Beck Center English Dept. University Libraries Emory University
Emory Women Writers Resource Project Collections:
Women's Genre Fiction Project

Woman Against Woman, an electronic edition

by Florence Marryat [Marryat, Florence, 1837-1899]

date: [18--]
source publisher: Gall & Inglis
collection: Genre Fiction

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<< chapter 18 chapter 37 >>

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AS Mrs. Watson, the housekeeper of Craven Court, sat in her own little room, about a fortnight or three weeks after the events related in my last chapter, there came a knock at her door. Now when Mrs. Watson had finished her arrangements for the Court dinner, seen that the dessert was tastefully laid out, and ordered a "little something hot" to be made ready for her own supper, she was used to retire from the cares of public life to the privacy of the housekeeper's room, and indulge in an afternoon's nap; and when this was the case it never pleased her to be disturbed; for she was of a gross and corporeal nature, and given to somnolency; and the hirelings under her knew better than to rouse her from a state of drowsiness, for her ruffled temper made them remember the offence for the whole day afterwards, and was the cause of various raids on her part upon their private belongings and occupations, in order to fill up the spare time. Mrs. Watson had just composed herself for sleep in a huge armchair, with her front pushed to one side and a pocket handkerchief spread over her face to keep off the flies, when the tap sounded at her door on the afternoon in question, and she was in anything but a beaming temper as she rose to un- | | 208 lock the entrance to her sanctum, and not in the least mollified when she perceived the intruder was Caroline Wilson, the mother of the new under-housemaid. "She wanted no mothers of her maids," as she had often said before, "a-coming bothering at all hours of the day, and prying into her treatment of them." So her voice was not exactly honeyed sweetness as she inquired—

"Lor, Mrs. Wilson! what brings you here?"

"I took the liberty of stepping over, ma'am, to ask how you were, and to have a chat, if you've no objection," replied Caroline Wilson, who, not appearing to notice that the housekeeper's milk of human kindness had turned rather sour with the heat, entered the room as she spoke.

Mrs. Watson could not positively eject her visitor, so she returned to her own seat, and replied—

"Well, Mrs. Wilson, this is not my usual hour for seeing of friends, but if so be you have any reason for wishing to see me this afternoon, of course I wont say you no."

"You are very good, I'm sure," rejoined Mrs. Wilson, quietly seating herself; "you find this weather warm, ma'am, I dare say?"

"I do find it so; I don't deny it," said the housekeeper, whose face was the colour of beetroot, as she flapped her handkerchief against it for a fan. "Were you wanting to see your daughter, Mrs. Wilson?"

"No, ma'am, thank you; I saw her as I came in."

"Wanting to speak of her, may be?" was the next inquiry. Mrs. Watson was determined to get rid of her visitor at any cost.

"Well! I can't say but what I did come with the intention of saying a few words to you on the subject of Martha, Mrs. Watson. I hope she gives you satisfaction so far."

"I haven't had occasion to find grievous fault with her yet, Mrs. Wilson; Martha ain't a bad gal by any means. She's young and flighty; but all girls are that. She does her work pretty well, though it's plain to see she hasn't been used to house-cleaning; but I've nothing in particular to say against her, Mrs. Wilson, ma'am, and that's the truth, excepting, perhaps, that I'd be better pleased if she didn't get such a sight of letters, for they always upset a gal more or less; | | 209 but lor'! it's a great charge, having them ten female servants under one, and I often feel as if it was breaking of me down;—the constant worry and talk that I have to keep them to their work—you wouldn't believe it, Mrs. Wilson!"

But Mrs. Wilson had an object in not discussing thus readily the topic she had introduced.

"You don't find Martha wanting too much leave, ma'am, do you?" she next inquired.

"She only gets her turn out, with the others," replied the housekeeper; "once every three Sundays they have half the day, and I find it's quite enough to unsettle them. Now I come to think of it, your gal did ask me for leave one day last week, and I refused it, and she had a bit of a cry; but they all does that directly they're crossed. I don't take no notice of them when such is the case."

"And she had a Sunday out the week before last?" rejoined Mrs. Wilson.

"I think she did," said Mrs. Watson. "I suppose 'twas the turn for the three housemaids; they generally go of a lot."

"Do you know where she went to, ma'am?"

The housekeeper's eyes and hands went heavenward simultaneously.

"Lor' bless you, woman!" she exclaimed, forgetting her politeness in her surprise, "you don't suppose I can keep count of where they all go for their holidays, down to the scullion who came off the parish. I should have a pretty piece of work of it if I did. I don't know where your girl went to; I didn't ask. She came back to her time. I supposed as you, her mother, was close at hand, that she'd go, maybe, and sit the afternoon with you. 'Twas nothing to me whether she did or no; I never dictate to my gals when they're once out of the house. They wouldn't mind me if I did. If they misbehave themselves, I turn 'em out."

"I hope my Martha will never do that, ma'am," said Mrs. Wilson, seriously. She felt serious: she had ascertained that Martha had had a holiday since she had been housemaid at the Court, and that she had spent it in London, no one knew where, or with whom—most probably in the same company she had gone up from Aldershot to join. Her mother | | 210 instinctively guessed that there must be some love affair at the bottom of this secrecy; and she remembered her own experience, and trembled for her daughter. Only she did not go the right way to work to bring into subjection a self-willed, passionate girl, who had been used to act and think for herself.

"Might I ask you a favour, ma'am?" she said, after she had sat a few minutes in silent thought.

Mrs. Watson was not good at granting favours, but she replied, "Certingly, Mrs. Wilson; though I can't promise beforehand as it's yours."

"I only want you to be so kind as not to give my girl any leave, except at her regular times, and to tell her, as from yourself, ma'am, that she's not to have her holiday then if she doesn't spend it with me; for she's too young to be running about anywhere by herself."

Mrs. Watson felt as if the request was an imputation upon her capabilities as overseer of the morals of her maids, and answered, accordingly, "Well, Mrs. Wilson, ma'am, I had no intention of giving your gal more holidays than other gals, but I've no objection to tell her so far-as you've asked me to do, provided you don't expect me to see that Martha carries it out; for I have quite enough bother with them indoors, and can't be expected to look after them when they're not under my eye."

"Of course not," said Mrs. Wilson; "and thank you kindly, Mrs. Watson, for what you've promised. My daughter is as good a girl as ever was—that I believe; but she's young, and——"

"And I suppose you're afraid of her running after the men. Lor, Mrs. Wilson! you take my advice; let her run; 'tis their nature, and you can't stop it, try all you may. I've had seven daughters, ma'am, as I sit here, and I was so plaguey particular about the first three I wore my life out a-looking after them; but 'twasn't a bit of use. They had each of them a score or two of lovers before they could settle which to have, and as soon as I'd got 'em to give up one man they took to another; and so I fell sick of it, and let the four little ones do as they chose, and they made up their minds in half the time when they were left to themselves, and were | | 211 married almost as soon as their sisters. It's no use fretting about a gal having lovers, ma'am. You might just as well try to bring 'em up without meat."

And to look at Mrs. Watson as she delivered herself of this opinion, one would have imagined she was the easiest-going, most lenient-tempered woman in the world. The fact is, she was exceedingly lazy, and made up for her own deficiencies by an occasional outburst of anger against her maids (as she had done in times past against her daughters) for the shortcomings which a little foresight and diligence on her own part might have altogether prevented. But Caroline Wilson, with all her bad qualities, had the gift of circumspection, and too vivid a remembrance of the wrongs of her youth, to contemplate her daughter falling into bad company with equanimity; so she only answered—

"And your advice is very good, I'm sure, ma'am, and you deserved to settle your daughters well; but I have only got this one girl, you see, and I'm afraid she might marry away from me—perhaps take a soldier, as I did (which is the greatest mistake a woman can make, Mrs. Watson), and leave her father and me for some of those horrid foreign stations."

"Well," rejoined her auditor, who began to feel drowsy again, "some day you must drop in, Mrs. Wilson, and tell me a little about them strange places as you've been to; but I'm sorry I can't ask you to stop this afternoon, as we've visitors coming to the Court to-day, and I've a great deal to do in consequence; for my mistress she never told me of them till this morning."

"Who may they be?" inquired Caroline Wilson, rising as she put the question.

"Mr. and Mrs. Raymond Norreys. Her name was Browne. When she was a little girl she was often here, running about the place."

"Lor!—she!" exclaimed Mrs. Wilson.

"What, do you know her?" said the housekeeper, roused into curiosity by the other's surprise.

"Know her!—I should think I did," replied Mrs. Wilson; "her pa was in my regiment. Why, I lived with him (the doctor that was) till he died. And this Mrs. Norreys;—isn't | | 212 she a queer one!—couldn't I tell you one or two things about her and your young gentleman upstairs, Mrs. Watson!"

"Never!" exclaimed the housekeeper. "What, of she and Mr. Cecil? You don't say so!"

"Yes, I do," replied Mrs. Wilson, nodding her head oracularly. This last tremendous assertion had quite roused the housekeeper from her tendency to sleep: she was quite awake now, and her visitor began to assume an appearance not only of importance but of interest in her eyes.

"Lor, Mrs. Wilson!" she said, "you take my breath away! And Mrs. Craven, she seems to think such a lot of this young lady; she always did. 'The best bedroom, Watson, mind!' she says to me this morning; and then she gives me a pair of white and gold vases from her own dressing-room mantelshelf, and tells me to place them in the best bedroom, which has a couple of the loveliest candlesticks you ever see there already, besides a nasty naked figger, and is trimmed with blue satin damask throughout. Well, I never!"

"Ah! if she knew as much about her as I do!" said Mrs. Wilson, mysteriously.

"I suppose you couldn't stop to tea with me this evening, Mrs. Wilson, could you?" said the housekeeper, suddenly and wonderfully interested in the person who a few minutes before she was trying her best to get rid of. "I haven't much to do upstairs, after all, beyond giving the girls a few directions; and then we might have a quiet cup together, and drink to our better acquaintance. I think you are quite right with regard to what you said just now about your Martha, and you may be sure I shall take the first opportunity of speaking to her as you wish, and telling her that her days out are to be spent along of her mother; you may rest assured of that, Mrs. Wilson. And now you'll stop to tea with me, wont you? for it's stupid work, sometimes, sitting here alone, with not a soul to speak to, whilst Mr. Henderson is waiting above stairs."

"Well, I don't mind if I do," returned her visitor; "and thank you for the offer, Mrs. Watson. My mistress is here for the day herself; and so, when I've just run back and given Miss Emily her tea, I shan't be wanted at home; and that I'll do at once."

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"And don't be long," was the parting entreaty of her hostess, as Caroline Wilson proceeded to put her intention into execution.

She was burning to know what the sergeant's wife had to say about the expected visitor and her young master, and awaited her return with the greatest impatience. Mrs. Watson had lived in the Craven family for many years: she had been there in the lifetime of the husband of her mistress, and many things had happened since then that she knew were strange, but that she could not understand. She had been surprised at Mrs. Craven's evident anxiety to promote the comfort of the coming guests, just as she had experienced the same feeling when Rachel Browne, as a little girl, paid visits to the Court, and was attended to as if she had been a princess royal. Now she felt quite anxious to impart all she knew on the subject to Mrs. Wilson, and hear what she had to say in return, in hopes that some connexion might be traced between the stories about Cecil Craven and Mrs. Norreys, and the interest which his mother had ever taken in the daughter of her old friend and lover. And when Caroline Wilson re-appeared, her tongue tipped with its best venom—as it ever was when Rachel's name was under discussion—you may be sure the two women enjoyed their cup of tea together and their dish of scandal to their heart's content.

In the meanwhile, the drawing-room above was not without its occupants, nor they without their occupations. At the farther end of it, reclining in one of those pretty low chairs without arms, that show off a lady's dress to such advantage, close by one of the windows, and half hid by its lace curtains, was Lady Frances Morgan. At first sight she appeared to be alone, indulging in "maiden meditation," though not perhaps quite "fancy free;" but on closer inspection, a very light pair of trousers and a very light coat, surmounted by a very light head of hair and et ceteras, could be discerned behind the fellow-curtain, the contents of which (the "which" alluding to the coat and trousers) were supposed to be employed in helping to sort some lambs' wool, but in reality were busy in making sheep's eyes, which, after all, is only another and a pleasanter phase of the same occupation. Away from this amorous pair, and with her back towards them, sat Mrs. | | 214 Arundel, the forlorn widow, who having consented to join the party at the Court for the first time a few days before, had already established herself there on so free-and-easy a footing, that she appeared to be as much in Mrs. Craven's house as she was in her own. But to-day of course, as her dear friend Mrs. Norreys was expected, she had made a point of being there to welcome her, and seeing that the subject pleased Mrs. Craven, had taken every opportunity that day to gush over in praise of the coming visitor, and to assure her that Rachel and herself had been as inseparable as sisters.

The mistress of Craven Court appeared that afternoon, of any there, to be the least at home. She had not sat still for ten consecutive minutes during the entire day. No sooner had she entered the drawing-room and tried to compose herself, book or work in hand, but something or some thought seemed to rise up in her mind, and take her restless body once more up the stairs or down the stairs, or anywhere, so that it did not keep still. Every now and then her handsome face, crowned with point-lace and coquettish knots of ribbon (which was Mrs. Craven's idea of a cap), would peer into the drawing-room and as quickly be gone. At such times Cecil would stay his badinage with Lady Frances Morgan, and look after his mother's figure, with a glance that was half anxious and half melancholy. Once he rose, followed her into the ante-chamber, and gave her there so warm and affectionate a kiss that it brought the tears into her eyes. Was it that the expectation of seeing Rachel Norreys brought the memory of the old days, when the girl's father had been her most faithful lover, too keenly for her peace before this woman of the world? Could it be that Margaret Craven had loved that dead man better than she did any other out of the multitude of those who wooed her? Perhaps so—but only perhaps—Heaven knew best what secrets dwelt in Margaret Craven's breast, for to all outward show she lived without a confidant or comforter.

Expectation is seldom a pleasant work, even when the thing we wait for is an every-day occurrence, and the whole party experienced symptoms of relief when the wheels of the carriage, which had been sent to meet the Norreyses at the railway station, were heard approaching the house.

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Mrs. Craven was in the drawing-room at the time, and as the sound struck her ears, made a movement as if to fly; but, checking herself, stood where she had been on first hearing it, unmovable. Cecil started to his feet, and advanced to receive his mother's visitors; Lady Frances was all anticipation, and Mrs. Arundel had just exclaimed—"Here they are, at last, dear Mrs. Craven,"when Rachel Norreys and her husband were in their midst. To the two friends who knew Rachel best it was very evident that she had been suffering on her way to Craven Court, for there was a peculiar wild look in her eyes which never appeared there unless her mind was harassed. But Lady Frances and her hostess saw nothing, except the graceful little figure, the large liquid orbs, and the look of startled uncertainty, which always gave Rachel, on finding herself amongst strangers, that deer-like appearance which was one of the most striking of her personal characteristics.

She advanced towards Mrs. Craven first, as in duty bound, with a timid gesture, as if uncertain what reception, after these many years, she should receive at her hands; and the hostess appeared almost as bashful as her visitor. But it was only the uncertainty of a moment; in another, Rachel was folded in her arms, and embraced with almost a mother's fervour.

"My dear child!" was the warm greeting she received. "I am so delighted to have you here; I have never forgotten your little face since we parted last!" In her pleasure at seeing again the daughter of her old friend, in the mixed feelings that Rachel experienced at this reception from Cecil's mother, they both seemed to have forgotten the existence of the other members of the party. But Mrs. Craven, being the oldest, and remembering herself first, held out her hand with a smile over Rachel's shoulder, to greet Rachel's husband, saying—

"A thousand welcomes, Mr. Norreys—for this dear girl's sake!" and then Rachel disengaged herself from her embrace, and proffered hers also for Cecil's acceptance. The firm pressure with which he held it told her more than volumes of protestations on his part could have done how much he felt with her; but she had barely time to return it, and to make | | 216 a graceful acknowledgment of the introduction which Lady Frances received to her at Mrs. Craven's hands, when there was an exclamation, a rush forward, a fervent embrace, and Rachel knew she was in the arms of her bosom friend.

"Chère petite!" exclaimed that lady, who found her abominably mutilated French beginning to be useful again. "What pleasure to see you again, my darling Rachel! What happy days we shall have together. Ah! I daresay you little thought to meet your poor Elise at the Court, now did you? but you shall hear all about it in good time. I daresay you are tired to death just now, after your nasty railway journey. Let me take you to your room, dearest."And Mrs. Arundel appeared as confident of this being the right thing for her to do, as if Craven Court and all its belongings were her property alone. Mrs. Craven commenced something to the effect that she would not hear of her taking that trouble upon herself; but the widow interrupted her in the midst of her speech.

"Now, dear Mrs. Craven, in this particular I must just have my own way. You've been trotting about all day and are quite tired out. No! no! no! I will not hear of it. You see I can be very obstinate when I choose. Now, dearest Rachel, I know all about your room, and if you'll follow me, I will take you to it in no time."

Rachel was half disposed to remonstrate against this hasty proceeding, but glancing towards Mrs. Craven, the latter said—

"Perhaps you had better go, my dear, as your friend is so kind as to offer to show you the way. We dine at six in summer, and your boxes have yet to be unpacked. Cecil will show Mr. Norreys to his dressing-room;" but as Rachel left the room she caught a glimpse of the faces of Cecil and Lady Frances, and they were both replete with unmitigated disgust at the officiousness of Mrs. Arundel.

"Fancy whisking Mrs. Norreys off in that fashion," pouted Lady Frances in a whisper to Major Craven, as the two ladies left the room, "and when I wanted so much to speak to her!"

"You shall have plenty of opportunities to do so if I can manage them," he whispered, in reply; "for I'll get that | | 217 widow out of the house by hook or by crook, or my name's not Craven." For these two had already established a regular feud against Mrs. Arundel, which only had the effect, however, of making her more bitter against them than she would have otherwise been, and more determined to have her revenge. As she got Rachel safely into the blue damask bedroom, and the latter commenced to make arrangements for dressing, Mrs. Arundel began to be communicative.

"Well, darling! so you've come at last. I really thought that you were never going to give us that pleasure. Isn't this a charming place? but I suppose you remember it Such grounds, and such a table kept! I'm here almost every day. Now don't you be jealous, you naughty puss; but dear Mrs. Craven will have it so, and I am not in a condition, alas! to refuse an offer of friendship like hers. Not but what I shall always, always love my sweet Rachel the best of all my friends." And here the friend in question had to stay her unpacking to endure a very demonstrative hug, intended to illustrate the above theory. "Well, dear Rachel, and how are you getting on at Brompton with la belle mère, and la belle sœur? to say nothing of Monsieur votre mari? Tolerably, eh? No pitched battles, &?"

If Rachel had been engaged in such, day after day, Mrs., Arundel was no longer the person she would have chosen to confide her defeat to. And so she merely answered: "No, indeed; I should hope not. You speak of pitched battles, Elise, as if they were nothing. I like Abbey Lodge exceedingly, thank you; and my mother and sister-in-law are very good to me, and very kind. Christine is a dear girl."

"That's right; that's right, petite," said her bosom friend, patronizingly. "I thought it would all turn out plain-sailing after a while. You see your Elise knew best, after all, cherie, did she not?"

But Rachel appeared in no mood for confidence, for she turned the subject.

"How do you like Laburnum Cottage, Elise?"

"Pretty well, dear; it's a poor little place, but as much as I can afford to keep up. You must come and see it, Rachel. Your friend, Master Cecil, has not honoured me with a visit there yet. By-the-bye, have you remarked how very | | 218 épris he is at the present moment with Lady Frances Morgan?"

"I have had no time to remark anything," replied Rachel. "She seems a very pretty girl."

"Oh, yes; she is all very well for those who like neither one thing nor the other; however, for my part, Rachel, give me either a regular blonde or a brunette—like our two selves, for instance. However, Major Craven is carrying on a great flirtation in that quarter, anyway. Rather a fickle gentleman, is he not?"

"Is he?" said Rachel, carelessly.

"Well, I should have thought you ought to have known, my dear," was the flippant reply. All her jealousy of, and desire to supplant Rachel in the heart of Cecil Craven the widow had now transferred to Lady Frances Morgan, and she took care to run down that young lady whenever she had an opportunity of doing so; but she had rather hoped that Rachel would feel Major Craven's desertion as much as she had done herself, and with an amiable feeling, peculiar to women, wanted to rouse her jealousy of him as well.

"Watch them, my dear Rachel, that's all," was her next remark, "and you will soon see their little game. Not that I believe Craven means anything by it (more shame for him); but she's a little fool, and very easily taken in. Well, I must be running away now, for the first dressing-bell has rung, and I promised dear Mrs. Craven to look in and help her with her hair; such beautiful hair as she has, for a woman of her age, has she not, dear? and I daresay I am keeping il marito a prisoner in his dressing-room all this time into the bargain, when, perhaps, he has a thousand things to say to you—so, au revoir, dearest."

And with this last pleasantry the widow disappeared. The news she had imparted to Rachel about Cecil and Lady Frances had no further effect upon her than to make her thoughtful.

"I shall watch them," she said to herself, "and see whether what Elise imagines to be the case is true: she may be mistaken. At all events, I cannot think that Cecil would be so ungentlemanly, so dishonourable, so cruel as to play with any girl's feelings. And if he is in earnest, and intends to marry | | 219 Lady Frances, I will try—she looks so sweet and amiable—to make her love me, and to be her friend." And with this resolve, having dressed herself for dinner, Rachel opened the door of her bedchamber and stepped into the passage. It was a wide corridor, running the whole length of the Court, and with doors opening upon either side. As she commenced to traverse it, her light foot-fall making no sound upon its carpeted floor, she saw Cecil Craven standing at the further end, apparently with the intention of waylaying somebody, and as she approached him, and saw the look of pleasant greeting on his face, she could no longer doubt but that the "somebody" was herself.

"I was waiting for you, Rachel," he said, frankly, as he advanced a few steps to meet her. "I want to thank you, oh! so much, for being such a dear, good girl, and doing as I asked."

As she stood before him, robed in her black dress, her radiant hair tied in one huge bunch of curls behind, her swanlike neck and small head giving her an air of such high breeding, how low sank the beauty of other women before the bewitching graces of this aristocratic-looking girl! Even the outlines of Lady Frances (although she could number princes of the blood royal amongst her ancestors) appeared clumsy in Cecil's thoughts, as he watched Rachel Norreys nervously trying to button a glove upon her small symmetrical hand.

"You ought to thank me," she replied in a low voice, "for it has been a great effort."

"I am sure of it," he exclaimed; "it could not be otherwise; and you did it for my sake, Rachel, did you not?" And he passed his arm round her slender waist as he spoke.

"Yes," she replied. "I did it for your sake, dear Cecil, and in return for all your goodness to me. I have come," she added, with a degree of agitation, "as you asked me to come, but there I feel as if my responsibility ended. You must do the rest for me, Cecil. I am afraid of myself in this house," and she shuddered as she looked round upon the walls of the corridor; "afraid of you—of everybody. I feel as if I should scarcely ever be able to speak, or dare to do so. Do what you can for me; ward off everything that may prove a temptation. I have promised, I know; but, Cecil, I am only a | | 220 woman. Away, I felt strong; here, I am a very child. By nature I am weak, and rash, and hasty. Be my protector, as you have promised to be, in this as in other things."

"I will, indeed I will," he answered fervently, as he kissed the tears from her eyes. "Look to me, dear Rachel—coma to me when you want strength. I am often driven to bay myself, and scarcely know what to do or say; but there is but one course for our pursuance—an oath is sacred."

"I know it," she said, solemnly; "I feel it; but the alternative is hard. Oh, father! what is this burden you have laid upon me?"

As she uttered the last words, in a low and plaintive voice, Cecil Craven pressed her more closely to him, and was silent.

The next moment they were far apart, and descending the wide staircase at a respectful distance from each other, for Raymond Norreys had left his dressing-room, and was advancing to join them.

"I am telling your wife that I shall be able to give you some good shooting here, Norreys, if you like the sport," observed Major Craven.

"Indeed," Raymond Norreys remarked, drily; and then added in a pleasanter tone, "I saw you had splendid covers about here as we drove in from Weybridge."

"Yes, and they are just overflowing with game," replied Cecil; "they have been strictly preserved during my absence, and my cousin Northland's is the only gun I have allowed there: we will go out to-morrow." And the two gentlemen engaged in a learned dissertation upon dogs, shot, and guns, and appeared to have forgotten all other topics, as they descended the staircase together and entered the drawing-room.

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