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   Chapter 28 VANITY OF VANITIES.

The Clever Woman of the Family By Charlotte M. Yonge Characters: 31879

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:04


"Unfaith in aught is want of faith in all."

TENNYSON.

The funeral was very quiet. By Colonel Keith's considerate arrangement the attendants met at Timber End, so that the stillness of the Parsonage was not invaded, a measure the more expedient, as Alick was suffering from a return of his old enemy, intermitting fever, and only was able to leave his room in time to join the procession.

Many were present, for poor Bessie had been a general favourite, and her untimely fate had stirred up feelings that had created her into a saint upon earth; but there was no one whose token of respect she would have more esteemed than Colonel Hammond's, who in all the bustle of the remove to Edinburgh had found time to come to Bishopsworthy to do honour to the daughter of his old commanding officer. A flush of gratitude came over Alick's pale face when he became aware of his colonel's presence, and when the choristers' hymn had pealed low and sweetly over the tranquil meadows, and the mourners had turned away, Alick paused at the Parsonage gate to hold out his hand, and bring in this one guest to hear how near to Bessie's heart the father's Highland regiment had been in all the wanderings of her last moments.

The visit was prolonged for nearly an hour, while recollections of Alick's parents were talked over, and Rachel thought him more cheered and gratified than by any other tribute that had been paid to his sister. He was promised an extension of leave, if it were required on account of Lord Keith's state, though under protest that he would have the aguish fever as long as he remained overlooking the water meadows, and did not put himself under Dr. M'Vicar. Through these meadows Colonel Hammond meant to walk back to the station, and Alick and Rachel conducted him far enough to put him into the right path, and in going back again, they could not but go towards the stile leading to that corner of the churchyard where the sexton had finished his work, and smoothed the sods over that new grave.

Some one was standing at the foot-not the sexton-but a young man bending as with an intolerable load of grief. Rachel saw him first, when Alick was helping her down the step, and her start of dismay made him turn and look round. His brow contracted, and she clutched his arm with an involuntary cry of, "Oh, don't," but he, with a gesture that at once awed and tranquillized her, unclasped her hold and put her back, while he stepped forward.

She could hear every word, though his voice was low and deep with emotion. "Carleton, if I have ever been harsh or unjust in my dealings towards you, I am sorry for it. We have both had the saddest of all lessons. May we both take it as we ought."

He wrung the surprised and unwilling hand, and before the youth, startled and overcome, had recovered enough to attempt a reply, he had come back to Rachel, resumed her arm, and crossed the churchyard, still shivering and trembling with the agitation, and the force he had put on himself. Rachel neither could nor durst speak; she only squeezed his hand, and when he had shut himself up in his own room, she could not help repairing to his uncle, and telling him the whole. Mr. Clare's "God bless you, my boy," had double meaning in it that night.

Not long after, Alick told Rachel of his having met poor young Carleton in the meadows, pretending to occupy himself with his fishing-rod, but too wretched to do anything. And in a short time Mrs. Carleton again called to pour out to Mrs. Keith her warm thanks to the Captain, for having roused her son from his moody, unmanageable despair, and made him consent to accept a situation in a new field of labour, in a spirit of manful duty that he had never evinced before.

This was a grave and subdued, but not wholly mournful, period at Bishopsworthy-a time very precious to Rachel in the retrospect-though there was much to render it anxious. Alick continued to suffer from recurrences of the fever, not very severe in themselves after the first two or three, but laying him prostrate with shivering and headache every third day, and telling heavily on his strength and looks when he called himself well. On these good days he was always at Timber End, where his services were much needed. Lord Keith liked and esteemed him as a sensible prudent young man, and his qualities as a first-rate nurse were of great assistance to the Colonel. Lord Keith's illness was tedious and painful, the necessity of a dangerous operation became increasingly manifest, but the progress towards such a crisis was slow and the pain and discomfort great; the patient never moved beyond his dressing-room, and needed incessant attention to support his spirits and assist his endeavours to occupy himself. It was impossible to leave him for long together, and Colonel Keith was never set at liberty for exercise or rest except when Alick came to his assistance, and fortunately this young brother-in-law was an especial favourite, partly from Lord Keith's esteem for his prudence partly from his experience in this especial species of suffering. At any rate the days of Alick's enforced absence were always times of greater restlessness and uneasiness at Timber End.

Meantime Rachel was constantly thrown with Mr. Clare, supplying Alick's place to him, and living in a round of duties that suited her well, details of parish work, walking with, writing for, and reading to Mr Clare, and reaping much benefit from intercourse with such a mind. Many of her errors had chiefly arisen from the want of some one whose superiority she could feel, and her old presumptions withered up to nothing when she measured her own powers with those of a highly educated man, while all the time he gave her thanks and credit for all she had effected, but such as taught her humility by very force of infection.

Working in earnest at his visitation sermon, she was drawn up into the real principles and bearings of the controversy, and Mr. Clare failed not to give full time and patience to pick out all her difficulties, removing scruples at troubling him, by declaring that it was good for his own purpose to unwind every tangle even if he did not use every thread. It was wonderful how many puzzles were absolutely intangible, not even tangled threads, but a sort of nebulous matter that dispersed itself on investigation. And after all, unwilling as she would have been to own it, a woman's tone of thought is commonly moulded by the masculine intellect, which, under one form or another, becomes the master of her soul. Those opinions, once made her own, may be acted and improved upon, often carried to lengths never thought of by their inspirer, or held with noble constancy and perseverance even when he himself may have fallen from them, but from some living medium they are almost always adopted, and thus, happily for herself, a woman's efforts at scepticism are but blind faith in her chosen leader, or, at the utmost, in the spirit of the age. And Rachel having been more than usually removed from the immediate influence of superior man, had been affected by the more feeble and distant power, a leading that appeared to her the light of her independent mind; but it was not in the nature of things that, from her husband and his uncle, her character should not receive that tincture for which it had so long waited, strong and thorough in proportion to her nature, not rapid in receiving impressions, but steadfast and uncompromising in retaining and working on them when once accepted, a nature that Alick Keith had discerned and valued amid its worst errors far more than mere attractiveness, of which his sister had perhaps made him weary and distrustful. Nor, indeed, under the force of the present influences, was attractiveness wanting, and she suited Alick's peculiarities far better than many a more charming person would have done, and his uncle, knowing her only by her clear mellow voice, her consideration, helpfulness, and desire to think and do rightly, never understood the doubtful amazement now and then expressed in talking of Alick's choice. One great bond between Rachel and Mr. Clare was affection for the little babe, who continued to be Rachel's special charge, and was a great deal dearer to her already than all the seven Temples put together. She studied all the books on infant management that she could obtain, constantly listened for his voice, and filled her letters to her mother with questions and details on his health, and descriptions of his small person. Alick was amused whenever he glanced at his strong-minded woman's correspondence, and now and then used to divert himself with rousing her into emphatic declarations of her preference of this delicate little being to "great, stout, coarse creatures that people call fine children." In fact, Alick's sensitive tenderness towards his sister's motherless child took the form of avoiding the sight of it, and being ironical when it was discussed; but with Mr. Clare, Rachel was sure of sympathy, ever since the afternoon when he had said how the sounds upstairs reminded him of his own little daughter; and sitting under the yew-tree, he had told Rachel all the long stored-up memories of the little life that had been closed a few days after he had first heard himself called papa by the baby lips. He had described all these events calmly, and not without smiles, and had said how his own blindness had made him feel thankful that he had safely laid his little Una on her mother's bosom under the church's shade; but when Rachel spoke of this conversation to her husband, she learnt that it was the first time that he had ever talked of those buried hopes. He had often spoken of his wife, but though always fond of children, few who had not read little Una's name beneath her mother's cross, knew that he was a childless father. And yet it was beautiful to see the pleasure he took in the touch of Bessie's infant, and how skilfully and tenderly he would hold it, so that Rachel in full faith averred that the little Alexander was never so happy as with him. The chief alarms came from Mrs Comyn Menteith, who used to descend on the Rectory like a whirlwind, when the Colonel had politely expelled her from her father's room at Timber End. Possessed with the idea of Rachel's being very dull at Bishopsworthy, she sedulously enlivened her with melancholy prognostics as to the life, limbs, and senses of the young heir, who would never live, poor little darling, even with the utmost care of herself and her nurse, and it was very perverse of papa and the doctors still to keep him from her-poor little darling-not that it mattered, for he was certain not to thrive, wherever he was, and the Gowanbrae family would end with Uncle Colin and the glassblower's daughter; a disaster on which she met with such condolence from Alick (N. B. the next heir) that Rachel was once reduced to the depths of genuine despair by the conviction that his opinion of his nephew's life was equally desponding; and another time was very angry with him for not defending Ermine's gentility. She had not entirely learnt what Alick's assent might mean.

Once, when Mrs. Menteith had been besetting her father with entreaties for the keys of Lady Keith's private possessions, she was decisively silenced, and the next day these same keys were given to Alick, with a request that his wife would as soon as possible look over and take to herself all that had belonged to his sister, except a few heirloom jewels that must return to Scotland. Alick demurred greatly, but the old man would not brook contradiction, and Rachel was very unwillingly despatched upon the mission on one of Alick's days of prostration at home. His absence was the most consoling part of this sad day's work. Any way it could not be otherwise than piteous to dismantle what had been lately so bright and luxurious, and the contrast of the present state of things with that in which these dainty new wedding presents had been brought together, could not but give many a pang; but beside this, there was a more than ordinary impression of "vanity of vanities, all is vanity," very painful to affection that was striving to lose the conviction that it had been a self-indulgent, plausible life. The accumulation of expensive trinkets and small luxuries, was as surprising as perplexing to a person of Rachel's severely simple and practical tastes. It was not only since the marriage; for Bessie had always had at her disposal means rather ample, and had used them not exactly foolishly, but evidently for her own gratification. Everything had some intrinsic worth, and was tasteful or useful, but the multitude was perfectly amazing, and the constant echo in Rachel's ears was, "he heapeth up riches and cannot tell who shall gather them." Lord Keith could hardly have found an executrix for his poor young wife, to whom her properties would have done so little harm. Rachel set many aside for the cousins, and for Mrs. Menteith, others she tried to persuade the Colonel to call Gowanbrae belongings, and failing in this, she hoped through Grace, to smuggle some of them into his Gowanbrae; but when all was done, there was a mass of things that Lord Keith never wished to see again, and that seemed to Rachel to consist of more ornaments than she could ever wear, and more knick-knacks than a captain's wife could ever carry about with her.

She was putting aside the various packets of letters and papers to be looked over more at leisure, when the Colonel knocked at the morning-room door, and told her that his brother would like to see her, when her work was done. "But first," he said, "I must ask you to be kind enough to look over some of these papers, and try to find receipts for some of those bills."

"Here they are," said Rachel, "I was going to look them over at home."

"If you have time to examine them here with me," said Colonel Keith, gently, "I think it might save Alick some pain and vexation."

Rachel was entirely unaware of his meaning, and supposed he only thought of the mere thrilling of the recent wound; but when he sat down and took a long account out of a tradesman's envelope, a chill of dismay came over her, followed by a glow of hope as she recollected a possible explanation: "Have these wretched tradesmen been sending in bills over again at such a time as this?" she exclaimed.

"I should be very glad to find their receipts," returned the Colonel.

They opened the most business-like looking bundles, all of them, though neatly kept, really in hopeless confusion. In vain was the search, and notes came forth which rendered it but too plain that there had been a considerable amount of debt even before the marriage, and that she had made partial payments and promises of clearing all off gradually, but that her new expenses were still growing upon her, and the few payments "on account," since she had been Lady Keith, by no means tallied with the amount of new purchases and orders. No one had suspected her money matters of being in disorder, and Rachel was very slow to comprehend; her simple, country life had made her utterly unaware of the difficulties and ways and means of a young lady of fashion. Even the direct evidence before her eyes would not at first persuade her that it was not "all those wicked tradesmen;" she had always heard that fashionable shops were not to be trusted.

"I am afraid," said Colonel Keith, "that the whole can scarcely be shifted on the tradesmen. I fear poor Bessie was scarcely free from blame in this matter."

"Not paying! Going on in debt! Oh she could not have meant it;" said Rachel, still too much astonished to understand. "Of course one hears of gay, thoughtless people doing such things, but Bessie-who had so much thought and sense. It must be a mistake! Can't you go and speak to the people?"

"It is very sad and painful to make such

discoveries," said Colonel Keith; "but I am afraid such things are not uncommon in the set she was too much thrown amongst."

"But she knew so well-she was so superior; and with Alick and her uncle to keep her above them," said Rachel; "I cannot think she could have done such things."

"I could not think, but I see it was so," said Colonel Keith, gravely. "As I am obliged to understand these things, she must have greatly exceeded her means, and have used much cleverness and ingenuity in keeping the tradesmen quiet, and preventing all from coming to light."

"How miserable! I can't fancy living in such a predicament."

"I am much afraid," added the Colonel, looking over the papers, "that it explains the marriage-and then Keith did not allow her as much as she expected."

"Oh, Colonel Keith, don't!" cried Rachel; "it is just the one thing where I could not bear to believe Alick. She was so dear and beautiful, and spoke so rightly."

"To believe Alick!" repeated the Colonel, as Rachel's voice broke down.

"I thought-I ought not to have thought-he was hard upon her-but he knew better," said Rachel, "of course he did not know of all this dreadful business!"

"Assuredly not," said the Colonel, "that is self-evident, but as you say, I am afraid he did know his poor sister's character better than we did, when he came to warn me against the marriage."

"Did he? Oh how much it must have cost him."

"I am afraid I did not make it cost him less. I thought he judged her harshly, and that his illness had made him magnify trifles, but though our interference would have been perfectly useless, he was quite right in his warning. Now that, poor thing, she is no longer here to enchant us with her witcheries, I see that my brother greatly suffered from being kept away from home, and detained in this place, and that she left him far more alone than she ought to have done."

"Yes, Alick thought so, but she had such good reasons, I am sure she believed them herself."

"If she had not believed them, she could not have had such perfect sincerity of manner," said the Colonel; "she must have persuaded at least one half of herself that she was acting for every one's good except her own."

"And Mr. Clare, whom Alick always thought she neglected, never felt it. Alick says he was too unselfish to claim attention."

"I never doubted her for one moment till I came home, on that unhappy day, and found how ill Keith was. I did think then, that considering how much she had seen of Alick while the splinters were working out, she ought to have known better than to talk of sciatica; but she made me quite believe in her extreme anxiety, and that she was only going out because it was necessary for her to take care of you on your first appearance. How bright she looked, and how little I thought I should never see her again!"

"Oh, she meant what she said! She always was kind to me! Most kind!" repeated Rachel; "so considerate about all the dreadful spring-not one word did she say to vex me about the past! I am sure she did go out on that day as much to shelter me as for anything else. I can't bear to think all this-here in this pretty room that she had such pleasure in; where she made me so welcome, after all my disagreeableness and foolishness."

The Colonel could almost have said, "Better such foolishness than such wisdom, such repulsion than such attraction." He was much struck by Rachel's distress, and the absence of all female spite and triumph, made him understand Ermine's defence of her as really large-minded and generous.

"It is a very sad moment to be undeceived," he said; "one would rather have one's faults come to light in one's life than afterwards."

They were simple words, so simple that the terrible truth with which they were connected, did not come upon Rachel at the first moment; but as if to veil her agitation, she drew towards her a book, an ivory-bound Prayer-book, full of illuminations, of Bessie's own doing, and her eye fell upon the awful verse, "So long as thou doest well unto thyself, men will speak good of thee." It was almost more than Rachel could bear, sitting in the midst of the hoards, for which poor Bessie had sold herself. She rose up, with a sob of oppressive grief, and broke out, "Oh! at least it is a comfort that Alick was really the kindest and rightest! Only too right! but you can settle all this without him," she added imploringly; "need he know of this? I can't bear that he should."

"Nor I," said Colonel Keith, "it was the reason that I am glad you are here alone."

"Oh, thank you! No one need ever know," added Rachel.

"I fear my brother must see the accounts, as they have to be paid, but that need not be immediately."

"Is there anything else that is dreadful?" said Rachel, looking at the remaining papers, as if they were a nest of adders. "I don't like to take them home now, if they will grieve Alick."

"You need not be afraid of that packet," said the Colonel; "I see his father's handwriting. They look like his letters from India."

Rachel looked into one or two, and her face lighted up. "Oh!" she exclaimed, "this is enough to make up for all. This is his letter to tell about Alick's wound. Oh how beautifully he speaks of him," and Rachel, with no voice to read, handed the thin paper to her companion, that he might see the full commendation, that had been wrung from the reserved father's heart by his son's extremity.

"You must be prepared to hear that all is over," wrote the father to his daughter; "in fact, I doubt whether he can live till morning, though M'Vicar declares that nothing vital has been touched. Be it as it may, the boy has been in all respects, even more than I dared to wish, and the comfort he has been ever since he came out to me has been unspeakable. We must not grudge him such a soldier's death after his joyous life. But for you, my poor girl, I could only wish the same for myself to-morrow. You will, at least, if you lose a brother's care, have a memory of him, to which to live up. The thought of such a dead brother will be more to you than many a living one can ever be to a sister."

Rachel's heart beat high, and her eyes were full of tears of exultation. And the Colonel was well pleased to compensate for all the pain he had inflicted by giving her all the details he could recollect of her husband's short campaign. They had become excellent friends over their mournful work, and were sorry to have their tete-a-tete interrupted when a message was brought that his Lordship was ready, if Mrs. Keith would be so good as to come into his sitting-room.

She wiped away the tears, and awe-struck and grave, followed the Colonel; a great contrast to Lord Keith's more frequent lady-visitor, as she silently received the polished greeting, its peculiar stateliness of courtesy, enhanced by the feeble state of the shattered old man, unable to rise from his pillowed chair, and his face deeply lined by suffering. He would not let her give him any account of her labours, nor refer any question to him, he only entreated that everything might be taken away, and that he might hear nothing about it. He spoke warmly of Alick's kindness and attention, and showed much solicitude about his indisposition, and at last he inquired for Rachel's "little charge," hoping he was not clamorous or obnoxious to her, or to Mr. Clare's household. Her eager description of his charms provoked a look of interest and a sad smile, followed by a request, that weather and doctor permitting, she would bring the child to be seen for a few minutes. The next day there was an appointment, at which both the Colonel and Alick were wanted, but on the following one, the carriage should be sent to bring her and the little one to Timber End.

The effect of this invitation amused Alick. The first thing he heard in the morning was a decided announcement from Rachel that she must go up to London to procure equipments for the baby to be presented in!

"You know I can't go with you to-day."

"Of course, but I must make him fit to be seen. You know he has been wearing little Una's things all this time, and that will not do out of the nursery."

"A superior woman ought to know that his Lordship will never find out what his son has on."

"Then it is all the more reason that I should not let the poor dear little fellow go about wrapped up in somebody's old shawl!"

"What will you do then-take your maid?"

"Certainly not. I can't have him left."

"Then take him with you?"

"What, Alick, a little unvaccinated baby! Where have you ever lived! I don't see the least reason why I should not go alone."

"You need not begin beating about the world yet, Rachel. How many times did you say you had been in London?"

"Three; once with my father when I was a child, once in the time of the Great Exhibition, and passing through it now with you. But any one of common sense can manage."

"If you will wait till five o'clock I will come with you," said Alick, wearily.

"No, indeed, I had rather not go, than that you should, you are quite tired out enough at the end of the day."

"Then do not go."

"Alick, why will you have no proper feeling for that poor dear child!" said Rachel with tears in her eyes.

If he winced he did not show it. "My proper feeling takes the direction of my wife," he said.

"You don't really mean to forbid me to go," she exclaimed.

"I don't mean it, for I do so, unless you find some one to go with you."

It was the first real collision that had taken place, but Alick's quiet, almost languid tone had an absolute determination in it from the very absence of argument, and Rachel, though extremely annoyed, felt the uselessness of battling the point. She paused for a few moments, then said with an effort, "May I take the housekeeper?"

"Yes, certainly," and then he added some advice about taking a brougham, and thus lightened her heart; so that she presently said humbly,

"Have I been self-willed and overbearing, Alick?"

He laughed. "Not at all; you have persevered just where you ought. I dare say this is all more essential than shows on the surface. And," he added, with a shaken voice, "if you were not myself, Rachel, you know how I should thank you for caring for my poor Bessie's child." He was gone almost as he spoke the words, but Rachel still felt the kiss and the hot tears that had fallen on her face.

Mr. Clare readily consented to spare his housekeeper, but the housekeeper was untoward, she was "busied in her housewife skep," and would not stir. Alick was gone to Timber End, and Rachel was just talking of getting the schoolmaster's wife as an escort, when Mr. Clare said-

"Pray are you above accepting my services?"

"You! Oh, uncle; thank you, but-"

"What were your orders? Anybody with you, was it not? I flatter myself that I have some body, at least."

"If Alick will not think I ought not!"

"The boy will not presume to object to what I do with you."

"I do wish it very much," said candid Rachel.

"Of course you do, my dear. Alick is not cured of a young man's notion that babies are a sort of puppies. He is quite right not to let you run about London by yourself, but he will be quite satisfied if you find eyes and I find discretion."

"But is it not very troublesome to you?"

"It is a capital lark!" said Mr. Clare, with a zest that only the slang word could imply, removing all Rachel's scruples, and in effect Mr. Clare did enjoy the spice of adventure in a most amusing way. He knew perfectly well how to manage, laid out the plan of operations, gave orders to the driver, went into all the shops, and was an effective assistant in the choice of material and even of embroidery. His touch and ear seemed to do more for him than many men's eyes do for them; he heard odd scraps of conversation and retailed them with so much character; he had such pleasant colloquies with all in whose way he fell, and so thoroughly enjoyed the flow and babble of the full stream of life, that Rachel marvelled that the seclusion of his parsonage was bearable to him. He took her to lunch with an old friend, a lady who had devoted herself to the care of poor girls to be trained as servants, and Rachel had the first real sight of one of the many great and good works set on foot by personal and direct labour.

"If I had been sensible, I might have come to something like this!" she said.

"Do you wish to undo these last three months?"

"No; I am not fit to be anything but an ordinary married woman, with an Alick to take care of me; but I am glad some people can be what I meant to be."

"And you need not regret not being useful now," said Mr. Clare. "Where should any of us be without you?"

It had not occurred to Rachel, but she was certainly of far more positive use in the world at the present moment than ever she had bean in her most assuming maiden days.

Little Alexander was arrayed in all that could enhance his baby dignity, and Rachel was more than ever resolved to assert his superiority over "great frightful fine children," resenting vehemently an innocent observation from Alick, that the small features and white skin promised sandiness of hair. Perhaps Alick delighted in saying such things for the sake of proving the "very womanhood" of his Clever Woman. Rachel hung back, afraid of the presentation, and would have sent her maid into the room with the child if Colonel Keith had not taken her in himself. Even yet she was not dexterous in handling the baby, her hands were both occupied, and her attention absorbed, and she could not speak, she felt it so mournful to show this frail motherless creature to a father more like its grandfather, and already almost on the verge of the grave. She came up to Lord Keith, and held the child to him in silence. He said, "Thank you," and kissed not only the little one, but her own brow, and she kept the tears back with difficulty.

Colonel Keith gave her a chair and footstool, and she sat with the baby on her lap, while very few words were spoken. It was the Colonel who asked her to take off the hood that hid the head and brow, and who chiefly hazarded opinions as to likeness and colour of eyes. Lord Keith looked earnestly and sadly, but hardly made any observation, except that it looked healthier than he had been led to expect. He was sure it owed much to Mrs. Keith's great care and kindness.

Rachel feared he would not be able to part with his little son, and began to mention the arrangements she had contemplated in case he wished to keep the child at Timber End. On this, Lord Keith asked with some anxiety, if its presence were inconvenient to Mr. Clare; and being assured of the contrary, said, "Then while you are so kind as to watch over him, I much prefer that things should remain in their present state, than to bring him to a house like this. You do not object?"

"Oh, no; I am so glad. I was only dreading the losing him. I thought Mrs. Menteith wished for him when he is old enough to travel."

"Colin!" said Lord Keith, looking up sharply, "will nothing make the Menteiths understand that I would rather put out the child to nurse in a Highland hut than in that Babel of a nursery of theirs?"

Colin smiled and said, "Isabel does not easily accept an answer she dislikes."

"But remember, both of you," continued Lord Keith, "that happen what may, this poor child is not to be in her charge. I've seen enough of her children left alone in perambulators in the sun. You will be in Edinburgh?" he added, turning to Rachel.

"Yes, when Alick's leave ends."

"I shall return thither when this matter is over, I know I shall be better at home in Scotland, and if I winter in Edinburgh, may be we could make some arrangement for his being still under your eye."

Rachel went home more elevated than she had been for months past.

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