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Lali's recovery was not rapid. A change had come upon her. With that strange ride had gone the last strong flicker of the desire for savage life in her. She knew now the position she held towards her husband: that he had never loved her; that she was only an instrument for unworthy retaliation. So soon as she could speak after her accident, she told them that they must not write to him and tell him of it. She also made them promise that they would give him no news of her at all, save that she was well. They could not refuse to promise; they felt she had the right to demand much more than that. They had begun to care for her for herself, and when the months went by, and one day there was a hush about her room, and anxiety, and then relief, in the faces of all, they came to care for her still more for the sake of her child.
As the weeks passed, the fair-haired child grew more and more like his father; but if Lali thought of her husband they never knew it by anything she said, for she would not speak of him. She also made them promise that they would not write to him of the child's birth. Richard, with his sense of justice, and knowing how much the woman had been wronged, said that in all this she had done quite right; that Frank, if he had done his duty after marrying her, should have come with her. And because they all felt that Richard had been her best friend as well as their own, they called the child after him. This also was Lali's wish. Coincident with her motherhood there came to Lali a new purpose. She had not lived with the Armours without absorbing some of their fine social sense and dignity. This, added to the native instinct of pride in her, gave her a new ambition. As hour by hour her child grew dear to her, so hour by hour her husband grew away from her. She schooled herself against him. --At times she thought she hated him. She felt she could never forgive him, but she would prove to him that it was she who had made the mistake of her life in marrying him; that she had been wronged, not he; and that his sin would face him with reproach and punishment one day. Richard's prophecy was likely to come true: she would defeat very perfectly indeed Frank's intentions. After the child was born, so soon as she was able, she renewed her studies with Richard and Mrs. Armour. She read every morning for hours; she rode; she practised all those graceful arts of the toilet which belong to the social convention; she showed an unexpected faculty for singing, and practised it faithfully; and she begged Mrs. Armour and Marion to correct her at every point where correction seemed necessary. When the child was two years old, they all went to London, something against Lali's personal feelings, but quite in accord with what she felt her duty.
Richard was left behind at Greyhope. For the first time in eighteen months he was alone with his old quiet duties and recreations. During that time he had not neglected his pensioners,--his poor, sick, halt, and blind, but a deeper, larger interest had come into his life in the person of Lali. During all that time she had seldom been out of his sight, never out of his influence and tutelage. His days had been full, his every hour had been given a keen, responsible interest. As if by tacit consent, every incident or development of Lali's life was influenced by his judgment and decision. He had been more to her than General Armour, Mrs. Armour, or Marion. Schooled as he was in all the ways of the world, he had at the same time a mind as sensitive as a woman's, an indescribable gentleness, a persuasive temperament. Since, years before, he had withdrawn from the social world and become a recluse, many of his finer qualities had gone into an indulgent seclusion. He had once loved the world and the gay life of London, but some untoward event, coupled with a radical love of retirement, had sent him into years of isolation at Greyhope.
His tutelar relations with Lali had reopened many an old spring of sensation and experience. Her shy dependency, her innocent inquisitiveness, had searched out his remotest sympathies. In teaching her he had himself been re-taught. Before she came he had been satisfied with the quiet usefulness and studious ease of his life. But in her presence something of his old youthfulness came back, some reflection of the ardent hopes of his young manhood. He did not notice the change in himself. He only knew that his life was very full. He read later at nights, he rose earlier in the morning. But unconsciously to himself, he was undergoing a change. The more a man's sympathies and emotions are active, the less is he the philosopher. It is only when one has withdrawn from the more personal influence of the emotions that one's philosophy may be trusted. One may be interested in mankind and still be philosophical--may be, as it were, the priest and confessor to all comers. But let one be touched in some vital corner in one's nature, and the high, faultless impartiality is gone. In proportion as Richard's interest in Lali had grown, the universal quality of his sympathy had declined. Man is only man. Not that his benefactions as lord-bountiful in the parish had grown perfunctory, but the calm detail of his interest was not so definite. He was the same, yet not the same.
He was not aware of any difference in himself. He did not know that he looked younger by ten years. Such is the effect of mere personal sympathy upon a man's look and bearing. When, therefore, one bright May morning, the family at Greyhope, himself excluded, was ready to start for London, he had no thought but that he would drop back into his old silent life, as it was before Lali came, and his brother's child was born. He was not conscious that he was very restless that morning; he scarcely was aware that he had got up two hours earlier than usual. At the breakfast- table he was cheerful and alert. After breakfast he amused himself in playing with the child till the carriage was brought round. It was such a morning as does not come a dozen times a year in England. The sweet, moist air blew from the meadows and up through the lime trees with a warm, insinuating gladness. The lawn sloped delightfully away to the flowered embrasures of the park, and a fragrant abundance of flowers met the eye and cheered the senses. While Richard loitered on the steps with the child and its nurse, more excited than he knew, Lali came out and stood beside him. At the moment Richard was looking into the distance. He did not hear her when she came. She stood near him for a moment, and did not speak. Her eyes followed the direction of his look, and idled tenderly with the prospect before her. She did not even notice the child. The same thought was in the mind of both--with a difference. Richard was wondering how any one could choose to change the sweet dignity of that rural life for the flaring, hurried delights of London and the season. He had thought this a thousand times, and yet, though he would have been little willing to acknowledge it, his conviction was not so impregnable as it had been.
Mrs. Francis Armour was stepping from the known to the unknown. She was leaving the precincts of a life in which, socially, she had been born again. Its sweetness and benign quietness had all worked upon her nature and origin to change her. In that it was an out-door life, full of freshness and open-air vigour, it was not antagonistic to her past. Upon this sympathetic basis had been imposed the conditions of a fine social decorum. The conditions must still exist. But how would it be when she was withdrawn from this peaceful activity of nature and set down among "those garish lights" in Cavendish Square and Piccadilly? She hardly knew to what she was going as yet. There had been a few social functions at Greyhope since she had come, but that could give her, after all, but little idea of the swing and pressure of London life.
At this moment she was lingering over the scene before her. She was wondering with the naive wonder of an awakened mind. She had intended many times of late saying to Richard all the native gratitude she felt; yet somehow she had never been able to say it. The moment of parting had come.
"What are you thinking of, Richard?" she said now. He started and turned towards her.
"I hardly know," he answered. "My thoughts were drifting."
"Richard," she said abruptly," I want to thank you."
"Thank me for what, Lali?" he questioned.
"To thank you, Richard, for everything--since I came, over three years ago."
He broke out into a soft little laugh, then, with his old good-natured manner, caught her hand as he did the first night she came to Greyhope, patted it in a fatherly fashion, and said:
"It is the wrong way about, Lali; I ought to be thanking you, not you me. Why, look what a stupid old fogy I was then, toddling about the place with too much time on my hands, reading a lot and forgetting everything; and here you came in, gave me something to do, made the little I know of any use, and ran a pretty gold wire down the rusty fiddle of life. If there are any speeches of gratitude to be made, they are mine, they are mine."
"Richard," she said very quietly and gravely, "I owe you more than I can ever say--in English. You have taught me to speak in your tongue enough for all the usual things of life, but one can only speak from the depths of one's heart in one's native tongue. And see," she added, with a painful little smile, "how strange it would sound if I were to tell you all I thought in the language of my people--of my people, whom I shall never see again. Richard, can you understand what it must be to have a father whom one is never likely to see again--whom, if one did see again, something painful would happen? We grow away from people against our will; we feel the same towards them, but they cannot feel the same towards us; for their world is in another hemisphere. We want to love them, and we love, remember, and are glad to meet them again, but they feel that we are unfamiliar, and, because we have grown different outwardly, they seem to miss some chord that used to ring. Richard, I-- I--" She paused.
"Yes, Lali," he assented--"yes, I understand you so far; but speak out."
"I am not happy," she said. "I never shall be happy. I have my child, and that is all I have. I cannot go back to the life in which I was born; I must go on as I am, a stranger among a strange people, pitied, suffered, cared for a little--and that is all."
The nurse had drawn away a little distance with the child. The rest of the family were making their preparations inside the house. There was no one near to watch the singular little drama.
"You should not say that," he added; "we all feel you to be one of us."
"But all your world does not feel me to be one of them," she rejoined.
"We shall see about that when you go up to town. You are a bit morbid, Lali. I don't wonder at your feeling a little shy; but then you will simply carry things before you--now you take my word for it! For I know London pretty well."
She held out her ungloved hands.
"Do they compare with the white hands of the ladies you know?" she said.
"They are about the finest hands I have ever seen," he replied. "You can't see yourself, sister of mine."
"I do not care very much to see myself," she said. "If I had not a maid I expect I should look very shiftless, for I don't care to look in a mirror. My only mirror used to be a stream of water in summer," she added, "and a corner of a looking-glass got from the Hudson's Bay fort in the winter."
"Well, you are missing a lot of enjoyment," he said, "if you do not use your mirror much. The rest of us can appreciate what you would see there."
She reached out and touched his arm.
"Do you like to look at me?" she questioned, with a strange simple candour.
For the first time in many a year, Richard Armour blushed like a girl fresh from school. The question had come so suddenly, it had gone so quickly into a sensitive corner of his nature, that he lost command of himself for the instant, yet had little idea why the command was lost. He touched the fingers on his arm affectionately.
"Like to look at you--like to look at you? Why, of course we all like to look at you. You are very fine and handsome and interesting."
"Richard," she said, drawing her hands away, "is that why you like to look at me?"
He had recovered himself. He laughed in his old hearty way, and said:
"Yes, yes; why, of course! Come, let us go and see the boy," he added, taking her arm and hurrying her down the steps. "Come and let us see Richard Joseph, the pride of all the Armours."
She moved beside him in a kind of dream. She had learned much since she came to Greyhope, and yet she could not at that moment have told exactly why she asked Richard the question that had confused him, nor did she know quite what lay behind the question. But every problem which has life works itself out to its appointed end, if fumbling human fingers do not meddle with it. Half the miseries of this world are caused by forcing issues, in every problem of the affections, the emotions, and the soul. There is a law working with which there should be no tampering, lest in foolish interruption come only confusion and disaster. Against every such question there should be written the one word, "Wait."
Richard Armour stooped over the child. "A beauty," he said, "a perfect little gentleman. Like Richard Joseph Armour there is none," he added.
"Whom do you think he looks like, Richard?" she asked. This was a question she had never asked before since the child was born. Whom the child looked like every one knew; but within the past year and a half Francis Armour's name had seldom been mentioned, and never in connection with the child. The child's mother asked the question with a strange quietness. Richard answered it without hesitation.
"The child looks like Frank," he said. "As like him as can be."
"I am glad," she said, "for all your sakes."
"You are very deep this morning, Lali," Richard said, with a kind of helplessness. "Frank will be pretty proud of the youngster when he comes back. But he won't be prouder of him than I am."
"I know that," she said. "Won't you be lonely without the boy--and me, Richard?"
Again the question went home. "Lonely? I should think I would," he said. "I should think I would. But then, you see, school is over, and the master stays behind and makes up the marks. You will find London a jollier master than I am, Lali. There'll be lots of shows, and plenty to do, and smart frocks, and no end of feeds and frolics; and that is more amusing than studying three hours a day with a dry old stick like me. I tell you what, when Frank comes--"
She interrupted him. "Do not speak of that," she said. Then, with a sudden burst of feeling, though her words were scarcely audible: "I owe you everything, Richard--everything that is good. I owe him nothing, Richard--nothing but what is bitter."
"Hush, hush," he said; "you must not speak that way. Lali, I want to say to you--"
At that moment General Armour, Mrs. Armour, and Marion appeared on the door-step, and the carriage came wheeling up the drive. What Richard intended to say was left unsaid. The chances were it never would be said.
"Well, well," said General Armour, calling down at them, "escort his imperial highness to the chariot which awaits him, and then ho! for London town. Come along, my daughter," he said to Lali; "come up here and take the last whiff of Greyhope that you will have for six months. Dear, dear, what lunatics we all are, to be sure! Why, we're as happy as little birds in their nests out in the decent country, and yet we scamper off to a smoky old city by the Thames to rush along with the world, instead of sitting high and far away from it and watching it go by. God bless my soul, I'm old enough to know better! Well, let me help you in, my dear," he added to his wife; "and in you go, Marion; and in you go, your imperial highness"--he passed the child awkwardly in to Marion; "and in you go, my daughter," he added, as he handed Lali in, pressing her hand with a brusque fatherliness as he did so. He then got in after them.
Richard came to the side of the carriage and bade them all good-bye one by one. Lali gave him her hand, but did not speak a word. He called a cheerful adieu, the horses were whipped up, and in a moment Richard was left alone on the steps of the house. He stood for a time looking, then he turned to go into the house, but changed his mind, sat down, lit a cigar, and did not move from his seat until he was summoned to his lonely luncheon.
Nobody thought much of leaving Richard behind at Greyhope. It seemed the natural thing to do. But still he had not been left alone--entirely alone--for three years or more.
The days and weeks went on. If Richard had been accounted eccentric before, there was far greater cause for the term now. Life dragged. Too much had been taken out of his life all at once; for, in the first place, the family had been drawn together more during the trouble which Lali's advent had brought; then the child and its mother, his pupil, were gone also. He wandered about in a kind of vague unrest. The hardest thing in this world to get used to is the absence of a familiar footstep and the cheerful greeting of a familiar eye. And the man with no chick or child feels even the absence of his dog from the hearth-rug when he returns from a journey or his day's work. It gives him a sense of strangeness and loss. But when it is the voice of a woman and the hand of a child that is missed, you can back no speculation upon that man's mood or mind or conduct. There is no influence like the influence of habit, and that is how, when the minds of people are at one, physical distances and differences, no matter how great, are invisible, or at least not obvious.
Richard Armour was a sensible man; but when one morning he suddenly packed a portmanteau and went up to town to Cavendish Square, the act might be considered from two sides of the equation. If he came back to enter again into the social life which, for so many years, he had abjured, it was not very sensible, because the world never welcomes its deserters; it might, if men and women grew younger instead of older. If he came to see his family, or because he hungered for his godchild, or because--but we are hurrying the situation. It were wiser not to state the problem yet. The afternoon that he arrived at Cavendish Square all his family were out except his brother's wife. Lali was in the drawing- room, receiving a visitor who had asked for Mrs. Armour and Mrs. Francis Armour. The visitor was received by Mrs. Francis Armour. The visitor knew that Mrs. Armour was not at home. She had by chance seen her and Marion in Bond Street, and was not seen by them. She straightway got into her carriage and drove up to Cavendish Square, hoping to find Mrs. Francis Armour at home. There had been house-parties at Greyhope since Lali had come there to live, but this visitor, though once an intimate friend of the family, had never been a guest.
The visitor was Lady Haldwell, once Miss Julia Sherwood, who had made possible what was called Francis Armour's tragedy. Since Lali had come to town Lady Haldwell had seen her, but had never met her. She was not at heart wicked, but there are few women who can resist an opportunity of anatomising and reckoning up the merits and demerits of a woman who has married an old lover. When that woman is in the position of Lali, the situation has an unusual piquancy and interest. Hence Lady Haldwell's journey of inquisition to Cavendish Square.
As Richard passed the drawing-room door to ascend the stairs, he recognised the voices.
Once a sort of heathen, as Mrs. Francis Armour had been, she still could grasp the situation with considerable clearness. There is nothing keener than one woman's instinct regarding another woman, where a man is concerned. Mrs. Francis Armour received Lady Haldwell with a quiet stateliness, which, if it did not astonish her, gave her sufficient warning that matters were not, in this little comedy, to be all her own way.
Thrown upon the mere resources of wit and language, Mrs. Francis Armour must have been at a disadvantage. For Lady Haldwell had a good gift of speech, a pretty talent for epithet, and no unnecessary tenderness. She bore Lali no malice. She was too decorous and high for that. In her mind the wife of the man she had discarded was a mere commonplace catastrophe, to be viewed without horror, maybe with pity. She had heard the alien spoken well of by some people; others had seemed indignant that the Armours should try to push "a red woman" into English society. Truth is, the Armours did not try at all to push her. For over three years they had let society talk. They had not entertained largely in Cavendish Square since Lali came, and those invited to Greyhope had a chance to refuse the invitations if they chose. Most people did not choose to decline them. But Lady Haldwell was not of that number. She had never been invited. But now in town, when entertainment must be more general, she and the Armours were prepared for social interchange.
Behind Lady Haldwell's visit curiosity chiefly ran. She was in a way sorry for Frank Armour, for she had been fond of him after a fashion, always fonder of him than of Lord Haldwell. She had married with her fingers holding the scales of advantage; and Lord Haldwell dressed well, was immensely rich, and the title had a charm.
When Mrs. Francis Armour met her with her strange, impressive dignity, she was the slightest bit confused, but not outwardly. She had not expected it. At first Lali did not know who her visitor was. She had not caught the name distinctly from the servant.
Presently Lady Haldwell said, as Lali gave her hand "I am Lady Haldwell. As Miss Sherwood I was an old friend of your husband."
A scornful glitter came into Mrs. Armour's eyes--a peculiar touch of burnished gold, an effect of the light at a certain angle of the lens. It gave for the instant an uncanny look to the face, almost something malicious. She guessed why this woman had come. She knew the whole history of the past, and it touched her in a tender spot. She knew she was had at an advantage. Before her was a woman perfectly trained in the fine social life to which she was born, whose equanimity was as regular as her features. Herself was by nature a creature of impulse, of the woods and streams and open life. The social convention had been engrafted. As yet she was used to thinking and speaking with all candour. She was to have her training in the charms of superficiality, but that was to come; and when it came she would not be an unskilful apprentice. Perhaps the latent subtlety of her race came to help her natural candour at the moment. For she said at once, in a slow, quiet tone:
"I never heard my husband speak of you. Will you sit down?"
"And Mrs. Armour and Marion are not in? No, I suppose your husband did not speak much of his old friends."
The attack was studied and cruel. But Lady Haldwell had been stung by Mrs. Armour's remark, and it piqued her that this was possible.
"Well, yes, he spoke of some of his friends, but not of you."
"Indeed! That is strange."
"There was no necessity," said Mrs. Armour quietly.
"Of discussing me? I suppose not. But by some chance--"
"It was just as well, perhaps, not to anticipate the pleasure of our meeting."
Lady Haldwell was surprised. She had not expected this cleverness. They talked casually for a little time, the visitor trying in vain to delicately give the conversation a personal turn. At last, a little foolishly, she grew bolder, with a needless selfishness.
"So old a friend of your husband as I am, I am hopeful you and I may be friends also."
Mrs. Armour saw the move.
"You are very kind," she said conventionally, and offered a cup of tea.
Lady Haldwell now ventured unwisely. She was nettled at the other's self-possession.
"But then, in a way, I have been your friend for a long time, Mrs. Armour."
The point was veiled in a vague tone, but Mrs. Armour understood. Her reply was not wanting. "Any one who has been a friend to my husband has, naturally, claims upon me."
Lady Haldwell, in spite of herself, chafed. There was a subtlety in the woman before her not to be reckoned with lightly.
"And if an enemy?" she said, smiling.
A strange smile also flickered across Mrs. Armour's face as she said:
"If an enemy of my husband called, and was penitent, I should--offer her tea, no doubt."
"That is, in this country; but in your own country, which, I believe, is different, what would you do?" Mrs. Armour looked steadily and coldly into her visitor's eyes.
"In my country enemies do not compel us to be polite."
"By calling on you?" Lady Haldwell was growing a little reckless. "But then, that is a savage country. We are different here. I suppose, however, your husband told you of these things, so that you were not surprised. And when does he come? His stay is protracted. Let me see, how long is it? Ah yes, near four years." Here she became altogether reckless, which she regretted afterwards, for she knew, after all, what was due herself. "He will comeback, I suppose?"
Lady Haldwell was no coward, else she had hesitated before speaking in that way before this woman, in whose blood was the wildness of the heroical North. Perhaps she guessed the passion in Lali's breast, perhaps not. In any case she would have said what she listed at the moment.
Wild as were the passions in Lali's breast, she thought on the instant of her child, of what Richard Armour would say; for he had often talked to her about not showing her emotions and passions, had told her that violence of all kinds was not wise or proper. Her fingers ached to grasp this beautiful, exasperating woman by the throat. But after an effort at calmness she remained still and silent, looking at her visitor with a scornful dignity. Lady Haldwell presently rose,--she could not endure the furnace of that look,--and said good-bye. She turned towards the door. Mrs. Armour remained immovable. At that instant, however, some one stepped from behind a large screen just inside the door. It was Richard Armour. He was pale, and on his face was a sternness the like of which this and perhaps only one other woman had ever seen on him. He interrupted her.
"Lady Haldwell has a fine talent for irony," he said, "but she does not always use it wisely. In a man it would bear another name, and from a man it would be differently received." He came close to her. "You are a brave woman," he said, "or you would have been more careful. Of course you knew that my mother and sister were not at home?"
She smiled languidly. "And why 'of course'?"
"I do not know that; only I know that I think so; and I also think that my brother Frank's worst misfortune did not occur when Miss Julia Sherwood trafficked without compunction in his happiness."
"Don't be oracular, my dear Richard Armour," she replied. "You are trying, really. This seems almost melodramatic; and melodrama is bad enough at Drury Lane."
"You are not a good friend even to yourself," he answered.
"What a discoverer you are! And how much in earnest! Do come back to the world, Mr. Armour; you would be a relief, a new sensation."
"I fancy I shall come back, if only to see the 'engineer hoist with his own'--torpedo."
He paused before the last word to give it point, for her husband's father had made his money out of torpedoes. She felt the sting in spite of herself, and she saw the point.
"And then we will talk it over at the end of the season," he added, "and compare notes. Good-afternoon."
"You stake much on your hazard," she said, glancing back at Lali, who still stood immovable. "Au revoir!" She left the room. Richard heard the door close after her and the servant retire. Then he turned to Lali.
As he did so, she ran forward to him with a cry. "Oh, Richard, Richard!" she exclaimed, with a sob, threw her arms over his shoulder, and let her forehead drop on his breast. Then came a sudden impulse in his blood. Long after he shuddered when he remembered what he thought at that instant; what he wished to do; what rich madness possessed him. He knew now why he had come to town; he also knew why he must not stay, or, if staying, what must be his course.
He took her gently by the arm and led her to a chair, speaking cheerily to her. Then he sat down beside her, and all at once again, her face wet and burning, she flung herself forward on her knees beside him, and clung to him.
"Oh, Richard, I am glad you have come," she said. "I would have killed her if I had not thought of you. I want you to stay; I am always better when you are with me. I have missed you, and I know that baby misses you too."
He had his cue. He rose, trembling a little. "Come, come," he said heartily, "it's all right, it's all right-my sister. Let us go and see the youngster. There, dry your eyes, and forget all about that woman. She is only envious of you. Come, for his imperial highness!"
She was in a tumult of feeling. It was seldom that she had shown emotion in the past two years, and it was the more ample when it did break forth. But she dried her eyes, and together they went to the nursery. She dismissed the nurse and they were left alone by the sleeping child. She knelt at the head of the little cot, and touched the child's forehead with her lips. He stooped down also beside it.
"He's a grand little fellow," he said. "Lali," he continued presently, "it is time Frank came home. I am going to write for him. If he does not come at once, I shall go and fetch him."
"Never! never!" Her eyes flashed angrily. "Promise that you will not. Let him come when he is ready.
"He does not, care." She shuddered a little.
"But he will care when he comes, and you--you care for him, Lali?"
Again she shuddered, and a whiteness ran under the hot excitement of her cheeks. She said nothing, but looked up at him, then dropped her face in her hands.
"You do care for him, Lali," he said earnestly, almost solemnly, his lips twitching slightly. "You must care for him; it is his right; and he will--I swear to you I know he will--care for you."
In his own mind there was another thought, a hard, strange thought; and it had to do with the possibility of his brother not caring for this wife.
Still she did not speak.
"To a good woman, with a good husband," he continued, "there is no one-- there should be no one--like the father of her child. And no woman ever loved her child more than you do yours." He knew that this was special pleading.
She trembled, and then dropped her cheek beside the child's. "I want Frank to be happy," he went on; "there is no one I care more for than for Frank."
She lifted her face to him now, in it a strange light. Then her look ran to confusion, and she seemed to read all that he meant to convey. He knew she did. He touched her shoulder.
"You must do the best you can every way, for Frank's sake, for all our sakes. I will help you--God knows I will--all I can."
"Ah, yes, yes," she whispered, from the child's pillow.
He could see the flame in her cheek. "I understand." She put out her hand to him, but did not look up. "Leave me alone with my baby, Richard," she pleaded.
He took her hand and pressed it again and again in his old, unconscious way. Then he let it go, and went slowly to the door. There he turned and looked back at her. He mastered the hot thought in him. "God help me!" she murmured from the cot. The next morning Richard went back to Greyhope.
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