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   Chapter 6 THE PRINCE AND MR. BLITHERS

The Prince of Graustark By George Barr McCutcheon Characters: 30473

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:04


In order to get on with the narrative, I shall be as brief as possible in the matter of the Blitherwood ball. In the first place, mere words would prove to be not only feeble but actually out of place. Any attempt to define the sensation of awe by recourse to a dictionary would put one in the ridiculous position of seeking the unattainable. The word has its meaning, of course, but the sensation itself is quite another thing. As every one who attended the ball was filled with awe, which he tried to put forward as admiration, the attitude of the guest was no more limp than that of the chronicler. In the second place, I am not qualified by experience or imagination to describe a ball that stood its promoter not a penny short of one hundred thousand dollars. I believe I could go as high as a fifteen or even twenty thousand dollar affair with some sort of intelligence, but anything beyond those figures renders me void and useless.

Mr. Blithers not only ran a special train de luxe from New York City, but another from Washington and still another from Newport, for it appears that the Newporters at the last minute couldn't bear the idea of going to the Metropolis out of season. He actually had to take them around the city in such a way that they were not even obliged to submit to a glimpse of the remotest outskirts of the Bronx.

From Washington came an amazing company of foreign ladies and gentlemen, ranging from the most exalted Europeans to the lowliest of the yellow races. They came with gold all over them; they tinkled with the clash of a million cymbals. The President of the United States almost came. Having no spangles of his own, he delegated a Major-General and a Rear-Admiral to represent Old Glory, and no doubt sulked in the White House because a parsimonious nation refuses to buy braid and buttons for its chief executive.

Any one who has seen a gentleman in braid, buttons and spangles will understand how impossible it is to describe him. One might enumerate the buttons and the spangles and even locate them precisely upon his person, but no mortal intellect can expand sufficiently to cope with an undertaking that would try even the powers of Him who created the contents of those wellstuffed uniforms.

A car load of orchids and gardenias came up, fairly depleting the florists' shops on Manhattan Island, and with them came a small army of skilled decorators. In order to deliver his guests at the doors of Blitherwood, so to speak, the incomprehensible Mr. Blithers had a temporary spur of track laid from the station two miles away, employing no fewer than a thousand men to do the work in forty-eight hours. (Work on a terminal extension in New York was delayed for a week or more in order that he might borrow the rails, ties and worktrains!)

Two hundred and fifty precious and skillfully selected guests ate two hundred and fifty gargantuan dinners and twice as many suppers; drank barrels of the rarest of wines; smoked countless two dollar Perfectos and stuffed their pockets with enough to last them for days to come; burnt up five thousand cigarettes and ate at least two dozen eggs for breakfast, and then flitted away with a thousand complaints in two hundred and fifty Pullman drawing-rooms, Nothing could have been more accurately pulled-off than the wonderful Blitherwood ball. (The sparring match on the lawn, under the glare of a stupendous cluster of lights, resulted in favour of Mr. Bullhead Brown, who successfully-if accidentally-landed with considerably energy on the left lower corner of Mr. Sledge-hammer Smith's diaphragm, completely dividing the purse with him in four scientifically satisfactory rounds, although they came to blows over it afterwards when Mr. Smith told Mr. Brown what he thought of him for hitting with such fervour just after they had eaten a hearty meal.)

A great many mothers inspected Prince Robin with interest and confessed to a really genuine enthusiasm: something they had not experienced since one of the German princes got close enough to Newport to see it quite clearly through his marine glasses from the bridge of a battleship. The ruler of Graustark-(four-fifths of the guests asked where in the world it was!)-was the lion of the day. Mr. Blithers was annoyed because he did not wear his crown, but was somewhat mollified by the information that he had neglected to bring it along with him in his travels. He was also considerably put out by the discovery that the Prince had left his white and gold uniform at home and had to appear in an ordinary dress-suit, which, to be sure, fitted him perfectly but did not achieve distinction. He did wear a black and silver ribbon across his shirt front, however, and a tiny gold button in the lapel of his coat; otherwise he might have been mistaken for a "regular guest," to borrow an expression from Mr. Blithers. The Prince's host manoeuvred until nearly one o'clock in the morning before he succeeded in getting a close look at the little gold button, and then found that the inscription thereon was in some sort of hieroglyphics that afforded no enlightenment whatsoever.

Exercising a potentate's prerogative, Prince Robin left the scene of festivity somewhat earlier than was expected. As a matter of fact, he departed shortly after one. Moreover, being a prince, it did not occur to him to offer any excuse for leaving so early, but gracefully thanked his host and hostess and took himself off without the customary assertion that he had had a splendid time. Strange to say, he did not offer a single comment on the sumptuousness of the affair that had been given in his honor. Mr. Blithers couldn't get over that. He couldn't help thinking that the fellow had not been properly brought-up, or was it possible that he was not in the habit of going out in good society?

Except for one heart-rending incident, the Blitherwood ball was the most satisfying event in the lives of Mr. and Mrs. William W. Blithers. That incident, however, happened to be the hasty and well-managed flight of Maud Applegate Blithers at an hour indefinitely placed somewhere between four and seven o'clock on the morning of the great day.

Miss Blithers was not at the ball. She was in New York City serenely enjoying one of the big summer shows, accompanied by young Scoville and her onetime governess, a middle-aged gentlewoman who had seen even better days than those spent in the employ of William W. Blithers. The resolute young lady had done precisely what she said she would do, and for the first time in his life Mr. Blithers realised that his daughter was a creation and not a mere condition. He wilted like a famished water-lily and went about the place in a state of bewilderment so bleak that even his wife felt sorry for him and refrained from the "I told you so" that might have been expected under the circumstances.

Maud's telegram, which came at three o'clock in the afternoon, was meant to be reassuring but it failed of its purpose. It said: "Have a good time and don't lose any sleep over me. I shall sleep very soundly myself at the Ritz to-night and hope you will be doing the same when I return home to-morrow afternoon, for I know you will be dreadfully tired after all the excitement. Convey my congratulations to the guest of honor and believe me to be your devoted and obedient daughter."

The co-incidental absence of young Mr. Scoville from the ball was a cause of considerable uneasiness on the part of the agitated Mr. Blithers, who commented upon it quite expansively in the seclusion of his own bed-chamber after the last guest had sought repose. Some of the things that Mr. Blithers said about Mr. Scoville will never be forgotten by the four walls of that room, if, as commonly reported, they possess auricular attachments.

Any one who imagines that Mr. Blithers accepted Maud's defection as a final disposition of the cause he had set his heart upon is very much mistaken in his man. Far from receding so much as an inch from his position, he at once set about to strengthen it in such a way that Maud would have to come to the conclusion that it was useless to combat the inevitable, and ultimately would heap praises upon his devoted head for the great blessing he was determined to bestow upon her in spite of herself.

The last of the special coaches was barely moving on its jiggly way to the main line, carrying the tag end of the revellers, when he set forth in his car for a mid-day visit to Red Roof. Already the huge camp of Slavs and Italians was beginning to jerk up the borrowed rails and ties; the work trains were rumbling and snorting in the meadows above Blitherwood, tottering about on the uncertain road-bed. He gave a few concise and imperative orders to obsequious superintendents and foremen, who subsequently repeated them with even greater freedom to the perspiring foreigners, and left the scene of confusion without so much as a glance behind. Wagons, carts, motortrucks and all manner of wheeled things were scuttling about Blitherwood as he shot down the long, winding avenue toward the lodge gates, but he paid no attention to them. They were removing the remnants of a glory that had passed at five in the morning. He was not interested in the well-plucked skeleton. It was a nuisance getting rid of it, that was all, and he wanted it to be completely out of sight when he returned from Red Roof. If a vestige of the ruins remained, some one would hear from him! That was understood. And when Maud came home on the five-fourteen she would not find him asleep-not by a long shot!

Half-way to Red Roof, he espied a man walking briskly along the road ahead of him. To be perfectly accurate, he was walking in the middle of the road and his back was toward the swift-moving, almost noiseless Packard.

"Blow the horn for the dam' fool," said Mr. Blithers to the chauffeur. A moment later the pedestrian leaped nimbly aside and the car shot past, the dying wail of the siren dwindling away in the whirr of the wheels. "Look where you're going!" shouted Mr. Blithers from the tonneau, as if the walker had come near to running him down instead of the other way around. "Whoa! Stop 'er, Jackson!" he called to the driver. He had recognised the pedestrian.

The car came to a stop with grinding brakes, and at the same time the pedestrian halted a hundred yards away.

"Back up," commanded Mr. Blithers in some haste, for the Prince seemed to be on the point of deserting the highway for the wood that lined it. "Morning, Prince!" he shouted, waving his hat vigorously. "Want a lift?"

The car shot backward with almost the same speed that it had gone forward, and the Prince exercised prudence when he stepped quickly up the sloping bank at the roadside.

"Were you addressing me," he demanded curtly, as the car came to a stop.

"Yes, your highness. Get in. I'm going your way," said Mr. Blithers beamingly.

"I mean a moment ago, when you shouted 'Look where you are going,'" said Robin, an angry gleam in his eye.

Mr. Blithers looked positively dumbfounded. "Good Heavens, no!" he cried. "I was speaking to the chauffeur." (Jackson's back seemed to stiffen a little.) "I've told him a thousand times to be careful about running up on people like that. Now this is the last time I'll warn you, Jackson. The next time you go. Understand? Just because you happen to be driving for me doesn't signify that you can run over people who-"

"It's all right, Mr. Blithers," interrupted Robin, with his fine smile. "No harm done. I'll walk if you don't mind. Out for a bit of exercise, you know. Thank you just the same."

"Where are you bound for?" asked Mr. Blithers.

"I don't know. I ramble where my fancy leads me."

"I guess I'll get out and stroll along with you. God knows I need more exercise than I get. Is it agreeable?" He was on the ground by this time. Without waiting for an answer, he directed Jackson to run on to Red Roof and wait for him.

"I shall be charmed," said Robin, a twinkle in the tail of his eye. "An eight or ten mile jaunt will do you a world of good, I'm sure. Shall we explore this little road up the mountain and then drop down to Red Roof? I don't believe it can be more than five or six miles."

"Capital," said Mr. Blithers with enthusiasm. He happened to know that it was a "short cut" to Red Roof and less than a mile as the crow flies. True, there was something of an ascent ahead of them, but there was also a corresponding descent at the other end. Besides, he was confident he could keep up with the long-legged youngster by the paradoxical process of holding back. The Prince, having suggested the route, couldn't very well be arbitrary in traversing it. Mr. Blithers regarded the suggestion as an invitation.

They struck off into the narrow woodland road, not precisely side by side, but somewhat after the fashion of a horseback rider and his groom, or, more strictly speaking, as a Knight and his vassal. Robin started off so briskly that Mr. Blithers fell behind a few paces and had to exert himself considerably to keep from losing more ground as they took the first steep rise. The road was full of ruts and cross ruts and littered with boulders that had ambled down the mountain-side in the spring moving. To save his life, Mr. Blithers couldn't keep to a straight course. He went from rut to rut and from rock to rock with the fidelity of a magnetised atom, seldom putting his foot where he meant to put it, and never by any chance achieving a steady stride. He would take one long, purposeful step and then a couple of short "feelers," progressing very much as a man tramps over a newly ploughed field.

At the top of the rise, Robin considerately slackened his pace and the chubby gentleman drew alongside, somewhat out of breath but as cheerful as a cricket.

"Going too fast for you, Mr. Blithers?" inquired Robin.

"Not at all," said Mr. Blithers. "By the way, Prince," he went on, cunningly seizing the young man's arm and thereby putting a check on his speed for the time being at least, "I want to explain my daughter's unfortunate absence last night. You must have thought it very strange. Naturally it was unavoidable. The poor girl is really quite heart-broken. I beg pardon!" He stepped into a rut and came perilously near to going over on his nose. "Beastly road! Thanks. Good thing I took hold of you. Yes, as I was saying, it was really a most unfortunate thing; missed the train, don't you see. Went down for the day-just like a girl, you know-and missed the train."

"Ah, I see. She missed it twice."

"Eh? Oh! Ha ha! Very good! She might just as well have missed it a dozen times as once, eh? Well, she could have arranged for a special to bring her up, but she's got a confounded streak of thriftiness in her. Couldn't think of spending the money. Silly idea of-I beg your pardon, did I hurt you? I'm pretty heavy, you know, no light weight when I come down on a fellow's toe like that. What say to sitting down on this log for a while? Give your foot a chance to rest a bit. Deucedly awkward of me. Ought to look out where I'm stepping, eh?"

"It really doesn't matter, Mr. Blithers," said Robin hastily.

"We'll keep right on if it's all the same to you. I'm due at home in-in half an hour. We lunch very punctually."

"I was particularly anxious for you and Maud to meet under the conditions that obtained last night," went on Mr. Blithers, with a regretful look at the log they were passing. "Nothing could have been more-er-ripping."

"I hear from every one that your daughter is most attractive," said

Robin. "Sorry not to have met her, Mr. Blithers."

"Oh, you'll meet her all right. Prince. She's coming home to-day. I believe Mrs. Blithers is expecting you to dinner to-night. She-"

"I'm sure there must be some mistake," began Robin, but was cut short.

"I was on my way to Red Roof to ask you and Count Quiddux to give us this evening in connection with that little affair we are arranging. It is most imperative that it should be to-night, as my attorney is coming up for the conference."

"I fear that Mrs. King has planned something-"

Mr. Blithers waved his hand deprecatingly. "I am sure Mrs. King will let you off when she knows how important it is. As a matter of fact, it has to be tonight or not at all."

There was a note in his voice that Robin did not like. It savoured of arrogance.

"I daresay Count Quinnox can attend to all the details, Mr. Blithers. I have the power of veto, of course, but I shall be guided by the counsel of my ministers. You need have no hesitancy in dealing with-"

"That's not the point, Prince. I am a business man,-as perhaps you know. I make it a point never to deal with any one except the head of a concern, if you'll pardon my way of putting it. It isn't right to speak of Growstock as a concern, but you'll understand, of course. Figure of speech."

"I can only assure you, sir, that Graustark is in a position to indemnify you against any possible chance of loss. You will be amply secured. I take it that you are not coming to our assistance through any desire to be philanthropic, but as a business proposition, pure and simple. At least, that is how we regard the matter. Am I not right?"

"Perfectly," said Mr. Blithers. "I haven't got sixteen millions to throw away. Still I don't see that that has anything to do with my request that you be present at the conference to-night. To be perfectly frank with you, I don't like working in the dark. You have the power of veto, as you say. Well, if I am to lend Groostork a good many millions of hard-earned dollars, I certainly don't relish the idea that you may take it into your head to upset the whole transaction merely because you have not had the matter presented to you by me instead of by your cabinet, competent as its members may be. First hand information on any subject is my notion of simplicity."

"The integrity of the cabinet is not to be questioned, Mr. Blithers.

Its members have never failed Graustark in any-"

"I beg your pardon, Prince," said Mr. Blithers firmly, "but I certainly suspect that they failed her when they contracted this debt to Russia. You will forgive me for saying it, but it was the most asinine bit of short-sightedness I've ever heard of. My office boys could have seen farther than your honourable ministers."

To his utter amazement, Robin turned a pair of beaming, excited eyes upon him.

"Do you really mean that, Mr. Blithers?" he cried eagerly.

"I certainly do!"

"By jove, I-I can't tell you how happy I am to hear you say it. You see it is exactly what John Tullis said from the first. He was bitterly opposed to the loan. He tried his best to convince the prime minister that it was inadvisable. I granted him the special privilege of addressing the full House of Nobles on the question, an honour that no alien had known up to that time. Of course I was a boy when all this happened, Mr. Blithers, or I might have put a stop to the-but I'll not go into that. The House of Nobles went against his judgment and voted in favour of accepting Russia's loan. Now they realise that dear old John Tullis was right. Somehow it gratifies me to hear you say that they were-ahem!-shortsighted."

"What you need in Groostock is a little more good American blood," announced Mr. Blithers, pointedly. "If you are going to cope with the world, you've got to tackle the job with brains and not with that idiotic thing called faith. There's no such thing in these days as charity among men, good will, and all that nonsense. Now, you've got a splendid start in the right direction, Prince. You've got American blood in your veins and that means a good deal. Take my advice and increase the proportion. In a couple of generations you'll have something to brag about. Take Tullis as your example. Beget sons that will think and act as he is capable of doing. Weed out the thin blood and give the crown of Grasstick something that is thick and red. It will be the making of your-"

"I suppose you are advising me to marry an American woman, Mr.

Blithers," said Robin drily.

Mr. Blithers directed a calculating squint into the tree-tops. "I am simply looking ahead for my own protection, Prince," said he.

"In what respect?"

"Well I am putting a lot of money into the hands of your people. Isn't it natural that I should look ahead to some extent?"

"But my people are honest. They will pay."

"I understand all that, but at the same time I do not relish the idea of some day being obliged to squeeze blood from a turnip. Now is the time for you to think for the future. Your people are honest, I'll grant. But they also are poor. And why? Because no one has been able to act for them as your friend Tullis is capable of acting. The day will come when they will have to settle with me, and will it be any easier to pay William W. Blithers than it is to pay Russia? Not a bit of it. As you have said, I am not a philanthropist. I shall exact full and prompt payment. I prefer to collect from the prosperous, however, and not from the poor. It goes against the grain. That's why I want to see you rich and powerful-as well as honest."

"I grant you it is splendid philosophy," said Robin. "But are you not forgetting that even the best of Americans are sometimes failures when it comes to laying up treasure?"

"As individuals, yes; but not as a class. You will not deny that we are the richest people in the world. On the other hand I do not pretend to say that we are a people of one strain of blood. We represent a mixture of many strains, but underneath them all runs the full stream that makes us what we are: Americans. You can't get away from that. Yes, I do advise you to marry an American girl."

"In other words, I am to make a business of it," said Robin, tolerantly.

"It isn't beyond the range of possibility that you should fall in love with an American girl, is it? You wouldn't call that making a business of it, would you?"

"You may rest assured, Mr. Blithers, that I shall marry to please myself and no one else," said Robin, regarding him with a coldness that for an instant affected the millionaire uncomfortably.

"Well," said Mr. Blithers, after a moment of hard thinking, "it may interest you to know that I married for love."

"It does interest me," said Robin. "I am glad that you did."

"I was a comparatively poor man when I married. The girl I married was well-off in her own right. She had brains as well. We worked together to lay the foundation for a-well, for the fortune we now possess. A fortune, I may add, that is to go, every dollar of it, to my daughter. It represents nearly five hundred million dollars. The greatest king in the world to-day is poor in comparison to that vast estate. My daughter will one day be the richest woman in the world."

"Why are you taking the pains to enlighten me as to your daughter's future, Mr. Blithers?"

"Because I regard you as a sensible young man, Prince."

"Thank you. And I suppose you regard your daughter as a sensible young woman?"

"Certainly!" exploded Mr. Blithers.

"Well, it seems to me, she will be capable of taking care of her fortune a great deal more successfully than you imagine, Mr. Blithers. She will doubtless marry an excellent chap who has the capacity to increase her fortune, rather than to let it stand at a figure that some day may be surpassed by the possessions of an ambitious king."

There was fine irony in the Prince's tone but no trace of offensiveness. Nevertheless, Mr. Blithers turned a shade more purple than before, and not from the violence of exercise. He was having some difficulty in controlling his temper. What manner of fool was this fellow who could sneer at five hundred million dollars? He managed to choke back something that rose to his lips and very politely remarked:

"I am sure you will like her, Prince. If I do say it myself, she is as handsome as they grow."

"So I have been told."

"You will see her to-night."

"Really, Mr. Blithers, I cannot-"

"I'll fix it with Mrs. King. Don't you worry."

"May I be pardoned for observing that Mrs. King, greatly as I love her, is not invested with the power to govern my actions?" said Robin haughtily.

"And may I be pardoned for suggesting that it is your duty to your people to completely understand this loan of mine before you agree to accept it?" said Mr. Blithers, compressing his lips.

"Forgive me, Mr. Blithers, but it is not altogether improbable that

Graustark may secure the money elsewhere."

"It is not only improbable but impossible," said Mr. Blithers flatly.

"Impossible?"

"Absolutely," said the millionaire so significantly that Robin would have been a dolt not to grasp the situation. Nothing could have been clearer than the fact that Mr. Blithers believed it to be in his power to block any effort Graustark might make in other directions to secure the much-needed money.

"Will you come to the point, Mr. Blithers?" said the young Prince, stopping abruptly in the middle of the road and facing his companion. "What are you trying to get at?"

Mr. Blithers was not long in getting to the point. In the first place, he was hot and tired and his shoes were hurting; in the second place, he felt that he knew precisely how to handle these money-seeking scions of nobility. He planted himself squarely in front of the Prince and jammed his hands deep into his coat pockets.

"The day my daughter is married to the man of my choice, I will hand over to that man exactly twenty million dollars," he said slowly, impressively.

"Yes, go on."

"The sole object I have in life is to see my girl happy and at the same time at the top of the heap. She is worthy of any man's love. She is as good as gold. She-"

"The point is this, then: You would like to have me for a son-in-law."

"Yes," said Mr. Blithers.

Robin grinned. He was amused in spite of himself. "You take it for granted that I can be bought?"

"I have not made any such statement."

"And how much will you hand over to the man of her choice when she marries him?" enquired the young man.

"You will be her choice," said the other, without the quiver of an eye-lash.

"How can you be sure of that? Has she no mind of her own?"

"It isn't incomprehensible that she should fall in love with you, is it?"

"It might be possible, of course, provided she is not already in love with some one else."

Mr. Blithers started. "Have you heard any one say that-but, that's nonsense! She's not in love with any one, take it from me. And just to show you how fair I am to her-and to you-I'll stake my head you fall in love with each other before you've been together a week."

"But we're not going to be together for a week."

"I should have said before you've known each other a week. You will find-"

"Just a moment, please. We can cut all this very short, and go about our business. I've never seen your daughter, nor, to my knowledge, has she ever laid eyes on me. From what I've heard of her, she has a mind of her own. You will not be able to force her into a marriage that doesn't appeal to her, and you may be quite sure, Mr. Blithers, that you can't force me into one. I do not want you to feel that I have a single disparaging thought concerning Miss Blithers. It is possible that I could fall in love with her inside of a week, or even sooner. But I don't intend to, Mr. Blithers, any more than she intends to fall in love with me. You say that twenty millions will go to the man she marries, if he is your choice. Well, I don't give a hang, sir, if you make it fifty millions. The chap who gets it will not be me, so what's the odds? You-"

"Wait a minute, young man," said Mr. Blithers coolly. (He was never anything but cool when under fire.) "Why not wait until you have met my daughter before making a statement like that? After all, am I not the one who is taking chances? Well, I'm willing to risk my girl's happiness with you and that's saying everything when you come right down to it. She will make you happy in-"

[Illustration: "You will be her choice," said the other, without the quiver of an eye-lash ]

"I am not for sale. Mr. Blithers," said Robin abruptly. "Good morning." He turned into the wood and was sauntering away with his chin high in the air when Mr. Blithers called out to him from behind.

"I shall expect you to-night, just the same."

Robin halted, amazed by the man's assurance. He retraced his steps to the roadside.

"Will you pardon a slight feeling of curiosity on my part, Mr. Blithers, if I ask whether your daughter consents to the arrangement you propose. Does she approve of the scheme?"

Mr. Blithers was honest. "No, she doesn't," he said succinctly. "At least, not at present. I'll be honest with you. She stayed away from the ball last night simply because she did not want to meet you. That's the kind of a girl she is."

"By jove, I take off my hat to her," cried Robin. "She is a brick, after all. Take it from me, Mr. Blithers, you will not be able to hand over twenty millions without her consent. I believe that I should enjoy meeting her, now that I come to think of it. It would be a pleasure to exchange confidences with a girl of that sort."

Mr. Blithers betrayed agitation. "See here, Prince, I don't want her to know that I've said anything to you about this matter," he said, unconsciously lowering his voice as if fearing that Maud might be somewhere within hearing distance. "This is between you and me. Don't breathe a word of it to her. 'Gad, she'd-she'd skin me alive!" At the very thought of it, he wiped his forehead with unusual vigour.

Robin laughed heartily. "Rest easy, Mr. Blithers. I shall not even think of your proposition again, much less speak of it."

"Come now, Prince; wait until you've seen her. I know you'll get on famously-"

"I should like her to know that I consider her a brick, Mr. Blithers.

Is it too much to ask of you? Just tell her that I think she's a brick."

"Tell her yourself," growled Mr. Blithers, looking very black. "You will see her this evening," he added levelly.

"Shall I instruct your chauffeur to come for you up here or will you walk back to-"

"I'll walk to Red Roof," said Mr. Blithers doggedly. "I'm going to ask

Mrs. King to let you off for to-night."

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