny post in London fo_etters and small parcels in 1683. Twenty-three years later an attempt wa_ade to start a halfpenny post in London, but that was suppressed.
  • “Soon after that a great man arose named Ralph Allen. He obtained a lease o_he cross posts from Government for life at 6000 pounds a year. By his wisdo_nd energy he introduced vast improvements in the postal system, beside_aking a profit of 12,000 pounds a year, which he lived to enjoy for forty- four years, spending much of his fortune in charity and in the exercise o_ospitality to men of learning and genius.
  • “About the middle of last century—the eighteenth—the Post-Office, althoug_reatly increased in efficiency, was an insignificant affair compared wit_hat of the present day. It was bound to pay into the Exchequer 700 pounds _eek. In Ireland and Scotland improvements also went on apace, but not s_apidly as in England, as might have been expected, considering th_ountainous nature of these countries. In Scotland the first modern stage- coach was introduced in 1776. The same year a penny post was started i_dinburgh by a certain Peter Williamson of Aberdeen, who was a keeper of _offee-stall in the Parliament House, and his experiment was so successfu_hat he had to employ four carriers to deliver and collect letters. These me_ang a bell on their rounds and wore a uniform. Others soon entered int_ompetition, but the Post-Office authorities came forward, took the loca_enny post in hand, and pensioned Williamson off.
  • “It was not till the end of the century that the Post-Office made one of it_reatest and most notable strides.
  • “The Mail-coach Era followed that of the post-boys, and was introduced by M_ohn Palmer, manager of the Bath theatre. The post-boys had become s_nbearably slow and corrupt that people had taken to sending valuable letter_n brown paper parcels by the coaches, which had now begun to run between mos_f the great towns. Palmer, who afterwards became Controller-General of th_ost-Office, proposed that mail-bags should be sent by passenger-coaches wit_rusty and armed guards. His advice, after some opposition, was acted on, an_hus the mails came to travel six miles an hour, instead of three or four—th_esult being an immediate increase of correspondence, despite an increase o_ostage. Rapidity, security, regularity, economy, are the great requisites i_ healthy postal system. Here, then, was an advance in at least two of these.
  • The advance was slight, it is true, but once more, I repeat, we ought not t_urn up our noses at the day of small things.” (Little Grigs was going t_epeat “Hear! hear!” but thought better of it and checked himself.) “Of cours_here was opposition to the stage-coaches. There always is and will b_pposition to everything in a world of mixed good and evil.” (The Scotsma_ere thought of repeating “Hear! hear!” but refrained.) “One pamphletee_enounced them as the ‘greatest evil that had happened of late years in thes_ingdoms,—mischievous to the public, prejudicial to trade, and destructive t_ands. Those who travel in these coaches contract an idle habit of body, become weary and listless when they had rode a few miles, and were unable t_ravel on horseback, and not able to endure frost, snow, or rain, or to lodg_n the fields.’ Opposition for ever! So it ever is. So it was when foot- runners gave place to horsemen; so it was when horseflesh succumbed to steam.
  • So it will be when electro-galvanic aerial locomotives take the place—.” (Th_emainder of the sentence was lost in laughter and rapturous applause.) “Bu_oads were still intolerably bad. Stage-coach travelling was a seriou_usiness. Men made their wills before setting out on a journey. The journe_etween Edinburgh and London was advertised to last ten days in summer, an_welve in winter, and that, too, in a so-called ‘flying machine on stee_prings.’ But, to return:— Our infant, having now become a sturdy youth, advanced somewhat more rapidly. In 1792 a money-order office was set on foo_or the first time. It had been originally undertaken by some post-offic_lerks on their own account, but was little used until the introduction of th_enny postage. Great reforms were made in many departments. Among them was a_ct passed to authorise the sending of letter-bags by private ships. Thi_riginated the ship-letter system, by which letters are now conveyed to ever_art of the world visited by private ships.
  • “Another mighty influence for good was the introduction (about 1818) o_acadamised roads, which brought travelling up to the point of ten miles a_our. So also was the opening for use in 1829 of St. Martin’s-le-Grand—_grand_ event this, in every sense of the word.” (Here a member objected t_unning, and was immediately hooted out of countenance.)
  • “With mail-coaches, macadamised roads, security, ten miles an hour, and _astly increased revenue, the Post-Office seemed to have reached the highes_eights of prosperity. The heights from which we now look down upon thes_hings ought to make us humble in our estimate of the future! We have fa_urpassed the wildest dreams of those days, but there were some points o_icturesque interest in which we can never surpass them. Ah! boys,” sai_olomon, looking up with a gleam of enthusiasm in his eyes, “I mind the ol_ail-coaches well. They had for a long time before I knew them reached thei_est days. It was about the year 1820 that most of the post-roads had bee_acadamised, and the service had reached its highest state of efficiency. I_836 there were fifty four-horse mails in England, thirty in Ireland, and te_n Scotland, besides forty-nine two-horse mails in England. Those who have no_een the starting of the mail-coaches from the General Post-Office can neve_nderstand the magnificence and excitement of that scene. The coaches wer_lean, trim, elegant, and glittering; the blood-horses were the finest tha_ould be procured, groomed to perfection, and full of fire; the drivers an_uards were tried and trusty men of mettle, in bright scarlet costume—some o_he former being lords, baronets, and even parsons! It was a gay and stirrin_ight when the insides and outsides were seated, when the drivers seized thei_eins, and the bugles sounded, the whips cracked, the impatient steeds reared, plunged, or sprang away, and the Royal Mails flew from the yard of St.
  • Martin’s-le-Grand towards every corner of the Kingdom.
  • “Their progress, too, was a sort of royal progress—a triumphal march. Whereve_hey had to pass, crowds of people waited for them in subdued excitement, hailed them with delight, and waved them on with cheers, for they were almos_he only means of distributing news; and when a great victory, such a_rafalgar, Vittoria, or Waterloo had to be announced, the mail-coaches—dresse_n flowers and ribbons, with guards shouting the news to eager crowds as the_assed through hamlet, village, and town—swept like a thrill of electric fir_hroughout the land. News _was_ news in those days! You didn’t get it at al_ill you got it altogether, and then you got it like a thunderbolt. There wa_o dribbling of advance telegrams; no daily papers to spread the news (o_ies), and contradict ’em next day, in the same columns with commentaries o_rophetic remarks on what might or should have been, but wasn’t, until new_ot muddled up into a hopeless entanglement, so that when all was at las_leared up you’d been worried out of all your interest in it! Yes, my lads, although I would not wish to see the return of those stirring days, I’m fre_o assert that the world lost something good, and that it was not all clea_ain when the old four-in-hand Royal Mail coaches drove out of the presen_nto the past, and left the Iron Horse in possession of the field.
  • “But nothing can arrest the hand of Time. When mail-coaches were at thei_est, and a new Great North Road was being laid out by Telford, the celebrate_ngineer, another celebrated engineer, named Stephenson, was creating strang_ommotion among the coal-pits of the North. The iron horse was beginning t_nort. Soon he began to shriek and claw the rails. Despite the usua_pposition, he succeeded in asserting himself, and, in the words of _isconsolate old mail-coach guard, ‘men began to make a gridiron of ol_ngland.’ The romance of the road had faded away. No more for the old guar_ere there to be the exciting bustle of the start, the glorious rush out o_he smoky town into the bright country; the crash through hamlet and village; the wayside changings; the rough crossing of snow-drifted moorlands; th_ccasional breakdowns; the difficulties and dangers; the hospitable inns; th_ireside gossipings. The old guard’s day was over, and a new act in the dram_f human progress had begun.
  • “The Railway Era may be said to have commenced about the time of the openin_f the Liverpool and Manchester line in 1830, though the railway syste_eveloped slowly during the first few years. Men did not believe in it, an_any suggestions were made to accelerate the speed of mails in other ways. On_riter proposed balloons. Another—Professor Babbage—suggested a series of hig_illars with wires stretched thereon, along which letter-bags might be drawn.
  • He even hinted that such pillars and wires might come to be ‘made availabl_or a species of _telegraphic communication_ yet more rapid’—a hint which i_eculiarly interesting when we consider that it was given long prior to th_ime of the electric telegraph. But the Iron Horse rode roughshod over al_ther plans, and finally became the recognised and effective method o_onveyance.
  • “During this half-century of the mail-coach period many improvements an_lterations had been made in the working of the Post-Office.
  • “Among other things, the mails to India were despatched for the first time b_he ‘overland route’—the Mediterranean, Suez, and the Red Sea—in 1835. A lin_f communication was subsequently extended to China and Australia. In th_ollowing year the reduction of the stamp-duty on newspapers to one penny le_o a great increase in that branch of the service.
  • “But now approached the time for the greatest reform of all—that reduction o_ostage of which I have already spoken—namely, the uniform rate of _one penny_or all inland letters not exceeding a certain weight.
  • “The average postage of a letter in 1837 was 8 pence three farthings. Owing t_he heavy rates the net proceeds of the Department had remained stationary fo_early twenty years. To mend this state of matters, Sir Rowland Hill fough_is long and famous fight, the particulars of which I may not enter on jus_ow, but which culminated in victory in 1840, when the Penny Post wa_stablished throughout the kingdom. Sir Rowland still (1879) lives to witnes_he thorough success of his daring and beneficent innovation! It is impossibl_o form a just estimate of the value of cheap postage to the nation,—I ma_ay, to the world. Trade has been increased, correspondence extended, intelligence deepened, and mental activity stimulated.
  • “The immediate result of the change was to raise the number of letters passin_hrough the post from seventy-six millions in 1839 to one hundred and sixty- nine millions in 1840. Another result was the entire cessation of the illici_muggling of letters. Despite penal laws, some carriers had been doing a_arge a business in illegal conveyance of letters as the Post-Office itself!
  • One seizure made, a single bag in the warehouse of a well-known Londo_arrier, revealed eleven hundred such letters! The horrified head of the fir_astened to the Postmaster-General, and offered immediate payment of 50_ounds to escape the penalties incurred. The money was accepted, and th_etters were all passed through the Post-Office the same night!
  • “Sir Rowland—then Mr—Hill had said that the Post-Office was ‘capable o_erforming a distinguished part in the great work of national education.’ Hi_rophetic words have been more than justified. People who never wrote letter_efore write them now. Those who wrote only a few letters now write hundreds.
  • Only grave and important subjects were formerly treated of by letter, now w_end the most trifling as well as the most weighty matters by the penny pos_n such floods that there is scarce room to receive the correspondence, bu_iberal men and measures have been equal to the emergency. One objector t_heap rates prophesied that their adoption would cause the very walls of th_eneral Post-Office to burst. Well, it has seemed as if his prophecy wer_bout to come true, especially on recent Christmas eves, but it is not ye_ulfilled, for the old place has a tough skin, and won’t burst up for _onsiderable time to come.” (Great applause.)
  • “Financially, too,” continued Solomon, “the Penny Post reform was an immens_uccess, though at first it showed a tendency to hang fire. The business o_he Money-Order Office was enormously increased, as the convenience of tha_mportant department became obvious to the public, and trade was so greatl_mproved that many tradesmen, at the end of the first three years, took th_rouble to write to the Post-Office to tell how their business had increase_ince the introduction of the change. In short, the Penny Post would require _ecture to itself. I will therefore dismiss it with the remark that it is on_f the greatest blessings of modern times, and that the nation owes a_verlasting debt of gratitude to its author.
  • “With decreased rates came the other great requisites,—increased speed an_ecurity; and now, as you all know, the work of the Post-Office, in all it_ide ramifications, goes on with the uniform regularity of a good chronomete_rom year to year.
  • “To the special duty of letter-carrying the Post-Office has now added th_arriage of books and patterns, and a Savings-Bank as well as a Money Orde_epartment; but if I were to enlarge on the details of all this it woul_ecome necessary to order coffee and buns for the whole Society of literar_essage-boys, and make up our beds on the floor of Pegaway Hall—(Hear! hear!
  • applause, and cries of ‘Go on!’)—to avoid which I shall bring my discourse t_ close, with a humble apology for having detained you so long.”