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   Chapter 18 NETTLES AND COBWEBS

Captain Fracasse By Theophile Gautier Characters: 31079

Updated: 2017-11-28 00:07


The worthy tyrant's advice was sensible and good, and de Sigognac resolved to follow it without delay. Since Isabelle's departure, no attraction existed for him in the troupe, and he was very glad of a valid pretext for quitting it; though he could not leave his humble friends without some regrets. It was necessary that he should disappear for a while-plunge into obscurity, until the excitement consequent upon the violent death of the young Duke of Vallombreuse should be forgotten in some new tragedy in real life.

So, after bidding farewell to the worthy comedians, who had shown him so much kindness, he departed from the gay capital-mounted on a stout pony, and with a tolerably well-filled purse-his share of the receipts of the troupe, which he had fairly earned. By easy stages he travelled slowly towards his own ruined chateau. After the storm the bird flies home to its nest, no matter how ragged and torn it may be. It was the only refuge open to him, and in the midst of his despondency he felt a sort of sad pleasure at the thought of returning to his ancestral home-desolate and forlorn as it was-where it would have been better, perhaps, for him to have quietly remained-for his fortunes were not improved, and this last crowning disaster had been ruinous to all his hopes and prospects of happiness.

"Ah, well!" said he to himself, sorrowfully, as he jogged slowly on, "it was predestined that I should die of hunger and ennui within those crumbling walls, and under my poor, dilapidated, old roof, that lets the rain run through it like a huge sieve. No one can escape his destiny, and I shall accomplish mine. I am doomed to be the last de Sigognac."

Then came visions of what might have been, that made the sad present seem even darker by contrast; and his burden was well-nigh too heavy for him to bear, when he remembered all Isabelle's goodness and loveliness-now lost to him forever. No wonder that his eyes were often wet with tears, and that there was no brightness even in the sunshine for him.

It is needless to describe in detail a journey that lasted twenty days, and was not marked by any remarkable incidents or adventures. It is enough to say that one fine evening de Sigognac saw from afar the lofty towers of his ancient chateau, illuminated by the setting sun, and shining out in bold relief against the soft purple of the evening sky; whilst one of the few remaining casements had caught the fiery sunset glow, and looked like a great carbuncle set in the fine facade of the stately old castle. This sight aroused a strange tenderness and agitation in the young baron's breast. It was true that he had suffered long and acutely in that dreary mansion, yet after all it was very dear to him-far more than he knew before he had quitted it-and he was deeply moved at seeing it again. In a few moments more the glorious god of day had sunk behind the western horizon, and the chateau seemed to retreat, until it became scarcely perceptible as the light faded, forming only a vague, gray blot in the distance as the gloaming succeeded to the glow. But de Sigognac knew every step of the way perfectly, and soon turned from the highway into the neglected, grass-grown road that led to the chateau. In the profound stillness, which seemed wonderfully peaceful and pleasant to him, he fancied that he could distinguish the distant barking of a dog, and that it sounded like Miraut. He stopped to listen; yes, there could be no doubt about it, and it was approaching. The baron gave a clear, melodious whistle-a signal well known of old to Miraut-and in a few moments the faithful dog, running as fast as his poor old legs could carry him, burst through a break in the hedge-panting, barking, almost sobbing for joy. He strove to jump up on the horse's neck to get at his beloved master; he was beside himself with delight, and manifested it in the most frantic manner, whilst de Sigognac bent down to pat his head and try to quiet his wild transports. After bearing his master company a little way, Miraut set off again at full speed, to announce the good news to the others at the chateau-that is to say, to Pierre, Bayard, and Beelzebub-and bounding into the kitchen where the old servant was sitting, lost in sad thoughts, he barked in such a significant way that Pierre knew at once that something unusual had happened.

"Can it be possible that the young master is coming? said he aloud, rising, in compliance with Miraut's wishes, who was pulling at the skirts of his coat, and imploring him with his eyes to bestir himself and follow him. As it was quite dark by this time, Pierre lighted a pine torch, which he carried with him, and as he turned into the road its ruddy light suddenly flashed upon de Sigognac and his horse.

"Is it really you, my lord?" cried Pierre, joyfully, as he caught sight of his young master; "Miraut had tried to tell me of your arrival in his own way before I left the house, but as I had not heard anything about your even thinking of coming, I feared that he might be mistaken. Welcome home to your own domain, my beloved master! We are overjoyed to see you."

"Yes, my good Pierre, it is really I, and not my wraith. Miraut was not mistaken. Here I am again, if not richer than when I went away, at least all safe and sound. Come now, lead the way with your torch, and we will go into the chateau."

Pierre, not without considerable difficulty, opened the great door, and the Baron de Sigognac rode slowly through the ancient portico, fantastically illuminated by the flaring torchlight, in which the three sculptured storks overhead seemed to be flapping their wings, as if in joyful salutation to the last representative of the family they had symbolized for so many centuries. Then a loud, impatient whinny, like the blast of a trumpet, was heard ringing out on the still night air, as Bayard, in his stable, caught the welcome sound of his master's voice.

"Yes, yes, I hear you, my poor old Bayard," cried de Sigognac, as he dismounted in the court, and threw the bridle to Pierre; "I am coming to say how d'you do," and as he turned he stumbled over Beelzebub, who was trying to rub himself against his master's legs, purring and mewing alternately to attract his attention. The baron stooped down, took the old black cat up in his arms, and tenderly caressed him as he advanced towards the stables; then put him down gently as he reached Bayard's stall, and another touching scene of affectionate greeting was enacted. The poor old pony laid his head lovingly on his master's shoulder, and actually tried to kick up his hind legs in a frisky way in honour of the great event; also, he received the horse that de Sigognac had ridden all the way from Paris, and which was put in the stall beside his own, very politely, and seemed pleased to have a companion in his solitary grandeur.

"And now that I have responded to the endearments of my dumb friends," said the baron to Pierre, "we will go into the kitchen, and examine into the condition of your larder. I had but a poor breakfast this morning, and no dinner at all, being anxious to push on and reach my journey's end before nightfall. I am as hungry as a bear, and will be glad of anything, no matter what."

"I have not much to put before you, my lord, and I fear that you will find it but sorry fare after the delicacies you must have been accustomed to in Paris; but though it will not be tempting, nor over savoury, it will at least satisfy your hunger."

"That is all that can be required of any food," answered de Sigognac, "and I am not as ungrateful as you seem to think, my good Pierre, to the frugal fare of my youth, which has certainly made me healthy, vigorous, and strong. Bring out what you have, and serve it as proudly as if it were of the choicest and daintiest; I will promise to do honour to it, for I am desperately hungry."

The old servant bustled about joyously, and quickly had the table ready for his master; then stood behind his chair, while he ate and drank with a traveller's appetite, as proudly erect as if he had been a grand major-domo waiting on a prince. According to the old custom, Miraut and Beelzebub, stationed on the right and on the left, watched their master's every motion, and received a share of everything that was on the table. The great kitchen was lighted, not very brilliantly, by a torch, stuck in an iron bracket just inside the broad, open chimney, so that the smoke should escape through it and not fill the room, and the scene was so exactly a counterpart of the one described at the beginning of this narrative, that the baron, struck with the perfect resemblance, fancied that he must have been dreaming, and had never quitted his ancient chateau at all. Everything was precisely as he had left it, excepting that the nettles and weeds had grown a little taller, and the cobweb draperies a little more voluminous; all else was unchanged. Unconsciously lapsing into the old ways, de Sigognac fell into a deep reverie after he had finished his simple repast, which Pierre, as of old, respected, and even Miraut and Beelzebub did not venture to intrude upon. All that had occurred since he last sat at his own table passed in review before him, but seemed like adventures that he had read of, not actually participated in himself. It had all passed into the background. Captain Fracasse, already nearly obliterated, appeared like a pale spectre in the far distance; his combats with the Duke of Vallombreuse seemed equally unreal. In fine, everything that he had seen, done, and suffered, had sunk into shadowy vagueness; but his love for Isabelle had undergone no change; it had neither diminished nor grown cold; it was as passionate and all-absorbing as ever; it was his very life; yet rather like an aspiration of the soul than a real passion, since with it all he knew that the angelic being who was its object, and whom he worshipped from afar, could never, never be his. The wheels of his chariot, which for a brief space had turned aside into a new track, were back in the old rut again, and realizing that there could be no further escape from it possible for him, he gave way sullenly to a despairing, stolid sort of resignation, that he had no heart to struggle against, but yielded to it passively; blaming himself the while for having presumed to indulge in a season of bright hopes and delicious dreams. Why the devil should such an unlucky fellow as he had always been venture to aspire to happiness? It was all foolishness, and sure to end in bitter disappointment; but he had had his lesson now, and would be wiser for the future.

He sat perfectly motionless for a long time, plunged in a sad reverie-sunk in a species of torpor; but he roused himself at last, and perceiving that his faithful old follower's eyes were fixed upon him, full of timid questioning that he did not venture to put into words, briefly related to him the principal incidents of his journey up to the capital, and his short stay there. When he graphically described his two duels with the Duke of Vallombreuse-the old man, filled with pride and delight at the proficiency of his beloved pupil, could not restrain his enthusiasm, and snatching up a stick gave vigorous illustrations of all the most salient points of the encounters as the baron delineated them, ending up with a wild flourish and a shout of triumph.

"Alas! my good Pierre," said he, with a sigh, when quiet was restored, "you taught me how to use my sword only too well. My unfortunate victory has been my ruin, and has sent me back, hopeless and bereaved, to this poor old crumbling chateau of mine, where I am doomed to drag out the weary remainder of my days in sorrow and misery. I am peculiarly unhappy, in that my very triumphs have only made matters worse for me-it would have been better far for me, and for all, if I had been wounded, or even killed, in this last disastrous encounter, instead of my rival and enemy, the young Duke of Vallombreuse."

"The de Sigognacs are never beaten," said the old retainer loftily. "No matter what may come of it, I am glad, my dear young master, that you killed that insolent duke. The whole thing was conducted in strict accordance with the code of honour-what more could be desired? How could any valiant gentleman object to die gloriously, sword in hand, of a good, honest wound, fairly given? He should consider himself most fortunate."

"Ah well! perhaps you are right-I will not dispute you," said de Sigognac, smiling secretly at the old man's philosophy. "But I am very tired, and would like to go to my own room now-will you light the lamp, my good Pierre, and lead the way?"

Pierre obeyed, and the baron, preceded by his old servant and followed by his old dog and cat, slowly ascended the ancient staircase. The quaint frescoes were gradually fading, growing ever paler and more indistinct, and there were new stains on the dull blue sky of the vaulted ceiling, where the rain and melting snow of winter storms had filtered through from the dilapidated roof. The ruinous condition of everything in and about the crumbling old chateau, to which de Sigognac had been perfectly accustomed before he quitted it, and taken as a matter of course, now struck him forcibly, and increased his dejection. He saw in it the sad and inevitable decadence of his race, and said to himself, "If these ancient walls had any pity for the last forlorn remnant of the family they have sheltered for centuries, they would fall in and bury me in their ruins."

When he reached the landing at the head of the stairs he took the lamp from Pierre's hand, bade him good-night and dismissed him-not willing that even his faithful old servant, who had cared for him ever since his birth, should witness his overpowering emotion. He walked slowly through the great banqueting hall, where the comedians had supped on that memorable night, and the remembrance of that gay scene rendered the present dreary solitude and silence more terrible than they had ever seemed to him before. The death-like stillness was only broken by the horrid gnawing of a rat somewhere in the wall, and the old family portraits glared down at him reproachfully, as he passed on below them with listless step and downcast eyes, oblivious of everything but his own deep misery, and his yearning for his lost Isabelle. As he came under the last portrait of all, that of his own sweet young mother, he suddenly looked up, and as his eyes rested on the calm, beautiful countenance-which had always worn such a pathetic, mournful expression that it used to make his heart ache to look at it in his boyish days-it seemed to smile upon him. He was startled for an instant, and then, thrilling with a strange, exquisite delight, and inspired with new hope and courage, he said in a low, earnest tone, "I accept my dear dead mother's smile as a good omen-perhaps all may not be lost even yet-I will try to believe so."

After a moment of silent thought, he went on into his own chamber, and put down the small lamp he carried, upon the little table, where still lay the stray volume of Ronsard's poems that he had been reading-or rather trying to read-on that tempestuous night when the old pedant knocked at his door. And there was his bed, where Isabelle had slept-the very pillow upon which her dear head had rested. He trembled as he stood and gazed at it, and saw, as in a vision, the perfect form lying there again in his place, and the sweetes

t face in all the world turned towards him, with a tender smile parting the ripe red lips, a rosy flush mantling in the delicate cheeks, and warm lovelight shining in the deep blue eyes. He stood spell-bound-afraid to move or breathe-and worshipped the beautiful vision with all his soul and strength, as if it had been indeed divine-but alas! it faded as suddenly as it had appeared, and he felt as if the doors of heaven had been shut upon him. He hastily undressed, and threw himself down in the place where Isabelle had actually reposed; passionately kissed the pillow that had been hallowed by the touch of her head, and bedewed it with his tears. He lay long awake, thinking of the angelic being who loved him and whom he adored, whilst Beelzebub, rolled up in a ball, slept at his feet, and snored like the traditional cat of Mahomet, that lay and slumbered upon the prophet's sleeve.

When morning came, de Sigognac was more impressed than ever with the dilapidated, crumbling condition of his ancient mansion. Daylight has no mercy upon old age and ruins; it reveals with cruel distinctness the wrinkles, gray hairs, poverty, misery, stains, fissures, dust and mould in which they abound; but more kindly night softens or conceals all defects, with its friendly shade, spreading over them its mantle of darkness. The rooms that used to seem so vast to their youthful owner had shrunken, and looked almost small and insignificant to him now, to his extreme surprise and mortification; but he soon regained the feeling of being really at home, and resumed his former way of life completely; just as one goes back to an old garment, that has for a time been laid aside, and replaced by a new one. His days were spent thus: early in the morning he went to say a short prayer in the half-ruined chapel where his ancestors lay, ere he repaired to the kitchen where his simple breakfast awaited him; that disposed of, he and old Pierre fetched their swords, and fought their friendly duels; after which he mounted Bayard, or the pony he had brought home with him, and went off for long, solitary rides over the desolate Landes. Returning late in the afternoon he sat, sad and silent as of old, until his frugal supper was prepared, partook of it, also in silence, and then retired to his lonely chamber, where he tried to read some musty old volume which he knew by heart already, or else flung himself on his bed-never without kissing the sacred pillow that had supported Isabelle's beloved head-and lay there a prey to mournful and bitter meditations, until at last he could forget his troubles and grief in sleep. There was not a vestige left of the brilliant Captain Fracasse, nor of the high-spirited rival of the haughty Duke of Vallombreuse; the unfortunate young Baron de Sigognac had relapsed entirely into the sad-eyed, dejected master of Castle Misery.

One morning he sauntered listlessly down into the garden, which was wilder and more overgrown than ever-a tangled mass of weeds and brambles. He mechanically directed his steps towards the straggling eglantine that had had a little rose ready for each of the fair visitors that accompanied him when last he was there, and was surprised and delighted to see that it again held forth, as if for his acceptance, two lovely little blossoms that had come out to greet him, and upon each of which a dewdrop sparkled amid the frail, delicately tinted petals. He was strangely moved and touched by the sight of these tiny wild roses, which awoke such tender, precious memories, and he repeated to himself, as he had often done before, the words in which Isabelle had confessed to him that she had furtively kissed the little flower, his offering, and dropped a tear upon it, and then secretly given him her own heart in exchange for it-surely the sweetest words ever spoken on this earth. He gently plucked one of the dainty little roses, passionately inhaled its delicate fragrance and pressed a kiss upon it, as if it had been her lips, which were not less sweet, and soft, and fresh. He had done nothing but think of Isabelle ever since their separation, and he fully realized now, if he had not before, how indispensable she was to his happiness. She was never out of his mind, waking or sleeping, for he dreamed of her every night, and his love grew fonder, if that were possible, as the weary days went on. She was so good and true, so pure and sweet, so beautiful, so everything that was lovely and desirable, "made of all creatures' best," a veritable angel in human guise. Ah! how passionately he loved her-how could he live without her? Yet he feared-he was almost forced to believe-that he had lost her irreparably, and that for him hope was dead. Those were terrible days for the poor, grief-stricken young baron, and he felt that he could not long endure such misery and live. Two or three months passed away thus, and one day when de Sigognac chanced to be in his own room, finishing a sonnet addressed to Isabelle, Pierre entered, and announced to his master that there was a gentleman without who wished to speak with him.

"A gentleman, who wants to see me!" exclaimed the astonished baron. "You must be either romancing or mad, my good Pierre! There is no gentleman in the world who can have anything to say to me. However, for the rarity of the thing, you may bring in this extraordinary mortal-if such there really be, and you are not dreaming, as I shrewdly suspect. But tell me his name first, or hasn't he got any?"

"He declined to give it, saying that it would not afford your lordship any information," Pierre made answer, as he turned back and opened wide both leaves of the door.

Upon the threshold appeared a handsome young man, dressed in a rich and elegant travelling costume of chestnut brown cloth trimmed with green, and holding in his hand a broad felt hat with a long green plume; leaving his well shaped, proudly carried head fully exposed to view, as well as the delicate, regular features of a face worthy of an ancient Greek statue. The sight of this fine cavalier did not seem to make an agreeable impression upon de Sigognac, who turned very pale, and rushing to where his trusty sword was suspended, over the head of his bed, drew it from the scabbard, and turned to face the new-comer with the naked blade in his hand.

"By heaven, my lord duke, I believed that I had killed you!" he cried in excited tones. "Is it really you-your very self-or your wraith that stands before me?"

"It is really I-my very self-Hannibal de Vallombreuse, in the flesh, and no wraith; as far from being dead as possible," answered the young duke, with a radiant smile. "But put up that sword I pray you, my dear baron! We have fought twice already, you know, and surely that is enough. I do not come as an enemy, and if I have to reproach myself with some little sins against you, you have certainly had your revenge for them, so we are quits. To prove that my intentions are not hostile, but of the most friendly nature if you will so allow, I have brought credentials, in the shape of this commission, signed by the king, which gives you command of a regiment. My good father and I have reminded his majesty of the devotion of your illustrious ancestors to his royal ones, and I have ventured to bring you this good news in person. And now, as I am your guest, I pray you have something or other killed, I don't care what, and put on the spit to roast as quickly as may be-for the love of God give me something to eat-I am starving. The inns are so far apart and so abominably bad down here that there might almost as well be none at all, and my baggage-wagon, stocked with edibles, is stuck fast in a quagmire a long way from this. So you see the necessities of the case."

"I am very much afraid, my lord duke, that the fare I can offer will seem to you only another form of revenge on my part," said de Sigognac with playful courtesy; "but do not, I beseech you, attribute to resentment the meagre repast for which I shall be obliged to claim your indulgence. You must know how gladly I would put before you a sumptuous meal if I could; and what we can give you will at least, as my good Pierre says, satisfy hunger, though it may not gratify the palate. And let me now say that your frank and cordial words touch me deeply, and find an echo in my inmost heart. I am both proud and happy to call you my friend-henceforth you will not have one more loyal and devoted than myself-and though you may not often have need of my services, they will be, none the less, always at your disposition. Halloa! Pierre! do you go, without a moment's delay, and hunt up some fowls, eggs, meat, whatever you can find, and try to serve a substantial meal to this gentleman, my friend, who is nearly dying with hunger, and is not used to it like you and I."

Pierre put in his pocket some of the money his master had sent him from Paris-which he had never touched before-mounted the pony, and galloped off to the nearest village in search of provisions. He found several fowls-such as they were-a splendid Bayonne ham, a few bottles of fine old wine, and by great good luck, discovered, at the priest's house, a grand big pate of ducks' livers-a delicacy worthy of a bishop's or a prince's table-and which he had much difficulty to obtain from his reverence, who was a bit of a gourmand, at an almost fabulous price. But this was evidently a great occasion, and the faithful old servant would spare no pains to do it honour. In less than an hour he was at home again, and leaving the charge of the cooking to a capable woman he had found and sent out to the chateau, he immediately proceeded to set the table, in the ancient banqueting hall-gathering together all the fine porcelain and dainty glass that yet remained intact in the two tall buffets-evidences of former splendour. But the profusion of gold and silver plate that used to adorn the festive board of the de Sigognacs had all been converted into coin of the realm long ago.

When at last the old servant announced that dinner was ready, the two young men took their places opposite to each other at table, and Vallombreuse, who was in the gayest, most jovial mood, attacked the viands with an eagerness and ferocity immensely diverting to his host. After devouring almost the whole of a chicken, which, it is true, seemed to have died of a consumption, there was so little flesh on its bones, he fell back upon the tempting, rosy slices of the delicate Bayonne ham, and then passed to the pate of ducks' livers, which he declared to be supremely delicious, exquisite, ambrosial-food fit for the gods; and he found the sharp cheese, made of goat's milk, which followed, an excellent relish. He praised the wine, too-which was really very old and fine and drank it with great gusto, out of his delicate Venetian wine-glass. Once, when he caught sight of Pierre's bewildered, terrified look, as he heard his master address his merry guest as the Duke of Vallombreuse-who ought to be dead, if he was not-he fairly roared with laughter, and was as full of fun and frolic as a school-boy out for a holiday; Meantime de Sigognac, whilst he endeavoured to play the attentive host, and to respond as well as he could to the young duke's lively sallies, could not recover from his surprise at seeing him sitting there opposite to himself, as a guest at his own table-making himself very much at home, too, in the most charming, genial, easy way imaginable-and yet he was the haughty, overbearing, insolent young nobleman, who had been his hated rival; whom he had twice encountered and defeated, in fierce combat, and who had several times tried to compass his death by means of hired ruffians. What could be the explanation of it all?

The Duke of Vallombreuse divined his companion's thoughts, and when the old servant had retired, after placing a bottle of especially choice wine and two small glasses on the table, he looked up at de Sigognac and said, with the most amicable frankness, "I can plainly perceive, my dear baron, in spite of your admirable courtesy, that this unexpected step of mine appears very strange and inexplicable to you. You have been saying to yourself, How in the world has it come about, that the arrogant, imperious Vallombreuse has been transformed, from the unscrupulous, cruel, blood-thirsty tiger that he was, into the peaceable, playful lamb he seems to be now-which a 'gentle shepherdess' might lead about with a ribbon round its neck!-I will tell you. During the six weeks that I was confined to my bed, I made various reflections, which the thoughtless might pronounce cowardly, but which are permitted to the bravest and most valiant when death stares them in the face. I realized then, for the first time, the relative value of many things, and also how wrong and wicked my own course had been; and I promised myself to do very differently for the future, if I recovered. As the passionate love that Isabelle inspired in my heart had been replaced by a pure and sacred fraternal affection-which is the greatest blessing of my life-I had no further reason to dislike you. You were no longer my rival; a brother cannot be jealous in that way of his own sister; and then, I was deeply grateful to you, for the respectful tenderness and deference I knew you had never failed to manifest towards her, when she was in a position that authorized great license. You were the first to recognise her pure, exalted soul, while she was still only an obscure actress. When she was poor, and despised by those who will cringe to her now, you offered to her-lowly as was her station-the most precious treasure that a nobleman can possess: the time-honoured name of his ancestors. You would have made her your wife then-now that she is rich, and of high rank, she belongs to you of right. The true, faithful lover of Isabelle, the actress, should be the honoured husband of the Comtesse de Lineuil."

"But you forget," cried de Sigognac, in much agitation, "that she always absolutely refused me, though she knew that I was perfectly disinterested."

"It was because of her supreme delicacy, her angelic susceptibility, and her noble spirit of self-sacrifice that she said that. She feared that she would necessarily be a disadvantage to you-an obstacle in the way of your advancement. But the situation is entirely changed now."

"Yes, now it is I who would be a disadvantage to her; have I then a right to be less generous and magnanimous than she was?"

"Do you still love my sister?" said Vallombreuse, in a grave tone. "As her brother, I have the right to ask this question."

"I love her with all my heart, with all my soul, with all my strength," de Sigognac replied fervently, "as much and more than ever man loved woman on this earth-where nothing is perfect-save Isabelle."

"Such being the case, my dear Captain of Mousquetaires, and governor of a province-soon to be-have your horse saddled, and come with me to the Chateau of Vallombreuse, so that I may formally present you to the prince, my father, as the favoured suitor of the Comtesse de Lineuil, my sister. Isabelle has refused even to think of the Chevalier de Vidalinc, or the Marquis de l'Estang, as aspirants to her hand-both right handsome, attractive, eligible young fellows, by Jove!-but I am of opinion that she will accept, without very much persuasion, the Baron de Sigognac."

The next day the duke and the baron were riding gaily forward, side by side, on the road to Paris.

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