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"Abdul Hafiz," said Ram Lal, as we sat round the fire we had made, preparing food, "if it is thy pleasure I will conduct thy friend to a place of safety and set his feet in the paths that lead to pleasant places. For thou art weary and wilt take thy rest until noon, but I am not weary and the limbs of the Afghan are as iron." He spoke in Persian, so that Shere Ali could understand what he said. The latter looked uneasy at first, but soon perceived that his best chance of safety lay in immediately leaving the neighbourhood, which was unpleasantly near Simla on the one side and the frontiers of Baithopoor on the other.
"I thank thee, Ram Lal," replied Isaacs, "and I gladly accept thy offer. Whither wilt thou conduct our friend the Amir?"
"I will lead him by a sure road into Thibet, and my brethren shall take care of him, and presently he shall journey safely northwards into the Tartar country, and thence to the Russ people, where the followers of your prophet are many, and if thou wilt give him the letters thou hast written, which he may present to the principal moolahs, he shall prosper. And as for money, if thou hast gold, give him of it, and if not, give him silver; and if thou hast none, take no thought, for the freedom of the spirit is better than the obesity of the body."
"Bishmillah! Thou speakest with the tongue of wisdom, old man," said Shere Ali; "nevertheless a few rupees--"
"Fear nothing," broke in Isaacs. "I have for thee a store of a few rupees in silver, and there are two hundred gold mohurs in this bag. They are scarce in Hind and pass not as money, but the value of them whither thou goest shall buy thee food many days. Take also this diamond, which if thou be in want thou shalt sell and be rich."
Shere Ali, who had been suspicious of treachery, or at least was afraid to believe himself really free, was convinced by this generosity. The great rough warrior, the brave patriot who had shut the gates of Kabul in the face of Sir Neville Chamberlain, and who had faced every danger and defeat, rather than tamely suffer the advance of the all-devouring English into his dominions, was proud and unbending still, through all his captivity and poverty and trouble, and weariness of soul and suffering of body; he could bear his calamities like a man, the unrelenting chief of an unrelenting race. But when Isaacs stretched forth his hand and freed him, and bestowed upon him, moreover, a goodly stock of cash, and bid him go in peace, his gratitude got the better of him, and he fairly broke down. The big tears coursed down over his rough cheeks, and his face sank between his hands, which trembled violently for a moment. Then his habitual calm of outward manner returned.
"Allah requite thee, my brother," he said, "I can never hope to."
"I have done nothing," said Isaacs. "Shall believers languish and perish in the hands of swine without faith? Verily it is Allah's doing, whose name is great and powerful. He will not suffer the followers of His prophet to be devoured of jackals and unclean beasts. Masallah! There is no God but God."
Therefore, when they had eaten some food, Ram Lal and Shere Ali departed, journeying north-east towards Thibet, and Isaacs and I remained sleeping in the tent until past noon. Then we arose and went our way, having packed up the little canvas house and the utensils and the pole into a neat bundle which we carried by turns along the steep rough paths, until we found the dooly-bearers squatting round the embers after their mid-day meal. As we journeyed we talked of the events of the night. It seemed to me that the whole thing might have been managed very much more simply. Isaacs did things in his own way, however, and, after all, he generally had a good reason for his actions.
"I think not," he said in reply to my question. "While you were throwing that ruffian, who would have overmatched me in an instant, Shere Ali and I disposed of the sowars who ran up at the captain's signal. Shere Ali says he killed one of them with his hands, and my little knife here seems to have done some damage." He produced the vicious-looking dagger, stained above the hilt with dark blood, which he began to scrape off with a bit of stick.
"My dear fellow," I objected, "I am delighted to have served you, and I see that since Shere Ali could not be warned of the signal, I was the only person there who could tackle that Punjabi man; yet I am completely at a loss to explain why, if Ram Lal can command the forces of nature to the extent of calling down a thick mist under the cover of which we might escape, he could not have calmly destroyed the whole band by lightning, or indigestion, or some simple and efficacious means, so that we need not have risked our lives in supplementing what he only half did."
"There are plenty of answers to that question," Isaacs answered. "In the first place, how do you know that Ram Lal could do anything more than discover the preconcerted signal and bring down that fog? He pretends to no supernatural power; he only asserts that he understands the workings of nature better than you do. How do you know that the fog was his doing at all? Your excited imagination, developed suddenly by the tussle with the captain, which undoubtedly sent the blood to your head, made you think you saw Ram Lal's figure magnified beyond human proportion. If there had been no mist at all, we should most likely have got away unhurt all the same. Those fellows would not fight after their leader was down. Again, I like to let Ram Lal feel that I am able to do something for myself, and that I have other friends as powerful. He aims at obtaining too much ascendency over me. I do not like it."
"Oh--if you look at it in that light, I have nothing to say. It has been a very pleasant and interesting excursion to me, and I am rather glad I only broke that fellow's arm instead of killing him, as you and Shere Ali did your sowars."
"I don't know whether I killed him. I suppose I did. Poor fellow. However, he would certainly have killed me."
"Of course. No use crying over spilt milk," I answered.
So we got into the doolies and swung away. As we neared Simla my friend's spirits rose, and he chanted wild Persian and Arabic love-songs, and kept up a fire of conversation all day and all night, singing and talking alternately.
"Griggs," he said, as we approached the end of our journey, "did you have occasion to tell Miss Westonhaugh where I had gone?"
"Yes. She asked me, and I answered that you had gone to save a man's life. She looked very much pleased, I thought, but just then somebody came up, and we did not talk any more about it. I got your message the evening of the day you left."
"She looked pleased?"
"Very much. I remember the colour came into her cheeks."
"Was she so pale, then?" he asked anxiously.
"Why, yes. You remember how she looked the night before you left? She was even paler the next day, but when I said you had gone to do a good deed, the light came into her face for a moment."
"Do you think she was ill, Griggs?"
"She did not look well, but of course she was anxious about you, and a good deal cut up about your going."
"No; but did you really think she was ill?" he insisted.
"Oh no, nothing but your going."
His spirits were gone again, and he said very little more that day. As we were ascending the last hills, some eight or nine hours from Simla, the moon rose majestically behind us. It must have been ten o'clock, for she could not have been seen above the notch in the mountains to eastward until she had been risen an hour at least.
"I wonder where they are now, those two," said Isaacs.
"Shere Ali and Ram Lal?"
"Yes. They are probably across the borders into Thibet, watching the moon rise from the door of some Buddhist monastery. I am glad I am not there."
"Isaacs," I said, "I would really like to know why you took so much trouble about Shere Ali. It seems to me you might have procured his liberation in some simpler way, if it was merely an act of charity that you contemplated."
"Call it anything you like. I had read about the poor man until my imagination was wrought up, and I could not bear to think of a man so brave and patriotic and at the same time a true believer, lying in the clutches of that old beast of a maharajah. And as for the method of my procedure, do you realise the complete secrecy of the whole affair? Do you see that no one but you and I and the Baithopoor people know anything of the transaction? Do you suppose that I should be tolerated a day in the country if the matter were known? Above all, what do you imagine Mr. Currie Ghyrkins would think of me if he knew I had been liberating and enriching the worst foe of his little god, Lord Beaconsfield?"
There was truth in what he said. By no arrangement could the liberation of Shere Ali have been effected with such secrecy and despatch as by the simple plan of going ourselves. And now we toiled up the last hills, vainly attempting to keep our horses in a canter; long before the relay was reached they had relapsed into a dogged jog-trot.
So we reached Simla at sunrise, and crawled wearily up the steps of the hotel to our rooms, tired with the cramp of dooly and saddle for so many days, and longing for the luxury of the bath, the civilised meal, and the arm-chair. Of course I did not suppose Isaacs would go to bed. He expected that the Westonhaughs would have returned by this time, and he would doubtless go to them as soon as he had breakfasted. So we separated to dress and be shaved--my beard was a week old at least--and to make ourselves as comfortable as we deserved to be after our manifold exertions. We had been three days and a half from Keitung to Simla.
At my door stood the faithful Kiramat Ali, salaaming and making a pretence of putting dust on his head according to his ideas of respectful greeting. On the table lay letters; one of these, a note, lay in a prominent position. I took it instinctively, though I did not know the hand. It was from Mr. Currie Ghyrkins.
MY DEAR MR. GRIGGS--If you have returned to Simla, I should be glad to see you for half an hour on a matter of urgent importance. I would come to you if I could. My niece, Miss Westonhaugh, is, I am sorry to say, dangerously ill.--Sincerely yours,
A. CURRIE GHYRKINS.
It was dated two days before, for to-day was Monday. I made every possible haste in my toilet and ordered a horse. I wondered whether Isaacs had received a similar missive. What could be the matter? What might not have happened in those two days since the note was written? I felt sure that the illness had begun before I left them in the Terai, hastened probably by the pain she had felt at Isaacs' departure; there is nothing like a little mental worry to hasten an illness, if it is to come at all. Poor Miss Westonhaugh! So, after all her gaiety and all the enjoyment she had from the tiger-hunt on which she had set her heart, she had come back to be ill in Simla. Well, the air was fresh enough now--almost cold, in fact. She would soon be well. Still, it was a great pity. We might have had such a gay week before breaking up.
I was dressed, and I went down the steps, passing Isaacs' open door. He was calmly reading a newspaper and having a morning smoke, until it should be time to go out. Clearly he had not heard anything of Miss Westonhaugh's illness. I resolved I would say nothing until I knew the worst, so I merely put my head in and said I should be back in an hour to breakfast with him, and passed on. Once on horseback, I galloped as hard as I could, scattering chuprassies and children and marketers to right and left in the bazaar. It was not long before I left my horse at the corner of Mr. Currie Ghyrkins' lawn, and walking to the verandah, which looked suspiciously neat and unused, inquired for the master of the house. I was shown into his bedroom, for it was still very early and he was dressing.
I noticed a considerable change in the old gentleman's manner and appearance in the last ten days. His bright red colour was nearly faded, his eyes had grown larger and less bright, he had lost flesh, and his tone was subdued in the extreme. He came from his dressing-glass to greet me with a ghost of the old smile on his face, and his hand stretched eagerly out.
"My dear Mr. Griggs, I am sincerely glad to see you."
"I have not been in Simla two hours," I answered, "and I found your note. How is Miss Westonhaugh? I am so sorry to----"
"Don't talk about her, Griggs. I am afraid she's g--g--goin' to die." He nearly broke down, but he struggled bravely. I was terribly shocked, though a moment's reflection told me that so strong and healthy a person would not die so easily. I expressed my sympathy as best I could.
"What is it? What is the illness?" I asked when he was quieter.
"Jungle fever, my dear fellow, jungle fever; caught in that beastly tiger-hunt. Oh! I wish I had never taken her. I wish we had never gone. Why wasn't I firm? Damn it all, sir, why wasn't I firm, eh?" In his anger at himself something of the former jerky energy of the man showed itself. Then it faded away into the jaded sorrowful look that was on his face when I came in. He sat down with his elbows on his knees and his hands in his scanty gray hair, his suspenders hanging down at his sides--the picture of misery. I tried to console him, but I confess I felt very much like breaking down myself. I did not see what I could do, except break the bad news to Isaacs.
"Mr. Griggs," he said at last, "she has been asking for you all the time, and the doctor thought if you came she had best see you, as it might quiet her. Understand?" I understood better than he thought.
People who are dangerously ill have no morning and no evening. Their hours are eternally the same, save for the alternation of suffering and rest. The nurse and the doctor are their sun and moon, relieving each other in the watches of day and night. As they are worse--as they draw nearer to eternity, they are less and less governed by ideas of time. A dying person will receive a visit at midnight or at mid-day with no thought but to see the face of friend--or foe--once more. So I was not surprised to find that Miss Westonhaugh would see me; in an interval of the fever she had been moved to a chair in her room, and her brother was with her. I might go in--indeed she sent a very urgent message imploring that I would go. I went.
The morning sun was beating brightly on the shutters, and the room looked cheerful as I entered. John Westonhaugh, paler than death, came quickly to the door and grasped my hand.
On a long cane-chair by the window, carefully covered from the possible danger of any insidious draught, with a mass of soft white wraps and shawls, lay Katharine Westonhaugh--the transparant phantasm of her brilliant self. The rich masses of pale hair were luxuriously nestled around her shoulders and the blazing eyes flamed, lambently, under the black brows--but that was all. Colour, beside the gold hair and the black eyes, there was hardly any. The strong clean-cut outline of the features was there, but absolutely startling in emaciation, so that there seemed to be no flesh at all; the pale lips scarcely closed over the straight white teeth. A wonderful and a fearful sight to see, that stately edifice of queenly strength and beauty thus laid low and pillaged and stript of all colour save purple and white--the hues of mourning--the purple lips and the white cheek. I have seen many people die, and the moment I looked at Katharine Westonhaugh I felt that the hand of death was already closed over her, gripped round, never to relax. John led me to her side, and a faint smile showed she was glad to see me. I knelt reverently down, as one would kneel beside one already dead. She spoke first, clearly and easily, as it seemed. People who are ill from fever seldom lose the faculty of speech.
"I am so glad you are come. There are many things I want you to do."
"Yes, Miss Westonhaugh. I will do everything."
"Is he come back?" she asked--then, as I looked at her brother, she added, "John knows, he is very glad."
"Yes, we came back this morning together; I came here at once."
"Thank you--it was kind. Did you give him the box?"
"Yes--he does not know you are ill. He means to come at eleven."
"Tell him to come now. Now--do you understand?" Then she added in a low tone, for my ear only, "I don't think they know it; I am dying. I shall be dead before to-night. Don't tell him that. Make him come now. John knows. Now go. I am tired. No--wait! Did he save the man's life?"
"Yes; the man is safe and free in Thibet."
"That was nobly done. Now go. You have always been kind to me, and you love him. When you see me again I shall be gone." Her voice was perceptibly weaker, though still clearly audible. "When I am gone, put some flowers on me for friendship's sake. You have always been so kind. Good-bye, dear Mr. Griggs. Good-bye. God keep you." I moved quickly to the door, fearing lest the piteous sight should make a coward of me. It was so ineffably pathetic--this lovely creature, just tasting of the cup of life and love and dying so.
"Bring him here at once, Griggs, please. I know all about it. It may save her." John Westonhaugh clasped my hand in his again, and pushed me out to speed me on my errand. I tore along the crooked paths and the winding road, up through the bazaar, past the church and the narrow causeway beyond to the hotel. I found him still smoking and reading the paper.
"Well?" said he cheerfully, for the morning sun had dispelled the doubts of the night.
"My dear friend," I said, "Miss Westonhaugh wants to see you immediately."
"How? What? Of course; I will go at once, but how did you know?"
"Wait a minute, Isaacs; she is not well at all--in fact, she is quite ill."
"What's the matter--for God's sake--Why, Griggs, man, how white you are--O my God, my God--she is dead!" I seized him quickly in my arms or he would have thrown himself on the ground.
"No," I said, "she is not dead. But, my dear boy, she is dying. I do not believe she will live till this evening. Therefore get to horse and ride there quickly, before it is too late."
Isaacs was a brave man, and of surpassing strength to endure. After the first passionate outburst, his manner never changed as he mechanically ordered his horse and pulled on his boots. He was pale naturally, and great purple rings seemed to come out beneath his eyes--as if he had received a blow--from the intensity of his suppressed emotion. Once only he spoke before he mounted.
"What is it?" he asked.
"Jungle fever," I answered. He groaned. "Shall I go with you?" asked I, thinking it might be as well. He shook his head, and was off in a moment.
I turned to my rooms and threw myself on my bed. Poor fellow; was there ever a more piteous case? Oh the cruel misery of feeling that nothing could save her! And he--he who would give life and wealth and fortune and power to give her back a shade of colour--as much as would tinge a rose-leaf, even a very little rose-leaf--and could not. Poor fellow! What would he do to-night--to-morrow. I could see him kneeling by her side and weeping hot tears over the wasted hands. I could almost hear his smothered sob--his last words of speeding to the parting soul--the picture grew intensely in my thoughts. How beautiful she would look when she was dead!
I started as the thought came into my mind. How superficial was my acquaintance with her, poor girl,--how little was she a part of my life, since I could really so heartlessly think of her beauty when her breath should be gone! Of course, though, it was natural enough, why should I feel any personal pang for her? It was odd that I should even expect to--I, who never felt a "personal pang" of regret for the death of any human creature, excepting poor dear old Lucia, who brought me up, and sent me to school, and gave me roast chestnuts when I knew my lessons, in the streets of Rome, thirty years ago. When she died, I was there; poor old soul, how fond she was of me! And I of her! I remember the tears I shed, though I was a bearded man even then. How long is that? Since she died, it must be ten years.
My thoughts wandered about among all sorts of bric-à-brac memories. Presently something brought me back to the present. Why must this fair girl from the north die miserably here in India? Ah yes! the eternal why. Why did we go at such a season into the forests of the Terai? it was madness; we knew it was, and Ram Lal knew it too. Hence his warning. O Ram Lal, you are a wise old man, with your gray beard and you mists of wet white velvet and your dark sayings! Ram Lal, will you riddle me, also, my weird that I must dree?
A cold draught passed over my head, and I turned on my couch to see whence it came. I started bolt upright, and my hair stood on end with sudden terror. I had uttered the name of Ram Lal aloud in my reverie, and there he sat on a chair by the door, as gray as ever, with his long staff leaning from his feet across his breast and shoulder. He looked at me quietly.
"I come opportunely, Mr. Griggs, it seems. Lupus in fabula. I hear my name pronounced as I enter the door. This is flattering to a man of my modest pretensions to social popularity. You would like me to tell you your fortune? Well, I am not a fortune-teller."
"Never mind my fortune. Will Miss Westonhaugh recover?"
"No. She will die at sundown."
"How do you know, since you say you are no prophet?"
"Because I am a doctor of medicine. M.D. of Edinburgh."
"Why can you not save her then? A man who is a Scotch doctor, and who possesses the power of performing such practical jokes on nature as you exhibited the other night, might do something. However, I suppose I am not talking to you at all. You are in Thibet with Shere Ali. This is your astral body, and if I were near enough, I could poke my fingers right through you, as you sit there, telling me you are an Edinburgh doctor, forsooth."
"Quite right, Mr. Griggs. At the present moment my body is quietly asleep in a lamastery in Thibet, and this is my astral shape, which, from force of habit, I begin to like almost as well. But to be serious----"
"I think it is very serious, your going about in this casual manner."
"To be serious. I warned Isaacs that he should not allow the tiger-hunt to come off. He would not heed my warning. It is too late now. I am not omnipotent."
"Of course not. Still, you might be of some use if you went there. While there is life there is hope."
"Proverbs," said Earn Lai scornfully, "are the wisdom of wise men prepared in portable doses for the foolish; and the saying you quote is one of them. There is life yet, but there is no hope."
"Well, I am afraid you are right. I saw her this morning--I suppose I shall never see her again, not alive, at least. She looked nearly dead then. Poor girl; poor Isaacs, left behind!"
"You may well say that, Mr. Griggs," said the adept. "On the whole, perhaps he is to be less pitied than she; who knows? Perhaps we should pity neither, but rather envy both."
"Why? Either you are talking the tritest of cant, or you are indulging in more of your dark sayings, to be interpreted, post facto, entirely to your own satisfaction, and to every one else's disgust." I was impatient with the man. If he had such extraordinary powers as were ascribed to him--I never heard him assert that he possessed any; if he could prophesy, he might as well do so to some purpose. Why could he not speak plainly? He could not impose on me, who was ready to give him credit for what he really could do, while finding fault with the way he did it.
"I understand what passes in your mind, friend Griggs," he said, not in the least disconcerted at my attack. "You want me to speak plainly to you, because you think you are a plain-spoken, clear-headed man of science yourself. Very well, I will. I think you might yourself become a brother some day, if you would. But you will not now, neither will in the future. Yet you understand some little distant inkling of the science. When you ask your scornful questions of me, you know perfectly well that you are putting an inquiry which you yourself can answer as well as I. I am not omnipotent. I have very little more power than you. Given certain conditions and I can produce certain results, palpable, visible, and appreciable to all; but my power, as you know, is itself merely the knowledge of the laws of nature, which Western scientists, in their wisdom, ignore. I can replenish the oil in the lamp, and while there is wick the lamp shall burn--ay, even for hundreds of years. But give me a lamp wherein the wick is consumed, and I shall waste my oil; for it will not burn unless there be the fibre to carry it. So also is the body of man. While there is the flame of vitality and the essence of life in his nerves and finer tissues, I will put blood in his veins, and if he meet with no accident he may live to see hundreds of generations pass by him. But where there is no vitality and no essence of life in a man, he must die; for though I fill his veins with blood, and cause his heart to beat for a time, there is no spark in him--no fire, no nervous strength. So is Miss Westonhaugh now--dead while yet breathing, and sighing her sweet farewells to her lover."
"I know. I understand you very well. But do not deny that you might have saved her. Why did you not?" Ram Lal smiled a strange smile, which I should have described as self-satisfied, had it not been so gentle and kind.
"Ah yes!" he said, with something like a sigh, though there was no sorrow or regret in it. "Yes, Griggs, I might have saved her life. I would certainly have saved her--well, if he had not persuaded her to go down into that steaming country at this time of year, since it was my advice to remain here. But it is no use talking about it."
"I think you might have conveyed your meaning to him a little more clearly. He had no idea that you meant danger to her."
"No, very likely not. It is not my business to mould men's destinies for them. If I give them advice that is good, it is quite enough. It is like a man playing cards: if he does not seize his chance it does not return. Besides, it is much better for him that she should die."
"Your moral reflections are insufferable. Can you not find some one else to whom you may confide your secret joy of my friend's misfortunes?"
"Calm yourself. I say it is better for her, better for him, better for both. Remember what you said to him yourself about the difference between pleasure and happiness. They shall be one yet, their happiness shall not be less eternal because their pleasure in this life has been brief. Can you not conceive of immortal peace and joy without the satisfaction of earthly lust?"
"I would not call such a beautiful union as theirs might have been by such a name. For myself, I confess to a very real desire for pleasure first and happiness afterwards."
"I know you better than you think, Mr. Griggs. You are merely argumentative, rarely sceptical. If I had begun by denying what I instead asserted, you would by this time have been arguing as strongly on my side as you now are on yours. You are often very near degenerating into a common sophist."
"Very likely, it was a charming profession. Meanwhile, by going to the very opposite extreme from sophistry, I mean by a more than Quixotic veneration for an abstract dogma you hold to be true, and by your determination to make people die for it, you are causing fearful misery of body, untold agony of soul, to a woman and a man whom you should have every reason to like. Go to, Ram Lal, adept, magician, enthusiast, and prophet, you are mistaken, like all your kind!"
"No, I am not mistaken, time will show. Moreover, I would have you remark that the lady in question is not suffering at all, and that the 'untold agony of soul' you attribute to Isaacs is a wholesome medicine for one with such a soul as his. And now I am going, for you are not the sort of person with whom I can enjoy talking very long. You are violent and argumentative, though you are sometimes amusing. I am rarely violent, and I never argue: life is too short. And yet I have more time for it than you, seeing my life will be indefinitely longer than yours. Good-bye, for the present; and believe me, those two will be happier far, and far more blessed, in a few short years hence, than ever you or I shall be in all the unreckonable cycles of this or any future world." Ram Lal sighed as he uttered the last words, and he was gone; yet the musical cadence of the deep-drawn breath of a profound sorrow, vibrated whisperingly through the room where I lay. Poor Ram Lal, he must have had some disappointment in his youth, which, with all his wisdom and superiority over the common earth, still left a sore place in his heart.
I was not inclined to move. I knew where Isaacs was, where he would remain to the bitter end, and I would not go out into the world that day, while he was kneeling in the chamber of death. He might come back at any time. How long would it last? God in his mercy grant it might be soon and quickly over, without suffering. Oh! but those strong people die so deathly hard. I have seen a man--No, I was sure of that. She would not suffer any more now.
I lay thinking. Would Isaacs send for me when he returned, or would he face his grief alone for a night before he spoke? The latter, I thought; I hoped so too. How little sympathy there must be for any one, even the dearest, in our souls and hearts, when it is so hard to look forward to speaking half-a-dozen words of comfort to some poor wretch of a friend who has lost everything in the wide world that is dear to him. We would rather give him all we possess outright than attempt to console him for the loss. And yet--what is there in life more sweet than to be consoled and comforted, and to have the true sympathy of some one, even a little near to us, when we ourselves are suffering. The people we do not want shower cards of condolence on us, and carriage-loads of flowers on the poor dead thing; the ones who could be of some help to the tortured soul are afraid to speak; the very delicacy of kind-heartedness in them, which makes us wish they would come, makes them stay away.
I hope Isaacs will not send for me, poor fellow.
If he does, what shall I say? God help me.
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