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"We will go there at four," said Isaacs, coming into my rooms after tiffin, a meal of which I found he rarely partook. "I said three, this morning, but it is not a bad plan to keep natives waiting. It makes them impatient, and then they commit themselves."
"You are Machiavellian. It is pretty clear which of you is asking the favour."
"Yes, it is pretty clear." He sat down and took up the last number of the Howler which lay on the table. Presently he looked up. "Griggs, why do you not come to Delhi? We might start a newspaper there, you know, in the Conservative interest."
"In the interest of Mr. Algernon Currie Ghyrkins?" I inquired.
"Precisely. You anticipate my thoughts with a true sympathy. I suppose you have no conscience?"
"Political conscience? No, certainly not, out of my own country, which is the only one where that sort of thing commands a high salary. No, I have no conscience."
"You would really write as willingly for the Conservatives as you do for the Liberals?"
"Oh yes. I could not write so well on the Conservative side just now, because they are 'in,' and it is more blessed to abuse than to be abused, and ever so much easier. But as far as any prejudice on the subject is concerned, I have none. I had as lief defend a party that robs India 'for her own good,' as support those who would rob her with a more cynical frankness and unblushingly transfer the proceeds to their own pockets. I do not care a rush whether they rob Peter to pay Paul, or fraudulently deprive Paul of his goods for the benefit of Peter."
"That is the way to look at it. I could tell you some very pretty stories about that kind of thing. As for the journalistic enterprise, it is only a possible card to be played if the old gentleman is obdurate."
"Isaacs," said I, "I have only known you three days, but you have taken me into your confidence to some extent; probably because I am not English. I may be of use to you, and I am sure I sincerely hope so. Meanwhile I want to ask you a question, if you will allow me to." I paused for an answer. We were standing by the open door, and Isaacs leaned back against the door-post, his eyes fixed on me, half closed, as he threw his head back. He looked at me somewhat curiously, and I thought a smile flickered round his mouth, as if he anticipated what the question would be.
"Certainly," he said slowly. "Ask me anything you like. I have nothing to conceal."
"Do you seriously think of marrying, or proposing to marry, Miss Katharine Westonhaugh?"
"I do seriously think of proposing to marry, and of marrying, Miss Westonhaugh." He looked very determined as he thus categorically affirmed his intention. I knew he meant it, and I knew enough of Oriental character to understand that a man like Abdul Hafizben-Isāk, of strong passions, infinite wit, and immense wealth, was not likely to fail in anything he undertook to do. When Asiatic indifference gives way under the strong pressure of some master passion, there is no length to which the hot and impetuous temper beneath may not carry the man. Isaacs had evidently made up his mind. I did not think he could know much about the usual methods of wooing English girls, but as I glanced at his graceful figure, his matchless eyes, and noted for the hundredth time the commanding, high-bred air that was the breath of his character, I felt that his rival would have but a poor chance of success. He guessed my thoughts.
"What do you think of me?" he asked, smiling. "Will you back me for a place? I have advantages, you must allow--and worldly advantages too. They are not rich people at all."
"My dear Isaacs, I will back you to win. But as far as 'worldly advantages' are concerned, do not trust to wealth for a moment. Do not flatter yourself that there will be any kind of a bargain, as if you were marrying a Persian girl. There is nothing venal in that young lady's veins, I am sure."
"Allah forbid! But there is something very venal in the veins of Mr. Currie Ghyrkins. I propose to carry the outworks one by one. He is her uncle, her guardian, her only relation, save her brother. I do not think either of those men would be sorry to see her married to a man of stainless name and considerable fortune."
"You forget your three incumbrances, as you called them last night."
"No--I do not forget them. It is allowed me by my religion to marry a fourth, and I need not tell you that she would be thenceforth my only wife."
"But would her guardian and brother ever think of allowing her to take such a position?"
"Why not? You know very well that the English in general hardly consider our marriages to be marriages at all--knowing the looseness of the bond. That is the prevailing impression."
"Yes, I know. But then they would consider your marriage with Miss Westonhaugh in the same light, which would not make matters any easier, as far as I can see."
"Pardon me. I should marry Miss Westonhaugh by the English marriage service and under English law. I should be as much bound to her, and to her alone, as if I were an Englishman myself."
"Well, you have evidently thought it out and taken legal advice; and really, as far as the technical part of it goes, I suppose you have as good a chance as Lord Steepleton Kildare."
Isaacs frowned, and his eyes flashed. I saw at once that he considered the Irish officer a rival, and a dangerous one. I did not think that if Isaacs had fair play and the same opportunities Kildare had much chance. Besides there was a difficulty in the way.
"As far as religion is concerned, Lord Steepleton is not much better off than you, if he wants to marry Miss Westonhaugh. The Kildares have been Roman Catholics since the memory of man, and they are very proud of it. Theoretically, it is as hard for a Roman Catholic man to marry a Protestant woman, as for a Mussulman to wed a Christian of any denomination. Harder, in fact, for your marriage depends upon the consent of the lady, and his upon the consent of the Church. He has all sorts of difficulties to surmount, while you have only to get your personality accepted--which, when I look at you, I think might be done," I added, laughing.
"Jo hoga, so hoga--what will be, will be," he said; "but religion or no religion, I mean to do it." Then he lighted a cigarette and said, "Come, it is time to go and see his Saturnine majesty, the Maharajah of Baithopoor."
I called for my hat and gloves.
"By-the-bye, Griggs, you may as well put on a black coat. You know the old fellow is a king, after all, and you had better produce a favourable impression." I retired to comply with his request, and as I came back he turned quickly and came towards me, holding out both hands, with a very earnest look in his face.
"Griggs, I care for that lady more than I can tell you," he said, taking my hands in his.
"My dear fellow, I am sure you do. People do not go suddenly into trances at a name that is indifferent to them. I am sure you love her very honestly and dearly."
"You and she have come into my life almost together, for it was not until I talked with you last night that I made up my mind. Will you help me? I have not a friend in the world." The simple, boyish look was in his eyes, and he stood holding my hands and waiting for my answer. I was so fascinated that I would have then and there gone through fire and water for him, as I would now.
"Yes. I will help you. I will be a friend to you."
"Thank you. I believe you." He dropped my hands, and we turned and went out, silent.
In all my wanderings I had never promised any man my friendship and unconditional support before. There was something about Isaacs that overcame and utterly swept away preconceived ideas, rules, and prejudices. It was but the third day of our acquaintance, and here was I swearing eternal friendship like a school-girl; promising to help a man, of whose very existence I knew nothing three days ago, to marry a woman whom I had seen for the first time yesterday. But I resolved that, having pledged myself, I would do my part with my might, whatever that part might be. Meanwhile we rode along, and Isaacs began to talk about the visit we were going to make.
"I think," he said, "that you had better know something about this matter beforehand. The way is long, and we cannot ride fast over the steep roads, so there is plenty of time. Do not imagine that I have idly asked you to go with me because I supposed it would amuse you. Dismiss also from your mind the impression that it is a question of buying and selling jewels. It is a very serious matter, and if you would prefer to have nothing to do with it, do not hesitate to say so. I promised the maharajah this morning that I would bring, this afternoon, a reliable person of experience, who could give advice, and who might be induced to give his assistance as well as his counsel. I have not known you long, but I know you by reputation, and I decided to bring you, if you would come. From the very nature of the case I can tell you nothing more, unless you consent to go with me."
"I will go," I said.
"In that case I will try and explain the situation in as few words as possible. The maharajah is in a tight place. You will readily understand that the present difficulties in Kabul cause him endless anxiety, considering the position of his dominions. The unexpected turn of events, following now so rapidly on each other since the English wantonly sacrificed Cavagnari and his friends to a vainglorious love of bravado, has shaken the confidence of the native princes in the stability of English rule. They are frightened out of their senses, having the fear of the tribes before them if the English should be worsted; and they dread, on the other hand, lest the English, finding themselves in great straits, should levy heavy contributions on them--the native princes--for the consolidation of what they term the 'Empire.' They have not much sense, these poor old kings and boy princes, or they would see that the English do not dare to try any of those old-fashioned Clive tactics now. But old Baithopoor has heard all about the King of Oude, and thinks he may share the same fate."
"I think he may make his mind easy on that score. The kingdom of Baithopoor is too inconveniently situated and too full of mosquitoes to attract the English. Besides, there are more roses than rubies there just now."
"True, and that question interests me closely, for the old man owes me a great deal of money. It was I who pulled him through the last famine."
"Not a very profitable investment, I should think. Shall you ever see a rupee of that money again?"
"Yes; he will pay me; though I did not think so a week ago, or indeed yesterday. I lent him the means of feeding his people and saving many of them from actual death by starvation, because there are so many Mussulmans among them, though the maharajah is a Hindoo. As for him, he might starve to-morrow, the infidel hound; I would not give him a chowpatti or a mouthful of dal to keep his wretched old body alive."
"Do I understand that this interview relates to the repayment of the moneys you have advanced?"
"Yes; though that is not the most interesting part of it. He wanted to pay me in flesh--human flesh, and he offered to make me a king into the bargain, if I would forgive him the debt. The latter part of the proposal was purely visionary. The promise to pay in so much humanity he is able to perform. I have not made up my mind."
I looked at Isaacs in utter astonishment. What in the world could he mean? Had the maharajah offered him some more wives--creatures of peerless beauty and immense value? No; I knew he would not hesitate now to refuse such a proposition.
"Will you please to explain what you mean by his paying you in man?" I asked.
"In two words. The Maharajah of Baithopoor has in his possession a man. Safely stowed away under a triple watch and carefully tended, this man awaits his fate as the maharajah may decide. The English Government would pay an enormous sum for this man, but Baithopoor fears that they would ask awkward questions, and perhaps not believe the answers he would give them. So, as he owes me a good deal, he thinks I might be induced to take his prisoner and realise him, so to speak; thus cancelling the debt, and saving him from the alternative of putting the man to death privately, or of going through dangerous negotiations with the Government. Now this thing is perfectly feasible, and it depends upon me to say 'yes' or 'no' to the proposition. Do you see now? It is a serious matter enough."
"But the man--who is he? Why do the English want him so much?"
Isaacs pressed his horse close to mine, and looking round to see that the saice was a long way behind, he put his hand on my shoulder, and, leaning out of the saddle till his mouth almost touched my ear, he whispered quickly--
"The devil, you say!" I ejaculated, surprised out of grammar and decorum by the startling news. Persons who were in India in 1879 will not have forgotten the endless speculation caused by the disappearance of the Emir of Afghanistan, Shere Ali, in the spring of that year. Defeated by the English at Ali Musjid and Peiwar, and believing his cause lost, he fled, no one knew whither; though there is reason to think that he might have returned to power and popularity among the Afghan tribes if he had presented himself after the murder of Cavagnari.
"Yes," continued Isaacs, "he has been a prisoner in the palace of Baithopoor for six weeks, and not a soul save the maharajah and you and I know it. He came to Baithopoor, humbly disguised as a Yogi from the hills, though he is a Mussulman, and having obtained a private hearing, disclosed his real name, proposing to the sovereign a joint movement on Kabul, then just pacified by the British, and promising all manner of things for the assistance. Old Baitho, who is no fool, clapped him into prison under a guard of Punjabi soldiers who could not speak a word of Afghan, and after due consideration packed up his traps and betook himself to Simla by short stages, for the journey is not an easy one for a man of his years. He arrived the day before yesterday, and has ostensibly come to congratulate the Viceroy on the success of the British arms. He has had to modify the enthusiasm of his proposed address, in consequence of the bad news from Kabul. Of course, his first move was to send for me, and I had a long interview this morning, in which he explained everything. I told him that I would not move in the matter without a third person--necessary as a witness when dealing with such people--and I have brought you."
"But what was his proposal to invest you with a crown? Did he think you were a likely person for a new Emir of Kabul?"
"Exactly. My faith, and above all, my wealth, suggested to him that I, as a born Persian, might be the very man for the vacant throne. No doubt, the English would be delighted to have me there. But the whole thing is visionary and ridiculous. I think I shall accept the other proposition, and take the prisoner. It is a good bargain."
I was silent. The intimate way in which I had seen Isaacs hitherto had made me forget his immense wealth and his power. I had not realised that he could be so closely connected with intrigues of such importance as this, or that independant native princes were likely to look upon him as a possible Emir of Afghanistan. I had nothing to say, and I determined to keep to the part I was brought to perform, which was that of a witness, and nothing more. If my advice were asked, I would speak boldly for Shere Ali's liberation and protest against the poor man being bought and sold in this way. This train of thought reminded me of Isaacs' words when we left Miss Westonhaugh that morning. "It is not often," he had said, "that you see such jewels bought and sold." No, indeed!
"You see," said Isaacs, as we neared our destination, "Baithopoor is in my power, body and soul, for a word from me would expose him to the British Government as 'harbouring traitors,' as they would express it. On the other hand, the fact that you, the third party, are a journalist, and could at a moment's notice give publicity to the whole thing, will be an additional safeguard. I have him as in a vice. And now put on your most formal manners and look as if you were impenetrable as the rock and unbending as cast iron, for we have reached his bungalow."
I could not but admire the perfect calm and caution with which he was conducting an affair involving millions of money, a possible indictment for high treason, and the key-note of the Afghan question, while I knew that his whole soul was absorbed in the contemplation of a beautiful picture ever before him, sleeping or waking. Whatever I might think of his bargaining for the possession of Shere Ali, he had a great, even untiring, intellect. He had the elements of a leader of men, and I fondly hoped he might be a ruler some day.
The bungalow in which the Maharajah of Baithopoor had taken up his residence during his visit was very much like all the rest of the houses I saw in Simla. The verandah, however, was crowded with servants and sowars in gorgeous but rather tawdry liveries, not all of them as clean as they should have been. Horses with elaborate high saddles and embroidered trappings rather the worse for wear were being led up and down the walk. As we neared the door there was a strong smell of rosewater and native perfumes and hookah tobacco--the indescribable odour of Eastern high life. There was also a general air of wasteful and tawdry dowdiness, if I may coin such a word, which one constantly sees in the retinues of native princes and rich native merchants, ill contrasting with the great intrinsic value of some of the ornaments worn by the chief officers of the train.
Isaacs spoke a few words in a low voice to the jemadar at the door, and we were admitted into a small room in the side of the house, opening, as all rooms do in India, on to the verandah. There were low wooden charpoys around the walls, and we sat down, waiting till the maharajah should be advised of our arrival. Very soon a jemadar came in and informed us that "if the sahib log, who were the protectors of the poor, would deign to be led by him," we should be shown into the royal presence. So we rose and followed the obsequious official into another apartment.
The room where the maharajah awaited us was even smaller than the one into which we had been first shown. It was on the back of the house, and only half lighted by the few rays of afternoon sun that struggled through the dense foliage outside. I suppose this apartment had been chosen as the scene of the interview on account of its seclusion. Outside the window, which was closed, a sowar paced slowly up and down to keep away any curious listeners. A heavy curtain hung before the door through which we had entered. I thought that on the whole the place seemed pretty safe.
The old maharajah sat cross-legged upon a great pile of dark-red cushions, his slippers by his side, and a huge hookah before him. He wore a plain white pugree with a large jewel set on one side, and his body was swathed and wrapped in dark thick stuffs, as if he felt keenly the cold autumn air. His face was long, of an ashy yellowish colour, and an immense white moustache hung curling down over his sombre robe. One hand protruded from the folds and held the richly-jewelled mouthpiece of the pipe to his lips, and I noticed that the fingers were long and crooked, winding themselves curiously round the gold stem, as if revelling in the touch of the precious metal and the gems. As we came within his range of vision, his dark eyes shot a quick glance of scrutiny at me and then dropped again. Not a movement of the head or body betrayed a consciousness of our presence. Isaacs made a long salutation in Hindustani, and I followed his example, but he did not take off his shoes or make anything more than an ordinary bow. It was quite evident that he was master of the situation. The old man took the pipe from his mouth and replied in a deep hollow voice that he was glad to see us, and that, in consideration of our wealth, fame, and renowned wisdom, he would waive all ceremony and beg us to be seated. We sat down cross-legged on cushions before him, and as near as we could get, so that it seemed as if we three were performing some sacred rite of which the object was the tall hookah that stood in the centre of our triangle.
Being seated, Isaacs addressed the prince, still in Hindustani, and said that the splendour of his sublime majesty, which was like the sun dispelling the clouds, so overcame him with fear and trembling, that he humbly implored permission to make use of the Persian tongue, which, he was aware, the lord of boundless wisdom spoke with even greater ease than himself.
Without waiting for an answer, and with no perceptible manifestation of any such "fear and trembling" as he professed, Isaacs at once began to speak in his native tongue, and dropping all forms of ceremony or circumlocution plunged boldly into business. He did not hesitate to explain to the maharajah the strength of his position, dwelling on the fact that, by a word to the English of the whereabouts of Shere Ali, he could plunge Baithopoor into hopeless and endless entanglements, to which there could be but one issue--absorption into the British Rāj. He dwelt on the large sums the maharajah owed him for assistance lent during the late famine, and he skilfully produced the impression that he wanted the money down, then and there.
"If your majesty should refuse to satisfy my just claims, I have ample weapons by which to satisfy them for myself, and no considerations of mercy or pity for your majesty will tempt me to abate one rupee in the account of your indebtedness, which, as you well know, is not swelled by any usurious interest. You could not have borrowed the money on such easy terms from any bank in India or England, and if I have been merciful hitherto, I will be so no longer. What saith the Apostle of Allah? 'Verily, life for life, and eye for eye, and nose for nose, and ear for ear, and tooth for tooth, and for wounding retaliation.' And the time of your promise is expired and you shall pay me. And is not the wise Frank, who sitteth at my right hand, the ready writer, who giveth to the public every day a new book to read, the paper of news, Khabar-i-Khagaz wherein are written the misdeeds of the wicked, and the dealings of the fraudulent and the unwary receive their just reward? And think you he will not make a great writing, several columns in length, and deliver it to the devils that perform his bidding, and shall they not multiply what he hath written, and sow it broadcast over the British Rāj for the minor consideration of one anna a copy, that all shall see how the Maharajah of Baithopoor doth scandalously repudiate his debts, and harbour traitors to the Rāj in his palace?"
Isaacs said all this in a solemn and impressive manner, calculated to inspire awe and terror in the soul of the unhappy debtor. As for the maharajah, the cold sweat stood on his face, and at the last words his anxiety was so great that the long fingers uncurled spasmodically and the jewelled mouthpiece fell back, as the head of a snake, among the silken coils of the tube at his feet. Instantly, on feeling the grasping hand empty, his majesty, with more alacrity than I would have expected, darted forward with outstretched claws, as a hawk on his prey, and seizing the glittering thing returned it to his lips with a look of evident relief. It was habit, of course, for we were not exactly the men to plunder him of his toy, but there was a fierceness about the whole action that spoke of the real miser. Then there was silence for a moment. The old man was evidently greatly impressed by the perils of his situation. Isaacs continued.
"Your majesty well perceives that you have surrounded yourself with dangers on all sides. No danger threatens me. I could buy you and Baithopoor to-morrow if I chose. But I am a just man. When the prophet, whose name be blessed, saith that we shall have eye for eye, and nose for nose, and for wounding retaliation, he saith also that 'he that remitteth the same as alms it shall be an atonement unto him.' Now your majesty is a hard man, and I well know that if I force you to pay me now you will cruelly tax and oppress your subjects to refill your coffers. And many of your subjects are true believers, following the prophet, upon whom be peace; and it is also written 'Thou shalt rob a stranger, but thou shalt not rob a brother,'--and if I cause you to rob my brethren is not the sin mine, and the atonement thereof? Now also has the lawful interest on your bond mounted up to several lakhs of rupees. But for the sake of my brethren who are in bondage to you, who are an unbeliever and shall broil everlastingly in raging flames, I will yet make a covenant with you, and the agreement thereof shall be this:
"You shall deliver into my hand, before the dark half of the next moon, the man"--Isaacs lowered his voice to a whisper, barely audible in the still room, where the only sound heard as he paused was the tread of the sowar on the verandah outside-- "the man Shere Ali, formerly Emir of Afghanistan, now hidden in your palace of Baithopoor. Him you shall give to me safe and untouched at the place which I shall choose, northwards from here, in the pass towards Keitung. And there shall not be an hair of his head touched, and if it is good in my eyes I will give him up to the British; and if it is good in my eyes, I will slay him, and you shall ask no questions. And if you refuse to do this I will go to the great lord sahib and tell him of your doings, and you will be arrested before this night and shall not escape. But if you consent and put your hand to this agreement, I will speak no word, and you shall depart in peace; and moreover, for the sake of the true believers in your kingdom I will remit to you the whole of the interest on your debt; and the bond you shall pay at your convenience. I have spoken, do you answer me." Isaacs calmly took from his pocket two rolls covered with Persian writing, and lighting a cigarette, proceeded to peruse them carefully, to detect any flaw or error in their composition. The face of the old maharajah betrayed great emotion, but he bravely pulled away at his hookah and tried to think over the situation. In the hope of delivering himself from his whole debt he had rashly given himself into the hands of a man who hated him, though he had discovered that hatred too late. He had flattered himself that the loan had been made out of friendly feeling and a desire for his interest and support; he found that Isaacs had lent the money, for real or imaginary religious motives, in the interest of his co-religionists. I sat silently watching the varying passions as they swept over the repulsive face of the old man. The silence must have lasted a quarter of an hour.
"Give me the covenant," he said at last, "for I am in the tiger's clutches. I will sign it, since I must. But it shall be requited to you, Abdul Hafiz; and when your body has been eaten of jackals and wild pigs in the forest, your soul shall enter into the shape of a despised sweeper, and you and your off-spring shall scavenge the streets of the cities of my kingdom and of the kingdom of my son, and son's son, to ten thousand generations." A Hindoo cannot express scorn more deadly or hate more lasting than this. Isaacs smiled, but there was a concentrated look in his face, relentless and hard, as he answered the insult.
"I am not going to bandy words with you. But if you are not quick about signing that paper I may change my mind, and send for the Angrezi sowars from Peterhof. So you had better hurry yourself." Isaacs produced a small inkhorn and a reed pen from his pocket. "Sign," he said, rising to his feet "before that soldier outside passes the window three times, or I will deliver you to the British."
Trembling in every joint, and the perspiration standing on his face like beads, the old man seized the pen and traced his name and titles at the foot, first of one copy, and then of the other. Isaacs followed, writing his full name in the Persian character, and I signed my name last, "Paul Griggs," in large letters at the bottom of each roll, adding the word "witness," in case of the transaction becoming known.
"And now," said Isaacs to the maharajah, "despatch at once a messenger, and let the man here mentioned be brought under a strong guard and by circuitous roads to the pass of Keitung, and let them there encamp before the third week from to-day, when the moon is at the full. And I will be there and will receive the man. And woe to you if he come not; and woe to you if you oppress the true believers in your realm." He turned on his heel, and I followed him out of the room after making a brief salutation to the old man, cowering among his cushions, a ceremony which Isaacs omitted, whether intentionally or from forgetfulness, I could not say. We passed through the house out into the air, and mounting our horses rode away, leaving the double row of servants salaaming to the ground. The duration of our private interview with the maharajah had given them an immense idea of our importance. We had come at four and it was now nearly five. The long pauses and the Persian circumlocutions had occupied a good deal of time.
"You do not seem to have needed my counsel or assistance much," I said. "With such an armoury of weapons you could manage half-a-dozen maharajahs."
"Yes--perhaps so. But I have strong reasons for wishing this affair quickly over, and the editor of a daily paper is a thing of terror to a native prince; you must have seen that."
"What do you mean to do with your man when he is safely in your hands, if it is not an indiscreet question?"
"Do with him?" asked Isaacs with some astonishment. "Is it possible you have not guessed? He is a brave man, and a true believer. I will give him money and letters, that he may make his way to Baghdad, or wherever he will be safe. He shall depart in peace, and be as free as air."
I had half suspected my friend of some such generous intention, but he had played his part of unrelenting hardness so well in our late interview with the Hindoo prince that it seemed incomprehensible that a man should be so pitiless and so kind on the same day. There was not a trace of hardness on his beautiful features now, and as we rounded the hill and caught the last beams of the sun, now sinking behind the mountains, his face seemed transfigured as with a glory, and I could hardly bear to look at him. He held his hat in his hand and faced the west for an instant, as though thanking the declining day for its freshness and beauty; and I thought to myself that the sun was lucky to see such an exquisite picture before he bid Simla good-night, and that he should shine the brighter for it the next day, since he would look on nothing fairer in his twelve hours' wandering over the other half of creation.
"And now," said he, "it is late, but if we ride towards Annandale we may meet them coming back from the polo match we have missed." His eyes glowed at the thought. Shere Ali, the maharajah, bonds, principal, and interest, were all forgotten in the anticipation of a brief meeting with the woman he loved.
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