THE St. Sampson of the present day is almost a city; the St. Sampson of forty years since was almost a village,
When the winter evenings were ended and spring had come, the inhabitants were not long out of bed after sun-down. St. Sampson was an ancient parish which had long been accustomed to the sound of the curfew-bell, and which had a traditional habit of blowing out the candle at an early hour. Those old Norman villages are famous for early roosting, and the villagers are generally great rearers of poultry.
The people of St. Sampson except a few rich families among the townsfolk, are also a population of quarriers and carpenters. The port is a port of ship-repairing. The quarrying of stone and the fashioning of timber go on all day long; here the labourer with the pickaxe, there the workman with the mallet. At night they sink with fatigue, and sleep like lead. Rude labours bring heavy slumbers.
One evening, in the commencement of the month of May, after watching the crescent moon for some instants through the trees, and listening to the step of Deruchette walking alone in the cool air in the garden of the Bravees, Mess Lethierry had returned to his room looking on the harbour, and had retired to rest; Douce and Grace were already abed. Except Deruchette, the whole household were sleeping. Doors and shutters were everywhere closed. Footsteps were silent in the streets. Some few lights, like winking eyes about to close in rest, showed here and there in windows in the roofs, indicating the hour of domestics going to bed. Nine had already struck in the old Romanesque belfry, surrounded by ivy, which shares with the church of St. Brelade at Jersey the peculiarity of having for its date four ones (IIII), which are used to signify eleven hundred and eleven.
The popularity of Mess Lethierry at St. Sampson had been founded on his success. The success at an end, there had come a void. It might be imagined that ill-fortune is contagions, and that the unsuccessful have a plague, so rapidly are they put in quarantine. The young men of well-to-do families avoided Deruchette. The isolation around the Bravees was so complete that its inmates had not even yet heard the news of the great local event which had that day set all St. Sampson in a ferment. The rector of the parish, the Rev. Ebenezer Caudray, had become rich. His uncle, the magnificent Dean of St. Asaph, had just died in London. The news had been brought by the mail sloop, the Cashmere, arrived from England that very morning, and the mast of which could be perceived in the roads of St. Peter's Port. The Cashmere was to depart for Southampton at noon on the morrow, and, so the rumour ran, to convey the reverend gentleman, who had been suddenly summoned to England, to be present at the official opening of the will, not to speak of other urgent matters connected with an important inheritance. All day long St. Sampson had been conversing on this subject. The Cashmere, the Rev. Ebenezer, his deceased uncle, his riches, his departure, his possible preferment in the future, had formed the foundations of that perpetual buzzing. A solitary house, still uninformed on these matters, had remained at peace. This was the Bravees.
Mess Lethierry had jumped into his hammock, and lay down in his clothing.
Since the catastrophe of the Durande, to get into his hammock had been his resource. Every captive has recourse to stretching himself upon his pallet, and Mess Lethierry was the captive of his grief. To go to bed was a truce, a gain in breathing-time, a suspension of ideas. He neither slept nor watched. Strictly speaking, for two months and a half-for so long was it since his misfortune-Mess Lethierry had been in a sort of somnambulism. He had not yet regained possession of his faculties. He was in that cloudy and confused condition of intellect with which those are familiar who have undergone overwhelming afflictions. His reflections were not thought, his sleep was no repose. By day he was not awake, by night not asleep. He was up, and then gone to rest, that was all. When he was in his hammock forgetfulness came to him a little. He called that sleeping. Chimeras floated about him and within him. The nocturnal cloud, full of confused faces, traversed his brain. Sometimes it was the Emperor Napoleon dictating to him the story of his life; sometimes there were several Deruchettes; strange birds were in the trees; the streets of Lons-le-Saulnier became serpents. Nightmares were the brief respites of despair. He passed his nights in dreaming and his days in reverie.
Sometimes he remained all the afternoon at the window of his room, which looked out upon the port, with his head drooping, his elbows on the stone, his ears resting on his fists, his back turned to the whole world, his eye fixed on the old massive iron ring fastened in the wall of the house, at only a few feet from his window, where in the old days he used to moor the Durande. He was looking at the rust which gathered on the ring.
He was reduced to the mere mechanical habit of living.
The bravest men, when deprived of their most cherished idea, will come to this. His life had become a void. Life is a voyage; the idea is the itinerary. The plan of their course gone, they stop. The object is lost, the strength of purpose gone. Fate has a secret discretionary power. It is able to touch with its rod even our moral being. Despair is almost the destitution of the soul. Only the greatest minds resist, and for what?
Mess Lethierry was always meditating, if absorption can be called meditation, in the depth of a sort of cloudy abyss. Broken words sometimes escaped him like these: "There is nothing left for me now but to ask yonder for leave to go."
There was a certain contradiction in that nature, complex as the sea, of which Mess Lethierry was, so to speak, the product. Mess Lethierry's grief did not seek relief in prayer.
To be powerless is a certain strength. In the presence of our two great expressions of this blindness-destiny and nature-it is in his powerlessness that man has found his chief support in prayer.
Man seeks succour from his terror; his anxiety bids him kneel.
But Mess Lethierry prayed not.
In the time when he was happy, God existed for him almost in visible contact. Lethierry addressed Him, pledged his word to Him, seemed at times to hold familiar intercourse with Him. But in the hour of his misfortune-a phenomenon not unfrequent-the idea of God had become eclipsed in his mind. This happens when the mind has created for itself a deity clothed with human qualities.
In the state of mind in which he existed, there was for Lethierry only one clear vision-the smile of Deruchette. Beyond this all was dark.
For some time, apparently on account of the loss of the Durande, and of the blow which it had been to them, this pleasant smile had been rare. She seemed always thoughtful. Her birdlike playfulness, her childlike ways, were gone. She was never seen now in the morning at the sound of the cannon which announced daybreak, saluting the rising sun with "Boom! Daylight! Come in, please!" At times her expression was very serious, a sad thing for that sweet nature. She made an effort, however, sometimes to laugh before Mess Lethierry and to divert him; but her cheerfulness grew tarnished from day to day-gathered dust like the wing of a butterfly with a pin through its body. Whether through sorrow for her uncle's sorrow-for there are griefs which are the reflections of other griefs-or whether for any other reasons, she appeared at this time to be much inclined towards religion. In the time of the old rector, M. Jaquemin Herode, she scarcely went to church, as has been already said, four times a year. Now she was, on the contrary, assiduous in her attendance. She missed no service, neither of Sunday nor of Thursday. Pious souls in the parish remarked with satisfaction that amendment. For it is a great blessing when a girl who runs so many dangers in the world turns her thoughts towards God. That enables the poor parents at least to be easy on the subject of love-making and what not.
In the evening, whenever the weather permitted, she walked for an hour or two in the garden of the Bravees. She was almost as pensive there as Mess Lethierry, and almost always alone. Deruchette went to bed last. This, however, did not prevent Douce and Grace watching her a little, by that instinct for spying which is common to servants; spying is such a relaxation after household work.
As to Mess Lethierry, in the abstracted state of his mind these little changes in Deruchette's habits escaped him. Moreover, his nature had little in common with the Duenna. He had not even remarked her regularity at the church. Tenacious of his prejudices against the clergy and their sermons, he would have seen with little pleasure these frequent attendances at the parish church. It was not because his own moral condition was not undergoing change. Sorrow is a cloud which changes form.
Robust natures, as we have said, are sometimes almost overthrown by sudden great misfortunes; but not quite. Manly characters such as Lethierry's experience a reaction in a given time. Despair has its backward stages. From overwhelment we rise to dejection; from dejection to affliction; from affliction to melancholy. Melancholy is a twilight state; suffering melts into it and becomes a sombre joy. Melancholy is the pleasure of being sad.
These elegiac moods were not made for Lethierry. Neither the nature of his temperament nor the character of his misfortune suited those delicate shades. But at the moment at which we have returned to him, the reverie of his first despair had for more than a week been tending to disperse, without, however, leaving him less sad. He was more inactive, was always dull; but he was no longer overwhelmed. A certain perception of events and circumstances was returning to him, and he began to experience something of that phenomenon which may be called the return to reality.
Thus by day in the great lower room he did not listen to the words of those about him, but he heard them. Grace came one morning quite triumphant to tell Deruchette that he had undone the cover of a newspaper.
This half-acceptance of realities is in itself a good symptom, a token of convalescence. Great afflictions produce a stupor; it is by such little acts that men return to themselves. This improvement, however, is at first only an aggravation of the evil. The dreamy condition of mind in which the sufferer has lived has served, while it lasted, to blunt his grief. His sight before was thick. He felt little. Now his view is clear, nothing escapes him; and his wounds reopen. Each detail that he perceives serves to remind him of his sorrow. He sees everything again in memory; every remembrance is a regret. All kinds of bitter aftertastes lurk in that return to life. He is better, and yet worse. Such was the condition of Lethierry. In returning to full consciousness his sufferings had become more distinct.
A sudden shock first recalled him to a sense of reality.
One afternoon, between the 15th and 20th of April, a double knock at the door of the great lower room of the Bravees had signalled the arrival of the postman. Douce had opened the door; there was a letter.
The letter came from beyond sea; it was addressed to Mess Lethierry, and bore the postmark "Lisboa."
Douce had taken the letter to Mess Lethierry, who was in his room. He had taken it, placed it mechanically upon the table, and had not looked at it.
The letter remained an entire week upon the table without being unsealed.
It happened, however, one morning, that Douce said to Mess Lethierry,-
"Shall I brush the dust off your letter sir?"
Lethierry seemed to arouse from his lethargy.
"Ay, ay! You are right," he said; and he opened the letter, and read as follows,
"At Sea, 10th March.
To Mess Lethierry of St. Sampson.
"You will be gratified to receive news of me. I am aboard the Tamaulipas, bound for the port of "No-return." Among the crew is a sailor named Ahier-Tostevin, from Guernsey, who will return and will have some facts to communicate to you. I take the opportunity of our speaking a vessel, the Herman Cortes, bound for Lisbon, to forward you this letter.
"You will be astonished to learn that I am going to be honest
"As honest as Sieur Clubin.
"I am bound to believe that you know of certain recent occurrences; nevertheless, it is, perhaps, not altogether superfluous to send you a full account of them.
"To proceed, then.
"I have returned you your money.
"Some years ago I borrowed from you, under somewhat irregular circumstances, the sum of fifty thousand francs. Before leaving St. Malo lately, I placed in the hands of your confidential man of business, Sieur Clubin, on your account, three bank-notes of one thousand pounds each, making together seventy-five thousand francs. You will no doubt find this reimbursement sufficient.
"Sieur Clubin acted for you, and received your money, including interest, in a remarkably energetic manner. He appeared to me, indeed, singularly zealous. This is, in fact, my reason for apprising you of the facts.
"Your other confidential man of business,
"Postscript-Sieur Clubin was in possession of a revolver, which will explain to you the circumstance of my having no receipt."
He who has ever touched a torpedo, or a Leyden-jar fully charged, may have a notion of the effect produced on Mess Lethierry by the reading of this letter.
Under that envelope, in that sheet of paper folded in four, to which he had at first paid so little attention, lay the elements of an extraordinary commotion.
He recognised the writing and the signature. As to the facts which the letter contained, at first he under stood nothing.
The excitement of the event, however, soon gave movement to his faculties.
The effective part of the shock he had received lay in the phenomenon of the seventy-five thousand francs entrusted by Rantaine to Clubin; this was a riddle which compelled Lethierry's brain to work. Conjecture is a healthy occupation for the mind. Reason is awakened; logic is called into play.
For some time past public opinion in Guernsey had been undergoing a reaction on the subject of Clubin-that man of such high reputation for honour during many years; that man so unanimously regarded with esteem. People had begun to question and to doubt; there were wagers pro and con. Some light had been thrown on the question in singular ways. The figure of Clubin began to become clearer-that is to say, he began to be blacker in the eyes of the world.
A judicial inquiry had taken place at St. Malo for the purpose of ascertaining what had become of the coast-guardman, number 619. Legal perspicacity had got upon a false scent, a thing which happens not unfrequently. It had started with the hypothesis that the man had been enticed by Zeula, and shipped aboard the Tamaulipas for Chili. This ingenious supposition had led to a considerable amount of wasted conjecture. The short-sightedness of justice had failed to take note of Rantaine; but in the progress of inquiry the authorities had come upon other clues. The affair, so obscure, became complicated. Clubin had become mixed up with the enigma. A coincidence, perhaps a direct connection, had been found between the departure of the Tamaulipas and the loss of the Durande. At the wine-shop near the Dinan Gate, where Clubin thought himself entirely unknown, he had been recognised. The wine-shop keeper had talked; Clubin had bought a bottle of brandy that night. For whom? The gunsmith of St. Vincent Street, too, had talked. Clubin had purchased a revolver. For what object? The landlord of the "Jean Auberge" had talked. Clubin had absented himself in an inexplicable manner. Captain Gertrais-Gaboureau had talked. Clubin had determined to start, although warned, and knowing that he might expect a great fog. The crew of the Durande had talked. In fact, the collection of the freight had been neglected, and the stowage badly arranged, a negligence easy to comprehend if the captain had determined to wreck the ship. The Guernsey passenger, too, had spoken. Clubin had evidently imagined that he had run upon the Hanways. The Torteval people had spoken. Clubin had visited that neighbourhood a few days before the loss of the Durande, and had been seen walking in the direction of Pleinmont, near the Hanways. He had with him a travelling-bag. "He had set out with it, and come back without it." The bird's nesters had spoken: their story seemed to be possibly connected with Clubin's disappearance, if instead of ghosts they supposed smugglers. Finally, the haunted House of Pleinmont itself had spoken. Persons who had determined to get information had climbed and entered the windows, and had found inside-what? The very travelling-bag which had been seen in Sieur Clubin's possession. The authorities of the Donzaine of Torteval had taken possession of the bag and had it opened. It was found to contain provisions, a telescope, a chronometer, a man's clothing and linen marked with Clubin's initials. All this in the gossip of St. Malo and Guernsey became more and more like a case of fraud. Obscure hints were brought together; there appeared to have been a singular disregard of advice; a willingness to encounter the dangers of the fog; a suspected negligence in the stowage of the cargo. Then there was the mysterious bottle of brandy; a drunken helmsman; a substitution of the captain for the helmsman; a management of the rudder, to say the least, unskilful. The heroism of remaining behind upon the wreck began to look like roguery. Clubin besides had evidently been deceived as to the rock he was on. Granted an intention to wreck the vessel, it was easy to understand the choice of the Hanways, the shore easily reached by swimming, and the intended concealment in the haunted house awaiting the opportunity for flight. The travelling-bag, that suspicious preparative, completed the demonstration. By what link this affair connected itself with the other affair of the disappearance of the coastguardman nobody knew. People imagined some connection, and that was all. They had a glimpse in their minds of the lookoutman, number 619, alongside of the mysterious Clubin-quite a tragic drama. Clubin possibly was not an actor in it, but his presence was visible in the side scenes.
The supposition of a wilful destruction of the Durande did not explain everything. There was a revolver in the story, with no part yet assigned to it. The revolver, probably, belonged to the other affair.
The scent of the public is keen and true. Its instinct excels in those discoveries of truth by pieces and fragments. Still, amidst these facts, which seemed to point pretty clearly to a case of barratry, there were serious difficulties.
Everything was consistent, everything coherent; but a basis was wanting.
People do not wreck vessels for the pleasure of wrecking them. Men do not run all those risks of fog, rocks, swimming, concealment, and flight without an interest. What could have been Clubin's interest?
The act seemed plain, but the motive was puzzling.
Hence a doubt in many minds. Where there is no motive, it is; natural to infer that there was no act.
The missing link was important. The letter from Rantaine seemed to supply it.
This letter furnished a motive for Clubin's supposed crime: seventy-five thousand francs to be appropriated.
Rantaine was the Deus ex machina. He had descended from the clouds with a lantern in his hand. His letter was the final light upon the affair. It explained everything, and even promised a witness in the person of Ahier-Tostevin.
The part which it at once suggested for the revolver was decisive. Rantaine was undoubtedly well informed. His letter pointed clearly the explanation of the mystery.
There could be no possible palliation of Clubin's crime. He had premeditated the shipwreck; the proofs were the preparations discovered in the haunted house. Even supposing him innocent, and admitting the wreck to have been accidental, would he not, at the last moment, when he had determined to sacrifice himself with the vessel, have entrusted the seventy-five thousand francs to the men who escaped in the longboat? The evidence was strikingly complete. Now, what had become of Clubin?
He had probably been the victim of his blunder. He had doubtless perished upon the Douvres.
All this construction of surmises, which were not far from the reality, had for several days occupied the mind of Mess Lethierry. The letter from Rantaine had done him the service of setting him to think. He was at first shaken by his surprise; then he made an effort to reflect. He made another effort more difficult still, that of inquiry. He was induced to listen, and even seek conversation. At the end of a week he had become, to a certain degree, in the world again; his thoughts had regained their coherence, and he was almost restored. He had emerged from his confused and troubled state.
Rantaine's letter, even admitting that Mess Lethierry could ever have entertained any hope of the reimbursement of his money, destroyed that last chance.
It added to the catastrophe of the Durande this new wreck of seventy-five thousand francs. It put him in possession of that amount just so far as to make him sensible of its loss. The letter revealed to him the extreme point in his ruin.
Hence he experienced a new and very painful sensation, which we have already spoken of. He began to take an interest in his household-what it was to be in the future-how he was to set things in order; matters of which he had taken no heed for two months past. These trifling cares wounded him with a thousand tiny points, worse in their aggregate than the old despair. A sorrow is doubly burdensome which has to be endured in each item, and while disputing inch by inch with fate for ground already lost. Ruin is endurable in the mass, but not in the dust and fragments of the fallen edifice. The great fact may overwhelm, but the details torture. The catastrophe which lately fell like a thunderbolt becomes now a cruel persecution. Humiliation comes to aggravate the blow. A second desolation succeeds the first, with features more repulsive. You descend one degree nearer to annihilation. The winding-sheet becomes changed to sordid rags.
No thought is more bitter than that of one's own gradual fall from a social position.
Ruin is simple enough-a violent shock; a cruel turn of fate; a catastrophe once for all. Be it so. We submit, and all is over. You are ruined: it is well; you are dead? No; you are still living. On the morrow you know it well. By what? By the pricking of a pin. Yonder passer-by omits to recognise you; the tradesmen's bills rain down upon you; and yonder is one of your enemies, who is smiling. Perhaps he is thinking of Arnal's last pun; but it is all the same. The pun would not have appeared to him so inimitable but for your ruin. You read your own sudden insignificance even in looks of indifference. Friends who used to dine at your table become of opinion that three courses were an extravagance. Your faults are patent to the eyes of everybody; ingratitude having nothing more to expect, proclaims itself openly; every idiot has foreseen your misfortunes. The malignant pull you to pieces; the more malignant profess to pity. And then come a hundred paltry details. Nausea succeeds to grief. You have been wont to indulge in wine; you must now drink cider. Two servants, too! Why, one will be too many. It will be necessary to discharge this one, and get rid of that. Flowers in your garden are superfluous; you will plant it with potatoes. You used to make presents of your fruits to friends; you will send them henceforth to market. As to the poor, it will be absurd to think of giving anything to them. Are you not poor yourself? And then there is the painful question of dress. To have to refuse a wife a new ribbon, what a torture! To have to refuse one who has made you a gift of her beauty a trifling article; to haggle over such matters, like a miser! Perhaps she will say to you, "What! rob my garden of its flowers, and now refuse one for my bonnet!", Ah me! to have to condemn her to shabby dresses. The family-table is silent. You fancy that those around it think harshly of you. Beloved faces have become clouded. This is what is meant by falling fortunes. It is to die day by day. To be struck down is like the blast of the furnace; to decay like this is the torture of the slow fire.
An overwhelming blow is a sort of Waterloo; a slow decay, a St. Helena. Destiny incarnate in the form of Wellington, has still some dignity; but how sordid in the shape of Hudson Lowe! Fate becomes then a paltry huckster. We find the man of Campo Formio quarrelling about a pair of stockings; we see that dwarfing of Napoleon which makes England less. Waterloo and St. Helena! Reduced to humbler proportions, every ruined man has traversed those two phases.
On the evening we have mentioned, and which was one of the first evenings in May, Lethierry, leaving Deruchette to walk by moonlight in the garden, had gone to bed more depressed than ever.
All these mean and repulsive details, peculiar to worldly misfortune; all these trifling cares, which are at first insipid, and afterwards harassing, were revolving in his mind. A sullen load of miseries! Mess Lethierry felt that his fall was irremediable. What could he do? What would become of them? What sacrifices should he be compelled to impose on Deruchette? Whom should he discharge-Douce or Grace? Would they have to sell the Bravees? Would they not be compelled to leave the island? To be nothing where he had been everything; it was a terrible fall indeed.
And to know that the old times had gone for ever! To recall those journeys to and fro, uniting France with those numberless islands; the Tuesday's departure, the Friday's return, the crowd on the quay, those great cargoes, that industry, that prosperity, that proud direct navigation, that machinery embodying the will of man, that all-powerful boiler, that smoke, all that reality! The steamboat had been the final crown of the compass; the needle indicating the direct track, the steam-vessel following it. One proposing, the other executing. Where was she now, his Durande, that mistress of the seas, that queen who had made him a king? To have been so long the man of ideas in his own country, the man of success, the man who revolutionized navigation; and then to have to give up all, to abdicate! To cease to exist, to become a byword, an empty bag which once was full. To belong to the past, after having so long represenced the future. To come down to be an object of pity to fools, to witness the triumph of routine, obstinacy, conservatism, selfishness, ignorance. To see the old barbarous sailing-cutters crawling to and fro upon the sea, the outworn old-world prejudices young again; to have wasted a whole life; to have been a light, and to suffer this eclipse. Ah! what a sight it was upon the waves, that noble funnel, that prodigious cylinder, that pillar with its capital of smoke, that column grander than any in the Place Vendome, for on that there was only a man, while on this stood Progress. The ocean was subdued; it was certainty upon the open sea. And had all this been witnessed in that little island, in that little harbour, in that little town of St. Sampson? Yes; it had been witnessed. And could it be that, having seen it, all had vanished to be seen no more?
All this series of regrets tortured Lethierry. There is such a thing as a mental sobbing. Never, perhaps, had he felt his misfortune more bitterly. A certain numbness follows this acute suffering. Under the weight of his sorrow he gradually dozed.
For about two hours he remained in this state, feverish, sleeping a little, meditating much. Such torpors are accompanied by an obscure labour of the brain, which is inexpressibly wearying. Towards the middle of the night, about midnight, a little before or a little after, he shook off his lethargy. He aroused, and opened his eyes. His window was directly in front of his hammock. He saw something extraordinary.
A form was before the window-a marvellous form. It was the funnel of a steam-vessel.
Mess Lethierry started, and sat upright in his bed. The hammock oscillated like a swing in a tempest. Lethierry stared. A vision filled the window-frame. There was the harbour flooded with the light of the moon, and against that glitter, quite close to his house, stood forth, tall, round. and black, a magnificent object. The funnel of a steam-vessel was there.
Lethierry sprang out of his hammock, ran to the window, lifted the sash, leaned out, and recognised it.
The funnel of the Durande stood before him.
It was in the old place.
Its four chains supported it, made fast to the bulwarks of a vessel in which, beneath the funnel, he could distinguish a dark mass of irregular outline.
Lethierry recoiled, turned his back to the window, and dropped in a sitting posture into his hammock again.
Then he returned, and once more he saw the vision.
An instant afterwards, or in about the time occupied by a flash of lightning, he was out upon the quay, with a lantern in his hand.
A bark carrying a little backward a massive block from which issued the straight funnel before the window of the Bravees, was made fast to the mooring-ring of the Durande. The bows of the bark stretched beyond the corner of the wall of the house, and were level with the quay.
There was no one aboard.
The vessel was of a peculiar shape. All Guernsey would have recognised it. It was the old Dutch sloop.
Lethierry jumped aboard, and ran forward to the block which he saw beyond the mast.
It was there, entire, complete, intact, standing square and firm upon its cast-iron flooring; the boiler had all its rivets, the axle of the paddle-wheels was raised erect and made fast near the boiler; the brine-pump was in its place; nothing was wanting.
Lethierry examined the machinery.
The lantern and the moon helped him in his examination. He went over every part of the mechanism.
He noticed the two cases at the sides. He examined the axle of the wheels.
He went into the little cabin; it was empty.
He returned to the engine, and felt it, looked into the boiler, and knelt down to examine it inside.
He placed his lantern within the furnace, where the light, illuminating all the machinery, produced almost the illusion of an engine-room with its fire.
Then he burst into a wild laugh, sprang to his feet, and with his eye fixed on the engine, and his arms outstretched towards the funnel, he cried aloud, "Help."
The harbour bell was upon the quay, at a few paces' distance. He ran to it, seized the chain, and began to pull it violently.
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