THE COUNTESS OF LOWNDES SQUARE

Cynthia, Countess of Hampshire, was sitting in an extraordinarily
elaborate dressing-gown one innocent morning in June, alternately
opening letters and eating spoonfuls of sour milk prepared according to
the prescription of Professor Metchnikoff. Every day it made her feel
younger and stronger and more irresponsible (which is the root of all
joy to natures of a serious disposition), and since (when a fortnight
before she began this abominable treatment) she felt very young already,
she was now almost afraid that she would start again on measles, croup,
hoops, whooping-cough, peppermints, and other childish ailments and
passions. But since this treatment not only induced youth, but was
discouraging to all microbes but its own, she hoped as regards ailments
that she would continue to feel younger and younger without suffering
the penalties of childhood.

The sour milk was finished long before her letters were all opened, for
there was no one in London who had a larger and more festive post than
she. Indeed, it was no wonder that everybody of sense (and most people
of none) wanted her to eat their dinners and stay in their houses, for
her volcanic enjoyment of life made the dullest of social functions a
high orgy, and since nothing is nearly so infectious as enjoyment, it
followed that she was much in request.

Even in her fiftieth year she retained with her youthful zest for life
much of the extreme plainness of her girlhood, but time was gradually
lightening the heaviness of feature that had once formed so remarkable
an ugliness, and in a few years more, no doubt, she would become as nice
looking as everybody else of her age.

Her father, the notorious (probably infamous) Baron Kakao, of mixed and
uncertain origin, had at one time compiled by hook or crook (chiefly, it
is to be feared, by crook) an immense fortune; but long after that was
spent, and debts of an equally substantial nature been substituted for
it, he continued to live in London in a blaze of splendour so Oriental,
that he was still believed to be possessed of fabulous wealth, and had
without the least difficulty married the plain but fascinating Cynthia
to an elderly Earl of Hampshire, and had continued to allow her £10,000
a year, which he borrowed at a staggering rate of usury from optimistic
Hebrews. They thought that Lord Hampshire would probably see to his
father-in-law’s debts; while, rather humorously, Lord Hampshire was
post-obiting himself with others who trusted that Baron Kakao would
come to the rescue of his son-in-law.

Consequently, when he and Cynthia’s disgusting husband expired within a
few hours of each other, the widowed and orphaned Countess was left
without a penny in the world, and in Rama was there a voice heard,
lamentation and great mourning! Father and husband were both sad rogues,
and in death, in more than a chronological sense, it is highly probable
that they were not divided.

It will therefore be easily imagined that her childhood and marriage had
been a sound and liberal education to Lady Hampshire; for they had
taught her that the world in general is very easily imposed upon, and
that if you are intending to be a villain, the path of villainy is made
much smoother to the pilgrim if he smiles. Shakespeare perhaps had given
her the germ of that invaluable truth; but, as in countless other
instances, her brilliant brain brought to full flower what was only an
immature bud of knowledge. In any case, the villain, so she shrewdly
reasoned, must keep his frown to himself, and however dreadful the
machinations on which he is employed, must cultivate a dewy _bonhomie_
in public, and pretend to be innocently engrossed in the pleasures and
palaces of this delightful world. Lady Hampshire went farther than this
(especially since she had taken to sour milk), and actually was
engrossed in them for a large majority of the hours of those entrancing
summer days. But, like all game fish, she had a close time, which
occurred every morning over her post. For to let the reader into her
terrible and unsuspected secret, she was an earnest and adroit
blackmailer.

It is easy to find excuses (if excuses are needed) to account for her
adoption of so vivid and thrilling a life, for indeed it is difficult to
see how she could have existed at all without some such source of income
as this, and still less could she have kept up her delightful house in
Lowndes Square, her cottage in the Cotswolds, her luxurious and rapid
motor-car, her box at the opera, her wonderful toilettes at Sandown and
Epsom, and Newmarket and Aix and Marienbad.

All these simple pleasures were really a necessity of life to her, while
in addition to that she rightly regarded them as an indispensable part
of her “makeup” as a blackmailer, a mask behind which she could securely
grin. Had she, with her historic name, gone to live in Whitechapel or
Bayswater, people would have inevitably concluded that she was hard up,
and in the charitable manner characteristic of the world, have wondered
how she managed to live at all except by some course of secret and
remunerative crime. Whereas the genial and affluent Countess who gave
her box at the opera, not to her friend (for she was too clever for
that), but to her possible enemies, whenever she did not want it (which
was six nights in the week, since she detested music as much as she
detested detectives), was a woman who need not laugh at suspicion,
simply because there were no suspicions to laugh at. Nobody bothered
himself or herself as to how she got her money, just because she always
spent it so delightfully. If she had not spent it thus, or if there had
been none to spend, there would have been excellent cause for the world
to wonder where it came (or did not come) from.

A word is necessary for the sake of those few who may possibly be
ignorant of how such things are pleasantly managed, as to her methods
when in pursuit of her profession. From an amateur standpoint, and to
the world at large, she was, as has been said, Cynthia, Countess of
Hampshire; but in her business capacity and to the scarcely less
numerous world of her trembling clients she was Agatha Ainslie (Miss).
Here she differed from Shakespeare, for she held that there was a great
deal in a name, and (apart from the obvious objections to trading as
Cynthia Hampshire) there was in the sound of “Agatha Ainslie” much which
would inspire a misplaced confidence. Agatha Ainslie, to anyone entering
into business relations with her for the first time, would seem to be a
not unkindly blackmailer; she might suitably have lived in a cathedral
close, with her sister. There was something wistful and pathetic about
the title: it was in no way sharkish. She sounded gentle, though her
immediate mission might appear diabolical; she was a pleasant dentist
who might be supposed to treat you to nasty jabs and vivid extractions
for your permanent good.

In Lady Hampshire’s life, passed as it was in country-houses and
restaurants and Continental spas, it was no wonder that she found many
clients. There was scarcely a scandal in London that did not reach her
sympathetic ear before it became public, and there were certainly many
scandals that reached that eager orifice which never became public at
all. She had a memory which bordered on the Gladstonian for
retentiveness, and a terrifying and menacing pen, and a few words
dropped secretly into her ear came out of Agatha’s stylograph with
blistering effect.

But with the innate kindliness of her nature, she never allowed Agatha
to blackmail any who could not afford to pay, and she had several times
deferred the exaction of her little fines until it was certain that her
client would not be seriously embarrassed and possibly driven to the
desperate course of denouncing her. Never had she had reason to blame
herself for a suicide, and she had Sir Andrew Clarke’s authority for
believing that no one ever died of sleeplessness. She only milked the
fat, sleek cows, and twisted the tails of the bulky bulls. Indeed, as
she quaintly said to herself, she looked upon the payments they made as
a sort of insurance against indiscretions on their part in the future.
She protected them against their own lower instincts.

Her arrangements for Agatha were thoughtful in the extreme. Years ago
her father had owned a small house in Whitstaple Street, of the kind
described in auctioneering circles as “bijou,” which backed on to her
own less jewel-sized mansion in Lowndes Square. This house in Whitstaple
Street had providentially escaped the notice of his creditors when his
affairs–if an entire absence of assets can be considered affairs–were
wound up, and in order to give Miss Ainslie a discreet and convenient
home, it had only been necessary to cut a door through the back of a big
closet in her bedroom in Lowndes Square. The rates and taxes of the
bijou were punctually paid by Agatha, who had, of course, a separate
banking-account and a curious sloping hand, while a secret and terrible
old woman called Magsby, whom Lady Hampshire could ruin on the spot for
forging a valueless cheque of her father’s, opened the door to the
clients, and made gruesome haddocky meals for herself in the kitchen.

Upstairs Lady Hampshire kept her Agatha-clothes, in which she looked
like some unnatural cross between a hospital nurse and the sort of
person who gets more stared at than talked to, and when she had found a
home for the guileless young carpenter who fashioned her means of
communication between Lowndes Square and Whitstaple Street in a remote
though salubrious district of Western Australia, it really seemed as if
she might laugh at the idea of detectives. She had but to lock herself
into her bedroom, and in five minutes Agatha, with her spectacles and
rouge and terrible wig, would be firmly conversing with clients in
Whitstaple Street. Then, when a pleasant conclusion had been come to,
five minutes more would be sufficient, and Lady Hampshire would emerge
from her bedroom refreshed by her rest, and ready to immerse herself in
a perfect spate of fashionable diversions.

Such to Lady Hampshire’s effusive and optimistic mind was her career as
it should have been. But occasionally the hard sordid facts of existence
“put spokes” in the wheel that should have whirled so merrily. And as
she sat this morning in her elaborate dressing-gown, she found a spoke
of the most obstructive kind.

Agatha’s letters had, as usual, been placed outside the door of
communication by the terrible Magsby, and Lady Hampshire, on the
principle of business first, pleasure afterwards, had answered all the
letters sent to herself which dealt with the social pleasures of town
before she opened the far more exciting packet of Agatha’s
correspondence. The very first of them made her feel as if she had
several lowering diseases in the pit of the stomach. It ran thus:

“TO MISS AGATHA AINSLIE.

“DEAR MADAM,–I have learned your terrible secret, and know the
means whereby you acquire your great and ill-gotten wealth.
Believe me, my heart bleeds for you that in your position you
should ever have had to descend to the crime of blackmailing,
which, you are well aware, is regarded in a very serious and
perhaps even brutal light by the otherwise humane code of English
law.

“Now I make no threats; I studiously avoid them. But if you can
help a deserving and struggling individual already past the prime
of life, I assure you, on my sacred word of honour, that you will
not sleep the less soundly for it. A pittance of £1,000 a year paid
quarterly, and in advance, would be considered perfectly
satisfactory. My messenger shall call on you this afternoon at a
quarter-past three, and I earnestly suggest that the first payment
should then and there be given him.–Faithfully yours,

“M. S.”

“P.S.–Motives of delicacy prevent my mentioning my name. A cheque
therefore would be less welcome than bank-notes or gold.”

Cynthia Hampshire shuddered as she read. Often and often she had
wondered with kindly amazement at the hare-like timidity of her clients,
who so willingly paid their little mites to the upkeep of her
establishment, when a moment’s courage would have taken them hot-foot to
the smiling and hospitable portals of Scotland Yard. But as she perused
this perfectly sickening communication, she found herself, in the true
sense of the word, sympathizing with them–that is to say, suffering
with them. It really was most uncomfortable being blackmailed for
something of an illegal nature which you actually had done, and she no
longer wondered at the lamb-like acquiescence with which her clients
fell in with the not unreasonable terms that she offered them.

The thought of calling at Scotland Yard with this outrageous letter
occurred to her, but at the idea of appealing for protection her soul
cried out like a child in the dark, and her courage oozed from her like
drippings from a squeezed sponge. Furthermore, so spirited a proceeding
was rendered even less feasible by the fact that it was not Lady
Hampshire who was being blackmailed, but her Agatha. She doubted very
much if she would be allowed by the odious meticulosity of English law
to prosecute on behalf of poor Miss Ainslie, who must suddenly have gone
abroad, while the idea of going to the house of vengeance in the
disguise and habiliments of that injured spinster was outside the limits
of her sober imagination. And who could M. S. be, with his veiled
threats and nauseating denial of them? She ran rapidly through the list
of her clients, but found none whom she could reasonably suspect of so
treacherous a feat.

Very reluctantly she was forced to the conclusion that she would have to
pay the first quarter anyhow of this cruel levy. Luckily Agatha had been
doing very well lately, for London had been amusing itself with no end
of questionable antics, and there was a prospect of a good season to
come. But £250 per quarter would assuredly take a considerable portion
of gilt off poor Miss Ainslie’s gingerbread, and it was at once clear to
Lady Hampshire that she must raise Agatha’s rates.

She was lunching that day with Colonel Ascot, an old and valued friend.
Though still only a year or two past fifty, he had made three large
fortunes, of which he had lost two. But the third, which he had rapidly
scooped out of the rubber boom, had sent him bounding upwards again, and
she had more than once wondered if she could get him on to Agatha’s
list. More than once also, in answer to his repeated proposals, she had
thought of marrying him, but she did not think it right to accept his
devotion without telling him about Agatha, and it seemed scarcely likely
that he would wish his wife to have such an _alter ego_. For as Agatha
she led such a thrilling and tremendous existence that it would be a
great wrench to annihilate that exciting spinster in the noose of
matrimony. On the other hand, if Agatha’s business was to be threatened
by these bolts from the blue, in the shape of demands from M. S., the
pain of parting with her would be appreciably less severe. The matter
required fresh and careful consideration.

Lady Hampshire had several other clients to write to, and it was time
(when she had finished this correspondence, and put it through the
secret door at the back of her bedroom closet to be collected and posted
by grim Magsby) to exchange her dressing-gown for the habiliments of
lunch and civilization. A new costume had come for her from Paquin’s
that morning, and as she was to go to two charity bazaars, a matinée,
and as many tea-parties as there was time for between the end of the
matinée and the early dinner which was to precede another theatre and a
couple of balls, she decided to wear this sumptuous creation.

Anything new, provided the point of it was not to be old, put this
mercurial lady into excellent humour, and she set out for lunch, which
was only just across the square, not more than half an hour late,
looking, as the representative of a fashion-paper who was standing at
the corner on the chance of seeing her told her readers the following
Saturday, “very smart and well-gowned.” She knew she was certain to meet
friends, since that always happened; and by the time she took her seat
next her host, finding lunch already half-over, she had quite dismissed
from her mind the trouble of poor Miss Ainslie.

“But how delicious to see food again,” she said as she sat down. “I was
so afraid lunch-time was never coming that I didn’t recognize it when it
came.”

“And we were afraid that you were never coming, dear Cynthia,” said the
Duchess of Camber.

“I know; I am late. But as I always am late, it is the same as if I was
punctual. The really unpunctual people are those who sometimes are late
and sometimes not. Colonel Ascot has the other punctuality; he is always
in time.”

Cynthia looked round the table. There were but half a dozen guests, but
all these were old friends, and by a not uncommon coincidence half of
them were clients of Agatha, while the Duchess of Camber, so Lady
Hampshire knew, was quite likely to become one, for she had lately taken
to doing her shopping at Mason’s Stores, and spent a long time over it.

Colonel Ascot glanced, apparently with purpose, at the Louis XVI. clock
that stood on the mantelpiece.

“One wastes a lot of time if one is punctual,” he said. “But, after all,
one has all the time there is.”

“But there isn’t enough, though one has it all!” said Lady Hampshire.
“To-day, for instance, would have to be doubled, as one doubles at
bridge, if I was to do all I have promised to.”

“But you won’t, dear, so it doesn’t matter,” said the Duchess. “In any
case, there is always time for what one wants to do, and one can omit
the rest. I always thought my time was completely taken up, but I find I
can do my own shopping at Mason’s as well. I buy soap and candles and
sealing-wax, and take them home in the motor.”

“But not every morning?” asked Lady Hampshire, beginning to attend
violently.

“Practically every afternoon. I always find I have forgotten something I
meant to buy the day before. Also, it is a sort of retreat. One never
meets there anybody one knows, which is such a rest. I don’t have to
grin and talk.”

Lunch was soon over, and instead of having coffee and cigarettes served
at the table, Colonel Ascot got up.

“I do hope, Lady Hampshire,” he said, “that you and the others will not
hurry away, and that you will excuse me, as I have a most important
engagement at a quarter-past three, which I cannot miss. It is very
annoying, and the worst of it is that I made the appointment myself,
quite forgetting that I was to have the pleasure of seeing you at
lunch.”

“Am I to take your place as hostess?” she asked, as she sat down with
him for a moment in a corner of the drawing-room.

“If you will, both now and always,” said he.

She laughed; he had proposed to her so often that a repetition was not
in the least embarrassing. But somehow, to-day, he looked unusually
attractive and handsome, and she was more serious with him than was her
wont. Also the thought of doing business for Agatha was in her mind.

“Ah, my dear friend,” she said, “I should have to know so much more
about you first. For instance, that appointment of your own making seems
to me to need inquiry. Now be truthful, Colonel Ascot, and tell me if
it is not a woman you are going to see?”

“Well, it is.”

“I knew it,” she said.

“But you must let me tell you more,” said he. “She is an old governess
of my sister’s, whom I–I want to be kind to. Such a good old soul. The
sort of helpless old lady with whom one couldn’t break an appointment
that one had made.”

Lady Hampshire laughed again.

“Your details are admirable,” she said. “And detail is of such prime
importance in any artistic production.”

“Artistic production?” said he. “Surely you don’t suspect me of—-”

“I suspect everybody of everything,” she interrupted lightly, “owing to
my extensive knowledge of myself. But go on; I want more details. What
is the name and address of this helpless old governess?”

“Miss Agatha Ainslie,” said he. “She lives in Whitstaple Street, just
off the Square.”

Lady Hampshire had nerves of steel. If they had been of any other
material they must have snapped like the strings of the lyre of Hope in
Mr. Watts’s picture. Only in this case there would not have been a
single one left. Colonel Ascot going to see Agatha at a quarter-past
three…. How on earth did he know of Agatha’s existence? What was
Agatha to him, or he to Agatha? And surely it was at a quarter-past
three that the messenger of the ruthless M. S. was going to call at
Whitstaple Street, where he would find the packet of bank-notes for £250
that Lady Hampshire had made ready before she came out to lunch. Would
they meet on the doorstep? What did it all mean?

Her head whirled, but she managed to command her voice.

“What a delightful name!” she said. “I’m sure Miss Ainslie must be a
delightful old lady with ringlets and a vinaigrette and a
mourning-brooch.”

“I haven’t seen her for years,” said Colonel Ascot. “I will tell you
about her when we meet again. Do let it be soon!”

“Perhaps you would drop in for tea to-day?” she suggested, expunging
from her mind several other engagements. “I shall be alone.”

“That will make up for my curtailed luncheon-party,” said he.

He made his excuses to his guests, and after allowing him a liberal time
in which he could leave the house, Lady Hampshire rose also.

“You are not going yet, dear Cynthia?” asked the Duchess. “I wanted to
talk to you about the advantage of doing your shopping at Mason’s. And
the danger of it,” she added, catching Lady Hampshire’s kind
understanding eye.

Lady Hampshire felt torn between conflicting interests. Here, she
unerringly conjectured, there was fish to fry for Agatha, and yet other
fish, so to speak, who perhaps wanted to fry. Agatha demanded a more
immediate attention.

The duchess’s complication must wait: she was dining with her to-morrow.
Colonel Ascot was going to see Agatha: nothing must prevent Lady
Hampshire from hearing what his business was.

She went across the Square, and let herself into her own house. There
were half a dozen telegrams lying on the hall table, but without
dreaming of opening any, she went straight to her bedroom and locked the
door. Someone–probably the second footman–was being funny at the
servants’ dinner, for shrieks of laughter ascended from the basement. As
a rule, she loved to know that her household was enjoying itself, but
to-day that merriment left her cold, and next moment she was in Agatha’s
house and pursing her lips into the shrill whistle with which she always
summoned Magsby.

“I left a note addressed to M. S.,” she said; “I want it.”

The words were yet in her mouth, when the bell of Agatha’s front door
rang in an imperious manner, and Lady Hampshire peeped cautiously out
through the yellow muslin blinds. On the doorstep was standing an old,
old man with a long white beard. He leaned heavily on a stick, and wore
a frayed overcoat.

She tip-toed back from the window.

“Give me the note,” she said, “and wait till I get upstairs. Then answer
the door, and tell Methuselah that Miss Ainslie will be down in a
moment.”

Lady Hampshire stole up to Agatha’s room, and hastily assumed her grey
wig, her spectacles, her rouge, her large elastic-sided boots, her
lip-salve, her creaking alpaca gown, and with the envelope containing
bank-notes for £250, addressed in Agatha’s dramatic sloping handwriting
to the messenger of M. S., descended again to her sitting-room.
Methuselah rose as she entered, and she made him her ordinary prim
Agatha bow, and spoke in Miss Ainslie’s husky treble voice.

“The messenger of M. S.,” she observed. “Quite so.”

“That is my name for the present,” said the old man in a fruity tenor.

“I received your master’s note, sir,” said Agatha, “and you cannot be
expected to know what pain and surprise it caused me. But what does he
suppose he is going to get by it?”

Lady Hampshire was not used to spectacles, and they dimmed her natural
acuteness of vision, besides making her eyes ache. Before her was a
sordid old ruin of humanity, red-eyed, white-bearded, a prey, it would
seem, to lumbago, nasal catarrh, and other senile ailments. Probably in
a few minutes–for it was scarcely a quarter past three yet–Colonel
Ascot would arrive; and again her head whirled at the thought of the
possible nightmares that Providence still had in store for her.

Methuselah blew his nose.

“I fancy my master rather expected to get £250 in notes or gold,” he
said. “He knows a good deal about Miss Ainslie, he does. He is quite
willing to share his knowledge with others, he is.”

Lady Hampshire raised her head proudly, so that she could get a glimpse
of this old ruffian under her spectacles. The ways of genius are past
finding out, and she could never give a firm reason for what she said
next. A brilliant unconscious intuition led her to say it.

“There is nothing the world may not know,” she said; “in England it is
no crime to be poor, and though I have been in a humble position all my
life, my life has been an honest one. There is no disgrace inherent in
the profession of a governess. For many years I was governess to Colonel
Ascot’s sister.”

“Good God!” said Methuselah.

That was sufficient for Lady Hampshire. She took off her spectacles
altogether and closely scrutinized that astonished rheumy face. And then
her kindly soul was all aflame with indignation at this dastardly
attempt to blackmail poor Agatha.

“In fact, now I look at you,” she said, “I recognize you. No wonder you
blaspheme. I remember the bright boy who used to come in and sit in the
schoolroom while my pupil and I were at our lessons. You have aged very
much, Colonel Ascot.”

In that moment of recognition, she made up her mind. She could never
marry him; she could never even lunch with him again. He was atrocious.

Methuselah rose.

“You are labouring under some strange mistake,” he said; “I will call
again.”

“There is no mistake at all,” said Lady Hampshire quickly, forgetting,
in her perfectly natural indignation, to employ the husky treble tones
which were characteristic of Miss Ainslie, “except the mistake you have
made in thinking that you could with impunity blackmail a defenceless
old governess like me. Where is Scotland Yard? I shall drive there
immediately, and you shall come with me. I shall ring the bell.”

She got up quickly, and then sat down again exactly where she had been,
and Methuselah looked at her very carefully. Then he suddenly burst into
peals of bass laughter.

“But you have aged very much, too, Lady Hampshire,” he said.

“Good God!” said Agatha Ainslie.

Magsby, waiting in the passage outside, felt uncertain as to what her
duty was. She heard her mistress’s voice and the voice of another,
shrieking with laughter, which seemed to gather volume and enjoyment the
longer it went on. Eventually she thought best to retreat to the
basement and prepare haddocks for dinner.

* * * * *

“But, my dear, let us be serious,” said Lady Hampshire at length. “Tell
me, before I begin to laugh again, how on earth you ever heard of my
poor Agatha!”

“A mutual client,” said Colonel Ascot, fanning himself with his long
white beard. “Poor Jimmy Dennison. He told me, in a fit of natural
exasperation, when I was reminding him about what happened at Brighton
last September, that he could not afford to pay for the same thing twice
over, once to me, and once to Agatha Ainslie. The poor boy showed me the
counterfoils of his cheque-book. It was Agatha Ainslie and Martin
Sampson all the way. It was but natural, since he could not pay, that I
should turn to Agatha and see if she could.”

“But are you really one of us?” said Lady Hampshire.

“Apparently. Are you?”

There was a fresh relapse of laughter, and then Lady Hampshire pulled
herself together.

“I will go halves in Jimmy Dennison,” she said, “whatever we may get.
You may say you have squared Agatha. He ought to give you something for
your trouble. Or I will say I have squared Sampson.”

“It makes no difference,” said Colonel Ascot. “But I am afraid our
interests conflict in many quarters. For instance, the poor Duchess of
Camber.”

“Shopping at Mason’s,” interrupted Lady Hampshire. “My dear friend, she
is mine. She was going to tell me all about it this afternoon, only I
had to come over here to see about Agatha.”

Again Colonel Ascot exploded with laughter.

“But she told me about it yesterday,” he said, “and I had already
drafted a short letter to her from Martin Sampson.”

Lady Hampshire was annoyed at this, since the Duchess was so very rich
and so very silly.

“I don’t know what we can do,” she said; “we can’t appoint an
arbitrator, can we? No arbitrator of really high character would
undertake to settle the differences of two blackmailers. It is very
important that an arbitrator should be beyond suspicion.”

“We had really better make it one firm, Cynthia,” said he.

She had often considered his proposal before, but never so favourably.
Agatha need not be annihilated now; Agatha would probably grow even more
tumultuously alive.

“Yes, perhaps we had,” she said. “Oh, yes, most decidedly!”

So they lived happily and wealthily and amazingly for another
twenty-four years–there is much yet that might be said about them.

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