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The haunted window.

It was always a mystery to me where Severance got precisely his combination of qualities. His father was simply what is called a handsome man, with stately figure and curly black hair, not without a certain dignity of manner, but with a face so shallow that it did not even seem to ripple, and with a voice so prosy that, when he spoke of the sky, you wished there were no such thing. His mother was a fair, little, pallid creature,wash-blond, as they say of lace,--patient, meek, and always fatigued and fatiguing. But Severance, as I first knew him, was the soul of activity. He had dark eyes, that had a great deal of light in them, without corresponding depth; his hair was dark, straight, and very soft; his mouth expressed sweetness, without much strength; he talked well; and though he was apt to have a wandering look, as if his thoughts were laying a [60] submarine cable to another continent, yet the young girls were always glad to have the semblance of conversation with him in this. To me he was in the last degree lovable. He had just enough of that subtile quality called genius, perhaps, to spoil first his companions, and then himself. His words had weight with you, though you might know yourself wiser; and if you went to give him the most reasonable advice, you were suddenly seized with a slight paralysis of the tongue. Thus it was, at any rate, with me. We were cemented therefore by the firmest ties,--a nominal seniority on my part, and a substantial supremacy on his.

We lodged one summer at an old house in that odd suburb of Oldport called “The Point.” It is a sort of Artists' Quarter of the town, frequented by a class of summer visitors more addicted to sailing and sketching than to driving and bowing,--persons who do not object to simple fare, and can live, as one of them said, on potatoes and Point. Here Severance and I made our summer home, basking in the delicious sunshine of the lovely bay. The bare outlines [61] around Oldport sometimes dismay the stranger, but soon fascinate. Nowhere does one feel bareness so little, because there is no sharpness of perspective; everything shimmers in the moist atmosphere; the islands are all glamour and mirage; and the undulating hills of the horizon seem each like the soft, arched back of some pet animal, and you long to caress them with your hand. At last your thoughts begin to swim also, and pass into vague fancies, which you also love to caress Severance and I were constantly afloat, body and mind. He was a perfect sailor, and had that dreaminess in his nature which matches with nothing but the ripple of the waves. Still, I could not hide from myself that he was a changed man since that voyage in search of health from which he had just returned. His mother talked in her humdrum way about heart disease; and his father, taking up the strain, bored us about organic lesions, till we almost wished he had a lesion himself. Severance ridiculed all this; but he grew more and more moody, and his eyes seemed to be laying more submarine cables than ever. [62]

When we were not on the water, we both liked to mouse about the queer streets and quaint old houses of that region, and to chat with the fishermen and their grandmothers. There was one house, however, which was very attractive to me,--perhaps because nobody lived in it, and which, for that or some other reason, he never would approach. It was a great square building of rough gray stone, looking like those sombre houses which every one remembers in Montreal, but which are rare in “the States.” It had been built many years before by some millionnaire from New Orleans, and was left unfinished, nobody knew why, till the garden was a wilderness of bloom, and the windows of ivy. Oldport is the only place in New England where either ivy or traditions will grow; there were, to be sure, no legends about this house that I could hear of, for the ghosts in those parts were feeble-minded and retrospective by reason of age, and perhaps scorned a mansion where nobody had ever lived; but the ivy clustered round the projecting windows as densely as if it had the sins of a dozen generations to hide. [63]

The house stood just above what were commonly called (from their slaty color) the Blue Rocks; it seemed the topmost pebble left by some tide that had receded,--which perhaps it was. Nurses and children thronged daily to these rocks, during the visitors' season, and the fishermen found there a favorite lounging-place; but nobody scaled the wall of the house save myself, and I went there very often. The gate was sometimes opened by Paul, the silent Bavarian gardener, who was master of the keys; and there were also certain great cats that were always sunning themselves on the steps, and seemed to have grown old and gray in waiting for mice that had never come. They looked as if they knew the past and the future. If the owl is the bird of Minerva, the cat should be her beast; they have the same sleepy air of unfathomable wisdom. There was such a quiet and potent spell about the place that one could almost fancy these constant animals to be the transformed bodies of human visitors who had stayed too long. Who knew what tales might be told by these tall, slender birches, clustering so closely by the sombre walls?--birches which [64] were but whispering shrubs when the first gray stones were laid, and which now reared above the eaves their white stems and dark boughs, still whispering and waiting till a few more years should show them, across the roof, the topmost blossoms of other birches on the other side.

Before the great western doorway spread the outer harbor, whither the coasting vessels came to drop anchor at any approach of storm. These silent visitors, which arrived at dusk and went at dawn, and from which no boat landed, seemed fitting guests before the portals of the silent house. I was never tired of watching them from the piazza; but Severance always stayed outside the wall. It was a whim of his, he said; and once only I got out of him something about the resemblance of the house to some Portuguese mansion, --at Madeira, perhaps, or at Rio Janeiro, but he did not say,--with which he had no pleasant associations. Yet he afterwards seemed to wish to deny this remark, or to confuse my impressions of it, which naturally fixed it the better in my mind.

I remember well the morning when he was at last coaxed into approaching the house. It was [65] late in September, and a day of perfect calm. As we looked from the broad piazza, there was a glassy smoothness over all the bay, and the hills were coated with a film, or rather a mere varnish, inconceivably thin, of haze more delicate than any other climate in America can show. Over the water there were white gulls flying, lazy and low; schools of young mackerel displayed their white sides above the surface; and it seemed as if even a butterfly might be seen for miles over that calm expanse. The bay was covered with mackerel-boats, and one man sculled indolently across the foreground a scarlet skiff. It was so still that every white sail-boat rested where its sail was first spread; and though the tide was at half-ebb, the anchored boats swung idly different ways from their moorings. Yet there was a continuous ripple in the broad sail of some almost motionless schooner, and there was a constant melodious plash along the shore. From the mouth of the bay came up slowly the premonitory line of bluer water, and we knew that a breeze was near.

Severance seemed to rise in spirits as we approached the house, and I noticed no sign of [66] shrinking, except an occasional lowering of the voice. Seeing this, I ventured to joke him a little ·on his previous reluctance, and he replied in the same strain. I seated myself at the corner, and began sketching old Fort Louis, while he strolled along the piazza, looking in at the large, vacant windows. As he approached the farther end, I suddenly heard him give a little cry of amazement or dismay, and, looking up, saw him leaning against the wall, with pale face and hands clenched.

A minute sometimes appears a long while; and though I sprang to him instantly, yet I remember that it seemed as if, during that instant, the whole face of things had changed. The breeze had come, the bay was rippled, the sail-boats careened to the wind, fishes and birds were gone, and a dark gray cloud had come between us and the sun. Such sudden changes are not, however, uncommon after an interval of calm; and my only conscious thought at the time was of wonder at the strange aspect of my companion.

“What was that?” asked Severance in a bewildered tone.

I looked about me, equally puzzled. [67] “Not there,” he said. “In the window.”

I looked in at the window, saw nothing, and said so. There was the great empty drawing-room, across which one could see the opposite window, and through this the eastern piazza and the garden beyond. Nothing more was there. With some persuasion, Severance was induced to look in. He admitted that he saw nothing peculiar; but he refused all explanation, and we went home.

“ Never let me go to that house again,” he said abruptly, as we entered our own door.

I pointed out to him the absurdity of thus yielding to a nervous delusion, which was already in part conquered, and he finally promised to revisit the scene with me the next day. To clear all possible misgivings from my own mind, I got the key of the house from Paul, explored it thoroughly, and was satisfied that no improper visitor had recently entered the drawing-room at least, as the windows were strongly bolted on the inside, and a large cobweb, heavy with dust, hung across the doorway. This did no great credit to Paul's stewardship, but was, perhaps, a slight relief to me. Nor could I [68] see a trace of anything uncanny outside the house. When Severance went with me, next day, the coast was equally clear, and I was glad to have cured him so easily.

Unfortunately, it did not last. A few days after, there was a brilliant sunset, after a storm, with gorgeous yellow light slanting everywhere, and the sun looking at us between bars of dark purple cloud, edged with gold where they touched the pale blue sky; all this fading at last into a great whirl of gray to the northward, with a cold purple ground. At the height of the show, I climbed the wall to my favorite piazza, and was surprised to find Severance already there.

He sat facing the sunset, but with his head sunk between his hands. At my approach, he looked up, and rose to his feet. “Do not deceive me any more,” he said, almost savagely, and pointed to the window.

I looked in, and must confess that, for a moment, I too was startled. There was a perceptible moment of time during which it seemed as if no possible philosophy could explain what appeared in sight. Not that any object showed itself within [69] the great drawing-room, but I distinctly saw-across the apartment, and through the opposite window — the dark figure of a man about my own size, who leaned against the long window, and gazed intently on me. Above him spread the yellow sunset light, around him the birch-boughs hung and the ivy-tendrils swayed, while behind him there appeared a glimmering water-surface, across which slowly drifted the tall masts of a schooner. It looked strangely like a view I had seen of some foreign harbor,--Amalfi, perhaps, --with a vine-clad balcony and a single human figure in the foreground. So real and startling was the sight that at first it was not easy to resolve the whole scene into its component parts. Yet it was simply such a confused mixture of real and reflected images as one often sees from the window of a railway carriage, where the mirrored interior seems to glide beside the train, with the natural landscape for a background. In this case, also, the frame and foliage of the picture were real, and all else was reflected; the sunlit bay behind us was reproduced as in a camera, and the dark figure was but the full-length image of myself. [70]

It was easy to explain all this to Severance, but he shook his head. “So cool a philosopher as yourself,” he said, “should remember that this image is not always visible. At our last visit, we looked for it in vain. When we first saw it, it appeared and disappeared within ten minutes. On your mechanical theory it should be otherwise.”

This staggered me for a moment. Then the ready solution occurred, that the reflection depended on the strength and direction of the light; and I proved to him that, in our case, it had appeared and disappeared with the sunshine. He was silenced, but evidently not convinced; yet time and common-sense, it seemed, would take care of that.

Soon after all this, I was called out of town for a week or two. If Severance would go with me, it would doubtless complete the cure, I thought; but this he obstinately declined. After my departure, my sister wrote, he seemed absolutely to haunt the empty house by the Blue Rocks. He undoubtedly went here to sketch, she thought. The house was in charge of a real-estate - [71] agent,a retired landscape-painter, whose pictures did not sell so profitably as their originals; and her theory was, that this agent hoped to make our friend buy the place, and so allured him there under pretence of sketching. Moreover, she surmised, he was studying some effect of shadow, because, unlike most men, he appeared in decent spirits only on cloudy days. It is always so easy to fit a man out with a set of ready-made motives! But I drew my own conclusions, and was not surprised to hear, soon after, that Severance was seriously ill.

This brought me back at once,--sailing down from Providence in an open boat, I remember, one lovely moonlight night. Next day I saw Severance, who declared that he had suffered from nothing worse than a prolonged sick-headache. I soon got out of him all that had happened. He had seen the figure in the window every sunny day, he said. Of course he had, if he chose to look for it, and I could only smile, though it perhaps seemed unkind. But I stopped smiling when he went on to tell that, not satisfied with these observations, he had visited the house by [72] moonlight also, and had then seen, as he averred, a second figure standing beside the first.

Of course, there was no defence against such a theory as this, except simply to laugh it down; but it made me very anxious, for it showed that he was growing thoroughly morbid. “Either it was pure fancy,” I said, “or it was Paul the gardener.”

But here he was prepared for me. It seemed that, on seeing the two figures, Severance had at once left the piazza, and, with an instinct of common-sense that was surprising, had crossed the garden, scaled the wall, and looked in at the window of Paul's little cottage, where the man and his wife were quietly seated at supper, probably after a late fishing-trip. “There was another reason,” he said; but here he stopped, and would give no description of the second figure, which he had, however, seen twice again, always by moonlight. He consented to let me accompany him the following night.

We accordingly went. It was a calm, clear night, and the moon lay brightly on the bay. The distant shores looked low and filmy; a naval vessel was in the harbor, and there was a ball on [73] board, with music and fire-works; some fishermen were singing in their boats, late as was the hour. Severance was absorbed in his own gloomy reveries; and when we had crossed the wall, the world seemed left outside, and the glamour of the place began to creep over me also. I seemed to see my companion relapsing into some phantom realm, beyond power of withdrawal. I talked, sang, whistled; but it was all a rather hollow effort, and soon ceased. The great house looked gloomy and impenetrable, the moonlight appeared sick and sad, the birch-boughs rustled in a dreary way. We went up the steps in no jubilant mood.

I crossed the piazza at once, looked in at the farthest window, and saw there my own image, though far more faintly than in the sunlight. Severance then joined me, and his reflected shape stood by mine. Something of the first ghostly impression was renewed, I must confess, by this meeting of the two shadows; there was something rather awful in the way the bodiless things nodded and gesticulated at each other in silence. Still, there was nothing more than this, as Severance was compelled to own; and I was trying to turn [74] the whole affair into ridicule, when suddenly, without sound or warning, I saw — as distinctly as I perceive the words I now write — yet another figure stand at the window, gaze steadfastly at us for a moment, and then disappear. It was, as I fancied, that of a woman, but was totally enveloped in a very full cloak, reaching to the ground, with a peculiarly cut hood, that stood erect and seemed half as long as the body of the garment. I had a vague recollection of having seen some such costume in a picture.

Of course, I dashed round the corner of the house, threaded the birch-trees, and stood on the eastern piazza. No one was there Without losing an instant, I ran to the garden wall and climbed it, as Severance had done, to look into Paul's cottage. That worthy was just getting into bed, in a state of complicated dishabille, his black-bearded head wrapped in an old scarlet handkerchief that made him look like a retired pirate in reduced circumstances. He being accounted for, I vainly traversed the shrubberies, returned to the western piazza, watched awhile uselessly, and went home with Severance, a good deal puzzled. r [75]

By daylight the whole thing seemed different. That I had seen the figure there was no doubt. It was not a reflected image, for we had no companion. It was, then, human. After all, thought I, it is a commonplace thing enough, this masquerading in a cloak and hood. Some one has observed Severance's nocturnal visits, and is amusing himself at his expense. The peculiarity was, that the thing was so well done, and the figure had such an air of dignity, that somehow it was not so easy to make light of it in talking with him.

I went into his room, next day. His sick headache, or whatever it was, had come on again, and he was lying on his bed. Rutherford's strange old book on the Second Sight lay open before him. “Look there,” he said; and I read the motto of a chapter:--

In sunlight one,
In shadow none,
In moonlight two,
In thunder two,
Then comes Death.

I threw the book indignantly from me, and began to invent doggerel, parodying this precious incantation. But Severance did not seem to enjoy [76] the joke, and it grows tiresome to enact one's own farce and do one's own applauding.

For several days after he was laid up in earnest; but instead of getting any mental rest from this, he lay poring over that preposterous book, and it really seemed as if his brain were a little disturbed. Meanwhile I watched the great house, day and night, sought for footsteps, and, by some odd fancy, took frequent observations on the gardener and his wife. Failing to get any clew, I waited one day for Paul's absence, and made a call upon the wife, under pretence of hunting up a missing handkerchief,--for she had been my laundress. I found the handsome, swarthy creature, with her six bronzed children around her, training up the Madeira vine that made a bower of the whole side of her little, black, gambrel-roofed cottage. On learning my errand, she became full of sympathy, and was soon emptying her bureau-drawers in pursuit of the lost handkerchief. As she opened the lowest drawer, I saw within. it something which sent all the blood to my face for a moment. It was a black cloth cloak, with a stiff hood two feet long, of precisely the pattern worn by the [77] unaccountable visitant at the window. I turned almost fiercely upon her; but she looked so innocent as she stood there, caressing and dusting with her fingers what was evidently a pet garment, that it was really impossible to denounce her.

“Is that a Bavarian cloak?” said I, trying to be cool and judicial.

Here broke in the eldest boy, named John, aged ten, a native American, and a sailor already, whom I had twice fished up from a capsized punt. “Mother ain't a Bavarian,” quoth the young salt. “Father's a Bavarian; mother's a Portegee. Portegees wear them hoods.”

“I am a Portuguese, sir, from Fayal,” said the woman, prolonging with sweet intonation the soft name of her birthplace. “This is my caplote,” she added, taking up with pride the uncouth costume, while the children gathered round, as if its vast folds came rarely into sight.

“It has not been unfolded for a year,” she said. As she spoke, she dropped it with a cry, and a little mouse sprang from the skirts, and whisked away into some corner. We found that the little animal had made its abode in the heavy woollen, [78] of which three or four thicknesses had been eaten through, and then matted together into the softest of nests. This contained, moreover, a small family of mouselets, who certainly had not taken part in any midnight masquerade. The secret seemed more remote than ever, for I knew that there was no other Portuguese family in the town, and there was no confounding this peculiar local costume with any other.

Returning to Severance's chamber, I said nothing of all this. He was, by an odd coincidence, looking over a portfolio of Fayal sketches made by himself during his late voyage. Among them were a dozen studies of just such capotes as I had seen,--some in profile, completely screening the wearer, others disclosing women's faces, old or young. He seemed to wish to put them away, however, when I came in. Really, the plot seemed to thicken; and it was a little provoking to understand it no better, when all the materials seemed close to one's hands.

A day or two later, I was summoned to Boston. Returning thence by the stage-coach, we drove from Tiverton, the whole length of the island, under [79] one of those wild and wonderful skies which give, better than anything in nature, the effect of a field of battle. The heavens were filled with ten thousand separate masses of cloud, varying in shade from palest gray to iron-black, borne rapidly to and fro by upper and lower currents of opposing wind. They seemed to be charging, retreating, breaking, recombining, with puffs of what seemed smoke, and a few wan sunbeams sometimes striking through for fire. Wherever the eye turned, there appeared some flying fragment not seen before; and yet in an hour this noiseless Antietam grew still, and a settled leaden film overspread the sky, yielding only to some level lines of light where the sun went down. Perhaps our driver was looking toward the sky more than to his own affairs, for, just as all this ended a wheel gave out, and we had to stop in Portsmouth for repairs. By the time we were again in motion, the changing wind had brought up a final thunder-storm, which broke upon us ere we reached our homes. It was rather an uncommon thing, so late in the season; for the lightning, like other brilliant visitors, usually appears [80] in Oldport during only a month or two of every year.

The coach set me down at my own door, so soaked that I might have floated in. I peeped into Severance's room, however, on the way to my own. Strange to say, no one was there; yet some one had evidently been lying on the bed, and on the pillow lay the old book on the Second Sight, open at the very page which had so bewitched him and vexed me. I glanced at it mechanically, and when I came to the meaningless jumble, “In thunder two,” a flash flooded the chamber, and a sudden fear struck into my mind. Who knew what insane experiment might have come into that boy's head?

With sudden impulse, I went down stairs, and found the whole house empty, until a stupid old woman, coming in from the wood-house with her apron full of turnips, told me that Severance had been missing since nightfall, after being for a week in bed, dangerously ill, and sometimes slightly delirious. The family had become alarmed, and were out with lanterns, in search of him.

It was safe to say that none of them had more [81] reason to be alarmed than I. It was something, however, to know where to seek him. Meeting two neighboring fishermen, I took them with me. As we approached the well-known wall, the blast blew out our lights, and we could scarcely speak. The lightning had grown less frequent, yet sheets of-flame seemed occasionally to break over the dark, square sides of the house, and to send a flickering flame along the ridge-pole and eaves, like a surf of light. A surf of water broke also behind us on the Blue Rocks, sounding as if it pursued our very footsteps; and one of the men whispered hoarsely to me, that a Nantucket brig had parted her cable, and was drifting in shore.

As we entered the garden, lights gleamed in the shrubbery. To my surprise, it was Paul and his wife, with their two oldest children,--these last being quite delighted with the stir, and showing so much illumination, in the lee of the house, that it was quite a Feast of Lanterns. They seemed a little surprised at meeting us, too; but we might as well have talked from Point Judith to Beaver Tail as to have attempted conversation there. I walked round the building; but a flash of lightning [82] showed nothing on the western piazza save a birch-tree, which lay across, blown down by the storm. I therefore went inside, with Paul's household, leaving the fishermen without.

Never shall I forget that search. As we went from empty room to room, the thunder seemed rolling on the very roof, and the sharp flashes of lightning appeared to put out our lamps and then kindle them again. We traversed the upper regions, mounting by a ladder to the attic; then descended into the cellar and the wine-vault. The thorough bareness of the house, the fact that no bright-eyed mice peeped at us from their holes, no uncouth insects glided on the walls, no flies buzzed in the unwonted lamplight, scarcely a spider slid down his damp and trailing web,--all this seemed to enhance the mystery. The vacancy was more dreary than desertion: it was something old which had never been young. We found ourselves speaking in whispers; the children kept close to their parents; we seemed to be chasing some awful Silence from room to room; and the last apartment, the great drawing-room, we really seemed loath to enter. The less the rest of the [83] house had to show, the more, it seemed, must be concentrated there. Even as we entered, a blast of air from a broken pane extinguished our last light, and it seemed to take many minutes to rekindle it.

As it shone once more, a brilliant lightning-flash also swept through the window, and flickered and flickered, as if it would never have done. The eldest child suddenly screamed, and pointed with her finger, first to one great window and then to its opposite. My eyes instinctively followed the successive directions; and the double glance gave me all I came to seek, and more than all. Outside the western window lay Severance, his white face against the pane, his eyes gazing across and past us,--struck down doubtless by the fallen tree, which lay across the piazza, and hid him from external view. Opposite him, and seen through the eastern window, stood, statue-like, the hooded figure, but with the great capote thrown back, showing a sad, eager, girlish face, with dark eyes, and a good deal of black hair,--one of those faces of peasant beauty such as America never shows, -faces where ignorance is almost raised into refinement [84] by its childlike look. Contrasted with Severance's wild gaze, the countenance wore an expression of pitying forgiveness, almost of calm; yet it told of wasting sorrow and the wreck of a life. Gleaming lustrous beneath the lightning, it had a more mystic look when the long flash had ceased, and the single lantern burned beneath it, like an altar-lamp before a shrine.

“It is Aunt Emilia,” exclaimed the little girl; and as she spoke, the father, turning angrily upon her, dashed the light to the ground, and groped his way out without a word of answer. I was too much alarmed about Severance to care for aught else, and quickly made my way to the western piazza, where I found him stunned by the fallen tree,--injured, I feared, internally,--still conscious, but unable to speak.

With the aid of my two companions I got him home, and he was ill for several weeks before he died. During his illness he told me all he had to tell; and though Paul and his family disappeared next day,--perhaps going on board the Nantucket brig, which had narrowly escaped shipwreck,--I afterwards learned all the remaining [85] facts from the only neighbor in whom they had placed confidence. Severance, while convalescing at a country-house in Fayal, had fallen passionately in love with a young peasant-girl, who had broken off her intended marriage for love of him, and had sunk into a half-imbecile melancholy when deserted. She had afterwards come to this country, and joined her sister, Paul's wife. Paul had received her reluctantly, and only on condition that her existence should be concealed. This was the easier, as it was one of her whims to go out only by night, when she had haunted the great house, which, she said, reminded her of her own island, so that she liked to wear thither the capote which had been the pride of her heart at home. On the few occasions when she had caught a glimpse 6f Severance, he had seemed to her, no doubt, as much a phantom as she seemed to him. On the night of the storm, they had both sought their favorite haunt, unconscious of each other, and the friends of each had followed in alarm.

I got traces of the family afterwards at Nantucket, and later at Narragansett, and had reason to think that Paul was employed, one summer, by a [86] farmer on Conanicut; but I was always just too late for them; and the money which Severance left, as his only reparation for poor Emilia, never was paid. The affair was hushed up, and very few, even among the neighbors, knew the tragedy that had passed by them with the storm.

After Severance died, I had that temporary feeling of weakened life which remains after the first friend or the first love passes, and the heart seems to lose its sense of infinity. His father came, and prosed, and measured the windows of the empty house, and calculated angles of reflection, and poured even death and despair into his crucible of commonplace; the mother whined in her feebler way at home; while the only brother, a talkative medical student, tried to pooh-pooh it all, and sent me a letter demonstrating that Emilia was never in America, and that the whole was an hallucination. I cared nothing for his theory; it all seemed like a dream to me, and, as all the actors but myself are gone, it seems so still. The great house is yet unoccupied, and likely to remain so; and he who looks through its western window may still be startled by the weird image of himself. As I [87] lingered round it, to-day, beneath the winter sunlight, the snow drifted pitilessly past its ivied windows, and so hushed my footsteps that I scarce knew which was the phantom, myself or my reflection, and wondered if the medical student would not argue me out of existence next.

This is the end of my story. If I sought for a moral, it would be hard to attach one to a thing so slight. It could only be this, that shadow and substance are always ready to link themselves, in unexpected ways, against the diseased imagination; and that remorse can make the most transparent crystal into a mirror for its sin.

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