- CHAPTER XXIV. A WOMAN SCORNED.
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A WOMAN SCORNED.
CRAVEN COURT was unusually empty. Mr. Northland had gone into Berkshire on a visit to some friends; and Lady Frances Morgan had returned to the protection of her mother, the Countess of Riversdale. The fact that Major Craven had made her daughter an offer having been duly communicated | | 275 to that lady, and most graciously responded to on a sheet of scented and gilt-edged paper, with all the arms of all the Riversdales emblazoned in every colour of the rainbow thereon, Cecil's heart was, of course, most properly set at rest upon the matter, and his mother's thrown into a perfect palpitation of delight at the successful issue of her matrimonial scheme for the advancement in life of her son. But the Countess thought it advisable, under her altered circumstances, that Lady Frances should return to the maternal wing at once, where she would be happy also to shelter Major Craven if he would follow his fiancée, as soon as was agreeable to himself, and make a short stay at Egham Priory; for, although the noble Countess was very well pleased to marry her daughter to a commoner, she did not derive the same satisfaction in the prospect of keeping the said commoner at her own expense for a period of more than a few weeks. Cecil accepted the limited invitation more for appearance sake than anything else, and intended starting for Egham Priory in the course of a few days.
In the meanwhile, he and his mother were left to the enjoyment of each other's company. In a few lines Cecil had made known to Rachel Norreys the issue of his proposal to Lady Frances Morgan, begging her, at the same time, to keep the matter a secret for the present, which, whilst heartily congratulating him on his success, she had readily promised to do; and this embargo Cecil also laid upon his mother. Mrs. Craven, in her pleasure and excitement at the news, was all eagerness to transmit it to every one she came across; but on this point her son was resolute. He had the scruples of a man in such things, and did not relish his private affairs being made the subject of public comment, even before they could be said to be finally settled.
"When the wedding-day is fixed, there will be plenty of time for gossiping," he said, in answer to his mother's arguments in favour of placing the announcement amongst the fashionable on-dits of the 'Morning Post.'
"Not even to Mrs. Arundel, Cecil?" she complained; "may I not tell such an old friend of yours as that? It will give her such pleasure to hear it."
Cecil was doubtful of the exact amount of pleasure that | | 276 the widow would derive from the intelligence, but would allow of no exception to the strictness of his orders, even in her favour.
"Certainly not," was his undisguised reply. "I would rather any one knew it but that 'sad rattle,' as she calls herself, Eliza Arundel."
"Well, Cecil, I must say that I think you behave very badly to the widow of your old friend," rejoined Mrs. Craven, reproachfully. "lam sure Mrs. Arundel is a most charming and amiable person, always ready to do a kindness, or to make herself useful; and your constant refusals to go and see her oblige me at times to feel very awkward. I declare, you have not been once in the cottage since she settled there! Do call upon her, my dear, before you go to Egham Priory."
"What will be the good of it?" he argued; "she is here every day; I see her often enough, Heaven knows."
"Politeness requires it, my dear Cecil. It is only for the form of the thing."
"If it's only for the form of the thing I can leave a card there, or send it by post."
"My dear!" exclaimed his mother, "you are really very ungrateful. Have you forgotten all the kindness she has shown you in times gone by?"
"Well, what on earth do you want me to do, then?" he said at last, tired of arguing the point.
"Only go and call upon her, dear, and say you are sorry you have not been before, and anything else that is polite."
And so, taking a great deal of credit to himself for his filial obedience, Cecil Craven announced his intention, the next morning of putting his mother's wishes into execution; and as after luncheon (at which meal, for a wonder, the widow had not been present) he was about to stroll over to Laburnum Cottage, his mother met him in the hall, with a large bouquet of hothouse flowers.
"Take these to dear Mrs. Arundel, with my love," she said; "and tell her I hope we shall see her at dinner this evening."
Cecil looked at the flowers in dismay.
"Why couldn't you have sent them over with a note?" he exclaimed.| | 277
"Oh, you lazy boy! you fine gentleman!" was his mother's rejoinder. "Do you really mean to say that you would be ashamed to be caught carrying a bouquet of flowers for a lady?"
"No, not ashamed" he answered; "but—well, never mind, give them to me, mother, though I shall not deliver your message, because she's sure to come to dinner without it."
Mrs. Craven laughed, and called him more names, and then he stepped into the Court grounds, flowers in hand, and took his way to Laburnum Cottage.
The widow had not been without hope that she might see him that afternoon, although she could hardly be said to have expected him. But this was the first time that Major Craven had visited the Court on leave since Lady Frances had returned to Egham Priory, and Eliza Arundel had not forgotten the little interview which had taken place between them on the terrace the night of the dancing-party, and had taken to lingering in her own drawing-room until the first dinner-bell rang at Craven Court, on the chance of Cecil redeeming the promise he had made that evening that she should see him soon.
She was heartily glad to think that, for some time at least, her intercourse with him during his visits home would be uninterrupted; for it was unlikely that either Rachel or Lady Frances would return to the Court at any rate before Christmas, and judging from the specimen of her power to move him that Cecil had given her when she accosted him on the terrace, what might she not do, if she played her cards well in the course of two whole months almost spent in his company. But not under his mother's roof; what she effected must be within the limits of her own home.
The departure of Martha from the Court had excited no small surprise both there and at the Cottage, for she had now left her place for some weeks. Caroline Wilson had not gone distracted, it was not in her nature to do so; but on making the natural inquiries amongst Mrs. Craven's servants, that a mother under such circumstances would do, and receiving some rather illiberal remarks from the housekeeper on her daughter's conduct, she had abused and insulted that respectable personage to such a degree that Mrs. Watson had | | 278 forgotten all about her respectability, and showed that she possessed a "rough side to her tongue" as well as Mrs. Wilson, and the two did not again part until they had established between them an everlasting and bitter hatred. Then Caroline had gone to the Aldershot Barracks, looking everywhere for her daughter, and subsequently to Miss Kennoway's, in Oxford Street, who deposed to having been asked by a lady for a character for one of her apprentices lately, but it wasn't Martha Wilson.
"And if it had been, I should have been none the better able to inform you where she is," concluded Miss Kennoway, "for the young lady was in here and out again in a quarter of an hour, and left neither name nor address."
And so poor Mrs. Wilson had returned home to Mrs. Arundel none the wiser for her search; and although she gave it as her steadfast opinion that "Martha would turn up, married or single, before long, and 'twasn't a bit of manner of use fretting after her, or looking for her," she did fret about her daughter's flight, and most visibly so, and became more sour and vindictive-looking than she had ever done before. And robbed by this means of one of her chief sources of amusement (for Caroline Wilson was no longer so ready to talk gossip, or rake up old tales of scandal as she had been), Mrs. Arundel was more than ordinarily, pleased on the afternoon alluded to, to hear the wicket-gate of her little enclosure slam, and, looking up, to see Cecil Craven actually entering alone, and of his own accord, and bearing a large bunch of flowers in his hand. It looked well now, it really did; and the widow settled herself with a becoming expression of languor and wearied expectation on the reclining couch which filled up one-half of the tiny room, so that when Cecil entered, and took a chair near her, it was pretty well filled altogether. The widow was most becomingly attired for conquest—indeed, with the exception of the cap, no costume could have suited her better than her weeds, since the intense black contrasted well with her fair skin and hair, and took off from the growing embonpoint of her figure. And this afternoon, either by accident or design, she had no cap on at all; but her flaxen ringlets were disposed about her face as in days of yore, and caught up negligently into a | | 279 silken net behind. Cecil really thought, when he first turned his eyes upon the widow, that he had not seen her look so well for ages as she did upon that glowing afternoon in the latter end of October.
"My dear Craven," she ejaculated, as he greeted her, "what charming flowers, and what a pleasure and surprise to see you here. It is the first time (is it not?) that you have honoured my tiny domains."
Upon this searching address, Major Craven found himself positively stammering, as he gave the flowers and his mother's message (which slipped out of his mouth in his confusion, although he had really intended not to deliver it), and said he believed Mrs. Arundel was right, but that his frequent absence from home, and his onerous duties whilst there, as only son, etc., etc., must plead his excuse for the apparent neglect.
"Ah, now, hold your tongue, you naughty boy!" exclaimed the widow, playfully, as she shook her curls at him, "and don't make any more false excuses, because it's no use; we know all about it. When the Court is full of young ladies there is no time to be dancing attendance upon old ones, and that's the truth, isn't it?"
"Indeed, Mrs. Arundel, you do me great injustice," ruefully said poor Cecil, who was a bad hand at fighting his own battles when brought face to face with a woman. "If I had not had the pleasure of seeing you so often, I should certainly have found my way over here, if only to ask the reason why; and that you ought to know, if you do not."
"Ah, well!" sighed the lady, "you are all alike, the whole lot of you! And now that you have come, tell me some news. Have you heard from your lady-love since her departure?"
"What lady-love?" he inquired, evasively.
"Now, don't pretend not to understand me, when you know as well as I do—or have you so many, Craven, that you are doubtful which I allude to?"
"I am really quite in the dark," he replied.
"Well, then, I must enlighten you, I suppose. I meant Lady Frances when I first spoke, but perhaps you were thinking of Rachel Norreys. Ah, Craven, you're a sad, | | 280 naughty boy!—Hélas!" and the widow heaved a sigh that threatened to burst the seams of her bombasined bosom.
If Cecil Graven did not like to hear the name of Lady Frances Morgan connected with his own, still less did it please him to think of Rachel Norreys being spoken of in the same style, and therefore he answered gravely—
"A jest is a jest, Mrs. Arundel; but you forget that Rachel Norreys is a married lady. That circumstance should preserve her sacred even from a jest."
But here the remembrance flashed into his mind of how much that argument had weighed with himself when the reputation of the woman before him had trembled in the balance. He felt ashamed and vexed that he should have been betrayed into such an expression of feeling in her presence. Eliza Arundel guessed what he was thinking of, and took advantage of the circumstance.
"Do you really think so, Cecil?" she asked, in a pathetically plaintive voice; "not always, I am afraid." He stirred uneasily on his seat, and was silent. "I know it should be so," she continued, in a low and virtuous tone; "but how few of your sex act up to such a sentiment! And then, when they have injured, perhaps by their thoughtless attentions, the character of a woman they professed to love, they leave her to bear alone the brunt of the world's opinion, and the blame. For she is the one who is always blamed the most, even though her heart should have been so concerned in the matter that years of after-neglect fail to wipe out the memory of past happiness from her mind, or the love in which it resulted from her soul." And two tears, round and big, and majestic in their course, came rolling slowly down the nose of Mrs. Arundel, and hung there so inconveniently long, that-they tickled her, and she was obliged, for comfort's sake, to dash them and their effect away together with her hand.
"Now, is it not so, Cecil?" she demanded presently of her victim.
"I know it is sometimes, Mrs. Arundel," he replied.
"Why Mrs. Arundel?" said the widow, with a mixture of injury and expostulation. "You called me Elise the other night, Cecil (that night the thought of which has haunted me | | 281 ever since), why cannot you continue it? Is it too much to ask, after all that has passed between us?"
It was a great deal too much, and Cecil felt it to be so; but with his habitual cowardice for doing what he knew was right, when it resulted in present inconvenience to himself, he yielded to her desire. Besides which, neither Rachel nor Lady Frances were within hearing, and Cecil was but a man.
"Of course not, Elise—don't mention such a thing," he urged. "I have dropped the habit for the sake of prudence, fearing it might attract notice,—for your sake, indeed, rather than my own. But I will call you that, or anything, so that you will be prudent also, and not wound us both unnecessarily by alluding to what is past. We can gain no good by it, Elise; it is best forgotten. I was young then, and very wrong, and have to ask your pardon for leading you, perhaps, into much that was folly"—(if Major Craven had substituted "being led" for "leading," it would have been more to the purpose)—"but I know you have forgiven me long ago, for you have often told me so, and all we have to do now is to forget it, and be happy."
"Easier said than done," said the lady, shaking her head mournfully.
"Nay, Elise," he responded, "you must not say that, even if you feel it. It does not go well with this sort of tiling;" and he touched her crape-covered dress as he spoke. She twitched it from his grasp impatiently.
"And who do you imagine I mourn for," she exclaimed, angrily, "if not for you, Cecil? What do you think this Mack dress reminds me of, if not of your broken promises and vows of love? Oh, Cecil, is it possible that you have forgotten all we once talked of and planned together? Has the remembrance of those palmy blissful days altogether faded from your heart? Does no recollection ever flash over it of the time when you used to say that to call me yours—to feel my smiles, my duty, and my love—your lawful due—you would barter all your prospects for this life, and even for the life to come?"
Some such blasphemous and foolhardy sentiments might have escaped poor Cecil's lips, when, in his hot, unthinking boyhood, he had first looked upon the meretricious charms of | | 282 Eliza Arundel, and he entertained no doubt but that they had; but they were none the less calculated to cover him with shame by being recalled to him now, and he said so openly.
"I daresay I did, Elise (I have no doubt I did, since you say so), but those are amongst the things that are best forgotten. We cannot renew those days: let us bury them with even the recollection of the follies we then uttered. I am grieved to find that you have not already done so. You must think less of me, I am afraid, than I hoped you did."
"Less of you, Cecil, when I think of them! Why should I? It is at such times only that you appear to me as you used to do. Why is it impossible those days should be renewed?"
He turned quickly round—he had been gazing out of the window—and faced her suddenly. "Elise, you would not have them so, even if you could."
"Why not?" she cried. "Do you think that I must be changed because you are so; that I am rejoiced to see the link between us broken, because you have long striven to escape from the old fetters? Cecil, you once swore, if ever I was free again, that you would be my husband. Do you ever think of that?"
He felt almost frightened at the woman's vehemence, and scarce knew how to answer her. But at last he said, some-what as he had done before, "You do not mean to say, Elise, that you would be so bound again, even if you could. You do not mean to tell me that I am regarded by you with the same feelings that you held towards me six or seven years ago. It is impossible."
"It is not impossible," she exclaimed, rising from her recumbent position, and coming towards him. "Cecil, it would have been impossible for me to have forgotten such as you; and you—I scarcely think you have forgotten, either, though you try to make me believe so. I have spent a weary life for your sake, Cecil; borne a great deal from you in silence, and without reproach; but if you will fulfil your promise now (it was a promise, and a sacred one), you will find me ready to forgive and cancel all the past, in consideration of the present. Think of those vanished years, dear Cecil; of | | 283 my love for you and yours for me, and say we shall be happy from this time forward."
She looked into his eyes as she spoke, and tried to bring back into her own some of the old expression which used to lurk there when she was younger, and fancied that she loved (however base the metal of her liking) the man who was before her.
But she utterly failed. Love of gain, of triumph, of self, were there, and many other loves as ugly as themselves, but no true unselfish passion calculated to lure back the heart which had forsaken her.
And this was altogether too much for Cecil Craven. He was a moral coward truly; but he could not sit still and be offered marriage by a woman whose very name he had learnt to abhor, and whom he had given to understand years ago was to consider all things between them at an end. That there had been passages of love between them, and that he had made many foolish vows of never-dying constancy, he knew, and for that reason had been leniently disposed towards the widow, and anxious to avoid wounding her feelings; but the time was past for even this. He was no longer free to be spoken to in such a strain, and Mrs. Arundel must know it for the future. And so he rose, and standing off a little way from her, said, though not without a degree of hesitation—
"Elise, this is folly; it must end. That we were lovers once, I do not wish to argue; but if I professed to care for you still, even in the slighest [sic] degree" (he thought that, whilst about it, he would be brave), "I should profess what is not true. The past is past. Let it be forgotten by us both; or, if that is impossible, at least buried in silence. Do not let us ever allude to the subject again; and to tell you the truth, one reason why I have kept aloof from you until to-day has been occasioned by the fears that we might be tempted so to do. But it can be productive of no good, and may do infinite harm (to your friendship, for instance, with my mother). So for all our Bakes, it will be better never spoken of. For my own part, I must refuse to do so again." And then he stood, looking foolish, as a man must do under such circumstances, waiting for the woman's answer. It came at last, in | | 284 a perfect burst of fury. She knew her game was lost, and so no longer feared to run the risk of allowing him to see her hand; but the storm came down on his devoted head like hailstones and coals of fire.
"You refuse, indeed! You refuse, Major Craven, to speak again upon this subject! What if I refuse to hold my tongue upon it? You brought a scandal upon my good name; you were the cause of quarrels between my husband and myself. You have promised, again and again, if the time ever came for it, that you would make me your wife. Suppose I refuse to keep silence upon this. Suppose I choose to tell it all to your mother and your circle of admiring friends. What then, Major Craven, what then?"
"What then?" he answered, contemptuously. "Why they might call me a fool, Mrs. Arundel, and justly, for having been so easily taken in: but I am afraid they would bestow a harsher name than fool upon yourself, for leading a boy of twenty so much the wrong way; and not the first boy, either, that had fallen in your hands; remember that. Had it been so, I might mislead myself with the false notion that what you say is true, that your heart still is mine, and that, in consequence, you hold some claim upon me. But you know that it is false. You know that I was but one out of many such; and that the name of Arundel was known throughout the regiment I belong to as another word for man-trap and deceiver. You almost make me blush to have to speak so to a woman, but it is more your shame than mine that you have forced the truth from me."
And then he held his head down, and drooped his eyes so as not to meet her own, as an honest man should do when necessity compels him to lower the woman he has once professed to love. And she listened to his speech throughout in silence. She saw that she was impotent in his hands; and when he had concluded, her rage almost prevented her utterance. Her pale face had turned an ashy grey; her lips were livid, and she could hardly find her tongue, but when she did, her next words were—
"But your reputation is capable of being soiled, Major Craven, without the aid of my name being dragged through the dirt? Suppose I choose that course of action?"| | 285
"I defy you to do it," he replied. "I defy you to hurt me, my reputation, or my happiness. On the first you have no longer any power; the second is far above your reach, unless you soil your own (and you are too much woman in one sense, and not enough woman in another, to do so much for me); and as for the third, it is secure, thank heaven, and will soon be securer still."
She understood what he meant, and her lips set themselves together and trembled.
"You mean," she said, slowly, "that you are engaged to be married to Lady Frances Morgan."
He was too desirous to triumph over her to be prudent; too satisfied with his own success to be modest; too much engrossed in his wish entirely to nonplus and undeceive Mrs. Arundel, to remember his wish that she should not know of his engagement, and so he said—
"I am, and shall be married to her very shortly. Perhaps, after this announcement, you will have the kindness to leave me alone." He had taken up his hat, then, and seemed about to go, but pausing on the threshold, apparently had not the heart to leave the woman, shamed through his own words, without a single farewell. And so he said, rather rapidly, "I hope what has passed between us this afternoon will make no difference in your intercourse with my mother, Mrs. Arundel. My lips, you may rest assured, will never open on the subject, so the issue of our conversation rests now entirely with yourself. Good morning." And bowing to her, he curtly took his leave, whilst she remained standing where he had left her, mute from astonishment at his coldness, and disgust at her baffled design.
What she did during the rest of that day of disappointment is not known, but it is certain that she never appeared at the Court dinner-table, and on Cecil being asked the reason by his mother, he briefly answered that he was not in the lady's confidence; and that if Mrs. Craven was very anxious to learn, she had better send to Laburnum Cottage and inquire. But Mrs. Craven's anxiety did not appear to extend to this degree, and the mother and son passed the evening alone together.
On the next day Major Craven took his departure for Egham Priory.| | 286
There is a well-known passage in Congreve's "Mourning Bride," which runs thus:—
Nor hell a fury like a woman scorned."
But the more such a character as hers is analysed, the less can it be justly connected with anything, however wrong, that has in it the elements of power, and grandeur, and nobility. "Love" (real love) "to Hatred turned," and bearing as its fruit Fury and Rage, is a lamentable exhibition of a soul-degrading passion, but with all its errors it has stamped upon it the word "great."
"A woman scorned" where she has reason (on account of her own constancy) to look for love, is a situation which human nature cannot contemplate without a shuddering horror, nor endure without higher aid than is to be found within the limits of its own strength. What wonder, then, that a devouring mania turned upon itself, wronged without reason, and cruelly shamed before the world, should generate all evil, injury, and revenge, even to bloodshed, and a hurrying of its victim into the arms of an eternal retribution.
But Mrs. Arundel's feeling for Cecil Craven was not love, and that constitutes all the difference. Had she really loved, she would have wreaked her vengeance, or parted from him, ages before, and not carried a smiling face above her fancied wrongs, whenever it suited her convenience so to do. Congreve's "woman scorned" would have spoken out when first the scorn was hers; she would have died beneath the silence and maintained propriety of heaped-up years. Her heart it was that had been touched and lighted up her furious rage; but it was the vanity only of Eliza Arundel that had suffered; consequently the little feeling led her on to a little and inglorious revenge. No! I abjure that motto for the widow Arundel; henceforward it must stand for some woman with a larger mind, a larger affection, more love for the man who has wronged her, and less for herself. After Major Craven had left her, with truths upon his tongue which she should | | 287 have almost died with shame to listen to, Eliza Arundel felt no pity for him or for herself;—no admiration kindling in her breast for his outspokenness whispered that he was right and she was wrong;—no wish broke from the heart she said still loved him, that he might be happy—whatever was the fate in store for her!
No! there was no room in the widow's breast for any thoughts like these—for any pity, love, or self-contrition; her whole mind from the date of his departure was filled but with one idea—the best method for carrying out a petty and malignant revenge against him for his rejection of her advances. "He shall regret it; he shall be sorry; I will make Major Craven rue this day!" were the sentences which, ringing their changes but with little variation, passed rapidly through her brain, as she pondered on the interview which had just taken place between them. She had thought of this—anticipated it—even prepared for it. She had seen it looming in the distance for her, when she was at Gibraltar; had watched it draw near and nearer, almost daily, ever since she had set her foot in England. And now it had arrived, she was more than ready to follow it up with her revenge—a revenge to gratify which she would have sacrificed her own father and mother—if she had possessed any—her own children, anybody, or anything but herself, and as far as that went, she felt that in the eyes of Cecil Craven she had sacrificed herself already.
For that evening, and many evenings afterwards, she sat closely to her own room, writing and re-writing long letters, and then destroying them, only to be transcribed afresh upon the following day; holding lengthy private conferences the while with Caroline Wilson, whom she admitted to familiar conversation with herself, more as if she was a friend than a servant; and, of the two, it is doubtful whether the mistress or the maid possessed the higher soul.
But, in the meanwhile, Mrs. Arundel did not neglect to derive every advantage that she could from her footing at the Court. Mrs. Craven was entirely alone, and very anxious that the widow and her little daughter should take up their abode with her until Mr. Northland's return; but to this plan the latter lady could not consent.| | 288
"Dear Mrs. Craven, I will come over whenever you wish me to do so; I think nothing of the trouble; but mine is but a tiny household, and requires the eye of its mistress over it continually, lest things should go wrong."
And Mrs. Craven, in consequence, was only the more impressed with the excellency of her friend's domestic qualities, and the love she evinced for her home, and contented herself with pressing her to come to dinner every day, and for a drive every afternoon. And the mornings and evenings Mrs. Arundel devoted to the work she had in hand, which progressed favourably; and after Cecil Craven had again left Egham Priory and returned to his barracks at Aldershot, and Mrs. Craven (not feeling very strong after the summer weather) proposed spending a short time at the seaside, and asked the widow and little Emily to accompany her there as her guests, Mrs. Arundel unhesitatingly acceded to the offer, with abundant thanks and expressions of gratitude for the kindness which had prompted it.
But before she left Laburnum Cottage under the charge of Caroline Wilson, the work she had set herself was accomplished, and three packets were lying in her private drawers, ready addressed and sealed. Two of them were merely bulky letters, directed to the mistress of Craven Court and the Countess of Riversdale, but the third, which was inscribed to Raymond Norreys, appeared to contain some enclosure; and all three addresses were written in a feigned hand, and rather a remarkable one.
"Mind, Caroline," was Mrs. Arundel's last words to her faithful servitor, "that you post those letters in London about a week hence, not earlier, and register the one for Mr. Norreys. Mrs. Craven's will be sent on to the Court, and forwarded from there to whatever address she may order her letters to be sent. But on no account let either of them out of your own hands, and post them yourself. Now, mind! I depend upon you!"
"You may depend upon my doing as you say, ma'am," was the reply of Mrs. Wilson; "and I hope, if any harm comes of it (particularly with regard to Major Craven's stud, which Wilson knows of), that you will make it good to me with regard to him. For, though I shan't be sorry to see | | 289 Mrs. Norreys get into a scrape," she continued, sotto voce, and for her own edification alone, "I don't bear so much love to this one either, as all that comes to, when every offence of mine is likely to be visited by Wilson on the head of my girl. Oh! my dear girl, I wonder where she can be!—I'd cut off my right hand to do the creature a service as would bring her buck safely to me again!"
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