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Chapter 4

SWEET POISON

With slow steps, Olivier returned to his own house, troubled as if he
had just learned some shameful family secret. He tried to sound his
heart, to see clearly within himself, to read those intimate pages of
the inner book which seemed glued together, and which sometimes only
a strange hand can turn over by separating them. Certainly he did not
believe himself in love with Annette. The Countess, whose watchful
jealousy never slept, had foreseen this danger from afar, and had
signaled it before it even existed. But might that peril exist
to-morrow, the day after, in a month? It was the frank question that
he tried to answer sincerely. It was true that the child stirred his
instincts of tenderness, but these instincts in men are so numerous that
the dangerous ones should not be confounded with the inoffensive. Thus
he adored animals, especially cats, and could not see their silky fur
without being seized with an irresistible sensuous desire to caress
their soft, undulating backs and kiss their electric fur.

The attraction that impelled him toward this girl a little resembled
those obscure yet innocent desires that go to make up part of all the
ceaseless and unappeasable vibrations of human nerves. His eye of the
artist, as well as that of the man, was captivated by her freshness, by
that springing of beautiful clear life, by that essence of youth that
glowed in her; and his heart, full of memories of his long intimacy with
the Countess, finding in the extraordinary resemblance of Annette to
her mother a reawakening of old feelings, of emotions sleeping since the
beginning of his love, had been startled perhaps by the sensation of an
awakening. An awakening? Yes. Was it that? This idea illumined his mind.
He felt that he had awakened after years of sleep. If he had loved the
young girl without being aware of it, he should have experienced near
her that rejuvenation of his whole being which creates a different man
as soon as the flame of a new desire is kindled within him. No, the
child had only breathed upon the former fire. It had always been the
mother that he loved, but now a little more than recently, no doubt,
because of her daughter, this reincarnation of herself. And he
formulated this decision with the reassuring sophism: "One loves but
once! The heart may often be affected at meeting some other being, for
everyone exercises on others either attractions or repulsions. All these
influences create friendship, caprices, desire for possession, quick
and fleeting ardors, but not real love. That this love may exist it is
necessary that two beings should be so truly born for each other, should
be linked together in so many different ways, by so many similar tastes,
by so many affinities of body, of mind, and of character, and so many
ties of all kinds that the whole shall form a union of bonds. That which
we love, in short, is not so much Madame X. or Monsieur Z.; it is a
women or a man, a creature without a name, something sprung from Nature,
that great female, with organs, a form, a heart, a mind, a combination
of attributes which like a magnet attract our organs, our eyes, our
lips, our hearts, our thoughts, all our appetites, sensual as well as
intellectual. We love a type, that is, the reunion in one single person
of all the human qualities that may separately attract us in others."

For him, the Comtesse de Guilleroy had been this type, and their
long-standing liaison, of which he had not wearied, proved it to him
beyond doubt. Now, Annette so much resembled physically what her mother
had been as to deceive the eye; so there was nothing astonishing in the
fact that this man's heart had been surprised, if even it had not been
wholly captured. He had adored one woman! Another woman was born of her,
almost her counterpart. He could not prevent himself from bestowing on
the latter a little tender remnant of the passionate attachment he had
had for the former. There was no harm nor danger in that. Only his eyes
and his memory allowed themselves to be deluded by this appearance of
resurrection; but his instinct never had been affected, for never had he
felt the least stirring of desire for the young girl.

However, the Countess had reproached him with being jealous of the
Marquis! Was it true? Again he examined his conscience severely, and
decided that as a matter of fact he was indeed a little jealous. What
was there astonishing in that, after all? Are we not always being
jealous of men who pay court to no matter what woman? Does not one
experience in the street, at a restaurant, or a theater, a little
feeling of enmity toward the gentleman who is passing or who enters
with a lovely girl on his arm? Every possessor of a woman is a rival,
a triumphant male, a conqueror envied by all the other males. And then,
without considering these physiological reasons, if it was natural that
he should have for Annette a sympathy a little excessive because of his
love for her mother, was it not natural also that he should feel in his
heart a little masculine hatred of the future husband? He could conquer
this unworthy feeling without much trouble.

But in the depths of his heart he still felt a sort of bitter discontent
with himself and with the Countess. Would not their daily intercourse
be made disagreeable by the suspicion that he would be aware of in
her? Should he not be compelled to watch with tiresome and scrupulous
attention all that he said and did, his very looks, his slightest
approach toward the young girl? for all that he might do or say would
appear suspicious to the mother. He reached his home in a gloomy mood
and began to smoke cigarettes, with the vehemence of an irritated man
who uses ten matches to light his tobacco. He tried in vain to work. His
hand, his eye, and his brain seemed to have lost the knack of painting,
as if they had forgotten it, or never had known and practised the art.
He had taken up to finish a little sketch on canvas--a street corner, at
which a blind man stood singing--and he looked at it with unconquerable
indifference, with such a lack of power to continue it that he sat down
before it, palette in hand, and forgot it, though continuing to gaze at
it with attention and abstracted fixity.

Then, suddenly, impatience at the slowness of time, at the interminable
minutes, began to gnaw him with its intolerable fever. What should he
do until he could go to the club for dinner, since he could not work at
home? The thought of the streets tired him only to think of, filled
him with disgust for the sidewalks, the pedestrians, the carriages
and shops; and the idea of paying visits that day, to no matter whom,
aroused in him an instantaneous hatred for everyone he knew.

Then, what should he do? Should he pace to and fro in his studio,
looking at the clock at every turn, watching the displacement of the
long hand every few seconds? Ah, he well knew those walks from the door
to the cabinet, covered with ornaments. In his hours of excitement,
impulse, ambition, of fruitful and facile execution, these pacings had
been delicious recreation--these goings and comings across the large
room, brightened, animated, and warmed by work; but now, in his hours of
powerlessness and nausea, the miserable hours, when nothing seemed
worth the trouble of an effort or a movement, it was like the terrible
tramping of a prisoner in his cell. If only he could have slept, even
for an hour, on his divan! But no, he should not sleep; he should only
agitate himself until he trembled with exasperation. Whence came this
sudden attack of bad temper? He thought: "I am becoming excessively
nervous to have worked myself into such a state for so insignificant a
cause."

Then he thought he would take a book. The volume of _La Legende des
Siecles_ had remained on the iron chair where Annette had laid it. He
opened it and read two pages of verse without understanding them. He
understood them no more than if they had been written in a foreign
tongue. He was determined, however, and began again, only to find that
what he read had not really penetrated to his mind. "Well," said he
to himself, "it appears that I am becoming imbecile!" But a sudden
inspiration reassured him as to how he should fill the two hours that
must elapse before dinner-time. He had a hot bath prepared, and there he
remained stretched out, relaxed and soothed by the warm water, until his
valet, bringing his clothes, roused him from a doze. Then he went to
the club, where he found the usual companions. He was received with open
arms and exclamations, for they had not seen him for several days.

"I have just returned from the country," he explained.

All those men, except Musadieu, the landscape painter, professed a
profound contempt for the fields. Rocdiane and Landa, to be sure, went
hunting there, but among plains or woods they only enjoyed the pleasure
of seeing pheasants, quail, or partridges falling like handfuls of
feathers under their bullets, or little rabbits riddled with shot,
turning somersaults like clowns, going heels over head four or five
times, showing their white bellies and tails at every bound. Except for
these sports of autumn and winter, they thought the country a bore. As
Rocdiane would say: "I prefer little women to little peas!"

The dinner was lively and jovial as usual, animated by discussions
wherein nothing unforeseen occurs. Bertin, to arouse himself, talked a
great deal. They found him amusing, but as soon as he had had coffee,
and a sixty-point game of billiards with the banker Liverdy, he went
out, rambling from the Madeleine to the Rue Taitbout; after passing
three times before the Vaudeville, he asked himself whether he should
enter; almost called a cab to take him to the Hippodrome; changed his
mind and turned toward the Nouveau Cirque, then made an abrupt half
turn, without motive, design, or pretext, went up the Boulevard
Malesherbes, and walked more slowly as he approached the dwelling of
the Comtesse de Guilleroy. "Perhaps she will think it strange to see me
again this evening," he thought. But he reassured himself in reflecting
that there was nothing astonishing in his coming a second time to
inquire how she felt.

She was alone with Annette, in the little back drawing-room, and was
still working on her coverlets for the poor.

She said simply, on seeing him enter: "Ah, is it you, my friend?"

"Yes, I felt anxious; I wished to see you. How are you?"

"Thank you, very well."

She paused a moment, then added, significantly:

"And you?"

He began to laugh unconcernedly, as he replied: "Oh. I am very well,
very well. Your fears were entirely without foundation."

She raised her eyes, pausing in her work, and fixed her gaze upon him, a
gaze full of doubt and entreaty.

"It is true," said he.

"So much the better," she replied, with a smile that was slightly
forced.

He sat down, and for the first time in that house he was seized with
irresistible uneasiness, a sort of paralysis of ideas, still greater
than that which had seized him that day as he sat before his canvas.

"You may go on, my child; it will not annoy him," said the Countess to
her daughter.

"What was she doing?"

"She was studying a _fantaisie_."

Annette rose to go to the piano. He followed her with his eyes,
unconsciously, as he always did, finding her pretty. Then he felt the
mother's eye upon him, and turned his head abruptly, as if he were
seeking something in the shadowy corner of the drawing-room.

The Countess took from her work-table a little gold case that he had
given her, opened it, and offered him some cigarettes.

"Pray smoke, my friend," said she; "you know I like it when we are alone
here."

He obeyed, and the music began. It was the music of the distant past,
graceful and light, one of those compositions that seem to have inspired
the artist on a soft moonlight evening in springtime.

"Who is the composer of that?" asked Bertin.

"Schumann," the Countess replied. "It is little known and charming."

A desire to look at Annette grew stronger within him, but he did not
dare. He would have to make only a slight movement, merely a turn of
the neck, for he could see out of the corner of his eye the two candles
lighting the score; but he guessed so well, read so clearly, the
watchful gaze of the Countess that he remained motionless, his eyes
looking straight before him, interested apparently in the gray thread of
smoke from his cigarette.

"Was that all you had to say to me?" Madame de Guilleroy murmured to
him.

He smiled.

"Don't be vexed with me. You know that music hypnotizes me; it drinks my
thoughts. I will talk soon."

"I must tell you," said the Countess, "that I had studied something for
you before mamma's death. I never had you hear it, but I will play it
for you immediately, as soon as the little one has finished; you shall
see how odd it is."

She had real talent, and a subtle comprehension of the emotion that
flows through sounds. It was indeed one of her surest powers over the
painter's sensibility.

As soon as Annette had finished the pastoral symphony by Mehul, the
Countess rose, took her place, and awakened a strange melody with her
fingers, a melody of which all the phrases seemed complaints, divers
complaints, changing, numerous, interrupted by a single note, beginning
again, falling into the midst of the strains, cutting them short,
scanning them, crashing into them, like a monotonous, incessant,
persecuting cry, an unappeasable call of obsession.

But Olivier was looking at Annette, who had sat down facing him, and he
heard nothing, comprehended nothing.

He looked at her, without thinking, indulging himself with the sight of
her, as a good and habitual possession of which he had been deprived,
drinking her youthful beauty wholesomely, as we drink water when
thirsty.

"Well," said the Countess, "was not that beautiful?"

"Admirable! Superb!" he said, aroused. "By whom?"

"You do not know it?"

"No."

"What, really, you do not know it?"

"No, indeed."

"By Schubert."

"That does not astonish me at all," he said, with an air of profound
conviction. "It is superb! You would be delightful if you would play it
over again."

She began once more, and he, turning his head, began again to
contemplate Annette, but listened also to the music, that he might taste
two pleasures at the same time.

When Madame de Guilleroy had returned to her chair, in simple obedience
to the natural duplicity of man he did not allow his gaze to rest longer
on the fair profile of the young girl, who knitted opposite her mother,
on the other side of the lamp.

But, though he did not see her, he tasted the sweetness of her presence,
as one feels the proximity of a fire on the hearth; and the desire to
cast upon her swift glances only to transfer them immediately to the
Countess, tormented him--the desire of the schoolboy who climbs up
to the window looking into the street as soon as the master's back is
turned.

He went away early, for his power of speech was as paralyzed as his

mind, and his persistent silence might be interpreted.

As soon as he found himself in the street a desire to wander took
possession of him, for whenever he heard music it remained in his brain
a long time, threw him into reveries that seemed the music itself in
a dream, but in a clearer sequel. The sound of the notes returned,
intermittent and fugitive, bringing separate measures, weakened, and far
off as an echo; then, sinking into silence, appeared to leave it to the
mind to give a meaning to the themes, and to seek a sort of tender and
harmonious ideal. He turned to the left on reaching the outer Boulevard,
perceiving the fairylike illumination of the Parc Monceau, and entered
its central avenue, curving under the electric moons. A policeman
was slowly strolling along; now and then a belated cab passed; a man,
sitting on a bench in a bluish bath of electric light, was reading a
newspaper, at the foot of a bronze mast that bore the dazzling globe.
Other lights on the broad lawns, scattered among the trees, shed their
cold and powerful rays into the foliage and on the grass, animating this
great city garden with a pale life.

Bertin, with hands behind his back, paced the sidewalk, thinking of his
walk with Annette in this same park when he had recognized in her the
voice of her mother.

He let himself fall upon a bench, and, breathing in the cool freshness
of the dewy lawns, he felt himself assailed by all the passionate
expectancy that transforms the soul of youth into the incoherent canvas
of an unfinished romance of love. Long ago he had known such evenings,
those evenings of errant fancy, when he had allowed his caprice to roam
through imaginary adventures, and he was astonished to feel a return of
sensations that did not now belong to his age.

But, like the persistent note in the Schubert melody, the thought of
Annette, the vision of her face bent beside the lamp, and the strange
suspicion of the Countess, recurred to him at every instant. He
continued, in spite of himself, to occupy his heart with this question,
to sound the impenetrable depths where human feelings germinate
before being born. This obstinate research agitated him; this constant
preoccupation regarding the young girl seemed to open to his soul the
way to tender reveries. He could not drive her from his mind; he bore
within himself a sort of evocation of her image, as once he had borne
the image of the Countess after she had left him; he often had the
strange sensation of her presence in the studio.

Suddenly, impatient at being dominated by a memory, he arose, muttering:
"Any was stupid to say that to me. Now she will make me think of the
little one!"

He went home, disturbed about himself. After he had gone to bed he felt
that sleep would not come to him, for a fever coursed in his veins, and
a desire for reverie fermented in his heart. Dreading a wakeful night,
one of those enervating attacks of insomnia brought about by agitation
of the spirit, he thought he would try to read. How many times had a
short reading served him as a narcotic! So he got up and went into his
library to choose a good and soporific work; but his mind, aroused in
spite of himself, eager for any emotion it could find, sought among the
shelves for the name of some author that would respond to his state of
exaltation and expectancy. Balzac, whom he loved, said nothing to him;
he disdained Hugo, scorned Lamartine, who usually touched his emotions,
and fell eagerly upon Musset, the poet of youth. He took the volume and
carried it to bed, to read whatever he might chance to find.

When he had settled himself in bed, he began to drink, as with the
thirst of a drunkard, those flowing verses of an inspired being who
sang, like a bird, of the dawn of existence, and having breath only for
the morning, was silent in the arid light of day; those verses of a
poet who above all mankind was intoxicated with life, expressing his
intoxication in fanfares of frank and triumphant love, the echo of all
young hearts bewildered with desires.

Never had Bertin so perfectly comprehended the physical charm of those
poems, which move the senses but hardly touch the intelligence. With his
eyes on those vibrating stanzas, he felt that his soul was but twenty
years old, radiant with hopes, and he read the volume through in a state
of youthful intoxication. Three o'clock struck, and he was astonished to
find that he had not yet grown sleepy. He rose to shut his window and to
carry his book to a table in the middle of the room; but at the contact
of the cold air a pain, of which several seasons at Aix had not cured
him, ran through his loins, like a warning or a recall; and he threw
aside the poet with an impatient movement, muttering: "Old fool!" Then
he returned to bed and blew out his light.

He did not go to see the Countess the next day, and he even made the
energetic resolution not to return there for two days. But whatever
he did, whether he tried to paint or to walk, whether he bore his
melancholy mood with him from house to house, his mind was everywhere
harassed by the preoccupation of those two women, who would not be
banished.

Having forbidden himself to go to see them, he solaced himself by
thinking of them, and he allowed both mind and heart to give themselves
up to memories of both. It happened often that in that species of
hallucination in which he lulled his isolation the two faces approached
each other, different, such as he knew them; then, passing one before
the other, mingled, blended together, forming only one face, a little
confused, a face that was no longer the mother's, not altogether that
of the daughter, but the face of a woman loved madly, long ago, in the
present, and forever.

Then he felt remorse at having abandoned himself to the influence of
these emotions, which he knew were powerful and dangerous. To escape
them, to drive them away, to deliver his soul from this sweet and
captivating dream, he directed his mind toward all imaginable ideas, all
possible subjects of reflection and meditation. Vain efforts! All the
paths of distraction that he took led him back to the same point, where
he met a fair young face that seemed to be lying in wait for him. It was
a vague and inevitable obsession that floated round him, recalling him,
stopping him, no matter what detour he might make in order to fly from
it.

The confusion of these two beings, which had so troubled him on the
evening of their walk at Roncieres, rose again in his memory as soon as
he evoked them, after ceasing to reflect and reason, and he attempted to
comprehend what strange emotion was this that stirred his being. He said
to himself: "Now, have I for Annette a more tender feeling than I should
have?" Then, probing his heart, he felt it burning with affection for a
woman who was certainly young, who had Annette's features, but who was
not she. And he reassured himself in a cowardly way by thinking: "No, I
do not love the little one; I am the victim of a resemblance."

However, those two days at Roncieres remained in his soul like a source
of heat, of happiness, of intoxication; and the least details of those
days returned to him, one by one, with precision, sweeter even than at
the time they occurred. Suddenly, while reviewing the course of these
memories, he saw once more the road they had followed on leaving the
cemetery, the young girl plucking flowers, and he recollected that he
had promised her a cornflower in sapphires as soon as they returned to
Paris.

All his resolutions took flight, and without struggling longer he took
his hat and went out, rejoiced at the thought of the pleasure he was
about to give her.

The footman answered him, when he presented himself:

"Madame is out, but Mademoiselle is at home."

Again he felt a thrill of joy.

"Tell her that I should like to speak to her."

Annette appeared very soon.

"Good-day, dear master," said she gravely.

He began to laugh, shook hands with her, and sitting near her, said:

"Guess why I have come."

She thought a few seconds.

"I don't know."

"To take you and your mother to the jeweler's to choose the sapphire
cornflower I promised you at Roncieres."

The young girl's face was illumined with delight.

"Oh, and mamma has gone out," said she. "But she will return soon. You
will wait for her, won't you?"

"Yes, if she is not too long."

"Oh, how insolent! Too long, with me! You treat me like a child."

"No, not so much as you think," he replied.

He felt in his heart a longing to please her, to be gallant and witty,
as in the most successful days of his youth, one of those instinctive
desires that excite all the faculties of charming, that make the peacock
spread its tail and the poet write verses. Quick and vivacious phrases
rose to his lips, and he talked as he knew how to talk when he was at
his best. The young girl, animated by his vivacity, answered him with
all the mischief and playful shrewdness that were in her.

Suddenly, while he was discussing an opinion, he exclaimed: "But you
have already said that to me often, and I answered you--"

She interrupted him with a burst of laughter.

"Ah, you don't say '_tu_' to me any more! You take me for mamma!"

He blushed and was silent, then he stammered:

"Your mother has already sustained that opinion with me a hundred
times."

His eloquence was extinguished; he knew no more what to say, and he now
felt afraid, incomprehensibly afraid, of this little girl.

"Here is mamma," said she.

She had heard the door open in the outer drawing-room, and Olivier,
disturbed as if some one had caught him in a fault, explained how he
had suddenly bethought him of his promise, and had come for them to take
them to the jeweler's.

"I have a coupe," said he. "I will take the bracket seat."

They set out, and a little later they entered Montara's.

Having passed all his life in the intimacy, observation, study, and
affection of women, having always occupied his mind with them, having
been obliged to sound and discover their tastes, to know the details
of dress and fashion as they knew them, being familiar with the minute
details of their private life, he had arrived at a point that
enabled him often to share certain of their sensations, and he always
experienced, when entering one of the great shops where the charming
and delicate accessories of their beauty are to be found, an emotion
of pleasure that almost equaled that which stirred their hearts. He
interested himself as they did in those coquettish trifles with which
they set forth their beauty; the stuffs pleased his eyes; the laces
attracted his hands; the most insignificant furbelows held his
attention. In jewelers' shops he felt for the showcases a sort of
religious respect, as if before a sanctuary of opulent seduction; and
the counter, covered with dark cloth, upon which the supple fingers
of the goldsmith make the jewels roll, displaying their precious
reflections, filled him with a certain esteem.

When he had seated the Countess and her daughter before this severe
piece of furniture, on which each, with a natural movement, placed one
hand, he indicated what he wanted, and they showed him models of little
flowers.

Then they spread sapphires before him, from which it was necessary to
choose four. This took a long time. The two women turned them over on
the cloth with the tips of their fingers, then lifted them carefully,
looked through them at the light, studying them with knowing and
passionate attention. When they had laid aside those they had chosen,
three emeralds had to be selected to make the leaves, then a tiny
diamond that would tremble in the center like a drop of dew.

Then Olivier, intoxicated with the joy of giving, said to the Countess:

"Will you do me the favor to choose two rings?"

"I?"

"Yes. One for you, one for Annette. Let me make you these little
presents in memory of the two days I passed at Roncieres."

She refused. He insisted. A long discussion followed, a struggle
of words and arguments, which ended, not without difficulty, in his
triumph.

Rings were brought, some, the rarest, alone in special cases; others
arranged in similar groups in large square boxes, wherein all the
fancifulness of their settings were displayed in alignment on the
velvet. The painter was seated between the two women, and began, with
the same ardent curiosity, to take up the gold rings, one by one, from
the narrow slits that held them. He deposited them before him on the
cloth-covered counter where they were massed in two groups, those that
had been rejected at first sight and those from which a choice would be
made.

Time was passing, insensibly and sweetly, in this pretty work of
selection, more captivating than all the pleasures of the world,
distracting and varied as a play, stirring also an exquisite and almost
sensuous pleasure in a woman's heart.

Then they compared, grew animated, and, after some hesitation, the
choice of the three judges settled upon a little golden serpent holding
a beautiful ruby between his thin jaws and his twisted tail.

Olivier, radiant, now arose.

"I will leave you my carriage," said he; "I have something to look
after, and I must go."

But Annette begged her mother to walk home, since the weather was so
fine. The Countess consented, and, having thanked Bertin, went out into
the street with her daughter.

They walked for some time in silence, enjoying the sweet realization of
presents received; then they began to talk of all the jewels they had
seen and handled. Within their minds still lingered a sort of glittering
and jingling, an echo of gaiety. They walked quickly through the crowd
which fills the street about five o'clock on a summer evening. Men
turned to look at Annette, and murmured in distinct words of admiration
as they passed. It was the first time since her mourning, since black
attire had added brilliancy to her daughter's beauty, that the Countess
had gone out with her in the streets of Paris; and the sensation of that
street success, that awakened attention, those whispered compliments,
that little wake of flattering emotion which the passing of a pretty
woman leaves in a crowd of men, contracted her heart little by little
with the same painful feeling she had had the other evening in her
drawing-room, when her guests had compared the little one with her
own portrait. In spite of herself, she watched for those glances that
Annette attracted; she felt them coming from a distance, pass over her
own face without stopping and suddenly settle upon the fair face beside
her own. She guessed, she saw in the eyes the rapid and silent homage
to this blooming youth, to the powerful charm of that radiant freshness,
and she thought: "I was as pretty as she, if not prettier." Suddenly the
thought of Olivier flashed across her mind, and she was seized, as at
Roncieres, with a longing to flee.

She did not wish to feel herself any longer in this bright light, amid
this stream of people, seen by all those men who yet did not look at
her. Those days seemed far away, though in reality quite recent, when
she had sought and provoked comparison with her daughter. Who, to-day,
among the passers, thought of comparing them? Only one person had
thought of it, perhaps, a little while ago, in the jeweler's shop. He?
Oh, what suffering! Could it be that he was thinking continually of that
comparison? Certainly he could not see them together without thinking
of it, and without remembering the time when she herself had entered his
house, so fresh, so pretty, so sure of being loved!

"I feel ill," said she. "We will take a cab, my child."

Annette was uneasy.

"What is the matter, mamma?" she asked.

"It is nothing; you know that since your grandmother's death I often
have these moments of weakness."

Guy de Maupassant

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