Bill Todd -- BOLLINGER: A Novel of the Prairie
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 Chapter 18

A Double Date

Considering that it was in the middle of Illinois, Willow Grove Inn was a surprisingly romantic place. On the bank of a winding river lined, as advertized, by willows, it was a bit of the Old South copied with surprising accuracy. One looked from the dining room across the verandah, and could just see through the trees to the black water beyond. The prairie was hidden from view, and one could, without too much difficulty, imagine oneself in a valley in Carolina or Virginia.

Chuck Winton, the host of the gathering, was in high spirits. As an Englishman, he felt most at home in the southern regions of America. It was there that one could find men who were very nearly gentlemen. Better yet, there were ladies who could flirt in French, and who knew how to help a man lose sight of his own shortcomings.

In all honesty, one couldn't claim all these amenities even for London, much less for the banks of a river which connected, albeit at a suitable distance, with the Chicago Drainage Canal. On the other hand, the ladies present, Mrs. C. F. J. Winton and Miss Barbara Bowen, would have done credit to any pre-bellum dinner table. All in all, Chuck felt quite relaxed and only a little drunk. He was being, he felt sure, quite charming. Even Amanda was looking at him admiringly.

On the drive over, Amanda had insisted on sitting in back with Howie Slattery, leaving Barbara the place of honor in front. Chuck was doubly pleased. He could hear Amanda and Howie chatting in back, and hoped that it was the start of something. Moreover, he had the complete attention of the beautiful girl beside him.

Since Barbara had been assisting him in giving physicals, they could easily have started by talking shop. They instead talked of England, where Barbara had visited, and of Chuck's experiences in school there. Barbara was delighted to hear that he had been sent down from Harrow in disgrace, and it was obvious that only her good manners prevented her from asking why. Chuck nevertheless explained in a murmur about the girl who assisted at the tea shop with whom he had been caught. Not even Amanda knew some of the details he let fall to Barbara.

Their arrival in the dining room, mostly full on Saturday night, had made a considerable impression. Amanda was in a dark blue full-skirted velvet dress with a scooped neck. She had also an impressive necklace, and her costume was, short of evening dress, as formal as any Chuck had seen her wear. He had wondered if it were appropriate, but Amanda had replied,

"If I don't wear it tonight, I can't imagine when I ever would."

Privately, Chuck suspected that Amanda had heard enough about Barbara to think that her best effort would be required to successfully compete.

At one point on the drive over, Chuck had complimented Barbara on her dress. The latter had admitted, half shyly and half humorously,

"I wasn't sure what to wear, so I got all ready, except for my dress and shoes. The minute Amanda took off her coat and was introduced to Sister Rose, Joan Hurford ran up and told me what she was wearing. She said Amanda had on indigo velvet with a full skirt. Joan said she looked wonderful, and she really does, too. So I chose this dark green dress. I wanted to be slightly less formal, but not too brightly colored."

On that entry to the dining room which caused so many heads to turn, Amanda, much shorter than the others, nevertheless managed, with her cool dignity and brisk step, to give the impression of leading the group. She was much too young in appearance to be taken as Barbara's mother, nor did she look like the wife of either of the men. If anything, she was an heiress entertaining her cousins, each of whom, while well-fixed, didn't have their hands on the main fortune. It seemed to Chuck rather ironic that Barbara, who really was an heiress, managed to look slightly less experienced and accomplished than he knew her to be. He suspected strongly that she could be the complete American princess whenever it might suit her purpose.

The conversation naturally turned to Howie's recent adventures. The Wintons and Barbara had already been told what happened, under pledges of secrecy, but many questions remained. When Vic Olafson was mentioned, Chuck said,

"I've met him. The three of us had a drink one day after court adjourned."

Barbara asked,

"What did you think of him?"

"A capable fellow. A bit of a cynic, too. The kind of man any government or organization has to employ sooner or later."

Howie said,

"There've been a number of times, particularly recently, when I wished I didn't have him in my domain."

Chuck replied,

"I think we Britons are more realistic about that. We may have a functioning democracy and a few egalitarian ideals, but we don't take them so seriously. We know that there will always be a rabble, and that there will have to be men like Olafson."

"That's something like what Sturgis Caldwell told me. He was unhappy about it, though, and advised me to keep clear of operations of that sort."

Amanda addressed Barbara,

"You might try to get him to follow that advice. Howie's been living dangerously lately. I understand that he told you about arriving at our house in his underwear."

"Yes. I suppose that's one of the risks of charming college girls and taking them away from their boy friends. We high schoolers are duller but safer."

In Chuck's opinion, Barbara was far from dull, and not so very safe either. He interposed,

"Nurse Bowen is quite enterprising. If I left her alone with a patient for ten minutes, I might come back to find her engaged in removing an appendix."

It turned out that Barbara had advised a girl with a stomach ache to put a teaspoon of black pepper in water, and then gargle with it. Barbara defended her position.

"That was Frances Portman. She gets a stomach ache every time there's a test. I figured it couldn't do any harm and might do some good. Doctor Winton hasn't yet given me placebo pills to dole out in such cases."

Howie replied,

"I also have stomach aches, and he gives me pills that may be placebos. Should I also gargle with black pepper?"

Amanda said,

"I believe I could put together something that would cure Howie. When regular medicine fails, one has to resort to old folk remedies."

Chuck was fairly sure that the remedy Amanda had in mind didn't consist in something to gargle, or even drink. He was then surprised when Barbara said,

"From the little that I've seen, mostly of my father, it seems to take two women to keep a man functioning properly in stomach and mind. One excites and confuses him while the other offers solace. In Howie's case, Danny can provide the excitement while I rally round with tea and cookies."

Amanda replied,

"What of Chuck? I've gotten him confused, if not excited. Where can he find comfort and solace?"

Barbara looked at Chuck, as if considering, and said,

"There are some girls at school who would love to provide that, and other things as well. But I protect him from their attentions."

Chuck was actually surprised,

"I didn't know that. How do you do it?"

"Oh, when they want to strip naked, I tell them that they have to keep their slips on, or I drape them with sheets. I also stick thermometers in their mouths when they get too saucy."

"So that's it. I did think it odd that you took that girl's temperature twice the other day."

"I've been talking with Sister Margaret on the phone, and she suggested that technique."

"How is she now?"

"In a way, she's doing wonderfully. She got a teaching job, not as a substitute, but a regular one replacing someone who was killed in an accident. She's also got a boyfriend, a young salesman. I'm afraid she's a little too euphoric, though."

Howie said,

"Busting out of a convent and landing more or less on one's feet ought to produce a certain amount of euphoria. It may not last with the boyfriend, but she should be able to get another the same way she got the first one, shouldn't she?"

Amanda replied,

"In her position there's probably a greater risk of getting the wrong boy friend than none at all. It's easy to get victimized even if you know what you're doing. If you've just escaped from a nunnery, you'd do well to take it very slow."

"That's about what I told her, but she's not a cautious girl. She may have joined the Order in the first place in a wild impulsive leap."

Chuck said,

"I wonder what the Order thought when she took off."

"I'm pretty sure Sister Rose hasn't told them. She's got me to do what Margaret did, so she didn't have to fire off an SOS. I'm sure she thinks Margaret will get in touch with her eventually, and that she'll be able to convince her to come back. Perhaps just in time to replace me when I graduate."

Barbara then looked happily at Chuck, and added,

"So you've gone from Nurse Sister Margaret to Nurse Bowen, and you may end up with Nurse Margaret, if not Nurse Sister Margaret again."

"I'm afraid the nomenclature is even more confusing than

that. In England, all nurses are called nursing sisters, and are ordinarily addressed as 'Sister.' So you're Sister Bowen. Margaret, depending on her current activities and status, can, logically speaking, be Sister Sister Margaret if she's a nurse and a nun, Sister Margaret if she's functioning as a nurse but not a nun, or just plain Margaret if she's teaching maths."

Amanda pouted prettily and, addressing Howie and Barbara, replied,

"Only the British are fascinated by such things. Anyhow, from what you say, it doesn't look too good for Margaret. She's likely to get burned by her boy friend and be both desolate and extremely guilt-ridden for having taken up with him in the first place. If she's sleeping with him, it'll be even worse. She'll then have no one to confess to but Sister Rose."

Howie said quietly,

"She might turn to Barbara instead."

Amanda asked,

"Could you manage that, Barbara?"

Chuck was fascinated by the interplay between Barbara and his wife. From the seriousness of their tone, belied only slightly by their smiles, it looked as if they were negotiating a contract, one that might actually have little to do with Sister Margaret. Barbara replied,

"I don't know. Of course, I could call on my mother for help."

The others asked about her mother. Barbara pictured her as extremely sweet and outgoing, and also intelligent. She admitted, however, that her mother seldom succeeded in bringing off anything she attempted to do. Chuck pointed out,

"I'm not sure you have to be effectual in a practical way to rescue someone in emotional distress. Good feelings may be more important than actions."

Amanda said,

"It must be nice to have a mother you can call on. I never could mine, but Chuck really loves her."

Chuck felt himself almost explode as he took the bait. Amanda's parents, he thought, represented America at its worst. He compared her mother to Mrs. Nixon.

"She's cold and scheming without any charm at all. All one need know about Amanda's parents is that they organized a campaign to ostracise a neighbor who didn't cut his grass often enough."

Amanda added,

"When I graduated from high school, my parents refused to send me to college, but spent three times as much re- decorating their house. I managed to do it all with scholarships and part-time jobs, but I'm afraid that I still resent it."

Barbara replied,

"Parents can be weird. My father made me come here. It's worked out in an interesting way, but it's not a good idea to take someone out of a good school her senior year and send her to a bad one."

She then asked,

"What are your parents like, Howie?"

"My father died when I was quite young and my mother went into an insane asylum. I grew up in an orphanage in Texas."

In Chuck's experience, most people either recoiled or became apologetic when they were told such things, but Barbara responded almost casually,

"I thought you had something of a southern accent."

"I guess I've lost most of it. It's not something I identify strongly with."

"I have a girl friend who was in an orphanage. People would borrow her for a week or so to see if they wanted to adopt her. On the third try she got taken. Was yours like that?"

"No. People didn't come around our place shopping. The mere sight of it was probably enough to deter them. I can't recall anyone being adopted out of it."

"So you went right from the orphanage to Harvard?"

Amanda broke in,

"I bet Howie hasn't told you his great secret."

Howie felt sudden panic, not knowing just which secret Amanda had in mind. It turned out to be the fact of his having been a child prodigy. He explained to Barbara,

"The people in Bollinger all think I'm twenty-five instead of twenty. If they knew, I'd be treated as a freak, and Bollinger isn't a place where you want to be a freak. It's like Texas in that respect."

"So you're really only three years older than I am. I thought you just looked young, but Sister Rose spotted you right off."

"She also saw that I didn't really want to be a lawyer. I've since called my old tutor at Harvard, and he said I could come back next fall and have a teaching fellowship. I've saved some money, and that would keep me going nicely."

There were congratulations all around, and Chuck asked Howie,

"Are you definitely going back then?"

When Howie answered affirmatively, Chuck turned to Barbara and said,

"You could go to Harvard too, that is Radcliffe. It's really the best place."

Barbara allowed that she had already thought of it, and then asked Howie about the orphanage. After some hair-raising stories, Barbara replied,

"Most people would say that I've been much luckier, and I suppose I have. But my brother and I've both suffered from the tensions between our parents. There were certainly times when I wished we were orphans."

Howie asked,

"Do they fight much?"

"Not any more, but my mother's given up trying to influence my father. I'm sure she doesn't like his having a mistress, but she knows there's nothing she can do about it."

Chuck had never heard of an American who openly kept a mistress, nor, by the sound of it, had Amanda or Howie. Barbara was besieged by questions.

It seemed that Barbara had known about the mistress, Yvonne, for some years, and saw her occasionally. Barbara grimaced oddly and spoke wearily as she described the situation.

"Unfortunately, Daddy isn't very original. Yvonne is much younger, about twenty five, and a model. She's beautiful, but not, really, as good looking as mother if you count the less tangible things. But she's not bad. I've always been nice to her, since I figured she might end up as my stepmother. She's met me more than half way. She's good company, and she's certainly told me some interesting things about Daddy."

Amanda replied,

"So that's why you think it takes two women to keep a man functioning properly?"

"I guess so. I bet my little brother'll do the same thing when he grows up."

Chuck said,

"That'd be a hard example not to follow."

Amanda said,

"It sounds pretty hard on your mother to have to compete with the mistress, not only for her husband, but for her daughter as well."

"I try not to make her feel that way, but I don't have total sympathy for mother. Daddy's no mystery, and probably never was. She must've known what he was like when she married him."

"Women always do know, but we go ahead anyway. Our choices aren't usually very broad and we pick the best looking or most exciting one. We tell ourselves that the obvious defects and shortcomings will somehow disappear."

It seemed to Chuck that the others must know that Amanda was really talking about him, but he didn't mind. Indeed, there was an unusual cheerfulness about her, as if the Incident had been a mere peccadillo which could be made up to her with a suitable reward. It was beginning to look as if Howie might be the reward. Chuck was pretty sure that Amanda knew that he would approve. Where, then, would that leave himself and Barbara? He said,

"If a man needs both a wife and a mistress, he could proceed in a number of ways. Instead of first marrying, and then finding a mistress, he could reverse the order. Or he could find a mistress, marry her, and then find a replacement mistress."

Amanda replied,

"Any of these operations will demand skill in the management of women. Why not go the whole hog and marry the mistress as well."

"You mean bigamy?"

"Certainly. What could be more titillating and more likely to create exciting situations?"

Barbara looked impressed. She said,

"I don't think even my father is up to that. He likes comfort too much."

"The bigamist can have some kinds of comfort in a high degree. But for the detail of my having met Sister Rose, Chuck could marry Nurse Bowen. He could then alternate between a marginal existence in a shack on the edge of the prairie and the most elevated kind of dormitory life."

It wasn't the first time in Chuck's experience that couples had joked about switching partners, but it was unusual for Amanda. She might ordinarily have thought it vulgar, but, more than that, she seldom was sufficiently animated to make such jokes. Perhaps she really did have such fantasies. And then, it occurred to Chuck, she might already have done something with Howie.

Chuck thought back to Howie's arrival at their house in such an irregular costume. Amanda and Howie had already met when Howie went around with the petition. Something more than they admitted might have happened then. They had also been in Orrville simultaneously. Moreover, Chuck had been sure that day that Amanda had been with someone.

Of course, Howie's tale must have been mostly true. But he had arrived at their house long after Amanda. A young man, in the first flush of sex would certainly recover quickly enough to pursue the drunken Danny. That was why Amanda had teased him so hard! She had wanted her lover to remain contented and celibate, at least for the remainder of the afternoon.

Chuck laughed out loud, apparently for no reason. He was sure that Amanda felt mentally superior to him. She certainly hadn't supposed that he would catch on. Instead of sharing something he would happily have accepted, she wanted it to be her little secret. His little secret would be that he knew her little secret. A corollary, relatively minor but still significant, was that he need feel no guilt toward Howie for anything that might transpire between himself and Barbara. The latter, at that moment, asked him what was so funny. Chuck delayed answering for a moment while he paid the bill over relatively minor protestations from Howie. As they moved out of the dining room with Amanda in the lead, Chuck explained,

"I noticed that one of those prints on the wall was of a Tennessee Walking Horse. They've been trained to barely touch their feet to the ground, and then lift them extremely high. The trainers do this by applying acid to the hooves. This makes them so sore that it hurts the horse to touch them to the ground."

Amanda said,

"What's funny about that? It sounds cruel to me."

"Oh it is. It wouldn't be permitted in Britain. But my thought was this. Why not produce a sort of sideline, Tennessee Walking People. They would be trained in the same way, and they would walk like this."

They were now out of the dining room, into the lobby, and Chuck began to prance in a way that shook the floor and clearly alarmed his wife. Barbara, the spirit of a teen-ager surfacing from beneath her many layers of sophistication, did likewise. In her case, the revelation of legs and knees as she pranced affected Chuck strongly. He did hear Amanda say quietly to Howie,

"This is what happens to Chuck when he's out with a beautiful seventeen year old girl."

Chuck noticed, as they charged through the lobby, that a small man, probably Chinese, had taken cover behind the desk. On the other side of the lobby was a good-sized room with a bar at one end and an open space where several couples were dancing to records. Each member of the party seemed pleased at this discovery. Amanda said to Barbara,

"Would you mind if I borrowed Howie for a little bit? When Chuck and I dance, people laugh. I need a couple more drinks before I can face derision with equanimity."

Chuck watched as they started out. Even Howie was more than a foot taller, but they managed pretty well. Barbara said,

"They both dance well, don't they?"

Chuck nodded,

"Much better than I do, but it you'd like to try ... "

It was an extraordinary thing to touch Barbara. Her dress was of some smooth silky stuff, very likely silk, and he could feel her backbone vividly through it. There wasn't much flesh there, and each movement of her legs and hips was translated upwards as they moved sedately in circles. Barbara didn't seem to mind his dancing, and said,

"You know, this is an odd experience for me, being out with adults and being treated as one. Am I making a fool of myself?"

It was obviously a plea for reassurance, in itself uncharacteristic of Barbara, but it was also a question that presupposed, and added to, a not insignificant level of intimacy. Chuck quickly supplied the reassurance, and then added,

"Seventeen isn't really that young. There have been lots of seventeen year old countesses and duchesses who found themselves in charge of large estates. Some have even intrigued in politics. I bet you could do that, given the opportunity."

He could feel Barbara shake a little, and realized that she was laughing. She then told him an extraordinary story of a quarter million dollars over which she had control, and which might, or might not, go to the school. It was an incredible story, told with girlish glee, but Chuck didn't doubt it for a moment. He asked only,

"Does Howie know about it?"

"Yes. I told him it was a secret. I guess he's good at keeping secrets if he hasn't told you."

"Generally speaking, Howie tells everyone everything, inventing freely if he happens to lack relevant information. But he can keep secrets when he thinks it important to do so. He's kept some for me. I take it you still want your secret kept, then?"

"Except from Amanda, of course. I do hope she won't think the worse of me, though. It makes me sound like a little rich brat."

"She won't think that. But she probably already has a mildly unfavorable picture of your father. She might think a father shouldn't do that."

When the dance ended, Chuck reclaimed his wife while the other two went for refreshment. He then told her what Barbara had just told him. Amanda reacted quickly.

"Good. I didn't like Sister Rose. I'm glad Barbara has some weapons of her own. She'll need them."

Amanda seemed full of surprises on this evening. She had been cheerful and vivacious with Sister Rose, and Chuck hadn't realized that she had any misgivings. Now, in retrospect, he could see that Amanda and Sister Rose were natural opponents, particularly where Barbara was concerned. Moreover, he suspected that Amanda, before meeting either of the other women, had developed strong attitudes toward them. He understood that she lived in a world largely populated by people she had heard about, but hadn't met. She liked some, disliked others, and, when she finally did meet them, was ready to jump into the fray. When Barbara returned, Amanda said to her,

"I'm sure it won't be long before Sister Rose takes you aside and manages to intimate, subtly but unmistakeably, that I'm not a suitable companion for you."

"She surely couldn't have any grounds for saying that!"

"She might use the phrase, 'too worldly,' if she weren't dealing with a very worldly young lady. But, grounds or not, she'll find the right phrase."

There was then general speculation as to the faint praise with which Sister Rose would damn Amanda. Howie suggested,

"She'll start out by praising Amanda in many ways, but then say it's a pity she's living in Bollinger. Such a person, she'll say, couldn't be happy or amused in such an ordinary town."

Barbara replied,

"The implication being that we, the right-thinking Catholics of St. Monica's, can be happy and virtuous far from the delights of the wicked city."

"Yes. Something like that."

Amanda laughed, but it struck Chuck that Howie, in the guise of Sister Rose, had approached a rather uncomfortable truth. Amanda was, in fact, less able than most people of her intelligence and imagination to adapt to difficult situations. While Bollinger was undeniably nothing, that was no reason for her, for example, to have substituted television for serious reading. Moreover, until Howie and Barbara had arrived, she hadn't seemed even to take pleasure in the company of other people. Part of it, Chuck knew, was his own fault for not having introduced her to more. On the other hand, something more than that was wrong. He hoped that things would now go better. This evening was certainly a good start.

Just then, another record was put on, and they moved again to the floor. Barbara was noticeably more relaxed this time, and Chuck, while not holding her close, moved his hand a little farther around her narrow waist, and let her sway against it. She said,

"I bet if I leaned to the left suddenly, you'd end up holding me horizontally in the air."

"Quite likely. Would you like to try?"

"I guess not. I'm trying to be dignified. Besides, my skirts might come up, and modesty is greatly prized at St. Monica's."

"If you'd like to diverge a little from the straight and narrow path of Catholic virtue, I'll make sure that Amanda sits in front on the way back."

"That would be nice. Will you be watching through the rear- view mirror?"

"Absolutely. I'll comment when I see you next week."

"Well, I don't have anything at all extreme in mind, but I do like Howie. Has he told you whether he likes me?"

"I think you can rest assured on that point."

"Well, of course, I knew he liked me as a friend, but he hasn't touched me or anything, and some people don't like tall thin girls. We're called beanpoles and other unpleasant things."

"You're not the beanpole type."

With that, Chuck executed a turn which momentarily brought them into closer contact. When the music ended, he let his hand rest briefly on Barbara's hip as she drifted back toward the table. When they reached it, Amanda said to Barbara,

"Thanks for the loan of Howie. The crowd seems to have thinned now, and I think I can safely dance with Chuck."

When they did next dance, Amanda seemed happier and better disposed toward Chuck than she had been in a long time. He let her dance more or less independently, taking only her hands, so as to neutralize the difference in their heights. He also said,

"I thought we might let Barbara and Howie take the back seat on the drive back. I think she's ready for a little gentle contact."

Amanda said pleasantly,

"I bet you've been getting the innocent girl all steamed up. If she gets pregnant on our back seat, it's all your fault."

When the hotel employee in charge of the record player showed signs of packing up for the evening, Barbara went over quickly to speak with him. Money changed hands, and, when she came back, she kicked off her shoes and asked Amanda to dance.

What followed was quite different from the earlier dancing. The music was fast, and the dancers much more accomplished than anyone might have guessed. Even Chuck hadn't realized that his own wife was capable of such things. It was fascinating just to watch the feet, Amanda's still in her little high heeled shoes, as they twisted, flew, and seemed hardly to touch the floor. Near the end, Barbara spun Amanda so fast that her skirt lifted. Chuck was as excited as he would have been if he had never seen her before. The motion then slowed as, with humorous intent, the dancers parodied the actions of a romantic Latin lover and the lady he was in the process of seducing. The small audience laughed, but, for all that, the great sweeping movements were mannered and majestic. Chuck glanced at Howie, and saw that he was transfixed. He then got up and exchanged a little smile with Amanda as Barbara released her.

When they got into the car, Chuck adjusted the rear view mirror very slightly so that it caught only the lower part of the rear window and the area of the back seat between Howie and Barbara that wasn't concealed by the back of the front seat. Amanda asked,

"What are Barbara and Howie going to do in the back seat?"

Barbara replied brightly,

"I go by the Ann Landers guide for necking and petting for teen-agers."

The others refused to believe that there was such a thing, but Barbara replied,

"Oh yes. You send a stamped self-addressed envelope, and it comes back in the next mail. I've got my copy in my room."

"What does it say?"

"Basically that there should be no touching of erogenous zones, even when covered with clothing, no kissing with mouths open, and no removal of or undoing of essential clothing."

It was, of course, meant to be funny, but Chuck also suspected that it was Barbara's way of indicating to Howie what she expected. He asked,

"Does Ann Landers also have rules for the behavior of adult married couples in the presence of teen-agers?"

"I can guess what they'd be. The married couple would be allowed more latitude, but wouldn't be allowed to do things that would tend to corrupt the young people."

Amanda then slid over to Chuck and put her head on his shoulder. It felt surprisingly good, and he slid his arm around her, steering easily with one hand. He then pulled her skirt up gradually antil she laughed and stopped him. She asked Barbara,

"What are the rules about skirts being raised?"

"Forbidden on the first three dates. Afterwards, the young lady is to take care that her skirt never comes more than six inches above her knees."

"Mine's way above that, but my slip is mostly down. Is that all right?"

"Probably not. The sight of underclothing is supposed to be unduly provocative to the young male. But Howie can't see that part of you from the back seat. Besides, he's a year past being a teen-ager."

Chuck could see Barbara and Howie kiss, rather chastely, in the mirror, and they afterwards remained in contact. Amanda whispered to him,

"Isn't it fun to be teen-agers and wipe away years of bad feeling?"

By way of response, he reached for an erogenous zone with his hand and heard a delightful little protest as she moved it away.

Bill Todd -- BOLLINGER: A Novel of the Prairie
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