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Hell's Hatches By Lewis R. Freeman Characters: 31779

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02

I have often tried to figure just what effect on the succeeding train of events my earlier arrival in Townsville might have had. I have never come to any very definite conclusions in that connection. There were two or three things that were pretty well bound to happen, and if they hadn't come about one way, there is little doubt that they would have done so in another. Had I been there when the Cora arrived, it is probable that I would have learned definitely at once (instead of somewhat tardily) that Bell had not died of the plague. Certainly, on learning that fact, my impulse would have been to try to force Allen to an immediate showdown-to insist on his proving that the dope he had put in the American's whisky at Kai had not been the direct cause of the latter's death. Such a showdown would have been impossible to bring about at the time, however: for one reason, because Allen had been put into quarantine immediately, and, for another, because, completely played out by thirty-six hours at the wheel without relief, he had sunk into a sleep from which he had not rallied for over two days. Similar considerations would have prevented my seeing Rona. Besides being in quarantine she was in a state of raving delirium, which would have made it impossible for her to convey coherent information. Even Ranga, unaffected in mind and body though he was, I would hardly have been permitted to talk with when he landed, any more than I was two days later. No, everything considered, I fail to see where my earlier arrival would have made much difference in what happened. It must have been slated anyhow, I think-just bound to come off however the incidentals shaped.

Still askance at what he rated as my temerity in making an open landing in Townsville, Captain Tancred had somewhat reluctantly granted my request for a boat to take me ashore as soon as the quarantine officials were through with the ship. I couldn't, of course, go off in the quarantine launch, but one of the doctors lingered a few minutes to tell me what he knew of the Cora. Although her captain had died twenty-four hours before the schooner anchored, his remains had not been buried at sea. This, it appeared, had been largely due to the protests of some sort of a Kanaka girl the Skipper had had with him. According to the Bo'sun's statement (fine upstanding fellow that looked like some kind of a Java man), she had gone plumb off her chump. Tried to knife the Mate first, and then plumped down by the Skipper's remains and threatened to stick the first man to touch it. The Mate, endeavouring to humour her, had not insisted on the burial-a reprehensible weakness on his part.... Common prudence demanded that the dead on a plague ship should be scuppered as soon as the breath was out of their bodies. That is, with a white man; with a nigger it did no harm to anticipate that event by an hour or so-as long as you were sure the fellow was going to whiff out anyway.

The funny part of it was, though (the Doctor went on), that the Skipper had not died of the plague at all. They had not, it was true, made any post-mortem in the rush of things; but it was certain, nevertheless, that his body had not displayed even the preliminary evidences of infection-no swelling of the glands of the groin or under the arms. Magnificent physical specimen the chap was, but plainly a man who had punished an ocean of booze in his day. And yet-confound it all!-there was no evidence that the fellow had drunk himself to death, either. Now if it had been the Mate-he was exuding alcohol from every pore-absolutely reeking with it. Almost made a man drunk to breathe the air down to leeward of him. Seemed to have been on one glorious spree all the way from-somewhere up Solomon-way, he thought it was. Harried the niggers like a fiend, according to the Bo'sun. Clubbed three or four of them to death for not stepping lively enough to his orders. Lucky thing the Skipper had scuppered all but one of the guns the first day out. But not all the booze he had soaked up had effected the nerve of the Mate. Kept his head and his legs to the last, finishing up with a straight twenty-four-hour trick at the wheel. Said none of the crew knew the Barrier Reef as well as he did. Had one nigger holding a parasol over him, another playing a concertina, another waiting handy with a bottle of whisky, and a fourth standing by to block any rushes from the Kanaka girl with her knife. Funny thing it never occurred to him to have her disarmed and tied up, or shut up. Grabbed the bottle of whisky and started to brain the Bo'sun with it every time the latter tried to push in and relieve him at the wheel.

A chap of terrible determination and iron nerves, that Mate was, observed the Doctor. But no wonder.... Think who he was! Allen! The Honourable Hartley Allen! The great Allen! Son of old Sir Jim Allen! Melbourne Cup winner! Best horseman in all Australia! Crooked as they make 'em-but how he could ride! Sent off to the Islands four or five years back for raising some sort of hell. His old Ticket-of-Leave had given him away when they came to strip him for a bath. No possible mistake about it. One of the doctors at the Quarantine Station had set a broken collar-bone for him once after he had fallen in a steeplechase at Coolgardie. Found the marks of the old compound fracture still humping up on the clavicle-the left one....

It was not without difficulty that I brought the excited young medico round to speaking of Bell again. The astounding fact that he himself, with his own hands, had actually helped to put the great and only Hartley Allen to bed, was proving almost too much for him. It was certainly not less than three separate times that he assured me that it was his own silk pajamas that were encasing the limbs of the resurrected hero. He switched subjects reluctantly, rising to go to his waiting launch.

"Nothing in the world the matter with the big fellow-not even too much drink," he said as he began shuffling his health sheets together. "He must have passed away from the sheer mental strain of the stunt he had tackled. Intense nervous strain-that was the one thing written all over the man. Face was starting to bloat a bit from the heat by the time I saw it first; but, even so, it still showed the lines of the most terrible mental suffering. Seemed to have gone out fighting hard to pull himself together-shoulders hunched up, finger-nails clenched deep into palms, lower lip bitten clean through."

"May not those-those things you mention have been caused by physical rather than mental agony?" I asked, speaking very slowly to hide the agitation aroused by this significant intelligence. "Isn't that about the way a man would repress his feelings if he was racked with-with stomach cramps-if he had eaten something that disagreed with him?"

"Possibly so," admitted the Doctor, with the air of a man weighing an idea that had not occurred to him before; "but somehow that wasn't the suggestion they carried to me-nor to any of us. Fact is, though, we didn't give the matter very much attention. That chap was dead-finished,-while the other white man and the girl-to say nothing of forty or fifty niggers-were alive. Then, with the excitement of finding we had the great Hartley Allen on our hands-and, on top of that, having the girl run amuck and give us the slip complete,-there was enough else to think about. The only-"

"The girl gave you the slip?" I interrupted. "How was that? You didn't mention it before."

"Bolted and drowned herself in the creek," he replied; "or at least there's every reason to believe she drowned herself, though they haven't found her body yet. She wasn't going to leave the Skipper, even when we started to take his body away for burial.... And of course we couldn't allow her to leave the Station until her period of quarantine was over. Had to take her away from the body by main force. She fought the whole lot of us with tooth and nail and a wicked little curly-bladed dagger. Stood us all off, too, and looked like getting ready to use the knife on herself when the big Malay (who chanced to be there, but had taken no part in the shindy up to that moment) stepped in, caught her wrist and took the nasty little toy away from her.

"The big yellow man seemed to have rather a quieting effect on the girl. Blind mad as she was, she didn't try to stick him. It seemed to steady her a good deal when he talked to her in her own lingo. She was panting like a cat coming out of a fit when we left her, but was quite over her raving-wasn't even sobbing aloud. She was coming out of her hysteria-getting rational again. Her eyes, though still wild and almost throwing off sparks of anger, were quite free of the crazy look. It looked like our trouble with her was about over, but, to be on the safe side, we locked her up in one of the 'mad' rooms. That was the last anyone has seen of her alive-or any other way, for that matter.

"You wouldn't have believed the thing possible!" he ejaculated feelingly, turning back from the door and slapping the table resoundingly with his portfolio. "That room was made to confine dangerous lunatics in, and it had fulfilled its purpose, too-up to night before last. To make it perfectly secure, it had been constructed without windows-nothing but a two-by-two hole up against the twelve-foot-high ceiling admitted light and air. There were no beds or chairs to be broken up when the occupant had tantrums.... Just sleeping mats, a sheet, a blanket and a mosquito net. No more. Even the wash basin was brought in and taken out by the attendant.

"In locking the girl in, no precautions were omitted except that of strapping her in a strait-jacket, and we had never resorted to that save in violent cases. The window-or rather air-hole-was so high and so small that it had never been considered worth while to put bars on it. But as it was the only conceivable way she could have got out (the attendant is absolutely trustworthy, and the key was not in his hands more than a minute or two anyway), we would have been forced to conclude that the girl had reached it with wings-had not we found the lower four or five feet of wall marked with the prints of the toes and balls of the bare feet which had apparently been violently projected against it. That led us to get a ladder and light and examine about the window more closely. For a foot or more below it the wall was splashed with blood and slightly scratched, where lacerated fingers had clawed at the narrow ledge.

"It did not take us long to figure that, taking the whole length of the room to get going in, the girl had flung herself up the wall something in the way that a terrier will run six or eight feet up the side of a house for a ball or handkerchief fastened there. That's the only way we could account for the toe-prints on the wall, though it is quite possible that, after failing to pull off the trick in that fashion-it's a stunt that looks dead hopeless for anything but a monkey,-she managed it with a straight spring, high enough to get her fingers over the ledge. Even from there, not one woman in a million could pull herself up. But we had already remarked on the extreme wiriness of the girl (a regular human ape she was for agility), and so found it a bit easier to accept the evidence of our eyes. In some way or another she had managed it.

"The air-hole opened out under the eaves of the sheet-iron roof," the Doctor went on, forgetting his waiting launch in the interest of the story, and seating himself again at the table. "It must have taken some jolly snaky wriggling to crawl through the hole, out over the eaves and on top of the roof; but she did it, else she could never have jumped across the big banyan, where we found some twigs broken at the point she hit, and some wisps of silk floss. The other side of that banyan-a hundred feet from the wall of the hospital-spreads until it comes to about fifteen feet from the station wall. The wall is ten feet high, has broken glass on the top of it, with three or four strands of barbed wire above that.

"Swinging to the ground by a pendent air-root on the side she had landed in, the girl crossed under the tree-the marks of her bare feet showing plainly in the soft earth-and used a similar ladder with which to mount on the other side. To be sure of clearing the barbed wire, she had climbed to a firm perch fully twenty-five feet from the ground, and made her final jump from there. Luckily for her, the cane field on the other side of the wall had been flooded but a day or two before-though I don't doubt she would have jumped just the same if it had been to a cobblestone pavement.

"We found the deep prints of her feet, knees and hands where she had sprawled on striking. Her tracks down to the edge of a sprouting row of seed-cane, and the marks where she had crawled up out of a deep irrigating ditch to the road, were all we had to indicate the direction she had taken. As she had seemed plumb daft about the dead Skipper, we figured that she had probably broken out with the idea of going to his grave, and perhaps making an end of herself there. If that was it, she failed. There were no signs whatever of her having been near the fresh mound we had tucked the big fellow away under. It was some distance away from the Station, and, in the night, it isn't likely she would have met anyone to ask the way of. The only grave she found was her own, and not a very restful one at that, I'm afraid.

"We had noticed that she seemed to set great store by a big yellow shawl she wore-rather a fine old piece of Oriental work it looked, with a dragon or some other kind of wild animal embroidered on it. Well, when we found that lying on the bank of Ross Creek, just a bit inland of the town, we felt so sure that it marked the jumping-off place for her in more ways than one. For that reason, what search has been pressed since has been in the form of shooting alligators, and seeing if one of them appears to have enjoyed anything extra-special in the way of tucker lately."

An impatient toot from his launch carried the Doctor to the door again, where he paused long enough to assure me for the third or fourth time that it would be most unlikely that permission would be granted me to see the Mate or the Boatswain of the Cora until their spell of quarantine was over. If I was really anxious about it, he would gladly put in a word for me with the Chief. I would have to show good reason for my request, of course. Perhaps, if it chanced that I was able to shed any light on how the schooner came to get into such a mess-I cut him short by saying that I might call at the Quarantine Station when I came ashore a little later. What I knew about the sailing of the Cora from Kai happened to be the one thing I didn't care to confide to anyone-just yet. Asking the Mate to order my boat to stand by for me a few minutes longer, I went to my cabin to be alone while I turned the fresh developments over in my mind.

I had been prepared to await the coming of the Cora indefinitely. In fact, what I expected above anything else was that the final news would be a report that she had been found piled up on any one of a thousand reefs that spread their coral claws all the way from the Louisiades to the Great Barrier. And in case she did get through, I was quite prepared to learn that both of the white men and the girl had succumbed to the plague. But to be told that, after the schooner had avoided disaster, and all three of them the plague, that the two upon whom my interest and affection had centred were gone-dead,-was just a bit staggering. It was now up to me to determine upon a definite course of action, and, since it was now out of the question attempting to follow my first impulse of going to Allen at once and forcing

a showdown, I wanted time to think.

What the Doctor had told me of the way Bell appeared to have died had instantly reawakened my suspicions of Allen. Had the kor-klee, working with a recurrent effect, finally proved fatal? Or had Allen, perhaps, administered a second and stronger dose? He would have had a hundred opportunities to do that had he desired to. Rona's attacks on the Mate, indicating the deadliest hatred, seemed to prove that her first suspicions of him had not weakened during the voyage-more likely, indeed, had hardened to a certainty. The belief I had been entertaining that Allen had made up his mind to play the game out on the square was not very deeply grounded.

My sense of personal loss in the passing of Bell and Rona was not a thing I cared to let myself dwell upon for the moment. There was no question that the news of Rona's death had shocked me even more than that of Bell's. Not that there was anything more between us than I have already told. I had never let myself think of her in terms of physical possession, though the sheer animal attraction of the girl was beyond anything I had ever experienced in a woman. But her appeal to the artistic side of me had been stronger even than that. Just as the thrill I felt at the first sight of her bathing in the pink-lipped bowl of the reef had made the very world itself seem more wonderful and beautiful, so now the depression that filled me on realizing that I was never again to have sight of her made the world seem emptier and drearier.

Another thing: there was no denying that Bell, splendid fellow that he was, had shot his bolt. A real come-back with him was too much to expect. The most that could have been hoped for was that he would "finish in style," and that I was assured he had done, no matter in what agony of soul and body his brave spirit had taken flight. But Rona's bolt was still unsped. The girl had hardly begun to finger Life's bowstring. It was almost as hard to think of the flaming, soaring spirit of her as quenched, as it was to believe that the matchless perfection, the supple gracefulness of her body-shooting alligators to see if any of them had been enjoying anything extra-special in tucker lately! I could not pursue that line of thought any further. I agreed with the Doctor that the fact that the girl had parted with her beloved shawl indicated that she had reached a jumping-off place-a point where she had no further use for it. I could not picture her-living-without its amber-bright flame streaming about her limbs. The wonder was that she had not kept it for a shroud. As I came out upon the deck to go to my boat, the intermittent crack of rifle shots along the shore told me that the "search" had not been abandoned.

Beyond deciding to go ashore and see if anything further could be learned, I had made no plans. It seemed that about the best I could do would be to wait in Townsville until Allen and Ranga were out of quarantine, and then let things shape as they would; but always assuming that, in case the former could not satisfy me he was innocent of Bell's death, I should do what I could to settle the reckoning with him. That would be my atonement-to Bell and to myself-for my sorry failure to "measure up" the day the Cora Andrews came to Kai Lagoon.

Captain Tancred, who had never quite settled it in his own mind how a man who openly admitted he had been living in the Kai colony for months would not have to be smuggled ashore on the quiet if he expected to avoid arrest in Australia, met me at the gangway.

"Best to leave the luggage aboard, lad," he began genially; "then that'll be ain less thing ye'll hae to bother wi' if ye're haen' to cut an' run for it. If ye're not back ag'in by the time I'm gettin' awa', than I'll be sendin' it in for ye on the Company's launch. But ye'd best be hangin' on wi' me a bittie, an' tak' me to see them pictur's ye've been tellin' me aboot in Sydney toon."

My pictures! The Exhibition had slipped my mind completely, driven out by the news of the Cora and the anxieties that had followed in its train. I had told Captain Tancred something of my coming show, but had hardly convinced him. He was far too considerate to say outright that he didn't believe me, but my Kai origin could not be ignored. If I was to have an exhibition of paintings in Sydney, then why was I stopping off in Townsville? On that point-since I didn't want to go into the Cora affair with anyone until I knew how things were going to shape-I had hardly been able to reassure the old sceptic. I might be an artist all right enough-I don't think he had any serious doubts on that score,-but I must also be some kind of a crook. He was plainly convinced in his own mind that I was trying to slip into Australia on the quiet, and was rather hurt because I would not take him into my confidence and let him help me.

But why not take in the Exhibition? In nine days, with any luck in connections, I could go to Sydney and back, with a day or two to spare. Even if the trip ran over that time, it was not likely that the man I wanted to see would be getting away immediately.... And, in any event, I would know how to find him, whether in Australia or the Islands. Further, it could not but have a salutary effect on my nerves to get quite beyond the attraction I felt that Quarantine Station would have for me if I lingered within physical reach of it. Nothing but absinthe, and more absinthe, and then more absinthe, could be depended upon to relieve my nerves once they were fully wrought up, as I knew they must be if I remained in Townsville in enforced inaction, fretting my heart out with impatience. And too much absinthe would mean only one thing-that I would begin the day on which I was to meet "Slant" Allen for a final showdown in a condition of mind and body precisely similar to that in which I had entered upon another day of accursed memory-and, doubtless, with equally shameful consequences to myself.

These thoughts flashed through my mind in a fraction of the time I have taken to set them down. My reply to Captain Tancred followed close upon his suggestion that I leave my luggage aboard.

"I think I'll be going through to Sydney with you, Captain-or at least as far as Brisbane," I said, motioning to the steward to bring up the bags he had already stowed in the waiting boat. "I know no one whose opinion on my daubs I'd rather have than yours. But I'll pay my little visit ashore here just the same, counting on you to get my kit landed in the unlikely event of my not being aboard again when you get under way this afternoon."

I was not long in coming to the conclusion that there was nothing new to be learned ashore, that is, with respect to what had happened on the Cora in the course of her voyage from Kai. This was not because the story was not on everyone's lips.... Quite to the contrary, indeed, the town was agog with the dramatic suddenness of the arrival of the plague ship and its astonishing sequel. But as no one had been allowed to see any of the survivors, such accounts as were current were only those which had been passed out by the quarantine people, and about all the latter knew I felt that I had already gathered that morning from the Doctor on the Utupua. Bell's name was not mentioned, and not a man I talked with knew that the dead white man had been the Skipper.

For Townsville-for all of Australia-the overwhelming appeal of the event was in the fact that a black-birding schooner had been brought into port by an ex-Ticket-of-Leavester, who had volunteered to risk his life in an attempt to save those of half a hundred plague-stricken niggers. That one circumstance in itself was wonderful enough, but when, on top of it, the announcement was made that the hero was none other than the former idol of sporting Australia, the Hon. Hartley Allen, popular imagination was stirred as rarely ever before. What man in all the Antipodes had not envied Allen, the supremely successful owner, rider and sportsman? What woman had not been intrigued by the romantic dash of him? What boy had not dreamed of growing up in his image?

Townsville, delirious with the dramatic appeal of this splendid act on the part of a man who had tasted the wine of adulation as he had drunk the dregs of infamy, was but a microcosm of Sydney and Melbourne, Brisbane and Adelaide, to all of which the news had been flashed by wire. Every town and hamlet, from Cairns to Hobart, from Perth to Woolongong, were dispatching telegrams of congratulation to a man who was still muttering in his drunken sleep behind the walls of the Townsville Quarantine Station. Sydney was competing with Brisbane for the honour of being the first to bestow the "Freedom of the City" upon the man both of them had had some share in transporting. A special from Sydney to the local sheet, hinted darkly of what might happen to the misguided official who attempted to revive any of the old charges against the man "whose sublime courage had emblazoned his name upon the tablets of undying fame.... A hand that is raised today against the Hon. Hartley Allen is a hand that is raised against the noblest traditions of Australia."

I had to elbow through half of a densely packed block to read that last on the bulletin in front of the Trumpet's office. The mob cheered wildly as the message was chalked up on the blackboard-cheered the stirring sentiment and growled ominously at the suggestion that any hand would dare to be raised against the Hon. Hartley Allen and the noblest traditions of Australia. As I elbowed my way out again, I wondered just what the Charters Towers miner, who had manifested his exuberant approval by slapping me on the back, would have thought-nay, what he would have done-had he known that the hand fingering the guard of the revolver in the right side-pocket of my shooting jacket (I had brought the useful little weapon on the off chance that it might be needed) was rather more likely than not to be raised against at least one of those cherished institutions he was so anxious to uphold.

I began to perceive that the line between dealing out retributive justice to a blackguard of a murderer and assassinating a national hero in cold blood might easily become too hairlike in its tenuousness for a red-eyed Australian jury to admit the existence of it. For it was nothing less than a national hero that "Slant" Allen was becoming, even before he roused from the heavy sleep which had held him ever since he collapsed over the wheel as the Cora came to anchor. That circumstance, I told myself, complicated my task beyond measure, though I couldn't, of course, allow it to make any difference in my program in the event Allen wasn't able to satisfy me that he was guiltless of the murder of my friend. But if things should transpire which might make Allen anxious to put me out of the way-if he, not I were the attacking party-that would simplify things greatly. I began to ponder that felicitous possibility.

Would not the fact that I was the only living man (Ranga, whatever he had seen or heard, would hardly need to be reckoned with as a witness) who knew the actual facts about the way he had "volunteered" to join the Cora at Kai awaken a desire in Allen's lawless breast to seal my mouth for good and all, now that he had so much to lose by the truth's coming out? The feeling that such would be the case-that the dizzily mounting fortunes of the ex-beach-comber would ultimately impel him to seek me out for an understanding-grew on me more and more as I turned the situation over in my mind, until at last it became a certainty, against which I felt justified in preparing as a boxer trains for a definitely scheduled prize fight.

I did not reckon it worth while to call at the Quarantine Station, which was some distance from the town and not easy to reach. I did, however, just before I put off to the ship, meet the young doctor with whom I had talked in the morning. The only thing which he was able to add to what he had already told me was in connection with the question I had raised respecting the cause of Bell's death. To be certain that he had been correct in stating that the latter had not died of plague, he had made a special inquiry. In response to this he had been shown a slide made from a smear they had taken of the late Skipper's blood. The bacteriologist had seen to that immediately the body was landed. It showed no traces whatever of plague bacilli. I could be quite assured on that point. The Chief was unwilling to hazard an opinion as to what the real cause of the man's death might have been. He seemed rather to regret that he had failed to order a post-mortem. Allen was still sleeping heavily, but would be right as a trivet beyond a doubt as soon as he woke up and gave them a chance to sweat some of the alcohol out of his hide. Pulse steady as a church.... Temperature a shade sub-normal. Marvellous constitution.... Wonderful fellow altogether. Any word of the girl? No, nothing. Ten pounds reward had been offered for the recovery of her body, or any recognizable part of it. Search was still going on, and he pointed across to the opposite foreshore, where a couple of spindling Hindu coolies-evidently sugar plantation contract hands-were earnestly engaged in performing "hari-kiri" upon a plethoric 'gator they had just bagged and towed to the beach.

The Doctor was already beginning to look ahead. Did I fancy Allen would be able to wangle it so as to get an entry in for the Melbourne Cup in the short time that remained before that classic was run? Entries closed some time ago, of course. He'd have to square it with the stewards some way. They might make a special exception, seeing who Allen was, and what he had just done. Any horse with his colours would carry a barrel of money, just out of sentiment if nothing else. Did I think he would wangle an entry?

"No," I replied, stepping down into my boat. "No, I'm afraid the chances are all against it." My mind had been torn with doubt over a number of things that day.... It was a relief to be asked to express an opinion on a matter respecting which I had no doubt.... Not a shred of it.

Captain Tancred welcomed me back to the Utupua with a significant grin. "So ye didna find the outlook ashore to yer likin' lad?" he boomed boisterously, thumping me on the back. "Weel, dinna ye mind, since ye wasna nabbed. I'll be findin' a wa' to slip ye aff in Sydney sae they wan't be puttin' nose to yer trail till ye're clean awa'." The look on the old boy's face was a study when, a few days later, after the tugs had nosed his ship into her berth at the Circular Quay, I stalked brazenly off down the gangway, with no more regard for the two Bobbies guarding the dock gate than they had for me. He had exacted two promises from me before he let me go: one, that I was to take him to see my pictures, and the other, that I would not fail to let him know if there ever came a time when he could be of Service to me.... "Real sarvice, lad; you'll be twiggin' wha' I mean." I gave both promises freely, just as I kept them later-yes, both of them.

As I had trunks, with all the common accessories of civilization, stored at the Australia, my transformation from a beach-comber to a fairly correct imitation of a comfortably heeled artist was the matter of but a few hours. My appearance at the Exhibition could not have been better timed. The affair had been extremely well handled from the first. I had been sending pictures to Sydney from all parts of the South Seas for the last eighteen months, packing them up as completed and getting them off whenever opportunity offered. Two or three had been lost, but, on the whole, I reckoned the plan safer than trying to take them round with me in one lot, at the risk of losing the bunch.

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