Some people see things that others cannot. Tales of Mystery and Imagination. “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown” (H.P. Lovecraft).

Hugh Walpole: The Silver Mask

Hugh Walpole, The Silver Mask, Tales of mystery, Relatos de terror, Horror stories, Short stories, Science fiction stories, Italo Calvino, Leggenda di Carlomagno, Anthology of horror, Antología de terror, Anthology of mystery, Antología de misterio, Scary stories, Scary Tales, Science Fiction Short Stories, Historias de ciencia ficcion, Salomé Guadalupe Ingelmo


Miss Sonia Herries, coming home from a dinner-party at the Westons', heard a voice at her elbow.

'If you please--only a moment--'

She had walked from the Westons' flat because it was only three streets away, and now she was only a few steps from her door, but it was late, there was no one about and the King's Road rattle was muffled and dim.

'I am afraid I can't--' she began. It was cold and the wind nipped her cheeks.

'If you would only--' he went on.

She turned and saw one of the handsomest young men possible. He was the handsome young man of all romantic stories, tall, dark, pale, slim, distinguished--oh! everything!--and he was wearing a shabby blue suit and shivering with the cold just as he should have been.

'I'm afraid I can't--' she repeated, beginning to move on.

'Oh, I know,' he interrupted quickly. 'Everyone says the same and quite naturally. I should if our positions were reversed. But I MUST go on with it. I CAN'T go back to my wife and baby with simply nothing. We have no fire, no food, nothing except the ceiling we are under. It is my fault, all of it. I don't want your pity, but I HAVE to attack your comfort.'

He trembled. He shivered as though he were going to fall. Involuntarily she put out her hand to steady him. She touched his arm and felt it quiver under the thin sleeve.

'It's all right . . .' he murmured. 'I'm hungry . . . I can't help it.'

She had had an excellent dinner. She had drunk perhaps just enough to lead to recklessness--in any case, before she realised it, she was ushering him in, through her dark-blue painted door. A crazy thing to do! Nor was it as though she were too young to know any better, for she was fifty if she was a day and, although sturdy of body and as strong as a horse (except for a little unsteadiness of the heart), intelligent enough to be thin, neurotic and abnormal; but she was none of these.

Although intelligent she suffered dreadfully from impulsive kindness. All her life she had done so. The mistakes that she had made--and there had been quite a few--had all arisen from the triumph of her heart over her brain. She knew it--how well she knew it!--and all her friends were for ever dinning it into her.
When she reached her fiftieth birthday she said to herself--'Well, now at last I'm too old to be foolish any more.' And here she was, helping an entirely unknown young man into her house at dead of night, and he in all probability the worst sort of criminal.


Very soon he was sitting on her rose-coloured sofa, eating
sandwiches and drinking a whisky and soda. He seemed to be
entirely overcome by the beauty of her possessions. 'If he's
acting he's doing it very well,' she thought to herself. But he
had taste and he had knowledge. He knew that the Utrillo was an
early one, the only period of importance in that master's work, he
knew that the two old men talking under a window belonged to
Sickert's 'Middle Italian,' he recognised the Dobson head and the
wonderful green bronze Elk of Carl Milles.

'You are an artist,' she said. 'You paint?'

'No, I am a pimp, a thief, a what you like--anything bad,' he
answered fiercely. 'And now I must go,' he added, springing up
from the sofa.

He seemed most certainly invigorated. She could scarcely believe
that he was the same young man who only half an hour before had had
to lean on her arm for support. And he was a gentleman. Of that
there could be no sort of question. And he was astoundingly
beautiful in the spirit of a hundred years ago, a young Byron, a
young Shelley, not a young Ramon Novarro or a young Ronald Colman.

Well, it was better that he should go, and she did hope (for his
own sake rather than hers) that he would not demand money and
threaten a scene. After all, with her snow-white hair, firm broad
chin, firm broad body, she did not look like someone who could be
threatened. He had not apparently the slightest intention of
threatening her. He moved towards the door.

'Oh!' he murmured with a little gasp of wonder. He had stopped
before one of the loveliest things that she had--a mask in silver
of a clown's face, the clown smiling, gay, joyful, not hinting at
perpetual sadness as all clowns are traditionally supposed to do.
It was one of the most successful efforts of the famous Sorat,
greatest living master of Masks.

'Yes. Isn't that lovely?' she said. 'It was one of Sorat's
earliest things, and still, I think, one of his best.'

'Silver is the right material for that clown,' he said.

'Yes, I think so too,' she agreed. She realised that she had asked
him nothing about his troubles, about his poor wife and baby, about
his past history. It was better perhaps like this.

'You have saved my life,' he said to her in the hall. She had in
her hand a pound note.

'Well,' she answered cheerfully, 'I was a fool to risk a strange
man in my house at this time of night--or so my friends would tell
me. But such an old woman like me--where's the risk?'

'I could have cut your throat,' he said quite seriously.

'So you could,' she admitted. 'But with horrid consequences to
yourself.'

'Oh no,' he said. 'Not in these days. The police are never able
to catch anybody.'

'Well, good night. Do take this. It can get you some warmth at
least.'

He took the pound. 'Thanks,' he said carelessly. Then at the door
he remarked: 'That mask. The loveliest thing I ever saw.'

When the door had closed and she went back into the sitting-room
she sighed:

'What a good-looking young man!' Then she saw that her most
beautiful white jade cigarette-case was gone. It had been lying on
the little table by the sofa. She had seen it just before she went
into the pantry to cut the sandwiches. He had stolen it. She
looked everywhere. No, undoubtedly he had stolen it.

'What a good-looking young man!' she thought as she went up to bed.

Sonia Herries was a woman of her time in that outwardly she was
cynical and destructive while inwardly she was a creature longing
for affection and appreciation. For though she had white hair and
was fifty she was outwardly active, young, could do with little
sleep and less food, could dance and drink cocktails and play
bridge to the end of all time. Inwardly she cared for neither
cocktails nor bridge. She was above all things maternal and she
had a weak heart, not only a spiritual weak heart but also a
physical one. When she suffered, must take her drops, lie down and
rest, she allowed no one to see her. Like all the other women of
her period and manner of life she had a courage worthy of a better
cause.

She was a heroine for no reason at all.

But, beyond everything else, she was maternal. Twice at least she
would have married had she loved enough, but the man she had really
loved had not loved her (that was twenty-five years ago), so she
had pretended to despise matrimony. Had she had a child her nature
would have been fulfilled; as she had not had that good fortune she
had been maternal (with outward cynical indifference) to numbers of
people who had made use of her, sometimes laughed at her, never
deeply cared for her. She was named 'a jolly good sort,' and was
always 'just outside' the real life of her friends. Her Herries
relations, Rockages and Cards and Newmarks, used her to take odd
places at table, to fill up spare rooms at house-parties, to make
purchases for them in London, to talk to when things went wrong
with them or people abused them. She was a very lonely woman.

She saw her young thief for the second time a fortnight later. She
saw him because he came to her house one evening when she was
dressing for dinner.

'A young man at the door,' said her maid Rose.

'A young man? Who?' But she knew. 'I don't know, Miss Sonia. He
won't give his name.'

She came down and found him in the hall, the cigarette-case in his
hand. He was wearing a decent suit of clothes, but he still looked
hungry, haggard, desperate and incredibly handsome. She took him
into the room where they had been before. He gave her the
cigarette-case. 'I pawned it,' he said, his eyes on the silver
mask.

'What a disgraceful thing to do!' she said. 'And what are you
going to steal next?'

'My wife made some money last week,' he said. 'That will see us
through for a while.'

'Do you never do any work?' she asked him.

'I paint,' he answered. 'But no one will touch my pictures. They
are not modern enough.'

'You must show me some of your pictures,' she said, and realised
how weak she was. It was not his good looks that gave him his
power over her, but something both helpless and defiant, like a
wicked child who hates his mother but is always coming to her for
help.

'I have some here,' he said, went into the hall, and returned with
several canvases. He displayed them. They were very bad--sugary
landscapes and sentimental figures.

'They are very bad,' she said.

'I know they are. You must understand that my aesthetic taste is
very fine. I appreciate only the best things in art, like your
cigarette-case, that mask there, the Utrillo. But I can paint
nothing but these. It is very exasperating.' He smiled at her.

'Won't you buy one?' he asked her.

'Oh, but I don't want one,' she answered. 'I should have to hide
it.' She was aware that in ten minutes her guests would be here.

'Oh, do buy one.'

'No, but of course not--'

'Yes, please.' He came nearer and looked up into her broad kindly
face like a beseeching child.

'Well . . . how much are they?'

'This is twenty pounds. This twenty-five--'

'But how absurd! They are not worth anything at all.'

'They may be one day. You never know with modern pictures.'

'I am quite sure about these.'

'Please buy one. That one with the cows is not so bad.'

She sat down and wrote a cheque.

'I'm a perfect fool. Take this, and understand I never want to see
you again. Never! You will never be admitted. It is no use
speaking to me in the street. If you bother me I shall tell the
police.'

He took the cheque with quiet satisfaction, held out his hand and
pressed hers a little.

'Hang that in the right light and it will not be so bad--'

'You want new boots,' she said. 'Those are terrible.'

'I shall be able to get some now,' he said and went away.

All that evening while she listened to the hard and crackling
ironies of her friends she thought of the young man. She did not
know his name. The only thing that she knew about him was that by
his own confession he was a scoundrel and had at his mercy a poor
young wife and a starving child. The picture that she formed of
these three haunted her. It had been, in a way, honest of him to
return the cigarette-case. Ah, but he knew, of course, that did he
not return it he could never have seen her again. He had
discovered at once that she was a splendid source of supply, and
now that she had bought one of his wretched pictures--Nevertheless
he could not be altogether bad. No one who cared so passionately
for beautiful things could be quite worthless. The way that he had
gone straight to the silver mask as soon as he entered the room and
gazed at it as though with his very soul! And, sitting at her
dinner-table, uttering the most cynical sentiments, she was all
softness as she gazed across to the wall upon whose pale surface
the silver mask was hanging. There was, she thought, a certain
look of the young man in that jolly shining surface. But where?
The clown's cheek was fat, his mouth broad, his lips thick--and
yet, and yet--

For the next few days as she went about London she looked in spite
of herself at the passers-by to see whether he might not be there.
One thing she soon discovered, that he was very much more handsome
than anyone else whom she saw. But it was not for his handsomeness
that he haunted her. It was because he wanted her to be kind to
him, and because she wanted--oh, so terribly--to be kind to
someone!

The silver mask, she had the fancy, was gradually changing, the
rotundity thinning, some new light coming into the empty eyes. It
was most certainly a beautiful thing.

Then, as unexpectedly as on the other occasions, he appeared again.
One night as she, back from a theatre, smoking one last cigarette,
was preparing to climb the stairs to bed, there was a knock on the
door. Everyone of course rang the bell--no one attempted the old-
fashioned knocker shaped like an owl that she had bought, one idle
day, in an old curiosity shop. The knock made her sure that it was
he. Rose had gone to bed so she went herself to the door. There
he was--and with him a young girl and a baby. They all came into
the sitting-room and stood awkwardly by the fire. It was at that
moment when she saw them in a group by the fire that she felt her
first sharp pang of fear. She knew suddenly how weak she was--she
seemed to be turned to water at sight of them, she, Sonia Herries,
fifty years of age, independent and strong, save for that little
flutter of the heart--yes, turned to water! She was afraid as
though someone had whispered a warning in her ear.

The girl was striking, with red hair and a white face, a thin
graceful little thing. The baby, wrapped in a shawl, was soaked in
sleep. She gave them drinks and the remainder of the sandwiches
that had been put there for herself. The young man looked at her
with his charming smile.

'We haven't come to cadge anything this time,' he said. 'But I
wanted you to see my wife and I wanted her to see some of your
lovely things.'

'Well,' she said sharply. 'You can only stay a minute or two.
It's late. I'm off to bed. Besides, I told you not to come here
again.'

'Ada made me,' he said, nodding at the girl. 'She was so anxious
to see you.'

The girl never said a word but only stared sulkily in front of her.

'All right. But you must go soon. By the way, you've never told
me your name.'

'Henry Abbott, and that's Ada, and the baby's called Henry too.'

'All right. How have you been getting on since I saw you?'

'Oh, fine! Living on the fat of the land.' But he soon fell into
silence and the girl never said a word. After an intolerable pause
Sonia Herries suggested that they should go. They didn't move.
Half an hour later she insisted. They got up. But, standing by
the door, Henry Abbott jerked his head towards the writing-desk.

'Who writes your letters for you?'

'Nobody. I write them myself.'

'You ought to have somebody. Save a lot of trouble. I'll do them
for you.'

'Oh no, thank you. That would never do. Well, good night, good
night--'

'Of course I'll do them for you. And you needn't pay me anything
either. Fill up my time.'

'Nonsense . . . good night, good night.' She closed the door on
them. She could not sleep. She lay there thinking of him. She
was moved, partly by a maternal tenderness for them that warmed her
body (the girl and the baby had looked so helpless sitting there),
partly by a shiver of apprehension that chilled her veins. Well,
she hoped that she would never see them again. Or did she? Would
she not to-morrow, as she walked down Sloane Street, stare at
everyone to see whether by chance that was he?

Three mornings later he arrived. It was a wet morning and she had
decided to devote it to the settling of accounts. She was sitting
there at her table when Rose showed him in.

'I've come to do your letters,' he said.

'I should think not,' she said sharply. 'Now, Henry Abbott, out
you go. I've had enough--'

'Oh no, you haven't,' he said, and sat down at her desk.

She would be ashamed for ever, but half an hour later she was
seated in the corner of the sofa telling him what to write. She
hated to confess it to herself, but she liked to see him sitting
there. He was company for her, and to whatever depths he might by
now have sunk, he was most certainly a gentleman. He behaved very
well that morning; he wrote an excellent hand. He seemed to know
just what to say.

A week later she said, laughing, to Amy Weston: 'My dear, would
you believe it? I've had to take on a secretary. A very good-
looking young man--but you needn't look down your nose. You know
that good-looking young men are nothing to ME--and he does save me
endless bother.'

For three weeks he behaved very well, arriving punctually, offering
her no insults, doing as she suggested about everything. In the
fourth week, about a quarter to one on a day, his wife arrived. On
this occasion she looked astonishingly young, sixteen perhaps. She
wore a simple grey cotton dress. Her red bobbed hair was
strikingly vibrant about her pale face.

The young man already knew that Miss Herries was lunching alone.
He had seen the table laid for one with its simple appurtenances.
It seemed to be very difficult not to ask them to remain. She did,
although she did not wish to. The meal was not a success. The two
of them together were tiresome, for the man said little when his
wife was there, and the woman said nothing at all. Also, the pair
of them were in a way sinister.

She sent them away after luncheon. They departed without protest.
But as she walked, engaged on her shopping that afternoon, she
decided that she must rid herself of them, once and for all. It
was true that it had been rather agreeable having him there; his
smile, his wicked humorous remarks, the suggestion that he was a
kind of malevolent gamin who preyed on the world in general but
spared her because he liked her--all this had attracted her--but
what really alarmed her was that during all these weeks he had made
no request for money, made indeed no request for anything. He must
be piling up a fine account, must have some plan in his head with
which one morning he would balefully startle her! For a moment
there in the bright sunlight, with the purr of the traffic, the
rustle of the trees about her, she saw herself in surprising
colour. She was behaving with a weakness that was astonishing.
Her stout, thick-set, resolute body, her cheery rosy face, her
strong white hair--all these disappeared, and in their place, there
almost clinging for support to the Park railings, was a timorous
little old woman with frightened eyes and trembling knees. What
was there to be afraid of? She had done nothing wrong. There were
the police at hand. She had never been a coward before. She went
home, however, with an odd impulse to leave her comfortable little
house in Walpole Street and hide herself somewhere, somewhere that
no one could discover.

That evening they appeared again, husband, wife and baby. She had
settled herself down for a cosy evening with a book and an 'early
to bed.' There came the knock on the door.

On this occasion she was most certainly firm with them. When they
were gathered in a little group she got up and addressed them.

'Here is five pounds,' she said, 'and this is the end. If one of
you shows his or her face inside this door again I call the police.
Now go.'

The girl gave a little gasp and fell in a dead faint at her feet.
It was a perfectly genuine faint. Rose was summoned. Everything
possible was done.

'She has simply not had enough to eat,' said Henry Abbott. In the
end (so determined and resolved was the faint) Ada Abbott was put
to bed in the spare room and a doctor was summoned. After
examining her he said that she needed rest and nourishment. This
was perhaps the critical moment of the whole affair. Had Sonia
Herries been at this crisis properly resolute and bundled the
Abbott family, faint and all, into the cold unsympathising street,
she might at this moment be a hale and hearty old woman enjoying
bridge with her friends. It was, however, just here that her
maternal temperament was too strong for her. The poor young thing
lay exhausted, her eyes closed, her cheeks almost the colour of her
pillow. The baby (surely the quietest baby ever known) lay in a
cot beside the bed. Henry Abbott wrote letters to dictation
downstairs. Once Sonia Herries, glancing up at the silver mask,
was struck by the grin on the clown's face. It seemed to her now a
thin sharp grin--almost derisive.

Three days after Ada Abbott's collapse there arrived her aunt and
her uncle, Mr. and Mrs. Edwards. Mr. Edwards was a large red-faced
man with a hearty manner and a bright waistcoat. He looked like a
publican. Mrs. Edwards was a thin sharp-nosed woman with a bass
voice. She was very, very thin, and wore a large old-fashioned
brooch on her flat but emotional chest. They sat side by side on
the sofa and explained that they had come to enquire after Ada,
their favourite niece. Mrs. Edwards cried, Mr. Edwards was
friendly and familiar. Unfortunately Mrs. Weston and a friend came
and called just then. They did not stay very long. They were
frankly amazed at the Edwards couple and deeply startled by Henry
Abbott's familiarity. Sonia Herries could see that they drew the
very worst conclusions.

A week later Ada Abbott was still in bed in the upstairs room. It
seemed to be impossible to move her. The Edwardses were constant
visitors. On one occasion they brought Mr. and Mrs. Harper and
their girl Agnes. They were profusely apologetic, but Miss Herries
would understand that 'with the interest they took in Ada it was
impossible to stay passive.' They all crowded into the spare
bedroom and gazed at the pale figure with the closed eyes
sympathetically.

Then two things happened together. Rose gave notice and Mrs.
Weston came and had a frank talk with her friend. She began with
that most sinister opening: 'I think you ought to know, dear, what
everyone is saying--' What everyone was saying was that Sonia
Herries was living with a young ruffian from the streets, young
enough to be her son.

'You must get rid of them all and at once,' said Mrs. Weston, 'or
you won't have a friend left in London, darling.'

Left to herself, Sonia Herries did what she had not done for years,
she burst into tears. What had happened to her? Not only had her
will and determination gone but she felt most unwell. Her heart
was bad again; she could not sleep; the house, too, was tumbling to
pieces. There was dust over everything. How was she ever to
replace Rose? She was living in some horrible nightmare. This
dreadful handsome young man seemed to have some authority over her.
Yet he did not threaten her. All he did was to smile. Nor was she
in the very least in love with him. This must come to an end or
she would be lost.

Two days later, at tea-time, her opportunity arrived. Mr. and Mrs.
Edwards had called to see how Ada was; Ada was downstairs at last,
very weak and pale. Henry Abbott was there, also the baby. Sonia
Herries, although she was feeling dreadfully unwell, addressed them
all with vigour. She especially addressed the sharp-nosed Mrs.
Edwards.

'You must understand,' she said. 'I don't want to be unkind, but I
have my own life to consider. I am a very busy woman, and this has
all been forced on me. I don't want to seem brutal. I'm glad to
have been of some assistance to you, but I think Mrs. Abbott is
well enough to go home now--and I wish you all good night.'

'I am sure,' said Mrs. Edwards, looking up at her from the sofa,
'that you've been kindness itself, Miss Herries. Ada recognises
it, I'm sure. But to move her now would be to kill her, that's
all. Any movement and she'll drop at your feet.'

'We have nowhere to go,' said Henry Abbott.

'But Mrs. Edwards--' began Miss Herries, her anger rising.

'We have only two rooms,' said Mrs. Edwards quietly. 'I'm sorry,
but just now, what with my husband coughing all night--'

'Oh, but this is monstrous!' Miss Herries cried. 'I have had
enough of this. I have been generous to a degree--'

'What about my pay,' said Henry, 'for all these weeks?'

'Pay! Why, of course--' Miss Herries began. Then she stopped.
She realised several things. She realised that she was alone in
the house, the cook having departed that afternoon. She realised
that none of them had moved. She realised that her 'things'--the
Sickert, the Utrillo, the sofa--were alive with apprehension. She
was fearfully frightened of their silence, their immobility. She
moved towards her desk, and her heart turned, squeezed itself dry,
shot through her body the most dreadful agony.

'Please,' she gasped. 'In the drawer--the little green bottle--oh,
quick! Please, please!'

The last thing of which she was aware was the quiet handsome
features of Henry Abbott bending over her.

When, a week later, Mrs. Weston called, the girl, Ada Abbott,
opened the door to her.

'I came to enquire for Miss Herries,' she said. 'I haven't seen
her about. I have telephoned several times and received no
answer.'

'Miss Herries is very ill.'

'Oh, I'm so sorry. Can I not see her?'

Ada Abbott's quiet gentle tones were reassuring her. 'The doctor
does not wish her to see anyone at present. May I have your
address? I will let you know as soon as she is well enough.'

Mrs. Weston went away. She recounted the event. 'Poor Sonia,
she's pretty bad. They seem to be looking after her. As soon as
she's better we'll go and see her.'

The London life moves swiftly. Sonia Herries had never been of
very great importance to anyone. Herries relations enquired. They
received a very polite note assuring them that so soon as she was
better--

Sonia Herries was in bed, but not in her own room. She was in the
little attic bedroom but lately occupied by Rose the maid. She lay
at first in a strange apathy. She was ill. She slept and woke and
slept again. Ada Abbott, sometimes Mrs. Edwards, sometimes a woman
she did not know, attended to her. They were all very kind. Did
she need a doctor? No, of course she did not need a doctor, they
assured her. They would see that she had everything that she
wanted.

Then life began to flow back into her. Why was she in this room?
Where were her friends? What was this horrible food that they were
bringing her? What were they doing here, these women?

She had a terrible scene with Ada Abbott. She tried to get out of
bed. The girl restrained her--and easily, for all the strength
seemed to have gone from her bones. She protested, she was as
furious as her weakness allowed her, then she cried. She cried
most bitterly. Next day she was alone and she crawled out of bed;
the door was locked; she beat on it. There was no sound but her
beating. Her heart was beginning again that terrible strangled
throb. She crept back into bed. She lay there, weakly, feebly
crying. When Ada arrived with some bread, some soup, some water,
she demanded that the door should be unlocked, that she should get
up, have her bath, come downstairs to her own room.

'You are not well enough,' Ada said gently.

'Of course I am well enough. When I get out I will have you put in
prison for this--'

'Please don't get excited. It is so bad for your heart.'

Mrs. Edwards and Ada washed her. She had not enough to eat. She
was always hungry.

Summer had come. Mrs. Weston went to Etretat. Everyone was out of
town.

'What's happened to Sonia Herries?' Mabel Newmark wrote to Agatha
Benson. 'I haven't seen her for ages. . . .'

But no one had time to enquire. There were so many things to do.
Sonia was a good sort, but she had been nobody's business. . . .

Once Henry Abbott paid her a visit. 'I am so sorry that you are
not better,' he said smiling. 'We are doing everything we can for
you. It is lucky we were around when you were so ill. You had
better sign these papers. Someone must look after your affairs
until you are better. You will be downstairs in a week or two.'

Looking at him with wide-open terrified eyes, Sonia Herries signed
the papers.

The first rains of autumn lashed the streets. In the sitting-room
the gramophone was turned on. Ada and young Mr. Jackson, Maggie
Trent and stout Harry Bennett were dancing. All the furniture was
flung against the walls. Mr. Edwards drank his beer; Mrs. Edwards
was toasting her toes before the fire.

Henry Abbott came in. He had just sold the Utrillo. His arrival
was greeted with cheers.

He took the silver mask from the wall and went upstairs. He
climbed to the top of the house, entered, switched on the naked
light.

'Oh! Who--What--?' A voice of terror came from the bed.

'It's all right,' he said soothingly. 'Ada will be bringing your
tea in a minute.'

He had a hammer and nail and hung the silver mask on the speckled,
mottled wall-paper where Miss Herries could see it.

'I know you're fond of it,' he said. 'I thought you'd like it to
look at.'

She made no reply. She only stared.

'You'll want something to look at,' he went on. 'You're too ill,
I'm afraid, ever to leave this room again. So it'll be nice for
you. Something to look at.'

He went out, gently closing the door behind him.

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