In Our Town
by William Allen White
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When one comes to know an animal well—say a horse or a cow or a dog—and sees how sensibly it acts, following the rules of conduct laid down by the wisdom of its kind, one cannot help wondering how much happier, and healthier, and better, human beings would be if they used the discretion of the animals. For ages men have been taught what is good for their bodies and their minds and their souls. There has been no question about the wisdom of being temperate and industrious and honest and kind; and the folly of immoderation and laziness and chicanery and meanness is so well known that a geometrical proposition has not been more definitely proved. Yet only a few people in any community observe the rules of life, and of these few no one observes them all; and so misery and pain and poverty and anguish are as a pestilence among men, and they wonder why they are living in such a cruel world. It was Eli Martin who, back in the seventies, won the prize in the Bethel neighbourhood for reciting more chapters of the Old Testament than any other child in Sunday-school; and the old McGuffey's Reader that he used on week-days was filled with moral tales; but someway when it came to applying the rules he had learned, and the moral that the stories pointed, Eli Martin lacked the sense of a dog or a horse. Once, when the paper contained an account of one of Red Martin's police court escapades, George Kirwin recalled that, when we offered a prize during the Christmas season of 1880, for the best essay by a child under twelve, it was Ethelwylde Swaney who won the prize with an essay on the Weakness of Vanity; and she married Eli Martin when she and the whole town knew what he was.

Naturally one would suppose that two persons so full of theoretical wisdom would have applied it, and that in applying it they would have been the happiest and most useful people in all the town; but instead they were probably the most miserable people in town, and Mrs. Martin, whom we knew better than Red, because she once had worked in the office, was forever bemoaning what she called her "lot," though we knew for many years that her "lot" was not the result of the fates against her, but merely the inevitable consequence of her temperament.

Before we put in linotypes and set our type by machinery it was set by girls. Usually we employed half-a-dozen, who came from the town high school. They kept coming and going, as girls do who work in country towns, getting married in their twenties or finding something better than printing, and it is likely that in ten years as many as fifty girls have worked in the office, and be it said to the credit of the girls—which cannot be said of so many of the boys and men who have worked in the shop—that they were girls we were proud of—all but Ethelwylde Swaney.

She that we called the Princess worked in the office less than two years, but the memory of her still lingers, though hardly could one say like "the scent of the roses"; for the Princess was not merely a poor compositor, she was the kind that would make mistakes and blame others for them, and that kind never learns. Though she ran away to marry Red Martin—which was her own mistake—this habit of blaming others for her faults was so strong that she never forgave her mother for making the match. We know in our office that Mrs. Swaney did not dream that the girl was even going with Red Martin until they were married. Yet the Martin neighbours for twenty years have blamed Mrs. Swaney. When the Princess was in the office we found out that the truth wasn't in her; also we discovered that she was lazy and that she cried too easily. Right at the busy hour in the afternoon we used to catch her with a type in her fingers and her hand poised in the air, looking off into space for a minute at a time, and when we spoke to her she would put her head on her case and cry softly; and the foreman would have to apologise before she would go back to work. Even then she would have to take the broken piece of looking-glass that she kept in her capital "K" box and make an elaborate toilet before settling down. Moreover, though she was only seventeen, much of the foreman's time was spent chasing dirty-faced little boys away from her case, and if some boy didn't have his elbow in her quad box, she was off her stool visiting either with some other girl, or standing by the stove drying her hands—she was eternally drying her hands—and talking to one of the men. In all the year and a half that she was in the office the Princess never learned how to help herself. When she had to dump her type, she had to call some man from his work to help her—and then there would be more conversation.

But we kept her and were patient with her on account of her father, John Swaney, a hard-working man who was trying to make something of the Princess, so we put up with her perfumery and her powder rags and her royal airs, and did all we could to teach her the difference between a comma and a period—though she never really learned; and we were still patient with her, even when she deliberately pied a lot of type after being corrected for some piece of carelessness or worse. We made due allowances for the Rutherford temper, which her father warned us not to arouse. Nevertheless, her mother came to the office one winter day in her black straw hat with a veil around it, and with the coat she had worn for ten years, to tell us that she was afraid working in the shop would hurt her daughter's social standing. So the Princess walked out that night in a gust of musk—in her picture hat and sweeping cloak, with bangles tinkling and petticoat swishing—and the office knew her no more forever.

About the time that the Princess left the office to improve her social standing, Eli Martin and his big mule team came to town from the Bethel neighbourhood. He was as likely a looking red-headed country boy as you ever saw. We were laying the town waterworks pipes that year, and Eli and his team had work all summer. On the street he towered above the other men several inches in height, and he looked big and muscular and masculine in his striped undershirt and blue overalls, as he worked with his team in the hot sun. Of course, the Princess would not have seen him in those days. Her nose was seeking a higher social level, and the clerks in the White Front dry-goods store formed the pinnacle of her social ideal. But Eli Martin was naturally what in our parlance we call a ladies' man, and he was not long in learning that the wide-brimmed black hat, the ready-made faded green suit and the red string necktie which had swept the girls down before him in the Bethel neighbourhood would accomplish little in town. So when winter came, and work with his team was hard to get, he sold his mules and bedecked himself in fine linen. He had a few hundred dollars saved up, so he lived in the cabbage smells of the Astor House, and fancied that he was enjoying the refinements of a great city. Time hung heavily upon him, and at night he joined the switchmen and certain young men of leisure in the town in a more or less friendly game of poker in the rooms at the head of the dark stairway on South Main Street.

When spring came the young man had no desire and little need to go back to work, for by that time he was known as Lucky Red. In a year the sunburn left him and he grew white and thin. He went to Kansas City for a season, and became known among gamblers as far west as Denver; but he was only a tin-horn gambler in the big cities, while in our town he was at the head of his profession, so he came back and opened a room of his own. He came back in a blaze of glory; to wit: a long grey frock coat with trousers to match, pleated white shirts studded with blinding diamonds, a small white hat dented jauntily on three sides, a matted lump of red hair on the back of his head and a dashing red curl combed extravagantly low on his forehead. Before he left town for his foreign tour Red Martin used to hang about the churches Sunday evenings, peering through the blinds and making eyes at the girls; but upon his return he had risen to another social level. He had acquired a cart with red wheels and a three-minute horse; so he dropped from his social list the girls who "worked out" and made eyes at those young women who lived at home, gadding around town evenings, picking up boys on the street and forever talking about their "latest."

It was the most natural thing in the world that Red and the Princess should find each other, and six months before the elopement we heard that the Princess was riding about the country with him in the red-wheeled cart. For after she left the office in one way and another we had kept track of the girl—sometimes through her father, who, being a carpenter, was frequently called to the office to fix up a door or a window; sometimes through the other girls in the office, and sometimes through Alphabetical Morrison, whose big family of girl school-teachers made him a storage battery of social information.

It seems that the Rutherford temper developed in the Princess as she grew older. Mrs. Swaney was Juanita Sinclair; her father was a mild-mannered little man, who went out of doors to cough, but her mother was a Rutherford—a big, stiff-necked, beer-bottle-shaped woman, who bossed the missionary society until she divided the church. John Swaney, who is not a talkative man, once got in a crowd at Smith's cigar-store where they were telling ghost stories, and his contribution to the horror of the occasion was a relating of how, when they were fooling with tables, trying to make them tip at his house one night at a family reunion, the spirit of Grandma Rutherford appeared, split the table into kindling, dislocated three shoulder-blades and sprained five wrists. It was this Rutherford temper that the Princess wore when she slouched around the house in her mother-hubbard with her hair in papers. The girls in the office used to say that if her mother over-cooked the Princess's egg in the morning she would rise grandly from the breakfast table, tipping over her chair behind her, and rush to her room "to have a good cry," and the whole family had to let the breakfast cool while they coaxed her down. That was the Rutherford temper. Also, when they tried to teach her to cook, it was the Rutherford temper that broke the dishes. Colonel Morrison once told us that when the Princess thought it was time to give a party, the neighbours could see the Rutherford temper begin wig-wagging at the world through the Princess's proud head, and there was nothing for her father to do but to kill the chickens, run errands all day to the grocery store, and sit in the cellar freezing cream, and then go to the barn at night to smoke. It was known in the neighbourhood that the Princess dragged her shoestrings until noon, and that her bed was never in the memory of woman made up in the daytime. We are Yankees in our town, and these things made more talk to the girl's discredit than the story that she was keeping company with Red Martin!

But we at the office saw in the proud creature that passed our window so grandly nothing to indicate her real self. The year that Red Martin came back to town the Princess used to turn into Main Street in an afternoon, wearing the big black hat that cost her father a week's hard work, looking as sweet as a jug of sorghum and as smiling as a basket of chips. Though women sniffed at her, the men on the veranda of the Hotel Metropole craned their necks to watch her out of sight. She jingled with chains and watches and lockets and chatelaines, carried more rings than a cane rack, and walked with the air of the heroine of the society drama at the opera house. When she was on parade she never even glanced toward our office, where she had jeopardised her social position. She barely quivered a recognising eye-brow at the girls who had worked with her, and they had their laugh at her, so matters were about even. But the office girls say that, after the Princess eloped with Red Martin, she was glad to rush up and shake hands with them. For we know in our town that the princess business does not last more than ten days or two weeks after marriage; it is a trade of quick sales, short seasons and small profits. The day that the elopement was the talk of the town, Colonel Alphabetical Morrison was in the office. He said that he remembered Juanita Sinclair when she was a princess and wore Dolly Varden clothes and was the playfullest kitten in the basketful that used to turn out to the platform dances on Fourth of July, and appear as belles of the suppers given for the Silver Cornet Band just after the war. "But," added the Colonel, "this town is full of saffron-coloured old girls with wiry hair and sun-bleached eyes, who at one time or another were in the princess business. Not only has every dog his day, but eventually every kitten becomes a cat."

From the night of the charivari when Red Martin handed the boys twenty dollars—the largest sum ever contributed to a similar purpose in the town's history—he and the Princess began to slump. The sloughing off of the veneer of civilisation was not rapid, but it was sure. The first pair of shoes that Red bought after his wedding were not patent leather, and, though the porter of his gambling place blacked them every morning, still they were common leather, and the boy noticed it. Likewise, the Princess had her hat retrimmed with her old plumes the fall after her wedding, bought no new clothes, and wore her giddy spring jacket, thin as it was, all winter, and after the second baby came no human being ever saw her in anything but a wrapper, except when she was on Main Street.

The neighbours said she wore a wrapper so that she could have free use of her lungs, for when Red and the Princess opened a family debate, the neighbours had to shut the doors and windows and call in the children. Notwithstanding all the names that she called him in their lung-testing events, there was no question about her love for the man. For, after the first year of her marriage, though she lost interest in her clothes and ceased calling for the "fashion leaf" at the dress-goods counter in the White Front, and let her hair go stringy, we around our office knew that the Princess was only a child, who some way had lost interest in her old toys. When God gives babies to children, the children forget their other dolls, and the Princess, when the babies came, put away her other dolls, and played with the toys that came alive. And she spanked them and fondled them and scolded them with the same empty-headed vanity that she used to devote to her clothes.

Red Martin was one of the Princess's dearest dolls, and she and the babies were his toys; but, being a boy, he did not care for them so much with the paint rubbed off, yet he did not neglect them. Instead, he neglected himself. When the babies began to put grease spots on his clothes, he did not clean them, and about the time his wife quit powdering, when she came to Main Street, he stopped wearing collars. She grew fat and frowsy, and her chief interest in life seemed to be to over-dress her children, and sometimes Red Martin encouraged her by bringing home the most extravagant suits for the boys, and sometimes he abused her when the bills came in for things which she had bought for the children, and asked why she did not buy something half-way respectable-looking to wear herself. After each of their furious quarrels she would go over the neighbourhood the next day and tell the neighbours that her mother had married her to a gambler, and ask them what a gambler's wife could expect. If any neighbour woman agreed with Mrs. Martin about her husband or her position Mrs. Martin would become angry and flounce out of the house, but if the women spoke kindly of her husband she would berate him and weep, and assure them that she had refused the banker, or the proprietor of the Bee Hive, or anyone else who seemed to make her story possible.

By the time that the third baby was old enough to carry his baby sister and the fifth baby was in the crib, Red Martin's face had begun to grow purple. He lost the gambling-room which was once his pride; it was operated by a youth with a curly black moustache, whose clothes recalled the days of Red's triumph. Red was only a dealer, and his trousers were frayed at the bottom and he shaved but once a week. Then the Princess used to come slinking up Main Street at night carrying a pistol under her coat to use if she found the woman with him. Who the woman was the neighbours never knew, but the Princess gave them to understand that they would be surprised if she told them. It was her vanity to pretend that the woman was a society leader, as she called her, but the boys around the poker-dive knew that Red Martin's days as a heart-breaker were gone. For what whisky and cocaine and absinthe could do for Red to hurry his end they were doing, but a man is a strong beast, and it takes many years to kill him. Also, the Lord saves men like Red for horrible examples, letting them live long that He may not have to waste others; but women seem to have God's pity and He takes them out of their misery more quickly than He takes men. With the coming of the seventh baby the Princess died. When the news came to the office that she was gone we were not sorry, for life had held little for her. Her looks were gone; her health was gone; her dreams were smudged out—pitiful and wretched and sordid as they were, even at the best. Yet for all that George Kirwin took down to the funeral a wreath which the office force bought for her.

To know George Kirwin casually one would say he never saw anything but the types and machinery in the back room of our office. When he went among strangers he seemed to be looking always at his hands or studying his knees, and his responses to those whom he did not know were "yea, yea," and "nay, nay"; but that night he told us more about the funeral of the Princess than all the reporters on the paper would have learned. He told us how the pitiful little parlour with its advertising chromos and its soap-prize lamp was filled with the women who always come to funerals in our town—funerals being their only diversion; how they sat in the undertaker's chairs with their handkerchiefs carefully folded and in their hands during the first part of the service, waiting for Brother Hopper to tell about his mother's death, which he never fails to do at funerals, though the elders have spoken to him about it, as all the town knows; how Red Martin, shaved for the occasion, and, in a borrowed suit of clothes, stood out by the well and did not come into the house during the services; how only the elder children sat in the front room with the other mourners, and how the prattle of the little ones in the kitchen ran through the parson's prayer with heart-breaking insistence.

George seemed to think that the poverty-stricken little makeshifts to bring beauty into the miserable home and keep up the appearance of a kind of gentility—perhaps for the children—was the best thing he ever knew about the Princess, and he said that he was glad that he went to the funeral for the geraniums in the crepe paper covered tomato cans, the cheap lace curtains at the windows, and the hair-wreath inheritance from the Swaneys, made him think that the best of the Princess might have survived all the rack and calamity of the years.

When the funeral left the house the neighbour women came and put it in order, and there was a better supper waiting for the father and the children than they had eaten for many years. And then, after the dishes were put away, the neighbours left; and for what he tried to do and be for the motherless brood just that one night, God will put down a good mark for Eli Martin—even though the man failed most sadly.

When he went back to the gambling-room the next night, where he was porter; men tried not to swear while he was in earshot, and the next day they swore only mild oaths around him, out of respect for his grief, but the day after they forgot their compunctions, and, within a week, Red Martin seemed to have forgotten, too. In time, the family was scattered over the earth—divided among kin, and adopted out, and as the town grew older its conscience quickened and the gambling-room was closed, whereupon Red Martin went to Huddleston's livery stable, where he worked for enough to keep him in whisky and laudanum, and ate only when someone gave him food.

He grew dirty, unkempt, and dull-witted. Disease bent and twisted him hideously. When he was too sick to work, he went to the poor-house, and came back weak and pale to sit much in the sun on the south side of the building like a sick dog. When he is lying about the street drunk, little boys poke sticks at him and flee with terror before him when he wakes to blind rage and stumbles after them. It is hard to realise that this disgusting, inhuman-looking creature is the Red Martin of twenty years ago, who, in his long grey frock coat, patent leather shoes, white hat and black tie, walked serenely up the steps of the bank the day it failed, tapped on the door-pane with his revolver barrel, and, when a man came to answer, made him open, and backed out with his revolver in one hand and his diamonds and money in the other. He does not recall in any vague way the Red Martin who gave the town a month's smile when he said, after losing all his money on election, that he had learned never to bet on anything that could talk, or had less than four legs. That Red Martin has been dead these many years; perhaps he was no more worthy than this one who hangs on to life, and bears the name and the disgrace that his dead youth made inevitable.

How strange it is that a man should wreck himself, and blight those of his own blood as this man has done! He knew what we all know about life and its rules. He had been told, as we all are told in a thousand ways, that bad conduct brings sorrow to the world, and that pain and wretchedness are the only rewards of that behaviour which men call sin. And yet there he is, sitting on his hunkers near the stable, with God's stamp of failure all over his broken, battered body—put there by Red Martin's own hands. But George Kirwin, who often thinks with a kindlier spirit than others, says we are Red Martin's partners in iniquity, for we all lived here with him, maintaining a town that tolerated gambling and debauchery, and that, in some way, we shall each of us suffer as Red has suffered, insomuch as each has had his share in a neighbour's shame.

We tell George that he is getting old, though he is still on the bright side of forty, because he likes to come down town of evenings and hold a parliament with Henry Larmy and Dan Gregg and Colonel Morrison. Sometimes they hold it in the office and settle important affairs. A month ago they settled the immortality of the soul, and the other night, returning to their former subject, the question came up: "What will become of Red Martin when he goes to Heaven?" Dan contended that the poor fellow is carrying around his own little blowpipe hell as he goes through life. George Kirwin maintained that Red Martin will enter the next world with the soul that died when his body began to live in wickedness; that there must have been some imperishable good in him as a boy, and that Heaven, or whatever we decide to call the next world, must be full of men and women like Red Martin—some more respectable than he—whose hell will be the unmasking of their real selves in the world where we "shall know as we are known." While we were sitting in judgment on poor Red Martin, in toddled Simon Mehronay, who is visiting in town from New York in the company of the vestal virgin who had, as he expressed it, snatched him as a brand from the burning. Mehronay has been gone from town nearly twenty years, and until they told him he did not know how Red Martin had fallen. When he heard it, Mehronay sighed and tears came into his dear old eyes, as he put his hand on Colonel Morrison's arm and said:

"Poor Red! Poor Red! A decent, brave, big-hearted chap! Why, he's taken whisky away from me a dozen times! He's won my money from me to keep it over Saturday night. Why, I'm no better than he is! Only they've caught Red, and they haven't caught me. And when we stand before the judgment-seat, I can tell a damnsight more good things about Red than he can about me. I'm going out to find him and get him a square meal."

And so, while we were debating, Mehronay went down the Jericho road looking for the man who was lying there, beaten and bruised and waiting for the Samaritan.



In the afternoon, between two and three o'clock, the messenger boy from the telegraph office brings over the final sheet of the day's report of the Associated Press. Always at the end is the signature "Thirty." That tells us that the report is closed for the day. Just why "Thirty" should be used to indicate the close of the day's work no one seems to know. It is the custom. They do so in telegraph offices all over the country, and in the newspaper business "Thirty" stands so significantly for the end that whenever a printer or a reporter dies his associates generally feel called upon to have a floral emblem made with that figure in the centre. It is therefore entirely proper that these sketches of life in a country town, seen through a reporter's eyes, should close with that symbolic word. But how to close? That is the question.

Sitting here by the office window, with the smell of ink in one's nostrils, with the steady monotonous clatter of the linotypes in the ears, and the whirring of the shafting from the press-room in the basement throbbing through one's nerves, with the very material realisation of the office around one; we feel that only a small part of it, and of the life about it, has been set down in these sketches. Passing the office window every moment is someone with a story that should be told. Every human life, if one could know it well and translate it into language, has in it the making of a great story. It is because we are blind that we pass men and women around us, heedless of the tragic quality of their lives. If each man or woman could understand that every other human life is as full of sorrows, of joys, of base temptations, of heartaches and of remorse as his own, which he thinks so peculiarly isolated from the web of life, how much kinder, how much gentler he would be! And how much richer life would be for all of us! Life is dull to no one; but life seems dull to those dull persons who think life is dull for others, and who see only the drab and grey shades in the woof that is woven about them.

Here in our town are ten thousand people, and yet these sketches have told of less than two score of them. In the town are thousands of others quite as interesting as these of whom we have written. A few minutes ago Jim Bolton rode by on his hack. There is no reason why others should be advertised of men and Jim left out; for Jim is the proudest man in town.

He came here when the town was young, and was president of the Anti-Horse-Thief League in the days before it became an emeritus institution, when it was a power in politics and named the Sheriff as a matter of right and of course. Jim has never let the fact that he kept a livery-stable and drove a hack interfere with his position as leading citizen. He keeps a livery-stable, because that is his business, and he drives a hack because he cannot trust such a valuable piece of property in the hands of the boy. But when the street fair is to be put on, or the baseball team financed, or when the Baptist Church needs a new roof, or the petitions are to be circulated for a bond election, Jim Bolton gets down from his hack, puts on his crystal slipper and is the Cinderella of the occasion. That is why, when young men go in Jim's hack to take young women to parties and dances, they always invite Jim in to sit by the fire and get warm while the girls are primping. That is why, when young Ben Mercer, just home from five years at Harvard, offered Jim a "tip" over the usual twenty-five-cent fare, Jim quietly took off his coat and whipped young Ben where he stood—and the town lined up for an hour, each man eager for the privilege of contributing ten cents to the popular subscription to pay old Jim's fine and costs in police-court.

Following Jim Bolton on his hack past the office window came Bill Harrison, once extra brakeman on the Dry Creek Branch, just promoted to be conductor on the main line, and so full of vainglory in his exalted position that he wears his brass buttons on freight trains. Bill's wife signs his pay-check and doles out his cigar money, a quarter at a time, and when he asks for a dollar, she looks at him as if she suspected him of leading a double life. It is her ambition to live in Topeka, for "there are so many conductors in Topeka," she says, "that society is not so mixed"—as it is in our town, where she complains that the switchmen and the firemen and the student-brakemen dominate society. Once a cigar salesman from Kansas City got on Bill's train and offered a lead dollar for fare.

"I can't take this," protested Bill, emphasising the "I," because his job was new.

"Well, then, you might just turn that one over to the company," responded the drummer.

And when the head-brakeman told it in the yards, Bill had to fuss with his wife for two days to get money for a box of cigars to stop the trouble.

As these lines were being written, Miss Littleton came into the office with a notice for the Missionary Society. She has been teaching school in town for thirty years and is not so cheerful as she was once. For a long time the board has considered dismissing her; but it continues to change her around from building to building and from room to room, and to keep her out of sheer pity; and she knows it. There is tragedy enough in her story to fill a book. Yet she looks as humdrum as you please, and smiles so gaily as she puts down her notice, that one thinks perhaps she is trying to dispel the impression that she is cross and impatient with children.

On the other side of the street, upstairs in his dusty real estate office, with tin placards of insurance companies on the wall, and gaudy calendars tacked everywhere, Silas Buckner stands at the window counting the liars and scoundrels, and double-dealers and villains, and thieves and swindlers who pass. Since Silas was defeated for Register of Deeds he has become a pessimist. He has soured on the town, and when he sees a man, Silas thinks only of the evil that man has done. Silas knows all men's weaknesses, forgets their strength, and looking down from the window hates his fellow-creatures for the wrong they have done him, or the wickedness that he knows of them. He has never given our reporters a kindly item of news since he was turned down, but if there is a discreditable story on any citizen going around we hear it first from Silas, and if we do not print it he says we have taken hush money. If we have to print it, he says we are stirring up strife. Seeing him over there, looking down on the town which to him is accursed, we have often thought how weary God must be looking at the world and knowing so much better than Silas the weakness and iniquity of men. Sometimes we have wondered if sin is really as important as Silas thinks it is, for with Silas sin is a blot that effaces a man's soul. But maybe God sees sin only as a blemish that men may overcome. Perhaps God is not so discouraged with us as Silas is. But life is a puzzle at most.

Last night Aaron Marlin died. He had lived for ninety years in this world, and had seen much and suffered much, and has died as a child turns to sleep. It was quiet and still at his home among the elms as he lay in his coffin. The mourners spoke in low and solemn tones, and the blinds were drawn as if death were shy. As he lay there in the great hush that was over the house, there passed before it on the sidewalk two who spoke as low as the mourners, though they were oblivious to the house of death. They trod slowly, and a great calm was on their souls. One of the scribes who sets down these lines stood in the shadow of the doorway pine-tree and saw the lovers passing; he felt the silence and the sorrow behind the door he was about to enter; and there he stood wondering—between Death and Love—the End and the Beginning of God's great mystery of Life. Now, with the sense of that great mystery upon him, with all of this pied skein of life about him, he puts down his pen, and looks out of the window as the thread winds down the street.

For "Thirty" is in for the day.


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