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My Friend the Chauffeur By A. M. Williamson Characters: 31243

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:03

A woman finds out a great many things about herself when she is automobiling. Or is it automobiling that makes new qualities grow? I'm not sure; but then I'm so different in many ways from what I used to be that I hardly know myself any more.

Beechy would tell me that it's all owing to Madame Rose-Blanche of Chicago; but it isn't really. She changed me on the outside; she couldn't change my disposition-except that one is happier when one's pretty than when one's a "trump," as the English ladies say.

But I used to hate being out-of-doors; it seemed such a waste of time. And when poor Mr. Kidder was alive, I often thought that if I could be free to do exactly as I liked for a month, I'd spend it lying on a sofa among a pile of cushions, with a big box of candy, and dozens of new English society novels. Yet now that I am free to do as I like, not for one month, but for all the time, I go gadding around the world at twenty or thirty miles an hour (they feel like twice as many) in an automobile.

However, it's just as if I had walked right into a novel myself, to be one of the heroines. I've read a good many novels with young widows for heroines; in fact, I prefer them, as it's so pleasant to put yourself in the heroine's place while you read, especially if you're interested in the hero.

In my novel that I've stepped into, there are three heroes if I count Mr. Barrymore, and I suppose I may (though he's only the chauffeur, as the Prince often reminds me), for Beechy says that Sir Ralph Moray tells her he comes from a very fine family.

At first I didn't know but Sir Ralph would be the real hero, for by an odd coincidence he is twenty-nine, which is my age-if it's true, as Madame says, that a woman has a right to count herself no older than she looks. Besides, I'm very partial to the English; and though I was a little disappointed, after seeing that advertisement of his, to learn that the "titled Englishman" owning a motor-car, was no higher than a baronet, I thought he might do. But somehow, though kind and attentive, he has never shown the same warm interest that Prince Dalmar-Kalm takes in me, and then it is so romantic that I should be buying an estate with one of the titles belonging to the Prince's family. I can't help feeling now that the Prince, and no one but the Prince, is meant for the hero of this story of which I am the heroine. After all, what title sounds so well for a woman as "Princess"? It might be royalty, and I'm sure it would be admired in Denver.

The change in me may be partly owing to the excitement of realizing that I'm in a grander sphere than any I have ever entered before, or dared hope to enter, and that this may be but a kind of ante-chamber to something still grander. Of course I might have gone on this trip in the Prince's automobile, if he had known in time that I had a fancy to try motoring, but perhaps it's better as it is. I like being independent, and it's just as well to have several men in the party, so that no one among them can think he's going to have everything his own way.

Who, that knew me a few years-or even a few months-ago, would have believed I could be perfectly happy sitting all day in a cramped position in an automobile, covered with dust or wet with sudden showers; tired, hungry, putting up with all sorts of discomforts by the way, and half the time frightened out of my wits by appalling precipices or terrific wild beasts? But happy I am, happier than I've ever been, though I keep asking myself, or Maida, or Beechy, "Why is it so nice?"

Maida says she doesn't know why, she only knows it is, and much more than nice. "The Quintessence of Joy-of-Life," that is what she has named the sensation; and as Maida uses it, it is sure to be all right, though I must admit that to me it sounds almost improper.

Then there is another thing which strikes me as queer about myself and the two girls since we've been travelling in an automobile. We used to be glad when a train journey was over, and thankful to arrive at almost any place, whether it was beautiful or not, but now we're always in a perfect fever to go on-on-on. We shoot into some marvellous old town, that we would once have thought worth coming hundreds of miles just to see; and instead of wanting to get out of the motor-car and wander about, visiting all the churches or museums or picture-galleries, we think what a pity to spoil the record of so many miles in so many hours. If we stop long of course it brings down the average, and that seems nothing less than a calamity, though why on earth we should care so much, or care at all (considering we have our whole future before us) is a mystery. Even Maida, who is so fond of history, and countries that have made history in dim old ages, feels this. She thinks there is a motoring microbe that gets into your blood, just as other microbes do, so that it's a disease, only instead of being disagreeable it's almost dangerously pleasant. You know you ought to pause and do justice to a place, says Maida, but the motoring microbe wriggles and writhes against the decision of your reason, and you have to use violent measures before you can dull it into a state of coma for a while.

Mr. Barrymore tries to explain this phenomenon by arguing that, of all modern means of getting about the world, motoring is in itself the most enjoyable. The mere journey is as good a part of your tour as any, if not better; and that's the reason why, according to him, you never have the same longing to "get there" or "stay there" (wherever "there" may be) that you have when you travel by train, or boat or carriage. It is the thrill of flying through the air at such a rate that intoxicates you and makes you feel you are conquering the world as you go. Perhaps he's right. But after all, reasons don't signify much. The principal thing is that you do feel so, and it is lovely.

I was so tired after that long day from Cuneo to Milan that I wouldn't get up to go and look at the cathedral. I'd seen it by moonlight, and it couldn't be better by day, so I just lay in bed, and made a comfortable toilet afterwards without hurrying, which was a nice change, and gave me time to use my electric face-roller.

When the girls came back, they were raving about magnificent statues, aisles, columns, windows, vistas, gargoyles, and saints' bodies in gorgeous shrines of silver. Beechy had apparently forgotten that she'd been vexed with me over night, and I was relieved, for she will not agree with me about the Prince, and I don't know what I should do if she really did carry out any of her threats. If she should put on the long frock she had before Mr. Kidder died (which she says she's got with her, locked up in her portmanteau), and should fix her hair on top of her head, that would be just about the end of my fun, once and for all. But she is such a dear girl at heart, in spite of the peculiarities which she has inherited from poor Simon, I can't think (if I manage her pretty well) that she would do anything to spoil my first real good time and hurt my feelings.

We had an early lunch, and started about one with such a crowd outside the hotel to see us go away, that we made up our minds there must be precious few automobiles in Milan, big and busy city as it is.

The whole party was so taken up with the Cathedral, that for a while they could talk of nothing but Gian Galeazzo Visconti (who seemed to have spent his life either in murdering his relations or founding churches), or marble from the valley of Tosa, or German architects who had made the building differ from any other in Italy, or the impulse Napoleon had given to work on the fa?ade, or the view from the roof all the way to Como with the Apennines and lots of other mountains whose names I'd never heard; but presently as we got out into the suburbs the road began to be so awful that no one could talk rationally on any subject.

We three Americans weren't quite so disgusted as Sir Ralph and Mr. Barrymore seemed to be, for we are used to roads being pretty bad outside large cities; but the gentlemen were very cross, and exclaimed that it was a disgrace to Milan. Our poor automobile had to go bumping and grinding along through heaps of sharp stones, more like the dry bed of a mountain torrent than a road; and my nerves were on edge when Mr. Barrymore told us not to be frightened if we heard an explosion like a shot, because it would only be one of the tyres bursting. No pretty little ladylike automobile, said he, could possibly hope to come through without breaking her bones; only fine, manly motor-cars, with noble masculine tyres, could wisely attempt the feat; but ours would be all right, even if a tyre did go, for the damage could be repaired inside half an hour.

Still, the thought of the possible explosion that might go off right under my ears at any instant kept me in a state of suspense for a long distance-about thirty kilometres, Mr. Barrymore said; and then the way improved so much that I settled down again. Even the scenery had been ugly up to that time, as if to match the road, but it began to change for the better at precisely the same moment.

The only interesting things we had seen so far were peasants playing bowls in the villages through which we passed (for it was a fête day) and the curious carts with wooden frames for awnings arched over them, which gave an effect as if the passengers were crowding inside the white ribs of some skeleton monster. Such pretty women and children were in the carts, too; the women like beautiful, dark madonnas with their soft eyes looking out from under graceful head-draperies of black cashmere, or blue or yellow silk, glorious in colour as the sun touched it.

They didn't seem to mind the bumping over the stones, though the carts were springless, but then, they had no hats lolloping over to one side, or stays to pinch in their waists and make them uncomfortable as I had, though-as Beechy says-my daytime motoring waist is inches bigger round than my evening waist.

I was glad when I could put my hat straight again, once for all, and have time to enjoy the scenery through which, as I told myself, the Prince must lately have passed on his car, perhaps thinking of me, as he had promised.

Behind us was the great plain in which Milan lies, and before us soared into the air a blue chain of mountains, looking mysterious and inaccessible in the far distance, though we were sweeping on towards them, charging down hill after hill into a more exquisite landscape than I could have imagined, enchantingly Italian, with dark old chateaux crowning eminences above fertile fields; pretty brown villages on hillsides clustering round graceful campaniles (a word I've practised lately with several other difficult ones); green-black cypresses (which Maida says seem like sharp notes in music); and wonderful, flat-topped trees that Mr. Barrymore calls umbrella pines.

We were now in a region known as the Brianza, which is, it appears, a summer resort for the Milanese, who come to escape the hot weather of the plains, and find the breezes that blow up from the lakes-breezes so celebrated for their health-giving qualities that nobody who lives in the Brianza can die under ninety. There were a great many inviting looking, quaint farmhouses, and big cottages scattered about, where the people from Milan are taken as lodgers.

I had forgotten my nervousness about the tyres, when suddenly a queer thing happened. There was a wild flapping and beating as if a big bird had got caught in the engine, while something strange and horrifying kept leaping up and down with every revolution of the wheels, like a huge black snake racing along with us and trying for a chance to pounce. It was so like a weird and horrid dream that I shrieked; but in a few seconds Mr. Barrymore had stopped the car. "We are in luck," said he.

"Why?" I asked. "Have we killed the Serpent-thing-whatever it is?"

Then he laughed. "The Serpent-thing is the outer covering of the tyre on one of our driving wheels," he explained. "And we're in luck because, after that ghastly road it isn't the tyre itself. This is nothing; I'll tear it off, and the good old tyre's so sound that we can go on with its skin off, until Bellagio, when I'll put on a new one before we start again. It has cracked the mud guard in its gyrations, though fortunately not enough to make it unsafe for the luggage."

In about three minutes we were teuf-teufing on once more; but we hadn't been going for ten minutes when, half-way up a hill, the motor gave a weary sigh, and moved languidly, as if it were very tired and discouraged, yet trying its best to obey. We were on the outskirts of a village called Erba, and the automobile crawled on until it saw a little inn, with a lot of peasants sitting in the cool shade of an arbour, drinking wine; there it stopped, which was wonderfully intelligent of it.

"The poor animal wants water after its hard work," said Mr. Barrymore; so he got down and asked a boy to bring some, ordering at the same time a siphon of fizzy lemonade for everybody. While we were sipping the cold, sweet stuff, Mr. Barrymore burst out laughing, and we all looked up to see what was the matter. There was that silly boy bringing a pint of water, in a carafe, to pour into the tank of the motor; and he seemed quite surprised and disgusted when he was told to go back and fetch about twenty litres more.

The automobile had thoughtfully slowed down in the one bit of shade there was; still it was tremendously hot, and we realized that it was only the motion of the car which had kept us from finding it out before. We should have been miserable if we hadn't changed our tailor motoring-costumes for the holland dresses and coats which we'd bought ready-made at the last moment, in Monte Carlo. In spite of them, however, we were glad when the water was in, and the motor-car's heart began to beat again. Then down went ours, for after a dozen throbs the comforting sound grew faint and presently stopped. "There's no proper explosion," Mr. Barrymore announced in a puzzled way. "I'm afraid the petrol I bought in Milan wasn't very good; the Italian never is as good as the French, though it's more expensive. But perhaps it's only 'tired.' I'll empty it out and put in some fresh."

He did, but the poor automobile was not revived by the change; and Mr. Barrymore began to peer about in the inner workings of the thing to see what had gone wrong. He examined the bougie, whatever that was, and cleaned the aspiration valve with petrol, all of which took time; and what with the heat, and the noise the peasants in the inn-garden made with their boules, I began to get the feeling that Beechy calls "caterpillars in the spine." Just when they were crawling up and down my marrow, however, Mr. Barrymore cried out, "Eureka! it's the pump."

This exclamation didn't convey much to me, but it was encouraging that he seemed pleased; and when he had adjusted the friction roller against a fly-wheel, or something queer and ticklish of that sort, we flew away from Erba at a splendid pace, as if the car had decided to let bygones be bygones.

We ran beautifully along a smooth and level road that was trying to make up for its evil past, by the side of a small but pretty lake, and it seemed as if our troubles were over at last. But the astonishment on the faces of the peasants who stared from doorways in a couple of very picturesque villages through which we drove, was ominous. Evidently they had scarcely

ever seen a motor-car, for they glared at us as if we were antediluvian animals. Running out of the second village, Asso, we found ourselves climbing a road which was not only as steep as the side of a house, but so narrow that, if we had met anything, it couldn't possibly have passed us. The way was wild and eerie; we could not tell what might come beyond each corner, and we could see nothing but the roughly climbing road, with its embankments, except as we looked back and down into vast spaces of strange beauty, like fleeting scenes in dreams.

"I'm sure we must have come wrong. This can't be the way that the Prince meant," I said. "It's more like a track for goats than automobiles."

"We have come right according to directions," answered Mr. Barrymore, "but I must say, I rather wonder at the directions. According to Dalmar-Kalm's account, the road was fairly good. I can hardly think he risked this route for his own car."

"Is there another he could have taken?" inquired Sir Ralph.

"Yes. He could have driven along the lake as far as Varenna, and then sent his car across to Bellagio on one of the steamers."

"My prophetic soul, which I inherit from a long line of Scotch ancestors, tells me that's what he did," said Sir Ralph. Then he added in a lower voice, "It would be like him." But I heard, and wondered if, after all, he were a little jealous of the Prince?

"Whether he did or not, I'm glad we didn't," remarked Beechy. "This looks like being an adventure; and none of us are old enough to have outgrown our love of adventure, are we, Mamma?"

Of course, I had to say "no," though I'd been on the point of asking whether it wouldn't be possible for us to go back. We had just come into a ragged hamlet, and there was literally no more than room for us to scrape through between the poor stone houses which leaned over us on either side the steep, roughly cobbled road. Six inches less, and we would have been in danger of slicing off our mud-guards, upon which lay a lot of our luggage as if on shelves. My heart was in my mouth, and I said so to Beechy; but she only laughed, and replied pertly-even for her-that she hoped it was a good fit, or should she pat me on the back?

Instead of smoothing out to a level again, as I hoped against hope that it would, the road grew steeper with each quarter-mile, so steep that it seemed as if the car must take to running down hill backwards. But always it went forging steadily up on the strongest speed with a dependable, bumbling noise, never once faltering, though the Col di Tenda wasn't as steep a gradient as this. Certainly, after one's faith in the car has stopped wobbling, there was a kind of wild pleasure in the experience, especially in looking over one's shoulder at the valleys lying far below us, cut deep into the green heart of the mountain, as if they had been hollowed out of an emerald. Suddenly the road gave a twist, and instead of prancing in the air, lay down at the feet of a grim, grey town, as a dog lies down at the feet of his master.

Mr. Barrymore stopped to see if the motor had got hot or burst a blood-vessel or anything; but all was well, and when we had slipped on our thick coats, those who had got out to walk the steepest hills-Sir Ralph and Beechy-climbed in again. We had been a long time creeping up, longer than Mr. Barrymore had calculated, and the chill of evening was in the air. Besides, we were in the midst of the mountains now, and it was hard to realize that we had ever felt too hot. As we drove along the edge of ridge, a keen wind caught us. I shivered and felt as if there were no more thickness to me than a paper doll; but I shouldn't have dared to tell Beechy that, or she would have laughed, for I haven't got my weight down yet to less than a hundred and fifty pounds. There was a gnawing just under my new gold belt-buckle with the cat's-eyes on it, as if the cats had claws as well as eyes, and I remembered that it was ages since lunch. Maida and Beechy never appear to be hungry when they motor, though, so I wouldn't complain, for fear it might seem old and frumpy to think of such material things. But five minutes later being cold or hungry mattered as little as it would in a shipwreck.

The first thing that happened was a view-a view so unexpected and so superb that I gaped at it with my mouth open. So far away, so far below, that it was as if we looked down from a balloon sailing among the clouds, two lakes were set like sapphires in a double ring of mountains, whose greens and blues and purples were dimmed by a falling veil of twilight. But through the veil, white villas gleamed on the dark hillsides, like pearls that had fallen down the mountain-side, scattering as they fell; and above, in the great pale dome of the sky, a faint silver light pulsed and quivered, like the water-lights that one sees on the wall of a room near the river. It was a search-light sent out by the moon, which was en panne somewhere on its way up the horizon, Maida said; and it was she who put some of those other thoughts into my mind; but my head didn't hold any of them long at that time, because of the next thing that happened.

It was not a view; it was a plunge that we took down into the view.

We had come up one side of a house to get to this place on the roof, and now we began to slither down the other side, which was worse, a hundred times worse.

Who was it who said, "A horse, my kingdom for a horse?" I think it must have been Richard the Third in Shakspere's play, which I went to see once in Denver, at a matinée, and Mr. Kidder scolded me afterwards for wasting my time and his money. Well, I never sympathized with any one so much in life as I sympathized with that poor man (I mean Richard, not Mr. Kidder) at this moment. I knew just how he must have felt, though of course the circumstances were somewhat different, automobiles not having been invented in those days, and he being on the stage, with a battle going on behind the scenes, where it was cheaper to produce, I suppose.

But I would have given my money, and even my title, for a kind, gentle horse (the older the better) instead of a motor-car. A horse, at his worst, doesn't want to kill himself, while an automobile doesn't care what happens to it; and in these dreadful moments the only possible comfort would have been in sitting behind a thing with an instinct of self-preservation.

As it was, I sat with every muscle tense and a feeling as if my hair was standing up so straight on my head that every hairpin must fall out. But what was a hairpin more or less, or even a "transformation" a little awry, to a woman about to become a corpse? I held my breath, as if to let it go meant to lose it forever, while that automobile walked down the mountain exactly as a fly walks down a long expanse of wall-paper, making a short turn for every flower in the pattern.

There was a flower every other second in our pattern, which meant a sharp turn for the fly; and I could have slapped Mr. Barrymore for talking on, as if we weren't in peril enough to be prayed for in church, about the Lake of Como and the Lake of Lecco, and Bellagio (where we were going) on the promontory. Where we were going, indeed! Our only hope, clearly, was in heaven; though I should have liked just to see my new estate in Dalmatia first.

I had to let my breath go at last, and while snatching another, I managed to gasp that I would get out and walk. But that imp of a Beechy (who must, I sometimes think, be a changeling) hugged my arm and said that I wasn't to be "an old woman, like the Prince"; that this experience was too blissful to be spoiled by anybody's nerves, and no one was going to be hurt, not even the little dog from Airole.

"How do you know?" I panted.

"Oh, because I do. And besides, I put my faith in our Chauffeulier."

"You had better put your trust in Providence," I said severely.

"It hasn't come to that yet," was her flippant reply; and I shouldn't have been surprised if white bears had come out to devour her, for those mountain fastnesses looked capable of bears or worse.

"Don't forget this is the road the Prince recommended," Beechy went on. "It would be too unflattering to our vanity to think he could have wished to hurl us to our death, so it must be all right."

"He had forgotten what it was like," I said. But the idea did enter into my mind that perhaps he had thought if our car should break down we might be induced to continue our journey in his. And the suggestion of so strong a desire on his part to monopolize a certain member of our party wasn't wholly unpleasant. It gave me enough warmth round the heart to support life during the rest of the experience which Beechy considered so "blissful."

I will say for Mr. Barrymore that he drove carefully, keeping the brakes on all the time, and slowing down for one curve after another, so short and so sharp, that if our automobile had been much longer in the body the turn couldn't have been managed.

We had trusted to Mr. Barrymore's judgment about where we were to stop at Bellagio, for even Sir Ralph had never done more than pass through the place; and he had telegraphed for rooms at a hotel on a high promontory above the lake, once the chateau of a famous old Italian family. It is still called the villa Serbelloni, and Mr. Barrymore had described the view and the garden as being so exquisite, that he had excited our curiosity and interest. I always think, too, there is something fascinating, if you aren't very grand yourself (or haven't been till lately), about living in the same rooms where grand people have lived. You can say to yourself, "Here the Duchess ate her Dinner, here she danced, here she wrote her letters. In this garden she walked; her eyes looked upon this view," and so I was particularly attracted towards the Villa Serbelloni, even though Prince Dalmar-Kalm had suggested several reasons for our going to one of the hotels on the level of the lake. Of course I'd not confided these reflections either to Maida or Beechy, for even Maida is unsympathetic about some things, and thinks, or says that she thinks, it is horridly snobbish to care about titles. She told Beechy, in an argument they were having together, that she would just as soon as not snub an English duke or marquise, just to show that there were some American girls who didn't come abroad to spend their money on buying a husband from the British aristocracy. She hasn't had a chance to prove her strength of mind in this way yet, for so far we have met only an English baronet; though I must admit that she's much nicer to Mr. Barrymore, who is nobody at all, than she is either to Sir Ralph Moray or the Prince.

When we seemed to be dangling midway between heaven and earth, and the sapphires that had been the lakes had turned into burnished silver mirrors, Mr. Barrymore drew our attention to a high point of land running out into the water, its shape sharply cut like a silhouette in black against the silver. "That is where we shall be in about half an hour more," said he, "for all those twinkling yellow stars mean the Villa Serbelloni."

I thought it much more probable that we would be at the bottom of Lake Como, having been previously dashed into pieces so small that no expert could sort them. But just as the moon had painted a line of glittering gold along the irregular edges of the purple mountains we did actually arrive on level ground close to the border of the lake. Then we had to mount again to the Villa Serbelloni, for there was no more direct way to it, connecting with the road by which we had come, and after we had wound up the side of the promontory for a little while we began to drink in a fragrance as divine as if we really had been killed and had gone straight to heaven.

It was quite a different fragrance from any I had ever known before in any garden; not so richly heavy as on the Riviera, though penetrating; as delicate, Maida said, as a Beethoven symphony, and as individual. I believe if I were to go blind, and somebody should lead me into the garden of the Villa Serbelloni without telling me where I was, I should know by that wonderful perfume. I can't imagine its being the same anywhere else.

At the sound of our motor several people came out to the door of the long, white, crescent-shaped building, and among them, to my great pleasure, was the Prince.

"How late you are!" he exclaimed, coming to help me out before Sir Ralph, or a very handsome young man who was the manager of the hotel, had time to do it. "I've been expecting you for the last two hours. Do you know that it's nearly nine o'clock? I began to be afraid something had happened."

"What a pity you didn't think of that in Milan!" snapped Beechy. "Did you get Mamma to make a will in your favour last night?"

"My dear young lady, what do you mean?" implored the poor Prince.

"I guess you'd know that without asking, if you'd come the way we have, instead of taking boats and things all over the place," giggled the impossible child, and then complained out aloud that I was pinching her.

Naturally, the Prince was too dignified to bandy words with a naughty little girl, so he didn't pursue the subject further, but began inquiring particulars of our adventures as we went into the house together.

"Do you know why I was especially anxious to arrive ahead of you?" he asked me, in a low voice.

"I think I remember your explaining last night," said I.

"Ah, but I didn't give my most important reasons. I kept them for your ears alone; and I hope you won't be displeased. Do you remember telling me something about to-morrow?"

I thought for a moment. "Do you mean that it will be my birthday?" I asked.

"I mean nothing else. Did you imagine that I would forget?"

To tell the truth, I hoped he had, for I'd only mentioned it on an impulse, to regret the words as soon as they were out. A woman who is-well, I'll say over twenty-eight-had, perhaps, better let "sleeping dogs lie" when it comes to talking about birthdays, especially if she has a daughter who doesn't sleep, and never lies when she's wanted to. However, out the news had popped about the 30th of April being my birthday, and the Prince would hardly believe that I was as much as twenty-nine, though, of course, there is Beechy, and I couldn't well have married younger than fifteen. I murmured something now about a birthday being of no consequence (I wish it weren't), but the Prince said that mine was of a great deal to him, and he had made exertions to arrive early and arrange a little surprise for me.

"I will say no more," he went on. "You will know the rest to-morrow; but the best, not until evening." I could think of nothing during dinner except what he had said, though it was so late, and I'd been so hungry. And afterwards, standing on the balcony outside my bedroom window looking down on a scene of fairy-like beauty, the wonderful white moonlight and thoughts of the Prince seemed to mingle together in my head, like some intoxicating draught. "Countess Dalmar, Princess Dalmar-Kalm," I kept saying over to myself, until the words wove themselves into a song in my brain, with the scent of the flowers for accompaniment.

The whole house seems to have absorbed the perfumes of the garden, as if they had soaked into the wood. The corridors, the bedrooms, the wardrobes, even the chests of drawers, have the same delicate fragrance. It scented my dreams and told me where we were when I waked in the morning, confused with sleep.

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