Chapter 23




WORDS IN THE NIGHT


Had I any premonition of the astounding fact thus suddenly and, I may say, dramatically revealed to us during the weeks I had devoted to the elucidation of the causes and circumstances of Mrs. Jeffrey's death? I do not think so. Nothing in her face, as I remembered it; nothing in the feeling evinced toward her by husband or sister, had prepared me for a disclosure of crime so revolting as to surpass all that I had ever imagined or could imagine in a woman of such dainty personality and unmistakable culture. Nor was the superintendent or the district attorney less confounded by the event. Durbin only tried to look wise and strut about, but it was of no use; he deceived nobody. Veronica Moore's real connection with Mr. Pfeiffer's death,--a death which in some inscrutable way had in so short a time led to her own,--was an overwhelming surprise to every one of us.

The superintendent, as was natural, recovered first.

"This throws quite a new light upon the matter," said he. "Now we can understand why Mr. Jeffrey uttered that extraordinary avowal overheard on the bridge: 'She must die!' She had come to him with blood on her hands."

It seemed incredible, nay more, unreal. I recalled the sweet refined face turned up to me from the bare boards of this same floor, the accounts I had read of the vivacity of her spirits and the wild charm of her manner till the shadow of this old house fell upon her. I marveled, still feeling myself in the dark, still clinging to my faith in womankind, still asking to what depths her sister had followed her in the mazes of crime we were forced to recognize but could not understand.

Durbin had no such feelings and no such scruples, as was shown by the sarcastic comment which now left his lips.

"So!" he cried, "we have to do with three criminals instead of two. Nice family, the Moore-Jeffreys !"

But no one paid any attention to him. Addressing the major, the district attorney asked when he expected to hear from Denver, adding that it had now become of the first importance to ascertain the exact relations existing between the persons under suspicion and the latest victim of this deadly mechanism.

The major's answer was abrupt. He had been expecting a report for days. He was expecting one yet. If it came in at any time, night or day, he was to be immediately notified. Word might be sent him in an hour, in a minute.

Were his remarks a prophecy? He had hardly ceased speaking when an officer appeared with a telegram in his hand. This the major eagerly took and, noting that it was in cipher, read it by means of the code he carried in his pocket. Translated, it ran thus:

Result of open inquiry in Denver.

Three brothers Pfeiffer; all well thought of, but plain in their ways and eccentric. One doing business in Denver. Died June, '97. One perished in Klondike, October, same year; and one, by name Wallace, died suddenly three months since in Washington.

Nothing further gained by secret inquiry in this place.

Result of open inquiry in Owosso.

A man named Pfeiffer kept a store in Owosso during the time V. M. attended school there. He was one of three brothers, home Denver, name Wallace. Simultaneously with V. M.'s leaving school, P. broke up business and at instigation of his brother William, who accompanied him, went to the Klondike. No especial relation between lady and this same P. ever noted. V. M. once heard to laugh at his awkward ways.

Result of secret inquiry in Owosso.

V. M. very intimate with schoolmate who has since died. Often rode together; once gone a long time. This was just before V. M. left school for good. Date same as that on which a marriage occurred in a town twenty miles distant. Bride, Antoinette Moore; groom, W. Pfeiffer of Denver; witness, young girl with red hair. Schoolmate had red hair. Had V. M. a middle initial, and was that initial A?

We all looked at each other; this last question was one none of us could answer.

"Go for Mr. Jeffrey at once," ordered the major, "and let another one of you bring Miss Tuttle. No word to either of what has occurred and no hint of their possible meeting here."

It fell to me to fetch Miss Tuttle. I was glad of this, as it gave me a few minutes by myself in which to compose my mind and adjust my thoughts to the new conditions opened up by the amazing facts which had just come to light. But beyond the fact that Mrs. Jeffrey had been answerable for the death which had occurred in the library at the time of her marriage--that, in the words of the district attorney, she had come to her husband with blood on her hands, my thoughts would not go; confusion followed the least attempt to settle the vital question of how far Miss Tuttle and Mr. Jeffrey had been involved in the earlier crime and what the coming interview with these two would add to our present knowledge. In my anxiety to have this question answered I hastened my steps and was soon at the door of Miss Tuttle's present dwelling place.

I had not seen this lady since the inquest, and my heart beat high as I sat awaiting her appearance in the dim little parlor where I had been seated by the person who held her under secret surveillance. The scene I had just been through, the uncertain nature of the relations held by this beautiful woman both toward the crime just discovered and the one long associated with her name, lent to these few moments of anticipation an emotion which poorly prepared me for the touching sight of the patient smile with which she presently entered.

But I doubt if she noticed my agitation. She was too much swayed by her own. Advancing upon me in all the unconscious pride of her great beauty, she tremulously remarked:

"You have a message for me. Is it from headquarters? Or has the district attorney still more questions to ask?"

"I have a much more trying errand than that," I hastened to say, with some idea of preparing her for an experience that could not fail to be one of exceptional trial. "For reasons which will be explained to you by those in greater authority than myself, you are wanted at the house where--" I could not help stammering under the light of her melancholy eyes--" where I saw you once before," I lamely concluded.

"The house in Waverley Avenue?" she objected wildly, with the first signs of positive terror I had ever beheld in her.

I nodded, dropping my eyes. What call had I to penetrate the conscience of this woman?

"Are they there? all there?" she presently asked again. "The police and--and Mr. Jeffrey?"

"Madam," I respectfully protested, "my duty is limited to conducting you to the place named. A carriage is waiting. May I beg that you will prepare yourself to go at once to Waverley Avenue?"

For answer she subjected me to a long and earnest look which I found it impossible to evade. Then she hastened from the room, but with very unsteady steps. Evidently the courage which had upborne her so long was beginning to fail. Her very countenance was changed. Had she recognized, as I meant she should, that the secret of the Moore house was no longer a secret confined to her own breast and to that of her unhappy brother-in-law?

When she returned ready for her ride this change in her spirits was less observable, and by the time we had reached the house in Waverley Avenue she had so far regained her old courage as to move and speak with the calmness of despair if not of mental serenity.

The major was awaiting us at the door and bowed gravely before her heavily veiled figure.

"Miss Tuttle," he asked, without any preamble, the moment she was well inside the house, "may I inquire of you here, and before I show you what will excuse us for subjecting you to the distress of entering these doors, whether your sister, Mrs. Jeffrey, had any other name or was ever known by any other name than that of Veronica?"

"She was christened Antoinette, as well as Veronica; but the person in whose memory the former name was given her was no honor to the family and she very soon dropped it and was only known as Veronica. Oh, what have I done?" she cried, awed and frightened by the silence which followed the utterance of these simple words.

No one answered her. For the first time in her presence, the minds of those who faced her were with another than herself. The bride! the unhappy bride--no maiden but a wife! nay, a wife one minute, a widow the next, and then again a newly-wedded bride before the husband lying below was cold! What wander that she shrank when her new-made bridegroom's lips approached her own! or that their honeymoon was a disappointment! Or that the shadow which fell upon her on that evil day never left her till she gave herself wholly up to its influence and returned to die on the spot made awful by her own crime.

Before any of us were quite ready to speak, a tap at the door told us that Durbin had arrived with Mr. Jeffrey. When they had been admitted and the latter saw Miss Tuttle standing there, he, too, seemed to realize that a turn had come in their affairs, and that courage rather than endurance was the quality most demanded from him. Facing the small group clustered in the dismal hall fraught with such unutterable associations, he earnestly prayed:

"Do not keep me in suspense. Why am I summoned here?"

The reply was as grave as the occasion warranted.

"You are summoned to learn the murderous secret of these old walls, and who it was that last made use of it. Do you feel inclined to hear these details from my lips, or are you ready to state that you already know the means by which so many persons, in times past as well as in times present, have met death here? We do not require you to answer us."

"I know the means," he allowed, recognizing without doubt that the crisis of crises had come, and that denial would be worse than useless.

"Then it only remains for us to acquaint you with the identity of the person who last pressed the fatal spring. But perhaps you know that, too?"

"I--" He paused; words were impossible to him; and in that pause his eyes flashed helplessly in the direction of Miss Tuttle.

But the major was quick on his feet and was already between him and that lady. This act forced from Mr. Jeffrey's lips the following broken sentence:

"I should--like--you--to--tell--me." Great gasps came with each heavily spoken word.

"Perhaps this morsel of lace will do it in a gentler manner than I could," responded the district attorney, opening his hand, in which lay the scrap of lace that, an hour or so before, I had plucked away from the boarding of that fatal closet.

Mr. Jeffrey eyed it and understood. His hands went up to his face and he swayed to the point of falling. Miss Tuttle came quickly forward.

"Oh!" she moaned, as her eyes fell on the little white shred. "The providence of God has found us out. We have suffered, labored and denied in vain."

"Yes," came in dreary echo from the man none of us had understood till now; "so great a crime could not be hid. God will have vengeance. What are we that we should hope to avert it by any act or at any cost?"

The major, with his eyes fixed piercingly on this miserable man, replied with one pregnant, sentence:

"Then you forced your wife to suicide?"

"No," he began; but before another word could follow, Miss Tuttle, resplendent in beauty and beaming with new life, broke in with the fervid cry:

"You wrong him and you wrong her by such a suggestion. It was not her husband but her conscience that forced her to this retributive act. What Mr. Jeffrey might have done had she proved obdurate and blind to the enormity of her own guilt, I do not know. But that he is innocent of so influencing her is proved by the shock he suffered at finding she had taken her punishment into her own hands."

"Mr. Jeffrey will please answer the question," insisted the major. Whereupon the latter, with great effort, but with the first appearance of real candor yet seen in him, said earnestly:

"I did nothing to influence her. I was in no condition to do so. I was benumbed--dead. When first she told me,--it was in some words muttered in her sleep--I thought she was laboring under some fearful nightmare; but when she persisted, and I questioned her, and found the horror true, I was like a man turned instantly into stone, save for one intolerable throb within. I am still so; everything passes by me like a dream. She was so young, seemingly so innocent and light-hearted. I loved her! Gentlemen, you have thought me guilty of my wife's death,--this young fairy-like creature to whom I ascribed all the virtues! and I was willing, willing that you should think so, willing even to face the distrust and opprobrium of the whole world,--and so was her sister, the noble woman whom you see before you--rather than that the full horror of her crime should be known and a name so dear be given up to execration. We thought we could keep the secret--we felt that we must keep the secret--we took an oath--in French--in the carriage with the detectives opposite us. She kept it--God bless her! I kept it. But it was all useless--a tiny bit of lace is found hanging to a lifeless splinter, and all our efforts, all the hopes and agony of weeks are gone for naught. The world will soon know of her awful deed--and I--"

He still loved her! That was apparent in every look, in every word he uttered. We marveled in awkward silence, and were glad when the major said:

"The deed, as I take it, was an unpremeditated one on her part. Is that why her honor was dearer to you than your own, and why you could risk the reputation if not the life of the woman who you say sacrificed herself to it?"

"Yes, it was unpremeditated; she hardly realized her act. If you must know her heart through all this dreadful business, we have her words to show you--words which she spent the last miserable day of her life in writing. The few lines which I showed the captain and which have been published to the world was an inclosure meant for the public eye. The real letter, telling the whole terrible truth, I kept for myself and for the sister who already knew her sin. Oh, we did everything we could!" And he again moaned: "But it was in vain; quite in vain."

There were no signs of subterfuge in him now, and we all, unless I except Durbin, began to yield him credence. Durbin never gives credence to anybody whose name he has once heard associated with crime.

"And this Pfeiffer was contracted to her? A man she had secretly married while a school-girl and who at this very critical instant had found his way to the house."

"You shall read her letter. It was meant for me, for me only--but you shall see it. I can not talk of him or of her crime. It is enough that I have been unable to think of anything else since first those dreadful words fell front her lips in sleep, thirty-six hours before she died." Then with the inconsistency of great anguish he suddenly broke forth into the details he shrank from and cried "She muttered, lying there, that she was no bigamist. That she had killed one husband before she married the other. Killed him in the old house and by the method her ancestors had taught her. And I, risen on my elbow, listened, with the sweat oozing from my forehead, but not believing her, oh, not believing her, any more than any one of you would believe such words uttered in a dream by the darling of your heart. But when, with a long-drawn sigh, she murmured, 'Murderer!' and raised her fists--tiny fists, hands which I had kissed a thousand times--and shook them in the air, an awful terror seized me, and I sought to grasp them and hold them down, but was hindered by some nameless inner recoil under which I could not speak, nor gasp, nor move. Of course, it was some dream-horror she was laboring under, a nightmare of unimaginable acts and thoughts, but it was one to hold me back; and when she lay quiet again and her face resumed its old sweetness in the moonlight, I found myself staring at her almost as if it were true--what she had said--that word--that awful word which no woman could use with regard to herself, even in dreams, unless--Something, an echo from the discordant chord in our two weeks' married life, rose like the confirmation of a doubt in my shocked and rebellious breast. From that hour till dawn nothing in that slowly brightening room seemed real, not her face lying buried in its youthful locks upon the pillow, not the objects well-known and well-prized by which we were surrounded--not myself--most of all, not myself, unless the icy dew oozing from the roots of my lifted hair was real, unless that shape, fearsome, vague, but persistent, which hovered in the shadows above us, drawing a line of eternal separation between me and my wife, was a thing which could be caught and strangled and - Oh! I rave! I chatter like a madman; but I did not rave that night. Nor did I rave when, in the bright, broad sunlight, her eye slowly unclosed and she started to see me bending so near her, but not with my usual kiss or glad good morning. I could not question her then; I dared not. The smile which slowly rose to her lips was too piteous--it showed confidence. I waited till after breakfast. Then, while she was seated where she could not see my face, I whispered the question: 'Do you know that you have had a horrible dream?' She shrieked and turned. I saw her face and knew that what she had uttered in her sleep was true.'

"I have no remembrance of what I said to her. She tried to tell me how she had been tempted and how she had not realized her own act, till the moment I bent down to kiss her lips as her husband. But I did not stop to listen--I could not. I flew immediately to Miss Tuttle with the violent demand as to whether she knew that her sister was already a wife when she married me, and when she cried out 'No!' and showed great dismay, I broke forth with the dreadful tale and cowered in unmanly anguish at her feet, and went mad and lost myself for a little while. Then I went back to my wretched wife and asked her how the awful deed had been done. She told me, and again I did not believe her and began to look upon it all as some wild dream or the distempered fancies of a disordered brain. This thought calmed me and I spoke gently to her and even tried to take her hand. But she herself was raving now, and clung about my knees, murmuring words of such anguish and contrition that my worst fears returned and, only stopping to take the key of the Moore house from my bureau, I left the house and wandered madly--I know not where.

"I did not go back that day. I could not face her again till I knew how much of her confession was fancy and how much was fact. I roamed the streets, carrying that key from one end of the city to the other, and at night I used it to open the house which she had declared contained so dreadful a secret.

"I had bought candles on my way there but, forgetting to take them from the store, I had no light with which to penetrate the horrible place that even the moon refused to illumine. I realized this when once in, but would not go back. All I have told about using matches to light me to the southwest chamber is true, also my coming upon the old candelabrum there, with a candle in one of its sockets. This candle I lit, my sole reason for seeking this room being my desire to examine the antique sketch for the words which she had said could be found there.

"I had failed to bring a magnifying-glass with me, but my eyes are phenomenally sharp. Knowing where to look, I was able to pick out enough words here and there in the lines composing the hair, to feel quite sure that my wife had neither deceived me nor been deceived as to certain directions being embodied there in writing. Shaken in my last lingering hope, but not yet quite convinced that these words pointed to outrageous crime, I flew next to the closet and drew out the fatal drawer.

"You have been there and know what the place is, but no one but myself can ever realize what it was for me, still loving, still clinging to a wild inconsequent belief in my wife, to grope in that mouth of hell for the spring she had chattered about in her sleep, to find it, press it, and then to hear, down in the dark of the fearsome recess, the sound of something deadly strike against what I took to be the cushions of the old settle standing at the edge of the library hearthstone.

"I think I must have fainted. For when I found myself possessed of sufficient consciousness to withdraw from that hole of death, the candle in the candelabrum was shorter by an inch than when I first thrust my head into the gap made by the removed drawers. In putting back the drawers I hit the candelabrum with my foot, upsetting it and throwing out the burning candle. As the flames began to lick the worm-eaten boarding of the floor a momentary impulse seized me to rush away and leave the whole place to burn. But I did not. With a sudden frenzy, I stamped out the flame, and then finding myself in darkness, griped my way downstairs and out. If I entered the library I do not remember it. Some lapses must be pardoned a man involved as I was."

"But the fact which you dismiss so lightly is an important one," insisted the major. "We must know positively whether you entered this room or not."

"I have no recollection of doing so"

"Then you can not tell us whether the little table was standing there, with the candelabrum upon it or--"

"I can tell you nothing about it."

The major, after a long look at this suffering man, turned toward Miss Tuttle.

"You must have loved your sister very much," he sententiously remarked.

She flushed and for the first time her eyes fell from their resting-place on Mr. Jeffrey's face.

"I loved her reputation," was her quiet answer, "and--" The rest died in her throat.

But we all--such of us, I mean, who were possessed of the least sensibility or insight, knew how that sentence sounded as finished in her heart" and I loved him who asked this sacrifice of me."

Yet was her conduct not quite clear.

"And to save that reputation you tied the pistol to her wrist?" insinuated the major.

"No," was her vehement reply. "I never knew what I was tying to her. My testimony in that regard was absolutely true. She held the pistol concealed in the folds of her dress. I did not dream --I could not--that she was contemplating any such end to the atrocious crime--to which she had confessed. Her manner was too light, too airy and too frivolous--a manner adopted, as I now see, to forestall all questions and hold back all expressions of feeling on my part. 'Tie these hanging ends of ribbon to my wrist,' were her words. 'Tie them tight; a knot under and a bow on top. I am going out--There, don't say anything-- What you want to talk about will keep till tomorrow. For one night more I am going to make merry--to--to enjoy myself.' She was laughing. I thought her horribly callous and trembled with such an unspeakable repulsion that I had difficulty in making the knot. To speak at all would have been impossible. Neither did I dare to look in her face. I was touching the hand and she kept on laughing--such a hollow laugh covering up such an awful resolve! When she turned to give me that last injunction about the note, this resolve glared still in her eyes."

"And you never suspected?"

"Not for an instant. I chid not do justice either to her misery or to her conscience. I fear that I have never done her justice in anyway. I thought her light, pleasure-loving. I did not know that it was assumed to hide a terrible secret."

"Then you had no knowledge of the contract she had entered into while a school-girl?"

"Not in the least. Another woman, and not myself, had been her confidante; a woman who has since died. No intimation of her first unfortunate marriage had ever reached me till Mr. Jeffrey rushed in upon me that Tuesday morning with her dreadful confession on his lips."

The district attorney, who did not seem quite satisfied on a certain point passed over by the major, now took the opportunity of saying:

"You assure us that you had no idea that this once lighthearted sister of yours meditated suicide when she left you?"

"And I repeat it, sir."

"Then why did you immediately go to Mr. Jeffrey's drawer, where you could have no business, unless it was to see if she had taken his pistol with her?"

Miss Tuttle's head fell and a soft flush broke through the pallor of her cheek.

"Because I was thinking of him. Because I was terrified for him. He had left the house the morning before in a half-maddened condition and had not come back to sleep or eat since. I did not know what a man so outraged in every sacred feeling of love and honor might be tempted to do. I thought of suicide. I remembered the old house and how he had said, 'I don't believe her. I don't believe she ever did so cold-blooded an act, or that any such dreadful machinery is in that house. I never shall believe it till I have seen and handled it myself. It is a nightmare, Cora. We are insane.' I thought of this, sirs, and when I went into her room, to change the place of the little note in the book, I went to his bureau drawer, not to look for the pistol--I did not think of that then,--but to see if the keys of the Moore house were still there. I knew that they were kept in this drawer, for I had been present in the room when they were brought in after the wedding. I had also been short-sighted enough to conclude that if they were gone it was he who had taken them. They were gone, and that was why I flew immediately from the house to the old place in Waverley Avenue. I was concerned for Mr. Jeffrey! I feared to find him there, demented or dead"

"But you had no key."

"No. Mr. Jeffrey had taken one of them and my sister the other. But the lack of a key or even of a light--for the missing candles were not taken by me*--could not keep me at home after

*We afterwards found that these candles were never delivered at the house at all; that they had been placed in the wrong basket and left in a neighboring kitchen.

I was once convinced that he had gone to this dreadful house. If I could not get in I could at least hammer at the door or rouse the neighbors. Something must be done. I did not think what; I merely flew."

"Did you know that the house had two keys?"

"Not then."

"But your sister did?"

"Probably."

"And finding the only key, as you supposed, gone, you flew to the Moore house?"

"Immediately."

"And now what else?"

"I found the door unlocked."

"That was done by Mrs. Jeffrey?"

"Yes, but I did not think of her then."

"And you went in?"

"Yes; it was all dark, but I felt my way till I came to the gilded pillars."

"Why did you go there?"

"Because I felt--I knew--if he were anywhere in that house he would be there!"

"And why did you stop?"

Her voice rose above its usual quiet pitch in shrill protest:

"You know! you know! I heard a pistol-shot from within, then a fall. I don't remember anything else. They say I went wandering about town. Perhaps I did; it is all a blank to me--everything is a blank till the policeman said that my sister was dead and I learned for the first time that the shot I had heard in the Moore house was not the signal of his death, but hers. Had I been myself when at that library door," she added, after a moment of silence, "I would have rushed in at the sound of that shot and have received my sister's dying breath"

"Cora!" The cry was from Mr. Jeffrey, and seemed to be quite involuntary. "In the weeks during which we have been kept from speaking together I have turned all these events over in my mind till I longed for any respite, even that of the grave. But in all my thinking I never attributed this motive to your visit here. Will you forgive me?"

There was a new tone in his voice, a tone which no woman could hear without emotion.

"You had other things to think of," she said, and her lips trembled. Never have I seen on the human face a more beautiful expression than I saw on hers at that moment; nor do I think Mr. Jeffrey had either, for as he marked it his own regard softened almost to tenderness.

The major had no time for sentimentalities. Turning to Mr. Jeffrey, he said:

"One more question before we send for the letter which you say will give us full insight into your wife's crime. Do you remember what occurred on the bridge at Georgetown just before you came into town that night?"

He shook his head.

"Did you meet any one there?"

"I do not know."

"Can you remember your state of mind?"

"I was facing the future."

"And what did you see in the future?"

"Death. Death for her and death for me! A crime was on her soul and she must die, and if she, then myself. I knew no other course. I could not summon the police, point out my bride of a fortnight and, with the declaration that she had been betrayed into killing a man, coldly deliver her up to justice. Neither could I live at her side knowing the guilty secret which parted us; or live anywhere in the world under this same consciousness. Therefore, I meant to kill myself before another sun rose. But she was more deeply stricken with a sense of her own guilt than I realized. When I returned home for the pistol which was to end our common misery I found that she had taken her punishment into her own hands. This strangely affected me, but when I found that, in doing this, she had remembered that I should have to face the world after she was gone, and so left a few lines for me to show in explanation of her act, my revolt against her received a check which the reading of her letter only increased. But the lines she thus wrote and left were not true lines. All her heart was mine, and if it was a wicked heart she has atoned--"

He paused, quite overcome. Others amongst us were overcome, too, but only for a moment. The following remark from the district attorney soon recalled us to the practical aspects of the case.

"You have accounted for many facts not hitherto understood. But there is still a very important one which neither yourself nor Miss Tuttle has yet made plain. There was a candle on the scene of crime; it was out when this officer arrived here. There was also one found burning in the upstairs room, aside from the one you professedly used in your tour of inspection there. Whence came those candles? And did your wife blow out the one in the library herself, previous to the shooting, or was it blown out afterward and by other lips?"

"These are questions which, as I have already said, I have no means of answering," repeated Mr. Jeffrey. "The courage which brought her here may have led her to supply herself with light; and, hard as it is to conceive, she may even have found nerve to blow out the light before she lifted the pistol to her breast:"

The district attorney and the major looked unconvinced, and the latter, turning toward Miss Tuttle, asked if she had any remark to make on the subject.

But she could only repeat Mr. Jeffrey's statement.

"These are questions I can not answer either. I have said that I stopped at the library door, which means that I saw nothing of what passed within."

Here the major asked where Mrs. Jeffrey's letter was to be found. It was Mr. Jeffrey who replied:

"Search in my room for a book with an outside cover of paper still on it. You will probably find it on my table. The inner cover is red. Bring that book here. Our secret is hidden in it."

Durbin disappeared on this errand. I followed him as far as the door, but I did not think it necessary to state that I had seen this book lying on the table when I paid my second visit to Mr. Jeffrey's room in company with the coroner. The thought that my hand had been within reach of this man's secret so many weeks before was sufficiently humiliating without being shared.




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