Today's Reading

PART I

THE OLD WORLD

I

By nightfall the headlines would be reporting devastation.

It was simply that the sky, on a shadeless day, suddenly lowered itself like an awning. Purple silence petrified the limbs of trees and stood crops upright in the fields like hair on end. Whatever there was of fresh white paint sprang out from downs or dunes, or lacerated a roadside with a streak of fencing. This occurred shortly after midday on a summer Monday in the south of England.

As late as the following morning, small paragraphs would even appear in newspapers having space to fill due to a hiatus in elections, fiendish crimes, and the Korean War—unroofed houses and stripped orchards being given in numbers and acreage; with only lastly, briefly, the mention of a body where a bridge was swept away.

That noon a man was walking slowly into a landscape under a branch of lightning. A frame of almost human expectancy defined this scene, which he entered from the left-hand corner. Every nerve—for even barns and  wheelbarrows and things without tissue developed nerve in those moments—waited, fatalistic. Only he, kinetic, advanced against circumstances to a single destination.

Farmers moved methodically, leading animals or propelling machines to shelter. Beyond the horizon, provincial streets went frantic at the first drops. Wipers wagged on windshields, and people also charged and dodged to and fro, to and fro. Packages were bunged inside coat-fronts, newspapers upturned on new perms. A dog raced through a cathedral. Children ran in thrilling from playgrounds, windows thudded, doors slammed. Housewives were rushing, and crying out, "My washing." And a sudden stripe of light split earth from sky.

It was then that the walking man arrived at the path, and stood. Above him, four old houses were set wide apart on a high curve of hill: holding down, like placed weights, the billowing land. He had been given their names in the village—the names, not of masters but of dwellings. Brick walls were threadbare, tawny; one showed a side of ivy, green as an upturned lawn. The farthest and largest house stood forward from a wood, claiming supremacy.

The man observed from a decisive turn of his own stillness, as if on some great clock he saw the hand fall to the next stroke before his eyes. He turned off the road on the first wave of rain and gale, put his suitcase down, took off his soaked cap, beat it on his side, and stuffed it in a pocket. His hair sprang up like the crops between the gusts and, like them, was quickly, wetly flat. He climbed the hill in the rain, steadily and with no air of wretchedness. Once he paused to look back at the valley—or vale, it might be sweetly, tamely called. Peal on peal of thunder swept it, up and down, until the pliant crops themselves reverberated. On an opposing hill there was a castle—grey, tumid, turreted, and not unsuited to the storm.

Approaching the farthest house, he paused again, looking with as much plain interest as if the weather had been fine. Water ran in his collar from his tilted head. The house darkened, but stood firm. Through two or three centuries of minor additions, Peverel had held to scale and congruity like a principle; consistent except for one enlarged high window—an intentional, frivolous defect like the piercing of an ear for an ornament.

Mud was streaming over gravel and beaten clay. Ledges of clipped privet were shaking all over. The man waded up into the entrance of the house as if from the sea, and pulled a bell. Quick footsteps were perhaps his own heartbeats. The woman who opened the door was old, he thought. Had he himself been a few years older, he might have promoted her to middle age. Age was coiled in smooth grey hair, was explicit in skin too delicate for youth and in a tall if unmartial stance. She drew him in over the paving of what had been a fine hall. Her eyes were enlarged and faded with discovering what, by common human agreement, is better undivulged.

How calmly they exchanged names, ignoring the surf at his back and his saturated clothes. The cheap suitcase oozed orange on the black and white floor while Ted Tice took off his raincoat and hung it on a stand, as directed. A smell of wet wool, of socks and sweat was pungently released in the coldly soaped and well-waxed void.

All these slow matters had taken seconds, and in that time it could be seen, too, that the hall was circular, that a bowl of roses stood on a table beside a usual newspaper, beneath a dark picture framed in gold. Under the curve of a stair, a door was open on a corridor of Persian runner. And above, on the arc of stairs, there was a young woman, standing still.

Tice looked up to her. It would have been unnatural not to. He looked up from his wet shoes and his wet smell and his orange blotch of cheap luggage. And she looked down, high and dry. He had an impression of her body in its full dimensions—as if he had passed at her back and seen her strong spine, the black hair parting on the prominent cord of the nape, the fragile crease behind the knee. Her face was in shadow. In any case it would have been too pat, too perfect, if she had been seen to be beautiful.

"I was looking for Tom," she said, and went away.

Ted Tice took up his dissolving suitcase: a new arrival who must keep his counsel among initiates. Who would soon himself look for Tom, or know why others sought him.

"My husband," said Charmian Thrale, "is so much better, and will be down to lunch." Ted Tice was to work with Professor Sefton Thrale, who was so much better, for the months of July and August. In the meantime he was being led by Mrs. Thrale down the Persian carpet, past old photographs and a framed letter with a gold crest, and a series of engravings of the ports of Britain. Now Mrs. Thrale would say, "This is your room," and he would be alone.

She remained in the doorway as he crossed his new floor to put the suitcase where it would do least harm.

"Those double doors at the end of the passage, that is the room where we sit. If you wait in there when you're ready, one of the girls will look in." As if he minded being left when, at all times, he welcomed it.

She also mentioned the bathroom. She then said she would go and set the table. Eventually he would learn this too—to speak confidently and leave a room.

In the single low window there were blurred, divergent shrubs and a glimpse of wet palings—all aslant, truncated in the window-frame, like an inept photograph. Scabs of blackout paint remained on the glass. The bedroom was plain, and might have done once for an upper servant. Tice thought these words, upper servant, without knowing what they had signified in their time. He had been sent here to help an eminent, elderly, ailing scientist write an opinion on the site of a new telescope, and for all he knew might be himself an upper servant. He was young and poor and had the highest references—like a governess in an old story, who marries into the noble family.

He spread crumpled clothes about the room and rummaged for a comb. Even his wet hair gave off an auburn smell. On the table where he put his books there was an inkstand made of brass and porcelain, and two wooden pens. He hummed as he sat changing his shoes, occasionally substituting for the hum the words of an old song:

"Blow the wind southerly, southerly, southerly, Blow the wind south o'er the bonny blue sea."

Then he put his fist to his mouth and thought, and stared as if he would only slowly believe.


The room with double doors was as cold as the passage. Chairs of ugly comfort, a rigid, delicate sofa, books elderly rather than old, more flowers. The wind shuddering in a frozen chimney, the storm a waterfall on the bay window. Ted Tice sat in one of the elephantine, shabby chairs and rested his head on the stale extra piece of plush; rapt with newness and impending newness. The room would have been a study at one time, or a morning-room—the expression "morning- room" belonging to the same vague literary category as upper servant. Somewhere there was a larger room, blatantly unheatable, closed up for the duration. The wartime phrase came readily, even in peace; even as you wondered, the duration of what.

In the fireplace, below the vacant grate, there was a row of aligned fragments, five or six of them, of toasted bread smeared with a dark paste and dusted with ashes.

He was used to cold and sat as much at his ease as if the room had been warm. He could not physically show such unconcern in the presence of others because the full-grown version of his body was not quite familiar to him; but was easy in his mind, swift and unhurried. From all indications, his body had expected some other inhabitant. He supposed the two would be reconciled in time—as he would know, in time, that the smeared toast was there to poison mice, and that Tom was the cat.

A book beside his chair was closed on a pencil that marked a place. He took it up and read the spine: "Zanoni. A Novel By The Right Honourable Lord Lytton." Such a book might well have appeared on the shelves of such a room. That it should be out, open, and read was more improbable.

For an instant he thought it was the same girl who now came in, the girl from the stairs. The reason for this was that they were sisters, although the present one was fair, and shorter.

She said, "I am Grace Bell."

The young man stood and again gave his hand and name. She had a very good new woollen dress, colour of roses. They both knew—it was impossible not to—that he saw her beautiful. But both, because of youth, feigned ignorance of this or any other beauty.

"You've been left in here a long time."

"I didn't realize." Though no fault on his part was involved.

"The lights have gone out. I was sent to bring you."

He had been sitting there in the dark because of the storm.

"It's this way." She spoke in brief announcements. Assurance showed she had been pretty since childhood. "What a lovely little girl"; and then: "Grace is turning into—turning out—quite a beauty." Beauty had turned inward, outward. There had also been classes in deportment.

He admired her ability to walk smoothly with him at her heels. She was not at all plump but gave a soft impression, yielding. The dress was a rarity to him—the cloth, the cut. It was the first time Ted Tice had noticed the way a dress was made, though he had winced often enough for a brave showing in the clothes of the poor.

The rose-red dress had come from Canada by surface mail, having been posted by the son of this household, a government official to whom Grace Bell was engaged. He was bringing another dress to her when he returned to Britain from the Ottawa conference, and after that they would be married.

A little curled chrysanthemum of a dog was in heaven at her approach. "Grasper, Grasper." The dog jumped up and down, speechless. Someone was shaking a bell. Grace was opening a door. And the lights went up by themselves, as on a stage.


2

You could see the two sisters had passed through some unequivocal experience, which, though it might not interest others, had formed and indissolubly bound them. It was the gravity with which they sat, ate, talked and, you could practically say, laughed. It was whatever they exchanged, not looking at one another but making a pair. It was their eyes resting on you, or on the wall or table, weighing up the situation from a distance of events and feelings: their eyes, which had the same darkness if not the same distinction.

Because they were alike in feature, the contrast in colouring was remarkable. It was not only that one was dark and one fair, but that the one called Caro should have hair so very black, so straight, heavy and Oriental in coarse texture. Grace was for this reason seen to be fairer than she was—as she was judged the lighter, the easier, for the strength of Caro. People exaggerated the fairness, to make things neat: dark she, fair she.

Wearing a cardigan that had perhaps been blue, Caro was pouring water from a jug. You deferred to her future beauty, taking it on trust. In looks, Caro was as yet unfinished, lacking some revelation that might simply be her own awareness; unlike Grace, who was completed if not complete. Grace was smiling and handing corned beef and potatoes, innocently rehearsing a time when the meat and vegetables would be hers indeed. Ted Tice saw then that on her left hand she wore a ring set with diamonds. But had been loyal to Caro before he noticed this.

Caro did not necessarily belong here: Caro would decide at which table she belonged. She was young to have grasped the need for this. Her other discovery of consequence was also not original: that the truth has a life of its own. It was perhaps in such directions that her energies had flowed, leaving her looks to follow as they might.

What she had read had evidently made her impatient of the prime discrepancy—between man as he might be, and as he was. She would impose her crude belief—that there could be heroism, excellence—on herself and others, until they, or she, gave in. Exceptions could arise, rare and implausible, to suggest she might be right. To those exceptions she would give her whole devotion. It was apparently for them she was reserving her humility.

Some of this might be read in her appearance. Having not yet begun to act, she could indulge a theory. At the same time, her lips were parted, tender, impressible, as they might have been in sleep.

They had not yet addressed each other at table, the girls and the young man. He, with impenetrable simplicity, was listening to the old astronomer at the head of the table, the eminent scientist. Your eminence: a jutting crag on which a collar and tie, and spectacles, had been accurately placed. Together, the youth and the old man were to read the world's horoscope. Engrossed in listening, as was only suitable, Ted Tice nevertheless quickly learned that the two girls were from Australia, that Caro was staying here while awaiting a government job in London, and that the son at the Ottawa conference had the name of Christian.

Despite angina, the father had fast, definite gestures—taking up his water-glass with a sort of efficiency and setting it down with a hard little snap. Pressing a napkin quickly to his sculpted mouth, not to waste time. Snap snap, snap snap snap. He might have been at a desk rather than a dining-table. He talked with abrupt velocity, also, and had already reached the end of the world.

"Your generation will be the one to feel it. Some form of social structure existed until now. Say what you like about it. Now we're at the end of all that. You'll be the ones to bear the brunt."

With rapid satisfaction he pointed out, to Ted and the girls, their almost culpable bad luck. In the same way, arrivals at a rainy resort will be told, "We've had fine weather until today."

"There has been global order of a kind. Say what you like."

That of course they could not do.

When Sefton Thrale said the word "global" you felt the earth to be round as a smooth ball, or white and bland as an egg. And had to remind yourself of the healthy and dreadful shafts and outcroppings of this world. You had to think of the Alps, or the ocean, or a live volcano to set your mind at rest.

Professor Thrale did not much care for the fact that Grace came from Australia. Australia required apologies, and was almost a subject for ribaldry. Australia could only have been mitigated by an unabashed fortune from its newly minted sources—sheep, say, or sheep-dip. And no fabled property of so many thousand acres or square miles, no lucky dip, attached itself to Grace. On the contrary, Grace came encumbered with a sister; and even with a half-sister, happily absent on holiday at Gibraltar. Sefton Thrale would explain, "Christian has got himself engaged"—implying naïve bungling—"to an Australian girl." And with emphatic goodwill might add that Grace was a fine young woman and that he himself was delighted, "Actually."

The storm had drawn off for a breather. By daylight Ted Tice's face was seen speckled and flaked, artless as the face reflected in the salty mirror of a seaside kiosk in summer. His forehead was divided by a slight vertical groove. He had an in- jury to one eye—a brother had done it when they were children, playing in the yard with a stick: a light streak like the scratch of a fingernail on new paint.

"Mustard, Mr. Tice?" Professor Thrale was thinking it was downright fashionable these days to be a poor boy from a grimy town, a clever boy who got himself—the phrase implying contrivance this time—to a great university and made his impression there. Such persons went forward quickly, having nothing to relinquish; and might well attach themselves, as in this case, to new aspects of astronomy developed from radar techniques of the last war. It all hung together. Sefton Thrale recalled a paper, like a twinge of his illness, on which Ted Tice's precocious achievement was set out against all the odds; where willfulness was not disproved by aberrant undertakings—studies of radiation in postwar Japan, and an intention of spending the coming winter in Paris at work with a controversial physicist.

Sefton Thrale said to himself that Ted Tice would wind up in America: "That is where he will wind up"—a young man's ambition envisaged as a great winch on which abilities might be deftly and profitably coiled.

"The vegetables," said Mrs. Thrale, "are from our garden."

Over the braised celery Sefton Thrale indulged a rather reckless distaste for Ted Tice's clothes, curls, and accent, and for the fault in his eye. Tice's future ascendancy could not, like Caro's beauty, be taken on faith: some sign was needed as to whether he would win or fail—both possibilities being manifestly strong in him. Even if he were at last to carry all before him, it was hard to imagine him properly illustrious in age, like the Professor himself. It was hard to foresee that a name like Tice might carry weight, or that a streaked eye could become a distinction.

In fact Edmund Tice would take his own life before attaining the peak of his achievement. But that would occur in a northern city, and not for many years.

Sefton Thrale's own important work had been accomplished in youth, before the Great War. Later on he became a public figure by writing a small, lucid book that bridged, or claimed to bridge, a gulf or gap. He had stood with his unbudging foot on the fireguard and his hand in his pocket, and talked of the future; and had kept this up so long and so publicly that persons of all kinds now recognized him at sight in the Sunday papers—"Still going strong, eh, you have to hand it to him." Unwieldy old geezer in a blazer of black-and-white vertical stripes. The blazer—pulled down at one side by his hand jammed in the pocket, gripping the presumed pipe—gave the effect of a sagging, half-timbered house.

He used outworn idiom: "Lombard Street to a china orange,"

"All round China to get to Charing Cross"; "The Old Lady"—even—"of Threadneedle Street": phrases outdated before his time, which he cultivated and kept going if not alive. Still spoke of Turkey as "the sick man of Europe," though the entire Continent was a casualty ward long since. His sympathies were with the manageable distances of the past rather than the extravagant reach of the future. The future had been something to talk about, one foot safely on the fender.

It was easy for youth to scent this out and condemn. Less easy to feel for what was human in it, let alone pitiful.

In the main Professor Thrale was allowed to hold forth, as now, in quick orations that supposed no disagreement. But, if challenged, lost his sure grip on pipe and future. A cloud of confused indignation would then rise from him, like dust from an old book whose covers have been banged together for cleaning. In private matters he had not been clever and had dissipated his wife's fortune, like his own potential, in naïve investments. A knighthood, now forthcoming, had been long delayed. But his name was public, and weighed in a public and political affair such as siting a telescope.

Ted Tice took mustard. It came out that he had been on holiday these past two weeks, walking in the West Country. He had an interest, furthermore, in prehistoric monuments, and had spent the solstice at an excavation near Avebury Circle. It was not difficult to imagine lofty stones as his companions.

Mrs. Thrale said they sometimes received, at Peverel, vibrations from the missile base near Stonehenge. Though considerately fired away from the monument, the rockets were not without local danger. A window had once shattered in a guest's bedroom, luckily causing no injury.

"Ah yes," said Sefton Thrale. "But Paul Ivory carries his luck with him." Plucking the unknown guest out from the glass shards and flourishing him, in order to exclude Ted Tice; and, with this need to impress, offering Tice the advantage. "What news of Paul, by the way? Any news of Paul?"

Ted Tice was aware that men already hoped for his good opinion. And that, if balked of it, they might try condescension.

Palliating the Professor's misdemeanour, the three women quickly testified to an absence of news. And Ted Tice perceived that women's indulgence had been indispensable to Sefton Thrale's fame. As was expected of her, Mrs. Thrale made known that Paul Ivory was her godson, who would shortly come to stay. Ted might have heard of plays by Paul Ivory, in university productions; but had not. Well, in any case, a young person of promise who was soon to have a work produced on the London stage.

"Paul has all the qualities," said Sefton Thrale, and might have been making some contrast.

"Is he related to the poet?"

"In fact, the son."

Ted Tice could hardly know the subtle disturbance generated by his question—love for the Georgian poets being the remnant of Sefton Thrale's best self, which in turn derived, like his best work, from an earlier period. He would bring them in, forgotten or disparaged poets of his youth, with loyal calculation—the poignant quotation, the interviewer asking, "Now who said that?" and Thrale's retort: "A fine poet who died about the time you were born, young man" (the Professor having all the benign and practised public tricks); then the identification—of Bridges, Drinkwater, Shanks, or Humbert Wolfe; Thomas Sturge Moore; even Rupert Brooke on days when dander was up. Or Rex Ivory.

Mrs. Thrale remarked, "Rex Ivory was not a great poet. But he was a true poet." She felt it was an odd misconception that scientists had no taste for literature: "I have known many examples to the contrary."

Ted smiled. "I think we're permitted to be musical."

On occasion, Caroline Bell's eyes were as kind as her sister's. "They are also supposed to be taciturn."

"I may grow less articulate as I get older."

Charmian Thrale pointed out a photograph above the sideboard. Three young men in a garden, two of them seated in cane chairs, one standing with hands raised and spread. The standing figure, in open shirt and white trousers, declaimed to the others, who were conventionally dressed in their clothes of 1913. Heads of pale hair were helmets, were crowns or halos. A larger nimbus arched the garden, where trees were massed above larkspur and a long lawn was methodically streaked with rolling. It seemed to be near dusk. And the magical youths on the grass were doomed by coming war, even the survivors.

Charmian Thrale said, "Like an eve in a sinless world."

The remnant of the Sefton Thrale seated in that sinless photograph would have wished to make fellowship with Edmund Tice because of his improbable inquiry. Again the women knew it, and sighed in their thoughts over the old man's curt answer: "In fact, the son."

The Professor proceeded to elaborate his preference, deftly aligning fork and knife. "Paul Ivory has already established some place for himself in literature. And is rising so swiftly that there is no telling where he may yet go."

Ted Tice grinned, by no means defenceless. "Like Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle. Impossible to measure speed and position simultaneously."

It seemed that Caroline Bell could giggle like other girls.

"And is all but engaged"—the Professor was determined to prevail—"to the daughter of our neighbour at the castle."

Ted wondered what "all but engaged" might mean, and saw Caro smile with the selfsame thought. Whatever heresy had existed in this house had come from upper servants.

He recalled the castle, its grey walls discouraging even to lichens.

Seeing into their souls, the Professor told them, "It's a brave man these days who'll marry the daughter of a lord. With all you radicals around." This was meant for Ted and Caro, since Grace's way of quietly stacking plates exonerated her. Yet it was Grace who looked up and said, "Perhaps he loves her."

"Perfectly right. Young people should follow their fancy. Why not? Caro here would marry a mechanic if she was so minded."

They looked at Caro, who said, "I am not mechanically minded."

Sefton Thrale always felt worsted when there was laughter.

The girl went on, "It's true. I'm not only ignorant but have no affinity for mechanical things. Or for science either."

"You owe your existence to astronomy, young woman." Young man, young woman; yet they could not say, old man, old woman. The Professor was preparing to explain, when Caro said, "Do you mean, the transit of Venus?"

It was not the first time she had spoiled things.

He continued as if she had neither spoiled nor spoken. "Why did James Cook set sail in H.M.S. Endeavour for undiscovered Australia if not to observe, en route, at Tahiti, the planet Venus as it crossed the face of the sun on the third of June 1769 and thus to determine the distance of earth from sun?" He was teaching them a lesson.

Again they looked at Caro, established as a child of Venus.

Tice said, "The calculations were hopelessly out." Siding with the girl. "Calculations about Venus often are."

Sefton Thrale said, "There were distortions in the disc of Venus. A phenomenon of irradiation in the transit." It might have been his own expedition, or experience, he defended. "We call it the Black Drop."

The girl marvelled. "The years of preparation. And then, from one hour to the next, all over."

The young man explained that there were stages. He said, "There are the contacts, and the culmination."

They both blushed for the universe.

Professor Thrale said, "Now you are speaking of eclipse. Venus cannot blot out the sun." He flicked crumbs from his cuff. One could not relate in the presence of two virgins how, at Tahiti on that blazing day of June 1769, Venus had been busy in other matters. While their officers were engrossed with James Short's telescopes, the crew of the Endeavour had broken into the stores at Fort Venus to steal a heap of iron spike-nails—with which they procured for themselves the passing favours of Tahitian women; and the permanent infection of a venereal disease no subsequent floggings could cure.

Ted Tice said, "Another astronomer crossed the world to see that same transit, and was defeated." The inward tone in which men speak, casually, of what moves them. Tice could not teach a lesson, but would pay tribute. "A Frenchman had travelled to India years before to observe a previous transit, and was delayed on the way by wars and misadventure. Having lost his original opportunity, he waited eight years in the East for that next transit, of 1769. When the day came, the visibility was freakishly poor, there was nothing to be seen. There would not be another such transit for a century."

He was telling this to, and for, Caroline Bell. At that moment he and she might have been the elders at the table, elegiac. She said, "Years for Venus."

"His story has such nobility you can scarcely call it unsuccessful." Ted Tice was honouring the faith, not the failure.

Professor Thrale had had enough of this. "And the poor devil returned to France, as I recall, to find himself declared dead in his absence, and his property dispersed." If that wasn't failure, nothing was.

The girl asked Ted Tice: "What was his name?"

"Legentil. Guillaume Legentil."

Mrs. Thrale had made custard. A mottled Irish maid brought dishes on a tray. Mrs. Thrale had been brought up to believe, on pain of losing her character, that her back must never touch the chair: never, never. This added to her air of endurance, and made it seem also that she looked you in the face more than is usual. It was she who had thought of the summer seaside in regard to the quality of Ted Tice—the speckled mirror dangling among the tags for deck-chairs and the keys for bath-houses, all vibrant with a warm padding of sandy feet. On the other hand, there were his nights spent among primitive stones.

Charmian Thrale's own reclusive self, by now quite free of yearnings, merely cherished a few pure secrets—she had once pulled a potato from a boiling pot because it showed a living sprout; and had turned back, on her way to an imperative appointment, to look up a line of Meredith. She did not choose to have many thoughts her husband could not divine, for fear she might come to despise him. Listening had been a large measure of her life: she listened closely—and, since people are accustomed to being half-heard, her attention troubled them, they felt the inadequacy of what they said. In this way she had a quieting effect on those about her, and stemmed gently the world's flow of unconsidered speech. Although she offered few opinions, her views were known in a way that is not true of persons who, continually passing judgment, keep none in reserve.

The girls' curved necks were intolerably exposed as they spooned their custard: you could practically feel the axe. Upright Mrs. Thrale could never be felled in the same way, at least not now. The young man and the girls remarked among themselves on the delayed season—"the late summer," as if it were already dead. They were like travellers managing an unfamiliar tongue, speaking in infinitives. Everything had the threat and promise of meaning. Later on, there would be more and more memories, less and less memorable. It would take a bombshell, later, to clear the mental space for such a scene as this.

Experience was banked up around the room, a huge wave about to break.

While the girls were clearing the table, the Professor led the young man to the windows, saying, "Let me show you." A rub of his dry, decisive hand on the damp glass only increased the blur, and he turned away, sulky: "Well, you cannot see it now." Not saying what new lesson would be taught on this blackboard.

Ted Tice knew it was the road he had come.


This excerpt is from the paperback edition and ends on page 18.
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