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Hornblower and the Hotspur
Volume 3 of the Hornblower Saga (March 1803 - March 1805)

by C. S. Forester

 

Chapter One

"Repeat after me," said the parson. "I, Horatio, take thee, Maria Ellen -- "

The thought came up in Hornblower's mind that these were the last few seconds in which he could withdraw from doing something which he knew to be ill-considered. Maria was not the right woman to be his wife, even admitting that he was suitable material for marriage in any case. If he had a grain of sense, he would break off this ceremony even at this last moment, he would announce that he had changed his mind, and he would turn away from the altar and from the parson and from Maria, and he would leave the church a free man.

"To have and to hold -- ," he was still, like an automaton, repeating the parson's words. And there was Maria beside him, in the white that so little became her. She was melting with happiness. She was consumed with love for him, however misplaced it might be. He could not, he simply could not, deal her a blow so cruel. He was conscious of the trembling of her body beside him. He could no more bring himself to shatter that trust than he could have refused to command the Hotspur.

"And thereto I plight thee my troth," repeated Hornblower. That settled it, he thought. Those must be the final deciding words that made the ceremony legally binding. He had made a promise and now there was no going back on it. There was a comfort in the odd thought that he had really been committed from a week back, when Maria had come into his arms sobbing out her love for him, and he had been too soft-hearted to laugh at her and too — too weak? too honest? — to take advantage of her with the intention of betraying her. From the moment that he had listened to her, from the moment that he had returned her kisses, gently, all these later results, the bridal dress, this ceremony in the church of St. Thomas à Beckett — and the vague future of cloying affection — had been inevitable.

Bush was ready with the ring, and Hornblower slipped it over Maria's finger, and the final words were said.

". . . I pronounce that they are Man and Wife. . .," said the parson, and he went on with the blessing, and then a blank five seconds followed, until Maria broke the silence.

"Oh, Horry!" she said, and she laid her hand on his arm.

Hornblower forced himself to smile down at her, concealing the newly discovered fact that he disliked being called 'Horry' even more than he disliked being called Horatio.

"The happiest day of my life," he said; if a thing had to be done it might as well be done thoroughly, so that in the same spirit he continued, ". . .In my life so far."

It was actually painful to note the unbounded happiness of the smile that answered this gallant speech. Maria put her other hand up to him, and he realized she expected to be kissed, then and there, in front of the altar. It hardly seemed a proper thing to do, in a sacred edifice — in his ignorance he feared lest he should affront the devout — but once more there was no drawing back, and he stooped and kissed the soft lips that she proffered.

"Your signatures are required in the register," prompted the parson, and led the way to the vestry.

They wrote their names.

"Now I can kiss my son-in-law," announced Mrs. Mason loudly, and Hornblower found himself clasped by two powerful arms and soundly kissed on the cheek. He supposed it was inevitable that a man should feel a distaste for his mother-in-law.

But here was Bush to disengage him, with outstretched hand and unusual smile, offering felicitations and best wishes.

"Many thanks," said Hornblower, and added, "Many thanks for many services."

Bush was positively embarrassed, and tried to brush away Hornblower's gratitude with the same gestures as he would have used to brush away flies. He had been a tower of strength in this wedding, just as he had been in the preparation of the Hotspur for sea.

"I'll see you again at breakfast, sir," he said, and with that he withdrew from the vestry, leaving behind him an awkward gap.

"I was counting on Mr. Bush's arm for support down the aisle," said Mrs. Mason, sharply.

It certainly was not like Bush to leave everyone in the lurch like this; it was in marked contrast with his behavior during the last few whirlwind days.

"We can bear each other company, Mrs. Mason," said the parson's wife. "Mr. Clive can follow us."

"You are very kind, Mrs. Clive," said Mrs. Mason, although there was nothing in her tone to indicate that she meant what she said. "Then the happy pair can start now. Maria, take the captain's arm."

Mrs. Mason marshalled the tiny procession in businesslike fashion. Hornblower felt Maria's hand slipped under his arm, felt the light pressure she could not help giving to it, and — he could not be cruel enough to ignore it — he pressed her hand in return, between his ribs and his elbow, to be rewarded by another smile. A small shove from behind by Mrs. Mason started him back in the church, to be greeted by a roar from the organ. Half a crown for the organist and a shilling for the blower was what that music had cost Mrs. Mason; there might be better uses for the money. The thought occupied Hornblower's mind for several seconds, and was naturally succeeded by the inevitable wonderment as to how anyone could possibly find enjoyment in these distasteful noises. He and Maria were well down the aisle before he came back to reality.

"The sailors are all gone," said Maria with a break in her voice. "There's almost no one in the church."

Truth to tell, there were only two or three people in the pews, and these obviously the most casual idlers. All the few guests had trooped into the vestry for the signing, and the fifty seamen whom Bush had brought from Hotspur — all those who could be trusted not to desert — had vanished already. Hornblower felt a vague disappointment that Bush had failed again to rise to the situation.

"Why should we care?" he asked, groping wildly for words of comfort for Maria. "Why should any shadow fall on our wedding day?"

It was strangely painful to see and to feel Maria's instant response, and her faltering step changed to a brave stride as they marched down the empty church. There was bright sunshine awaiting them at the west door, he could see; and he thought of something else a tender bridegroom might say.

"Happy is the bride the sun shines on."

They came out of the dim light into the bright sun, and the transition was moral as well as physical, for Bush had not disappointed them; he had not been found wanting after all. Hornblower heard a sharp word and a ragged clash of steel, and there were the fifty seamen in a double rank stretching away from the door, making an arch of their drawn cutlasses for the couple to walk beneath.

"Oh, how nice!" said Maria, in childish delight; furthermore the array of seamen at the church door had attracted a crowd of spectators, all craning forward to see the captain and his bride. Hornblower darted a professional glance first down one line of seamen and then down the other. They were all dressed in the new blue-and-white-checked shirts with which he had stocked the slop chest of the Hotspur; their white duck trousers were mostly well worn but well washed, and long enough and baggy enough to conceal the probable deficiencies of their shoes. It was a good turnout.

Beyond the avenue of cutlasses stood a horseless post-chaise, with Bush standing behind it. Wondering a little, Hornblower led Maria towards it; Bush gallantly handed Maria up into the front seat and Hornblower climbed up beside her, finding time now to take his cocked hat from under his arm and clap it on his head. He had heard the cutlasses rasp back into their sheaths; now the guard of honor came pattering forward in a disciplined rush. There were pipe-clayed drag ropes where the traces should have been, and the fifty men seized their coils, twenty-five to a coil, and ran them out. Bush craned up towards Hornblower.

"Let the brake off, if you please, sir. That handle there, sir."

Hornblower obeyed, and Bush turned away and let loose a subdued bellow. The seamen took the strain in half a dozen quickening steps and then broke into a trot, the post-chaise rattling over the cobbles, while the crowd waved their hats and cheered.

"I never thought I could be so happy -- Horry -- darling," said Maria.

The men at the drag ropes, with the usual exuberance of the seaman on land, swung round the corner into the High Street and headed at the double towards the George, and with the turn Maria was flung against him and clasped him in delicious fear. As they drew up it was obvious that there was a danger of the chaise rolling forward into the seamen, and Hornblower had to think fast and reach for the brake lever, hurriedly casting himself free from Maria's arm. Then he sat for a moment, wondering what to do next. On this occasion there should be a group to welcome them, the host of the inn and his wife, the boots, the ostler, the drawer, and the maids, but as it was there was no one. He had to leap down from the chaise unassisted and single handed help Maria down.

"Thank you, men," he said to the parting seamen, who acknowledged his thanks with a knuckling of foreheads and halting words.

Bush was in sight now round the corner, hurrying towards them; Hornblower could safely leave Bush in charge while he led Maria into the inn with a sad lack of ceremony.

But here was the host at last, bustling up with a napkin over his arm and his wife at his heels.

"Welcome, sir, welcome, madam. This way, sir, madam." He flung open the door into the coffee-room to reveal the wedding breakfast laid on a snowy cloth. "The Admiral arrived only five minutes ago, sir, so you must excuse us, sir."

"Which Admiral?"

"The Honorable Admiral Sir William Cornwallis, sir, commanding the Channel Fleet; 'is coachman says war's certain, sir."

Hornblower had been convinced of this ever since, nine days ago, he had read the King's message to Parliament, and witnessed the activities of the press gangs, and had been notified of his appointment to the command of the Hotspur — and (he remembered) had found himself betrothed to Maria. Bonaparte's unscrupulous behavior on the Continent meant . . . .

"A glass of wine, madam? A glass of wine, sir?"

Hornblower was conscious of Maria's inquiring glance when the innkeeper asked this question. She would not venture to answer until she had ascertained what her new husband thought.

"We'll wait for the rest of the company," said Hornblower. "Ah -- "

A heavy step on the threshold announced Bush's arrival.

"They'll all be here in two minutes," said Bush.

"Very good of you to arrange about the carriage and seamen, Mr. Bush," said Hornblower, and he thought that moment of something else that a kind and thoughtful husband would say. He slipped his hand under Maria's arm and added — "Mrs. Hornblower says you made her very happy."

A delighted giggle from Maria told him that he had given pleasure by this unexpected use of her new name, as he expected.

"Mrs. Hornblower, I give you joy," said Bush, solemnly, and then to Hornblower, "By your leave, sir, I'll return to the ship."

"Now, Mr. Bush?" asked Maria.

"I fear I must, ma'am," replied Bush, turning back at once to Hornblower. "I'll take the hands back with me, sir. There's always the chance that the lighters with the stores may come off."

"I'm afraid you're right, Mr. Bush," said Hornblower. "Keep me informed, if you please."

"Aye aye, sir," said Bush, and with that he was gone.

Here came the others, pouring in, and any trace of awkwardness about the party disappeared as Mrs. Mason marshalled the guests and set the wedding breakfast into its stride. Corks popped and preliminary toasts were drunk. There was the cake to be cut, and Mrs. Mason insisted that Maria should make the first cut with Hornblower's sword; Mrs. Mason was sure that in this Maria would be following the example of naval brides in good society in London. Hornblower was not so sure; he had lived for ten years under a strict convention that cold steel should never be drawn under a roof or a deck. But his timid objections were swept away, and Maria, the sword in both hands, cut the cake amid general applause. Hornblower could hardly restrain his impatience to take the thing back from her, and he quickly wiped the sugar icing from the blade, wondering grimly what the assembled company would think if they knew he had once wiped human blood from it. He was still engaged on this work when he became aware of the innkeeper whispering hoarsely at his side.

"Begging your pardon, sir. Begging your pardon."

"Well?"

"The Admiral's compliments, sir, and he would be glad to see you when you find it convenient."

Hornblower stood sword in hand, staring at him in momentary incomprehension.

"The Admiral, sir. 'E's in the first floor front, what we always calls the Admiral's Room."

"You mean Sir William, of course?"

"Yes, sir."

"Very well. My respects to the Admiral and -- No, I'll go up at once. Thank you."

"Thank'ee, sir. Begging your pardon again."

Hornblower shot his sword back into its sheath and looked round at the company. They were watching the maid bustling round handing slices of wedding cake and had no eyes for him at present. He settled his sword at his side, twitched at his neckcloth, and unobtrusively left the room, picking up his hat as he did so.

When he knocked at the door of the first floor front a deep voice that he well remembered said, "Come in." It was so large a room that the fourposter bed at the far end was inconspicuous; so was the secretary seated at the desk by the window. Cornwallis was standing in the middle, apparently engaged in dictation until this interruption.

"Ah, it's Hornblower. Good morning."

"Good morning, sir."

"The last time we met was over that unfortunate business with the Irish rebel. We had to hang him, I remember."

Cornwallis ('Billy Blue') had not changed perceptibly during those four years. He was still the bulky man with the composed manner, obviously ready to deal with any emergency.

"Please sit down. A glass of wine?"

"No, thank you, sir."

"I expected that, seeing the ceremony you've just come from. My apologies for interrupting your wedding, but you must blame Boney, not me."

"Of course, sir." Hornblower felt that a more eloquent speech would have been in place here, but he could not think of one.

"I'll detain you for as short a time as possible. You know I've been appointed to the command of the Channel fleet?"

"Yes, sir."

"You know that Hotspur is under my command?"

"I expected that, but I didn't know, sir."

"The Admiralty letter to that effect came down in my coach. You'll find it awaiting you on board."

"Yes, sir."

"Is Hotspur ready to sail?"

"No, Sir." The truth and no excuses. Nothing else would do.

"How long?"

"Two days, sir. More if there's delay with the ordnance stores."

Cornwallis was looking at him very sharply indeed, but Hornblower returned glance for glance. He had nothing with which to reproach himself; nine days ago Hotspur was still laid up in ordinary.

"She's been docked and breamed?"

"Yes, sir."

"She'd manned?"

"Yes, sir. A good crew -- the cream of the press."

"Rigging set up?"

"Yes, sir."

"Yards crossed?"

"Yes, sir."

"Officers appointed?"

"Yes, sir. A lieutenant and four master's mates."

"You'll need three months' provisions and water."

"I can stow a hundred and eleven days at full rations, sir. The cooperage is delivering the water-butts at noon. I'll have it all stowed by nightfall, sir."

"Have you warped her out?"

"Yes, sir. She's at anchor now in Spithead."

"You've done well," said Cornwallis.

Hornblower tried not to betray his relief at that speech; from Cornwallis that was more than approval — it was hearty praise.

"Thank you, sir."

"So what do you need now?"

"Bos'n's stores, sir. Cordage, canvas, spare spars."

"Not easy to get the dockyard to part with those at this moment. I'll have a word with them. And then the ordnance stores, you say?"

"Yes, sir. Ordnance are waiting for a shipment of nine-pounder shot. None to be had here at the moment."

Ten minutes ago Hornblower had been thinking of words to please Maria. Now he was selecting words for an honest report to Cornwallis.

"I'll deal with that, too," said Cornwallis. "You can be certain of sailing the day after tomorrow if the wind serves."

"Yes, sir."

"Now for your orders. You'll get them in writing in the course of the day, but I'd better tell you now, while you can ask questions. War's coming. It hasn't been declared yet, but Boney may anticipate us."

"Yes, sir."

"I'm going to blockade Brest as soon as I can get the fleet to sea, and you're to go ahead of us."

"Yes, sir."

"You're not to do anything to precipitate war. You're not to provide Boney with an excuse."

"No, sir."

"When war's declared you can of course take the appropriate action. Until then you have merely to observe. Keep your eye on Brest. Look in as far as you can without provoking fire. Count the ships of war -- the number and rate of ships with their yards crossed, ships still in ordinary, ships in the roads, ships preparing for sea."

"Yes, sir."

"Boney sent the best of his ships and crews to the West Indies last year. He'll have more trouble manning his fleet even than we have. I'll want your report as soon as I arrive on the station. What's the Hotspur's draught?"

"She'll draw thirteen feet aft when she's complete with stores, sir."

"You'll be able to use the Goulet Passage pretty freely, then. I don't have to tell you not to run her aground." "No, sir."

"But remember this. You'll find it hard to perform your duty unless you risk your ship. There's folly and there's foolhardiness on one side, and there's daring and calculation on the other. Make the right choice and I'll see you through any trouble that may ensue."

Cornwallis' wide blue eyes looked straight into Hornblower's brown ones. Hornblower was deeply interested in what Cornwallis had just said, and equally interested in what he had left unsaid. Cornwallis had made a promise of sympathetic support, but he had refrained from uttering the threat which was the obvious corollary. This was no rhetorical device, no facile trick of leadership — it was a simple expression of Cornwallis' natural state of mind. He was a man who preferred to lead rather than to drive; most interesting.

Hornblower realized with a start that for several seconds be had been staring his commander-in-chief out of countenance while following up this train of thought; it was not the most tactful behavior, perhaps.

"I understand, sir," he said, and Cornwallis rose from his chair.

"We'll meet again at sea. Remember to do nothing to provoke war before war is declared," he said, with a smile — and the smile revealed the man of action. Hornblower could read him as someone to whom the prospect of action was stimulating and desirable and who would never seek reasons or excuses for postponing decisions.

Cornwallis suddenly withheld his proffered hand.

"By Jove!" he exclaimed. "I was forgetting. This is your wedding day."

"Yes, sir."

"You were only married this morning?"

"An hour ago, sir."

"And I've taken you away from your wedding breakfast."

"Yes, sir." It would be cheap rhetoric to add anything trite like 'For King and Country,' or even 'Duty comes first.'

"Your good lady will hardly be pleased."

Nor would his mother-in-law, more especially, thought Hornblower, but again it would not be tactful to say so.

"I'll try to make amends, sir," he contented himself with saying.

"It's I who should make amends," replied Cornwallis. "Perhaps I could join the festivities and drink the bride's health?"

"That would be most kind of you, sir," said Hornblower.

If anything could reconcile Mrs. Mason to his breach of manners, it would be the presence of Admiral the Hon. Sir William Cornwallis, K.B., at the breakfast table.

"I'll come, then, if you're certain I shan't be unwelcome. Hachett, find my sword. Where's my hat?"

So that when Hornblower appeared again through the door of the coffee- room Mrs. Mason's instant and bitter reproaches died away on her lips, the moment she saw that Hornblower was ushering in an important guest. She saw the glittering epaulettes, and the red ribbon and the star which Cornwallis had most tactfully put on in honor of the occasion. Hornblower made the introductions.

"Long life and much happiness," said Cornwallis, bowing over Maria's hand, "to the wife of one of the most promising officers in the King's service."

Maria could only bob, overwhelmed with embarrassment in this glittering presence.

"Enchanted to make your acquaintance, Sir William," said Mrs. Mason.

And the parson and his wife, and the few neighbors of Mrs. Mason's who were the only other guests, were enormously gratified at being in the same room as — let alone being personally addressed by — the son of an Earl, a Knight of the Bath, and a commander-in-chief combined in one person.

"A glass of wine, sir?" asked Hornblower.

"With pleasure."

Cornwallis took the glass in his hand and looked round: It was significant that it was Mrs. Mason whom he addressed.

"Has the health of the happy couple been drunk yet?"

"No, sir," answered Mrs. Mason, in a perfect ecstasy.

"Then may I do so? Ladies, gentlemen. I ask you all to stand and join me on this happy occasion ...

May they never know sorrow. May they always enjoy health and prosperity. May the wife always find comfort in the knowledge that the husband is doing his duty for King and Country, and may the husband be supported in his duty by the loyalty of the wife. And let us hope that in time to come there will be a whole string of young gentlemen who will wear the King's uniform after their father's example, and a whole string of young ladies to be mothers of further young gentlemen. I give you the health of the bride and groom!"

The health was drunk amid acclamation, with all eyes turned on the blushing Maria, and then from her all eyes turned on Hornblower. He rose; he had realized, before Cornwallis had reached the midpoint of his speech, that the Admiral was using words he had used scores of times before, at scores of weddings of his officers. Hornblower, keyed up on the occasion, met Cornwallis' eyes and grinned. He would give as good as he got; he would reply with a speech exactly similar to the scores that Cornwallis had listened to.

"Sir William, ladies and gentlemen, I can only thank you in the name of," — Hornblower reached down and took Maria's hand —, "my wife and myself."

As the laughter died away — Hornblower had well known that the company would laugh at his mention of Maria as his wife, although he himself did not think it a subject for laughter — Cornwallis looked at his watch, and Hornblower hastened to thank him for his presence and to escort him to the door. Beyond the threshold Cornwallis turned and thumped him on the chest with his large hand.

"I'll add another line to my orders for you," he said; Hornblower was acutely aware that Cornwallis's friendly smile was accompanied by a searching glance.

"Yes, sir?"

"I'll add my written permission for you to sleep out of your ship for tonight and tomorrow night."

Hornblower opened his mouth to reply, but no words came; for once in his life his readiness of wit had deserted him. His mind was so busy reassessing the situation that it had nothing to spare for his organ of speech.

"I thought you might have forgotten," said Cornwallis, grinning. "Hotspur's part of the Channel fleet now. Her captain is forbidden by law to sleep anywhere except on board without the permission of the commander- in-chief. Well, you have it."

"Thank you, sir," said Hornblower, at last able to articulate.

"Maybe you won't sleep ashore again for a couple of years. Maybe more than that, if Boney fights it out."

"I certainly think he'll fight, sir."

"In that case you and I will meet again off Ushant in three weeks' time. So now goodbye, once more."

For some time after Cornwallis had left Hornblower stood by the halfclosed door of the coffee-room in deep thought, shifting his weight from one foot to the other, which was the nearest he could get to pacing up and down. War was coming; he had always been certain of that, because Bonaparte would never retreat from the position he had taken up. But until this moment Hornblower had thought recklessly that he would not be ordered to sea until war was declared, in two or three weeks' time, after the final negotiations had broken down. He had been utterly wrong in this surmise, and he was angry with himself on that account. The facts that he had a good crew — the first harvest of the press — that his ship could be quickly made ready for sea, that she was small and of no account in the balance of power, even that she was of light draught and therefore well adapted to the mission Cornwallis had allotted her, should have warned him that he would be packed off to sea at the earliest possible moment. He should have foreseen all this and he had not.

That was the first point, the first pill to swallow. Next he had to find out why his judgement had been so faulty. He knew the answer instantly, but — and he despised himself for this even more — he flinched from expressing it. But here it was. He had allowed his judgement to be clouded on account of Maria. He had shrunk from hurting her, and in consequence he had refused to allow his mind to make calculations about the future. He had gone recklessly forward in the wild hope that some stroke of good fortune would save him from having to deal her this blow.

He pulled himself up abruptly at this point. Good fortune? Nonsense. He was in command of his own ship, and was being set in the forefront of the battle. This was his golden chance to distinguish himself. That was his good fortune — it would have been maddening bad luck to have been left in harbor. Hornblower could feel the well-remembered thrill of excitement at the thought of seeing action again, of risking reputation — and life — in doing his duty, in gaining glory, and in (what was really the point) justifying himself in his own eyes. Now he was sane again; he could see things in their proper proportion. He was a naval officer first, and a married man only second, and a bad second at that. But — but — that did not make things any easier. He would still have to tear himself free from Maria's arms.

Nor could he stay here outside the coffee-room any longer. He must go back, despite his mental turmoil. He turned and re-entered the room, closing the door behind him.

"It will look well in the Naval Chronicle," said Mrs. Mason, "that the commander-in-chief proposed the health of the happy pair. Now, Horatio, some of your guests have empty plates."

Hornblower was still trying to be a good host when he saw across the room the worried face of the innkeeper again; it called for a second glance to see what had caused him to come in. He was ushering in Hornblower's new coxswain, Hewitt, a very short man who escaped observation across the room. Hewitt made up in breadth a good deal of what he lacked in height, and he sported a magnificent pair of glossy black side-whiskers in the style which was newly fashionable on the lowerdeck. He came rolling across the room, his straw hat in his hand, and, knuckling his forehead, gave Horatio a note. The address was in Bush's handwriting and in the correct phrasing, although now a little old-fashioned — Horatio Hornblower, Esq., Master and Commander. Silence fell on the assembled company — a little rudely, Hornblower thought — as he read the few lines.

H.M. Sloop Hotspur
2 April, 1803
Sir,
I hear from the dockyard that the first of the lighters is ready to come alongside. Extra pay is not yet authorized for dockyard hands, so that work will cease at nightfall. I respectfully submit that I can supervise the embarkation of the stores if you should find it inconvenient to return on board.
Your obdt. servant,
Wm. Bush

"Is the boat at the Hard?" demanded Hornblower.

"Yes, sir."

"Very well. I'll be there in five minutes."

"Aye aye, sir."

"Oh, Horry," said Maria, with a hint of reproach in her voice. No, it was disappointment, not reproach

"My dear -- ," said Hornblower. It occurred to him that he might now quote 'I could not love thee, dear, so much . . .' but he instantly discarded the idea; it would not be at all suitable at this moment, with this wife. "You're going to the ship again," said Maria.

"Yes."

He could not stay away from the ship while there was work to be done.

Today, by driving the hands, they could get half the stores on board at least. Tomorrow they could finish, and if Ordnance responded to the prodding of the Admiral, they could get the powder and shot on board as well. Then they could sail at dawn the day after tomorrow.

"I'll be back again this evening," he said. He forced himself to smile, to look concerned, to forget that he was on the threshold of adventure, that before him lay a career of possible distinction.

"Nothing shall keep me from you, dear," he said.

He clapped his hands on her shoulders and gave her a smacking kiss that drew applause from the others; that was the way to reintroduce a note of comedy into the proceedings, and, under cover of the laughter, he made his exit. As he hastened down to the Hard two subjects for thought intertwined in his mind, like the serpents of the medical caduceus — the tender love that Maria wished to lavish upon him, and the fact that the day after tomorrow he would be at sea, in command.

 

Hornblower and the Hotspur by C.S. Forester
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