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   Chapter 15 A PEEP AT AN OLD HOUSE OF COMMONS FROM THE LADIES' GALLERY.

Faces and Places By Sir Henry W. Lucy Characters: 31395

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02


"No," Mrs. Chiltern-Hundreds said when I asked, Was she in these days

a constant visitor at the House of Commons? "Chiltern, you know, has

accepted a place of profit under the Crown, and is no longer eligible

to sit as a member. It is such trouble to get in, and when you are

there the chances are that nothing is going on, so I have given it up.

I remember very well the first time I was there. I wrote all about it

to an old schoolfellow. If you are interested in the subject, I will

show you a copy of what I then jotted down."

I was much interested, and when I saw the letter was glad I had

expressed my interest. The copy placed at my disposal was undated,

but internal evidence showed that Mrs. Chiltern-Hundreds had paid her

visit in the session of 1874, when Mr. Disraeli had for the first time

in his history been returned to power as well as to office, and Mr.

Gladstone, crushed by an overwhelming defeat, had written his famous

letter to "My dear Granville," announcing his retirement from

political life. Looking down through the grille, the visitor in the

gallery saw many bearers of well-known names who have travelled far

since that date, some beyond the grave. Here are Madame's notes

written in her own angular handwriting:--

"Be in the great hall at four o'clock."

Those were Chiltern's words to me as he hurried off after luncheon,

and here we were in the great hall, but there was no Chiltern,

which was vexatious. True, it was half-past four, and he is such a

stickler for what he calls punctuality, and has no sympathy with

those delays which are inseparable from going out in a new bonnet.

One of the strings----but there, what does it matter? Here we were

standing in the great hall, where we had been told to come, and no

one to meet us. There was a crowd of persons standing before the

entrance to a corridor to the left of the hall. Two policemen were

continually begging them to stand back and not block up the entrance,

so that the members who were passing in and out (I dare say on the

look-out for their wives, so that they should not be kept here a

moment) might not be inconvenienced. It is really wonderful how

careful the police about Westminster are of the sacred persons of

members. If I cross the road at the bottom of Parliament Street by

myself I may be run over by a hansom cab or even an omnibus, without

the slightest compunction on the part of the police on duty there.

But if Chiltern happens to be with me the whole of the traffic going

east and west is stopped, and a policeman with outstretched hands

stands waiting till we have gained the other side of the road.

We were gazing up with the crowd at somebody who was lighting the

big chandelier by swinging down from somewhere in the roof a sort

of censer, when Chiltern came out of the corridor and positively

began to scold us for being late. I thought that at the time very

mean, as I was just going to scold him; but he knows the advantage

of getting the first word. He says, Why were we half an hour late?

and how could he meet us there at four if at that time we had not

left home? But that's nonsense. Chiltern has naturally a great

flow of words, which he has cultivated by close attendance upon

his Parliamentary duties. But he is mistaken if he thinks I am a

Resolution and am to be moved by being "spoken to."

We walked through a gallery into a hall something like that in which

Chiltern had kept us waiting, only much smaller. This was full of men

chattering away in a manner of which an equal number of women would

have been ashamed. There was one nice pleasant-looking gentleman

carefully wrapped up in an overcoat with a fur collar and cuffs.

That was Earl Granville, Chiltern said. I was glad to see his

lordship looking so well and taking such care of himself. There

was another peer there, a little man with a beaked nose, the only

thing about him that reminded you of the Duke of Wellington. He had

no overcoat, being evidently too young to need or care for such

encumbrance. He wore a short surtout and a smart blue necktie, and

frisked about the hall in quite a lively way. Chiltern said that he

was Lord Hampton, with whom my great-grandfather went to Eton. He

was at that time plain "John Russell" (not Lord John of course),

and has for the last forty-five years been known as Sir John

Pakington. But then Chiltern has a way of saying funny things, and

I am not sure that he was in earnest in telling us that this active

young man was really the veteran of Droitwich.

From this hall, through a long carpeted passage, catching glimpses

on the way of snug writing rooms, cosy libraries, and other devices

for lightening senatorial labours, we arrived at a door over which

was painted the legend "To the Ladies' Gallery." This opened on to a

flight of steps at the top of which was another long corridor, and

we found ourselves at last at the door of the Ladies' Gallery, where

we were received by a smiling and obliging attendant.

I expected to find a fine open gallery something like the orchestra

at the Albert Hall, or at least like the dress circle at Drury Lane.

Picture my disappointment when out of the bright light of the

corridor we stepped into a sort of cage, with no light save what

came through the trellis-work in front. I thought this was one of

Chiltern's stupid practical jokes, and being a little cross through

his having kept us waiting for such an unconscionable long time, was

saying something to him when the smiling and obliging attendant said,

"Hush-sh-sh!" and pointed to a placard on which was printed, like a

spelling lesson, the impertinent injunction "Silence is requested."

There was no doubt about it. This was the Ladies' Gallery of the British

House of Commons, and a pretty place it is to which to invite ladies. I

never was good at geometry and that sort of thing, and cannot say how

many feet or how many furlongs the gallery is in length, but I counted

fourteen chairs placed pretty close together, and covered with a hideous

green damask. There are three rows of chairs, the two back rows being

raised above the first the height of one step. As far as seeing into the

House is concerned, one might as well sit down on the flight of steps in

Westminster Hall as sit on a chair in the back row in the Ladies'

Gallery. On the second row it is tolerable enough, or at least you get a

good view of the little old gentleman with the sword by his side sitting

in a chair at the far end of the House. I thought at first this was the

Speaker, and wondered why gentlemen on the cross benches should turn

their backs to him. But Chiltern said it was Lord Charles Russell,

Sergeant-at-Arms, a much more important personage than the Speaker, who

takes the Mace home with him every night, and is responsible for its due

appearance on the table when the Speaker takes the chair.

In the front row you can see well enough--what there is to be seen, for

I confess that my notion of the majesty of the House of Commons is

mightily modified since I beheld it with my own eyes. In the first place

you are quite shut out of sight in the Ladies' Gallery, and I might have

saved myself all the trouble of dressing, which made me a little late

and gave Chiltern an opportunity of saying disagreeable things which he

subsequently spread over a fortnight. I might have been wearing a

coal-scuttle bonnet or a mushroom hat for all it mattered in a prison

like this. There was sufficient light for me to see with satisfaction

that other people had given themselves at least an equal amount of

trouble. Two had arrived in charming evening dress, with the loveliest

flowers in their hair. I dare say they were going out to dinner, and at

least I hope so, for it is a disgraceful thing that women should be

entrapped into spending their precious time dressing for a few hours'

stay in a swept and garnished coal-hole like this.

The smiling and obliging attendant offered me the consolation of knowing

that the Gallery is quite a charming place compared with what it used to

be. Thirty or forty years ago, whilst the business of Parliament was

carried on in a temporary building, accommodation for ladies was

provided in a narrow box stationed above the Strangers' Gallery, whence

they peered into the House through pigeon holes something like what you

see in the framework of a peep-show. The present Gallery formed part of

the design of the new Houses, but when it was opened it was a vastly

different place. It was much darker, had no ante-rooms worth speaking

of, and the leading idea of a sheep-pen was preserved to the extent of

dividing it into three boxes, each accommodating seven ladies. About

twelve years ago one of the dividing walls was knocked down, and the

Ladies' Gallery thrown into a single chamber, with a special pen to

which admission is obtained only by order from the Speaker. Still much

remained to be done to make it even such a place as it now is, and that

work was done by that much--and, as Chiltern will always have it,

unjustly--abused man, Mr. Ayrton. It was he who threw open the back of

the Gallery, giving us some light and air, and it is to him that we

ladies are indebted for the dressing-room and the tea-room.

This being shut up is one reason why I was disappointed with the House

of Commons. Another is with respect to the size of the chamber itself.

It is wonderful to think how big men can talk in a room like this. It

is scarcely larger than a good-sized drawing-room. I must say for

Chiltern that we got seats in the front row, and what there was to be

seen we saw. Right opposite to us was a gallery with rows of men sitting

six deep. It was "a big night," and there was not a seat to spare in

this, which I suppose was the Strangers' Gallery. Everybody there had

his hat off, and there was an official sitting on a raised chair in the

middle of the top row, something like I saw the warders sitting amongst

prisoners at Millbank one Sunday morning when Chiltern took me to see

the Claimant repeating the responses to the Litany. The House itself is

of oblong shape, with rows of benches on either side, cushioned in

green leather and raised a little above each other. There are four of

these rows on either side, with a broad passage between covered with

neat matting.

Chiltern says the floor is an open framework of iron, and that beneath

is a labyrinth of chambers into which fresh air is pumped and forced in

a gentle stream into the House, the vitiated atmosphere escaping by the

roof. But then the same authority, when I asked him what the narrow band

of red colour that ran along the matting about a pace in front of the

benches on either side meant, gravely told me that if any member when

addressing the House stepped out beyond that line, Lord Charles Russell

would instantly draw his sword, shout his battle-cry, "Who goes Home!"

and rushing upon the offender bear him off into custody.

So you see it is difficult to know what to believe, and it is a pity

people will not always say what they mean in plain English.

Midway down each row of benches is a narrow passage that turned out

to be "the gangway," of which you read and hear so much. I had always

associated "the gangway" with a plank along which you walked to

somewhere--perhaps on to the Treasury Bench. But it is only a small

passage like a narrow aisle in a church. There is a good deal of

significance about this gangway, for anybody who sits below it is

supposed to be of an independent turn of mind, and not to be capable

of purchase by Ministers present or prospective. Thus all the Irish

members sit below the gangway, and so do Mr. Macdonald and Mr. Charles

Lewis. It is an odd thing, Chiltern observes, that, notwithstanding

this peculiarity, Ministries are invariably recruited from below the

gangway. Sir Henry James sat there for many Sessions before he was

made Solicitor-General, and there was no more prominent figure in

recent years than that of the gentleman who used to be known as

"Mr. Vernon Harcourt."

On the conservative side this peculiarity is less marked than on the

Liberal, though it was below the gangway on the Conservative side

that on a memorable night more than a quarter of a century ago a

certain dandified young man, with well-oiled locks and theatrically

folded arms, stood, and, glaring upon a mocking House, told them that

the time would come when they should hear him. As a rule, the

Conservatives make Ministers of men who have borne the heat and

burden of the day on the back Ministerial benches. With the Liberals

the pathway of promotion, Chiltern says, opens from below the gangway.

Mr. Lowe came from there, so did Mr Goschen, Mr. Stansfeld, Mr.

Childers, Mr. Foster, and even Mr. Gladstone himself. The worst thing

a Liberal member who wants to become a Cabinet Minister or a Judge

can do is to sit on the back Ministerial benches, vote as he is bidden,

and hold his tongue when he is told. He should go and sit below the

gangway, near Mr Goldsmid or Mr. Trevelyan, and in a candid, ingenuous,

and truly patriotic manner make himself on every possible occasion as

disagreeable to the leaders of his party as he can.

I do not attempt to disguise the expectation I cherish of being some day

wife of the First Lord of the Admiralty, or at least of the President of

the Board of Trade; for there are few men who can, upon occasion, make

themselves more disagreeable than Chiltern, who through these awkward

bars I see sitting below the gangway on the left-hand side, and calling

out "Hear, hear!" to Sir Stafford Northcote, who is saying something

unpleasant about somebody on the front Opposition benches.

The front seat by the table on the right-hand side is the Treasury

bench, and the smiling and obliging attendant tells me the names of the

occupants there and in other parts of the House. The gentleman at the

end of the seat with the black patch over his eye is Lord Barrington,

who, oddly enough, sits for the borough of Eye, and fills the useful

office of Vice-Chamberlain. Next to him is Sir H. Selwin-Ibbetson,

Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, and whom I have

heard genially described as "one of the prosiest speakers in the

House." Next to him, with a paper in his hand and a smirk of supreme

self-satisfaction on his face, is Mr. Cross, the Home Secretary.

He sits beside a figure you would notice wherever you saw it. The

legs are crossed, the arms folded, and the head bent down, showing

from here one of the most remarkable styles of doing the human hair

that ever I beheld. The hair is combed forward from the crown of the

head and from partings on either side, and brought on to the forehead,

where it is apparently pasted together in a looped curl.

This is Mr. Disraeli, as I know without being told, though I see him

now for the first time. He is wonderfully old-looking, with sunken

cheeks and furrowed lines about the mouth and eyes. But his lofty

brow does not seem to have a wrinkle on it, and his hands, when he

draws them from under his arms and folds them before him, twiddling

his thumbs the while,

are as smooth and white as Coningsby's. He is

marvellously motionless, sitting almost in the same position these

two hours. But he is as watchful as he is quiet. I can see his eyes

taking in all that goes on on the bench at the other side of the

table, where right hon. gentlemen, full of restless energy, are

constantly talking to each other, or passing notes across each other,

or even pulling each other's coat-tails and loudly whispering

promptings as in turn they rise and address the House.

I observe that Mr. Disraeli does not wear his hat in the House, and

Chiltern, to whom I mention this when he comes up again, tells me

that he and some half-dozen others never do. Since Mr Gladstone has

retired from the cares of office he is sometimes, but very rarely,

able to endure the weight of his hat on his head while sitting in

the House; but, formerly, he never wore it in the presence of the

Speaker. The rule is to wear your hat in the House, and a very odd

effect it has to see men sitting about in a well-lighted and warm

chamber with their hats on their heads.

Chiltern tells me this peculiarity of wearing hats was very nearly

the means of depriving Great Britain and Ireland of the presence in

Parliament of Mr. John Martin. That distinguished politician, it

appears, had never, before County Meath sent him to Parliament,

worn a hat of the hideous shape which fashion entails upon our

suffering male kindred. It is well known that when he was returned

he declared that he would never sit at Westminster, the reason

assigned for this eccentricity being that he recognised no

Parliament in which the member for County Meath might sit other

than one meeting of the classic ground of College Green. But

Chiltern says that was only a poetical flight, the truth lying at

the bottom of the hat.

"Never," Mr. Martin is reported to have said to a Deputation of his

constituents, "will I stoop to wear a top hat. I never had one on my

head, and the Saxon shall never make me put it there."

He was as good as his word when he first came to town, and was wont to

appear in a low-crowned beaver hat of uncertain architecture. But after

he had for some weeks assisted the process of Legislature under the

shadow of this hat, the Speaker privately and in considerate terms

conveyed to him a hint that, in the matter of hats at least, it was

desirable to have uniformity in the House of Commons.

Mr. Martin, who, in spite of his melodramatic speeches and his strong

personal resemblance to Danny Man in the "Colleen Nawn," is, Chiltern

says, really one of the gentlest and most docile of men, straightway

abandoned the nondescript hat and sacrificed his inclinations and

principles to the extent of buying what he calls "a top hat." But he

has not taken kindly to it, and never will. It is always getting in his

way, under his feet or between his knees, and he is apparently driven

to observe the precaution of constantly holding it in his hands when it

is not safely disposed on his head. It is always thus held before him,

a hand firmly grasping the rim on either side, when he is making those

terrible speeches we read, in which he proves that John Mitchel is an

unoffending martyr, and that the English, to serve their private ends,

introduced the famine in Ireland.

Mr. Cowen, the member for Newcastle, shares Mr Martin's prejudices about

hats, and up to the present time has not abandoned them. As we passed

through the lobby on our way to the Gallery, Chiltern pointed him out to

me. He was distinguished in the throng by wearing a round hat of soft

felt, and he has never been seen at Westminster in any other. But at

least he does not put it on his head in the House; and it is much better

to sit upon than the tall hats on the top of which excited orators not

unfrequently find themselves when, hotly concluding their perorations

and unconscious of having left their hats just behind them, they throw

themselves back on the bench from which they had erewhile risen to "say

a few words."

The gentleman on the left of the Premier is said to be Sir Stafford

Northcote, but there is so little of his face to be seen through the

abundance of whisker and moustache that I do not think any one has a

right to speak positively on the matter. The smooth-faced man next to

him is Mr. Gathorne Hardy. The tall, youthful-looking man on his left is

Sir Michael Hicks-Beach, who, I suppose by instructions of the Cabinet,

generally sits, as he does to-night, next to Mr. Ward Hunt. The Chief

Secretary for Ireland is slim; not to put too fine a point on it, Mr.

Ward Hunt is not, and the two manage to seat themselves with some

approach to comfort. The First Lord of the Admiralty further eases the

pressure on his colleagues by throwing his left arm over the back of the

bench, where it hangs like a limb of some monumental tree.

The carefully devised scheme for the disposition of Mr. Ward Hunt on the

Treasury bench is completed by assigning the place on the other side of

him to Sir Charles Adderley. The President of the Board of Trade,

Chiltern says, is understood to have long passed the mental stage at

which old John Willet had arrived when he was discovered sitting in his

chair in the dismantled bar of the Maypole after the rioters had visited

his hostelry. He is apparently unconscious of discomfort when crushed up

or partially sat upon by his elephantine colleague, which is a fortunate

circumstance.

The stolid man with the straight back directly facing Mr Disraeli on the

front bench opposite is the Marquis of Hartington. The gentleman with

uncombed hair and squarely cut garments on the left of the Leader of the

Opposition is Mr Forster. The big man further to the left, who sits with

folded arms and wears a smile expressive of his satisfaction with all

mankind, particularly with Sir William Harcourt, is the

ex-Solicitor-General. The duck of a man with black hair, nicely oiled

and sweetly waved, is Sir Henry James. Where have I seen him before? His

face and figure and attitude seem strangely familiar to me. I have been

shopping this morning, but I do not think I could have seen behind any

milliner's or linendraper's counter a person like the hon. and learned

gentleman the member for Taunton.

Beyond this doughty knight, and last at this end of the bench, is a

little man in spectacles, and with a preternatural look of wisdom on his

face. He is the Right Hon. Lyon Playfair, and is said to have, next to

Mr. Fawcett, the most remarkably retentive memory of any man in the

House. Chiltern says he always writes his lectures before he delivers

them to the House, sending the manuscript to the Times, and so accurate

is his recitation that the editor has only to sprinkle the lecture with

"Hear, hears!" and "Cheers" to make the thing complete.

On the right-hand side of the Marquis of Hartington is Mr. Goschen. In

fact, at the moment I happen to have reached him in my survey he is on

his feet, asking a question of his "right hon. friend opposite." What a

curious attitude the man stands in! Apparently the backs of his legs are

glued to the bench from which he has risen, a device which enables him,

as he speaks, to lean forward like a human Tower of Pisa. He is putting

the simplest question in the world to the Chancellor of the Exchequer,

but if he were a junior clerk asking his employer for the hand of his

eldest daughter he could not look more sheepish. His hat is held in his

left hand behind his back possibly with a view to assist in balancing

him, and to avoid too much strain on the adhesive powers that keep the

back of his legs firmly attached to the bench. With his right hand he

is, when not pulling up his collar, feeling himself nervously round the

waist, as if to make sure that he is there.

Next to him are Mr. Dodson and Mr. Campbell-Bannerman, and, with these

planted between him and actual or aspirant leaders of the Liberal party,

sits Mr. Lowe. I cannot see much of his face from here, for he wears his

hat and at the moment hangs his head. A little later on I both saw and

heard him speak and a splendid speech he made, going right to the heart

of the matter, laying it bare. His success as a debater is a marvellous

triumph of mind over material influences. It would be hard to conceive

a man having fewer of the outward graces of oratory than Mr Lowe. His

utterance is hesitating, sometimes even to stuttering, he speaks

hurriedly, and without emphasis; his manner is nervous and restless, and

he is so short-sighted that the literary quotations with which his

speeches abound are marred by painful efforts to read his notes. Yet how

he rouses the House, moving it to cheers and laughter, and to the rapid

interchange of volleys of "Hear, hear" from opposite sides of the House,

which Chiltern says is the most exhilarating sound that can reach the

ear of a speaker in the House of Commons. Mr. Lowe sits down with the

same abruptness that marked his rising, and rather gets into his hat

than puts it on, pushing his head so far into its depths that there is

nothing of him left on view save what extends below the line of his

white eyebrows.

To the right of Mr. Lowe I see a figure which, foreshortened from my

point of view, is chiefly distinguishable by a hat and pair of boots.

Without absolute Quaker fashion about the cut of the hat or garments,

there is a breadth about the former and a looseness about the latter

suggestive of Quaker associations. Perhaps if my idea were mercilessly

analysed it would appear that it has its growth in the knowledge that

I am looking down on Mr. Bright, and that I know Mr. Bright is of

Quaker parentage. But I am jotting down my impressions as I receive

them. Mr. Bright does not address the House to-night, but he has made

one or two short speeches this Session, and Chiltern, who has heard

them, speaks quite sorrowfully of the evidence they give of failing

physical power. The orator who once used to hold the House of Commons

under his command with as much ease as Apollo held in hand the fiery

coursers of the chariot of the sun, now stands before it on rare

occasions with a manner more nervous than that in which some new

members make their maiden speech. The bell-like tones of his voice are

heard no more; he hesitates in choosing words, is not sure of the

sequence of his phrases, and resumes his seat with evident

gratefulness for the renewed rest.

Chiltern adds that much of this nervousness is probably owing to a

sensibility of the expectation which his rising arouses in the House,

and a knowledge that he is not about to make the "great speech" looked

for ever since he returned to his old place. But at best the matchless

oratory of John Bright is already a tradition in the House of Commons,

and it is but the ghost of the famous Tribune who now nightly haunts

the scene of his former glories. Mr Gladstone was sitting next to Mr.

Bright, in what the always smiling and obliging attendant tells me is

a favourite attitude with him. His legs were stretched out, his hands

loosely clasped before him, and his head thrown back, resting on the

cushion at the back of the seat, so that the soft light from the

illuminated roof shone full on his upturned face. It is a beautiful

face, soft as a woman's, very pale and worn, with furrowed lines that

tell of labour done and sorrow lived through.

Here again I am conscious of the possibility of my impressions being

moulded by my knowledge of facts; but I fancy I see a great alteration

since last I looked on Mr. Gladstone's face, now two years ago. It was

far away from here, in a big wooden building in a North Wales town. He

was on a platform surrounded by grotesque men in blue gowns and caps,

which marked high rank in Celtic bardship. At that time he was the

nominal leader of a great majority that would not follow him, and

president of a Ministry that thwarted all his steps. His face looked

much harder then, and his eye glanced restlessly round, taking in

every movement of the crowd in the pavilion. He seemed to exist in a

hectic flush of life, and was utterly incapable of taking rest. Now his

face, though still thin, has filled up. The lines on his brow and under

his eyes, though too deeply furrowed to be eradicable, have been

smoothed down, and there is about his face a sense of peace and a

pleasant look of rest.

Chiltern says that sometimes when Mr. Gladstone has been in the House

this Session he has, during the progress of a debate, momentarily

sprung into his old attitude of earnest, eager attention, and there

have been critical moments when his interposition in debate has

appeared imminent. But he has conquered the impulse, lain back again

on the bench, and let the House go its own way. It is very odd,

Chiltern says, to have him sitting there silent in the midst of so

much talking. This was specially felt during the debate about those

Irish Acts with which he had so much to do.

Chiltern tells me that whilst the debate on the Irish Bill was going on

there came from no one knows where, passed from hand to hand along the

benches, a scrap of paper on which was written this verse from "In

Memoriam":--

"At our old pastimes in the hall

We gambol'd making vain pretence

Of gladness, With an awful sense

Of one mute Shadow watching all."

Although the gangway has a distinct and important significance in

marking off nuances of political parties, it appears that it does not

follow as an inevitable sequence that because a man sits behind the

Ministerial bench he is therefore a Taper or a Tadpole, or that because

he takes up his quarters below the gangway he is a John Hampden. The

distinction is more strongly marked on the Liberal side; but even there

there are some honest men who usually obey the crack of the Whip. On the

Conservative side the gangway has scarcely any significance, and though

the Lewisian "Party," which consists solely of Charles, sits there, and

from time to time reminds the world of its existence by loudly shouting

in its ear, it may always be depended upon in a real party division to

swell the Ministerial majority by one vote. The Scotch members, who sit

chiefly on the Liberal side, spread themselves impartially over seats

above and below the gangway. The Home Rule members, who also favour the

Liberal side, sit together in a cluster below the gangway in defiant

proximity to the Sergeant-at-Arms. They are rather noisy at times, and

whenever Chiltern comes in late to dinner, or after going back stays

till all hours in the morning, it is sure to be "those Irish fellows."

But I think the House of Commons ought to be much obliged to Ireland for

its contribution of members, and to resist to the last the principle of

Home Rule. For it is not, as at present constituted, an assembly that

can afford to lose any element that has about it a tinge of originality,

a flash of humour, or an echo of eloquence.

That, of course, is Chiltern's remark. I only know, for my part, that

the Ladies' Gallery is a murky den, in which you can hear very little,

not see much, and are yourself not seen at all.

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